Our Divine Vocation to Enter into Ecumenical Dialogue: Devin Rose Replies to John ArmstrongMar 18th, 2012 | By Guest Author | Category: Blog Posts
Two weeks ago we posted Devin Rose’s Catholic reflection on John Armstrong’s book Your Church is Too Small. The following week John replied in a post titled “A Catholic Reflection on Your Church Is Too Small: A Brief Reply to a Gracious Former-Atheist I Love and Respect.” Below is Devin’s reply to John’s reply. We hope this dialogue between John and Devin will help us all think more deeply about what still divides us, and help us understand better how we can help effect Protestant-Catholic reunion. Please pray for the success and fruitfulness of the upcoming event titled “A Conversation on Unity in Christ’s Mission,” between John Armstrong and Cardinal George. This event will take place at 7 PM (Central Daylight Time) on March 26, on the Wheaton College campus, and will be live-streamed at this link. – Eds.
John Armstrong recently responded to my review of his book. Here I’ll offer a reply to the points he raises.
Preconditions for Fruitful Ecumenical Dialogue
In my “Reflection” on Armstrong’s book I made several arguments showing important problems with the fundamental program for unity that Armstrong sets out. One of my arguments showed that Armstrong’s criterion for Church unity — the first creeds and councils — is ad hoc. In his reply, he did not address this argument, or show how his position avoids the problem I raised. I’m not sure why he did not address my argument. From what he said, it seems he thinks that such discussions are intrinsically “polemical.”
He uses the terms “combat zone” and “polemical zone” to refer to the realm in which theological positions are criticized. He explains that he wants to avoid that realm, and thus avoid that discussion. I too surely do not want to engage in unnecessary polemics, or debate for debate’s sake. At the same time, I think that genuine ecumenical dialogue requires that we not only affirm the positive common ground we share, but also explain the problems and flaws we see in each other’s positions. It wouldn’t be a truly open or ultimately fruitful ecumenical dialogue if we could neither express our objections to each other’s positions nor present our replies to objections raised against our own. And if this open exchange is done in genuine charity and good will, it can help us mutually evaluate each other’s positions, and move forward together toward unity in the truth.
In his book Armstrong presented various criticisms of the Catholic position. So Armstrong himself enters “the combat zone” (in the sense of offering objections and criticisms) when he wants to criticize Catholic positions or arguments, including the ones I brought up. And I welcome criticisms of my position. I see that as a healthy part of robust, authentic truth-seeking ecumenical dialogue. But when I raised objections to his position, Armstrong responded by saying he wants to avoid the “combat zone.” My concern is that this rhetorical technique allows him to criticize my position while dismissing and not addressing the good-faith objections and criticisms raised against his own position. I think that the conditions for genuine ecumenical dialogue require us to try to avoid that technique. Genuine ecumenical dialogue not only admits criticism (in charity) of each other’s positions, but requires that we be open to consider and address carefully the criticisms raised against our own.
Armstrong says he does not have a “divine vocation to serve in the same space that [I feel] called to work within, namely one committed to the apologetical defense of various inter-church debates that, in my estimation, hinder missional-ecumenism.” But it seems to me that he is already in that space, defending a particular theological position. In that way he is using the same technique I mentioned above to advance and defend a position, criticize other positions, and then avoid addressing objections to his own position, by saying that he doesn’t have a divine vocation to serve in that space. I don’t think he is intentionally engaging in this technique; my impression is that he does not realize he is doing it. The fact is that we must employ reason and arguments, and be open to receiving and engaging objections against our own position, for ecumenical dialogue to advance. Focusing on what we have in common is a good place to start ecumenical dialogue, but if we stayed at that level, our ecumenical engagement would remain only superficial.
While building friendships with other Christians by working together to serve others in the corporal works of mercy is helpful, this by itself cannot overcome our divisions or lead to the perfect unity for which Christ prayed. It is possible to raise objections and point out problems, while ensuring an irenic tone in sincere charity. Arguments in their true sense do not have to devolve into polemics, insults, or mud-slinging. So I think Armstrong could (and should) irenically engage my arguments and objections, as part of an ongoing dialogue in which together we evaluate each other’s positions, carefully considering our mutual objections to and concerns regarding each other’s positions.
Armstrong claimed that I “use apostolic succession … as a wedge for separation (unless you convert and come home to mother church) you are not truly catholic.” But the point of disagreement between Protestants and Catholics regarding apostolic succession is not whether I used it as a wedge when I referred to it as something that now separates us. The point of disagreement is rather the objective difference between what the Catholic Church teaches and practices regarding apostolic succession, and what Protestants believe about apostolic succession. The Catholic Church teaches that Protestant ecclesial communities are not Churches, precisely because these communities do not have apostolic succession. See Responsa ad quaestiones, ratified and confirmed by Pope Benedict in June, 2007. And Protestants explicitly reject apostolic succession, claiming instead to be apostolic through having the Apostles’ doctrine as contained in Scripture. So there is a real, objective, and important disagreement between Catholics and Protestants regarding apostolic succession. I’m not using that disagreement as a wedge of separation; the disagreement over apostolic succession is itself part of what in fact already objectively separates Protestants and Catholics, a separation I hope to help resolve at least in some small way. We cannot resolve this objective separation by refusing to talk about it, or by claiming that those who point out this disagreement are using it as a wedge. A blame-the-messenger approach would never allow us to engage the issues that presently separate us.
Yes, the Catholic Church believes that catholicity as a mark of the Church is present only where apostolic succession is present. From a Catholic perspective, to reject apostolic succession is to reject something that has been believed always, everywhere, and by all the faithful. The bishops who met at Nicea in AD 325 clearly believed and practiced apostolic succession. The practice of apostolic succession was not a novelty invented after the fourth century. So, the onus is on Armstrong to show how it is possible to be “catholic” while rejecting something that the unified Church of the first millennium believed and practiced. This is especially applicable since Armstrong claims that we should base our faith on the common doctrines and tradition believed and practiced by both East and West in the first millennium of the Church. Apostolic succession is indisputably one of these doctrines and practices, as evidenced by the fact that the Eastern Orthodox Churches and the Oriental Orthodox Churches also believe in it and practice it.
Armstrong’s reply included this statement by a friend of his:
“Rose [in this review] really shows his bias against Protestants when he says that even if Protestants agree with Catholics on the doctrine of apostolic succession, it doesn’t matter since they don’t possess it. Even if Protestants agree with Catholics, they are still wrong!” This is the rub for all evangelical ecumenists like me. Telling one side in this sadly divided state with a response that says “You are wrong and we are right” is not the type of ecumenism that will lead us to deeper (experienced and shared) Spirit-given relational unity.”
I would like to point out that I did not say, “they are still wrong.” My point, with respect to apostolic succession, was not “Protestants are wrong and we are right.” Protestants themselves, insofar as they understand what Catholics and Orthodox mean by “apostolic succession,” affirm that they [i.e. Protestants] do not have what Catholics and Orthodox refer to by “apostolic succession.” Protestants deny that what Catholics and Orthodox refer to by ‘apostolic succession’ presently exists. My point was that even if Protestants came to accept the Catholic doctrine of apostolic succession, that in itself would not be sufficient for healing the way in which Protestants and Catholics are divided over apostolic succession. That’s because in the Catholic and Orthodox traditions, apostolic succession is not merely a doctrine to be affirmed, but also a means by which apostolic authority has been handed down within the Church. And because of the organic ontological nature of apostolic authority transmitted through apostolic succession, that apostolic authority cannot be acquired or recovered merely by assenting to the doctrine of apostolic succession; it can be recovered only by reunion with those already having it.
Catholic Teaching on the Goal of Ecumenism
Armstrong claims that the post-Vatican II Catholic Church does not believe or teach that Protestants should come back to the Catholic Church. But that is not accurate. Of course Catholic ecumenical engagement with Protestants does not begin with a call to come back to the Catholic Church. That wouldn’t be helpful as a point from which to begin ecumenical dialogue. But that does not mean that the return of Protestants to full communion with the Catholic Church is not the hope, prayer, and vision of the Catholic Church. When we pray for “the reunion of all Christians” in the Daily Offering, we are not praying for the founding in the twenty-first (or any subsequent) century of a new, man-made institution composed of Protestants and Catholics. We are praying rather for the return by Protestants into full communion with the presently existing Catholic Church from which sadly the first Protestants went out in the sixteenth century.1
The Catholic Church teaches the following:
Hence they could not be saved who, knowing that the Catholic Church was founded as necessary by God through Christ, would refuse either to enter it or to remain in it.” (CCC 846)
According to the Catholic Church, Protestants who die as Protestants can be in a state of grace at their death only if they are in sufficiently non-culpable ignorance regarding the identity of the Catholic Church as the Church Christ founded and to which all men are called to enter for salvation. From a Catholic point of view, because Protestants do not have apostolic succession, they do not have the Eucharist. And that places Protestants in a gravely deficient position with respect to salvation: having only two (baptism and marriage) of the seven sacraments Christ instituted in His Church as means of sanctifying grace, not having the fullness of the truth of Christ’s revelation contained both in Scripture and in Tradition, as it has been developed and defined to this day in the Church by the Holy Spirit living in her, and not having the shepherds Christ has authorized through apostolic succession to lead and feed His sheep.
Is Return to the Catholic Church the way to Unity?
In Rose’s understanding the way to unity is simple and straightforward. I should come home to Rome! Yet in the practice of post-Vatican II ecumenism, and the teaching and practice of the last five popes, this is not what I see nor is it what I have experienced in my thousands of hours of conversation with Catholics. The lone exception to my experience usually comes from converts who have left Protestantism and seem to feel a deep need to do a kind of apologetics that shows why Rome is the ‘true church.’
If the Catholic Church is what she claims to be, then yes Armstrong should become Catholic. If the Eastern Orthodox Churches are what they claim to be [the true Church], Armstrong should become Eastern Orthodox. If neither are what they claim to be, then these Churches are making false claims about themselves, and Protestants are right to remain Protestant. How can we know? By studying history, examining evidence, laying out the arguments, and together comparing and evaluating our respective positions, all done prayerfully and charitably. I have come to believe that the Catholic Church is what she claims, and so, like someone who has discovered Christ, I seek to share it with others, the pearl of great price, so that they too may have it. I remain open to considering evidence that the Catholic Church is not the true Church, but Armstrong has not presented any in his response.
The ecumenical task requires that we address both the question of criteria by which each side defines itself, and what charity requires with respect to defining respective positions. I think charity requires that in ecumenical dialogue we allow each participating party to define its own position, rather than impose on that party our own understanding or interpretation or construal of its position. So this requires that I allow Armstrong to define and determine what his position is with respect to ecclesiology, soteriology, etc., and that he do the same for me. This requires of us the virtues of listening, patience, and humility, as we each allow the other to shape and correct our conception of the other’s position. Armstrong seemingly wants to define Catholic doctrine by way of his own experience, and by discrediting me as a “convert” from Protestantism who now feels a “deep need” to justify becoming Catholic. Catholic doctrine, however, is not rightly defined by one’s experience, but by what the Church formally teaches in her authoritative documents. And Armstrong should respect the rule of charity that (a) allows each side to define its own position, rather than attempting to stipulate the Catholic position based on his own experience, and (b) avoids the bulverism that dismisses the other person’s evidence and argumentation by way of deconstructive psychoanalysis (e.g. that I only say what I am saying because I have a “deep need” to justify my becoming Catholic).
The Catholic Standards: Experiences or Church Documents
Armstrong wrote: “But even here I have scores of Catholic friends who do not adopt Rose’s view.” Again, as I explained above, the standard for the doctrine of the Catholic Church isn’t ultimately our own personal experience; nor is it even what some percentage of Catholics happen to believe. It is the magisterial teaching of the Church inscribed in her authoritative documents and taught by the pope and the bishops in communion with him. (See Cardinal George’s statement about that recently in the first minute of this video.) Sadly, sometimes even clergy can misrepresent Catholic teaching, and it is possible that this has happened with some of those who have interacted with Armstrong. I would invite and challenge him to present these questions to Cardinal George in his upcoming dialogue.
Armstrong continued by saying:
Conservative Catholic apologists take the supposed high ground by using the official teaching of the church on most matters but they seem to miss that there is a continued unfolding of what their church is also saying about unity with non-Catholics, especially since Vatican II. Having spent time inside the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity I speak from firsthand experience, not simply from books and documents. (I have read scores of these books and documents as well and find in these a rich treasury that calls us to new ecumenism!) Having read and discussed ecumenism in inter-church contexts, both in and outside of the United States, I have a perspective which clearly is not the same as Devin’s.
While I acknowledge a continued unfolding — the legitimate development of doctrine — of the inexhaustible treasure that is the deposit of faith, what Armstrong must realize regarding the Catholic Church is that the Church cannot reverse her dogmas. Genuine ecumenical dialogue, in which we allow each participating party to define its own position requires of participating Protestants that they acknowledge that according to the Catholic Church, no Catholic dogma can be reversed or negated, not even by the Catholic Church. According to the Catholic Church, the Church of Christ subsists in the Catholic Church. Armstrong does not quote anything from the Catholic Church supporting his position regarding what he thinks Catholic teaching is; he only appeals to his experience. But again, the Church’s teaching is not defined by his experience, but in her authoritative documents.
In spite of what I presented in my reflection, Armstrong persists in thinking that there is a legitimate strain of thought — a “new ecumenism” — in the Catholic Church that can win out and become the Church’s teaching, essentially falsifying certain ecclesiological dogmas formulated over the past two millennia. But that’s not ecumenically charitable. Charity calls Protestants to acknowledge that according to the Catholic Church, Catholic dogmas are irreversible, and therefore that from an authentic Catholic self-understanding, these ecclesiological dogmas cannot be overturned. Because Armstrong is a Protestant and doesn’t believe that the Catholic Church is what she claims to be, I can understand how he rejects the belief that Catholic dogmas are irreversible. This seems to be why he continues to wait for substantial changes to the “sectarian” view that the Catholic Church is the true Church Christ founded. But I think charity requires allowing the Catholic party in ecumenical dialogue to define its own position, and thus acknowledging that from the Catholic perspective, the Catholic Church can never deny that she is the Church Christ founded, and that true unity requires a return to full communion with her. Accurately understanding and depicting each other’s positions seems to be the proper ecumenical point of departure.
Baptism and Eucharist
Armstrong and his friend write:
“While the Catholic Church accepts my baptism they do not, in most contexts, commune me. Am I the only person who finds this stance in-congruent? … “What is amazing from an ecumenist’s viewpoint [is] that one doctrine makes us one in Christ while the other keeps us separated.” Sadly, this is my conclusion as well.”
The Catholic Church teaches that only those who are in full communion with the Church should receive communion. The Eucharist is a sign of our full communion, including our affirmation of the “one faith” taught by the Catholic Church. The act of receiving the Eucharist is itself saying “I believe and profess all that the holy Catholic Church believes, teaches, and proclaims to be revealed by God.” So one who does not believe that should not receive the Eucharist. The Catholic Church is a visible body, and persons who have not even requested to be admitted to full communion with that body, and do not affirm the faith of that body, would be denying the communal meaning of the Eucharist if they were to receive the Eucharist.
Concerning this question, in 2003 Pope John Paul II wrote:
The celebration of the Eucharist, however, cannot be the starting-point for communion; it presupposes that communion already exists, a communion which it seeks to consolidate and bring to perfection. The sacrament is an expression of this bond of communion both in its invisible dimension, which, in Christ and through the working of the Holy Spirit, unites us to the Father and among ourselves, and in its visible dimension, which entails communion in the teaching of the Apostles, in the sacraments and in the Church’s hierarchical order. The profound relationship between the invisible and the visible elements of ecclesial communion is constitutive of the Church as the sacrament of salvation. Only in this context can there be a legitimate celebration of the Eucharist and true participation in it. Consequently it is an intrinsic requirement of the Eucharist that it should be celebrated in communion, and specifically maintaining the various bonds of that communion intact.2
A bit later in the document he wrote:
Precisely because the Church’s unity, which the Eucharist brings about through the Lord’s sacrifice and by communion in his body and blood, absolutely requires full communion in the bonds of the profession of faith, the sacraments and ecclesiastical governance, it is not possible to celebrate together the same Eucharistic liturgy until those bonds are fully re-established. Any such concelebration would not be a valid means, and might well prove instead to be an obstacle, to the attainment of full communion, by weakening the sense of how far we remain from this goal and by introducing or exacerbating ambiguities with regard to one or another truth of the faith. The path towards full unity can only be undertaken in truth. In this area, the prohibitions of Church law leave no room for uncertainty, in fidelity to the moral norm laid down by the Second Vatican Council.3
These quotations explain briefly why the Catholic Eucharist is limited only to those who affirm the Catholic faith. Armstrong’s objection to the restriction of the Eucharist to those professing the Catholic faith raises the authority question. Who has the authority to decide for the Catholic Church which persons are permitted to receive the Eucharist? Surely the answer to that question cannot be non-Catholics. And in the Catholic paradigm it makes perfect sense, according to the meaning of the Eucharist, why only those persons holding the Catholic faith may receive the Eucharist. This sacrament would have no such communal significance if it were given indiscriminately, even to those who knowingly deny Catholic dogmas.
As a Baptist, I would not have dreamed of receiving communion in the Catholic Church. I intuitively understood that Catholics believed something about the Eucharist that was quite different from what I believed. And in any case, who was I as a Baptist to argue that the Catholic Church should give me communion?
The doctrines surrounding the sacraments developed over centuries. Who are valid ministers and recipients of a particular sacrament? What is the form, and what is the matter for each one? What renders a sacrament invalid? As noted in my article, Armstrong mentioned somewhere that he believes that there are more than seven sacraments. Who gets to decide these questions? John Armstrong? The Reformed Church in America (RCA)? The Catholic Church? This is the question of authority, always lurking just behind such dialogues. We cannot ignore it, but must face it head-on by employing arguments and providing principled reasons for our beliefs, to determine who has the authority to give a normative answer to such questions for the Church.
From my point of view as a Catholic, I would respond in the following way to Armstrong’s question regarding the asymmetry between the Catholic position on the Protestant relation to baptism and the Catholic position on the Protestant relation to the Eucharist. The Catholic Church, guided by the Holy Spirit, discerned that baptism, as the sacrament whereby one is regenerated and united to Christ and His Church, could in necessity be administered validly by anyone who used water and the proper Trinitarian formula with the intention of doing what the Church does.4 Hence from a Catholic perspective Protestants have a valid baptism and are thereby incorporated into Christ. We rejoice in this. But she also discerned that the Eucharist should be received only by those who affirm the Catholic faith. This is not incongruent. We need not presuppose that all the sacraments must have the same kinds of possible ministers and recipients. Such a presupposition almost undermines the very plurality of the sacraments, since if the sacraments all did the very same thing, there would be no need for more than one.
Does Silence Equal Ignorance?
Devin Rose does not seem to recognize some of the very official agreements that the Vatican has signed that are game changers in terms of using “old” arguments and recognizing “new” groundbreaking agreements that we now have at many levels. I think especially of The Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification (1999).
None of my arguments depends on the Joint Declaration. The fact that I did not mention the Joint Declaration does not falsify anything I said. In fact I have read the Joint Declaration, as well as the writings of various theologians and popes on the weight and authority that it has. I do think that Catholics and Protestants have made progress in our mutual understanding of each other on scores of doctrines, including justification. Called to Communion has published many blog posts and articles that have focused on this important doctrine.
But though we have made progress in some ways, we still remain divided. The Joint Declaration is a sign of a greater warmth and openness in dialogue between Catholics and Lutherans. And it helps clarify the common ground we can affirm together regarding justification. And this is a cause for gratitude to God, and rejoicing. But the Joint Declaration did not result in the unification of any Lutheran denominations with the Catholic Church. This declaration, while noteworthy and important, has not changed the Church’s dogmas on justification or been to this point a “game changer” (in terms of effecting visible reunion) with respect to healing the Protestant-Catholic schism.
Problems Left Unaddressed
Finally, I would like to point out that Armstrong did not respond to the following objections I raised in my review of his book: (a) the arbitrariness of his “core orthodoxy,” (b) the absence of a principled basis for distinguishing between branches within and schisms from, (c) his justification for redefining ‘schism’ as heresy, and thus losing the very concept of schism, (d) the error of appealing to dissenters, to determine what the Catholic Church formally teaches, and (e) the limitations to missional-ecumenism, which I carefully explained and defended in my article. To move forward toward mutual understanding and therefore to unity in the fullness of the truth, I would like to see Armstrong carefully engage these objections offered in humility and charity.
Devin Rose is the author of If Protestantism is True: The Reformation Meets Rome (2011). He blogs at St. Joseph’s Vanguard.