Our Divine Vocation to Enter into Ecumenical Dialogue: Devin Rose Replies to John Armstrong

Mar 18th, 2012 | By | 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

John Armstrong

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.

Apostolic Succession

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?

Armstrong wrote:

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?

Armstrong wrote:

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

Devin Rose is the author of If Protestantism is True: The Reformation Meets Rome (2011). He blogs at St. Joseph’s Vanguard.

  1. For an examination of the ecumenism of non-return, see, “Ecclesial Unity and Outdoing Christ: A Dilemma for the Ecumenism of Non-Return.” []
  2. Ecclesia de Eucharistia, 35. []
  3. Ecclesia de Eucharistia, 44. []
  4. Catechism of the Council of Trent. []

Leave a comment »

  1. […] wrote a reply to John Armstrong’s response to my review of his book, which Called to Communion just posted: […]

  2. I found it a little odd that Mr. Armstrong said ““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”” yet that is exactly what he is saying to the Catholic Church by remaining Protestant. The fact that he remains Protestant and doesn’t become Catholic is an indirect way of saying there are things in the Catholic Church he believes are wrong which would prevent him from becoming Catholic. Saying that another person is wrong is not hindrance to unity, it is the only way to unity. Any kind of unity that doesn’t work through serious differences is not a real unity. Critiquing others and pointing out where they are wrong is unavoidable, the key is to do it with charity.

  3. My experience coming from Evangelicalism was that once I presented my arguments, in good faith, looking for an out against the Catholicism I was seeing as right about this, then that, then everything, the less engagement I got. Since Evangelicalism is about scripture, scripture and scripture, when scripture was saying one thing and Evangelicalism was saying something else, there was no reasonable answer. Rather there was emotion, personal history, and denial. Quite in fact, if Jesus had to be wrong for Evangelicalism’s underpinnings to be right, then Jesus was wrong. That consideration does not make for good dialog.

    After hearing it, many of His followers said, “This is intolerable language. How could anyone accept it?” Jn 6:60

    After this, many of His disciples left Him and stopped going with Him. Jn 6:66


  4. Devin,

    Thank you for this irenic response to Dr. Armstrong. I too encourage you to address some of these matters to Cardinal George in your dialogue.

    I would also like to add a section of an interview that the late Father Neuhaus had in January of 2005 with Zenit. Certainly no one can question the Ecumenical credentials of Father Neuhaus, whose legacy in starting ECT lives on to this day.

    Zenit Q: How does the Eucharist play into ecumenical relations? Can it bring Catholics and non-Catholics together? What are some of the main theological obstacles that stand in the way for the Eucharist to be a source of unity?

    Father Neuhaus: These are questions very directly addressed in “Ecclesia de Eucharistia.” What the Council and subsequent popes, most notably John Paul II, have repeatedly asserted is the Church’s “irreversible” commitment to the quest for Christian unity.

    Ecumenism is necessary not in order to create unity with other Christians, but to bring to perfection the unity that already exists. As the Council declared, all who are baptized and believe in Jesus Christ are in “a certain but imperfect communion” with the Catholic Church. All the saving and sanctifying graces that are to be found outside the boundaries of the Catholic Church gravitate toward unity with the Catholic Church.

    In the Catholic understanding, the goal of ecumenism is “full communion,” and full communion is unity in faith, sacraments and ministry. In his encyclical on the Eucharist, the Holy Father warns against trying to do an end-run around the difficult work of ecumenism.

    Some suggest that it would be very ecumenical for all of us, Catholics and non-Catholics, to celebrate the Eucharist together and do so now. But that, as the Holy Father notes, would be to defeat the entire ecumenical enterprise.

    It would not be the resolution of our differences but pretending that our very important differences make no difference. We would end up communing together, but nothing would be changed; everyone would then go on in their separate ways.

    No, says the Holy Father, we must patiently and faithfully continue the hard ecumenical work of striving for unity in faith, sacraments and ministry, in the hope of one day being led to the goal of full communion. That is the uncompromisable and irreversible goal to which the Catholic Church is committed.

    The unity of all Christians in full communion may seem a very distant prospect. Some say it is an eschatological prospect, meaning that it must await the Second Coming of Our Lord. Whatever the schedule in God’s purposes, it is our present task.

    Cardinal Ratzinger is surely right in noting that ecumenism today is marked by many disappointments, but he is equally right in saying that we must remain always open to a new initiative of the Holy Spirit that we cannot predict or control.

    Remaining open means relentless engagement, dialogue, prayer and cooperation with other Christians. When we Catholics are joined in the Eucharist, it should be with a keen, even painful, awareness of our separation from others who are in a true but imperfect communion with us, and with a fervent prayer for that day when we will all be reconciled around one altar in obedience to our one Lord.

  5. Let me add that my second sentence and subsequent was not addressed to Devin. The reference should read “Dr. Armstrong, if I may, I too encourage you…” and my quote of Father Neuhaus was also intended for Dr. Armstrong’s consideration.

  6. Michael,

    Yes exactly. He remains Protestant, accepting the Protestant paradigm, which implicitly rejects the Catholic Church’s claims to being the Church Christ founded. So by this he in effect does communicate that the Catholic Church is wrong, at least on some important things. And that is not necessarily polemical, as you mention. We must admit these differences, confront them head-on, and get to the root of them, so that by God’s grace we can see how to overcome them, discovering the fullness of the truth.

  7. Tom,

    Great words by Fr. Neuhaus–thanks for sharing that.

  8. THANK YOU Mr. Rose! In my previous discussions with John Armstrong, he continually uses the ol, “I dont want to get into apologetics..” argument. You hit every point I have ever wanted to make to him. I am going to be sure to attend the Cardinal George talk and bring up your points to John Armstrong.

  9. Mr. Rose,

    What exactly does Mr. Armstrong mean by the term “missional-ecumenism”, I still haven’t figured that out yet.

    Thank you.

  10. Gerardo,

    Thank you for your kind words. I do think Armstrong needs to address these issues. I would only say, however, to bring up any points, should the opportunity at the dialogue arise, with gentleness and charity. It may even be helpful to address questions to Cardinal George so that he in his wisdom might clarify certain points, no doubt doing so with great tact. I look forward with you to the dialogue!

  11. Michael,

    Missional-ecumenism is working together to serve Christ in spite of our differences. Bible studies, vacation Bible schools, Taize-like services with music, etc., soup kitchens, giving other Christians space in our churches if they need it, that sort of thing.

  12. Mr. Rose,

    That is what I figured he meant but I wasn’t sure. I appreciate the fact that he wants to have Bible studies, soup kitchens and Bible schools – those are all great things – but it seems to be that if we do not have a real visible unity then those things, as good as they are, are not sufficient. The reason is if we are still partly divided but try to put on a united front, non Christians will know and will still see how divided we are and won’t be impressed. In fact, many non Christians would still mock Christianity because of its many divisions. For this reason, missional ecumenism, as good as the intentions may be, does not deal with the biggest problem in the word, our scandalous witness as Christians since we are so divided visibly. Dare I say that the name of Christ is blasphemed among the nations because of our visible differences. It gives unbelievers and excuse to reject Christ and we shouldn’t give them that.

  13. Everyone,

    In John Armstrong’s response to Devin’s review, he mentions that he has “had thousands of hours of conversation with Catholics.” One would think that at least *some* of these Catholics have been leaders in the Church, especially given that he mentions interacting with people from the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity.

    Apparently, Dr. Armstrong has not come away from *any* of these thousands of hours of conversation with the understanding that 1. “Catholicity,” in the Church’s understanding, is seen as “coterminous with the Catholic Church and the magisterium.”

    Now, I don’t know if “coterminus” is the ecclesiastically and theologically accurate word to use there– but “catholicity,” in the Church’s understanding, is clearly described in the Catechism, beginning (although not ending) here:


    What does “catholic” mean?

    830 The word “catholic” means “universal,” in the sense of “according to the totality” or “in keeping with the whole.” The Church is catholic in a double sense:

    First, the Church is catholic because Christ is present in her. “Where there is Christ Jesus, there is the Catholic Church.”307 In her subsists the fullness of Christ’s body united with its head; this implies that she receives from him “the fullness of the means of salvation”308 which he has willed: correct and complete confession of faith, full sacramental life, and ordained ministry in apostolic succession. The Church was, in this fundamental sense, catholic on the day of Pentecost309 and will always be so until the day of the Parousia.

    From this excerpt, it would seem that the Church understands “catholicity” to include “correct and complete confession of faith, full sacramental life, and ordained ministry in apostolic succession.”

    My question is (and I’m not sure that there is an easy answer), given that Dr. Armstrong has almost certainly spent *much* more time in conversation with Catholics, including *Catholic leaders*, than most Protestants, and, given that he has, previously, mentioned spending time in the documents of Vatican II and the Catechism, how has he not come to understand the Church’s view of “catholicity”?

    Even more so, I wonder how (and why) it is that he seems to view the vision, mission, and goals of this website to be somehow in opposition to “Vatican II Catholicism,” as he understands it from his studies, and as it has been presented to in conversations with Catholics.

    The Church’s call for non-Catholics to investigate the claims of (and hopefully, join) the Church is obviously articulated in a much less polemical way, in the documents of Vatican II, than that call has been articulated in earlier Church documents. The writings of Vatican II do openly, warmly embrace non-Catholic Christians as true brothers and sisters in Christ, in a way that, to say the least, is not always quite as present in many earlier Church documents (not that there are any contradictions therein though).

    However, the *universal call* for conversion to *Christ and His Church* was/is still sounded by Vatican II. I have to wonder, how has Dr. Armstrong not even *heard* that call, in any of his time spent studying about the Council, and conversing with Catholics about it? He is a theologically conservative Reformed Protestant (albeit more ecumenically minded than many Reformed believers, regarding the Catholic Church, thanks be to God!). When he speaks of having engaged in thousands of hours of conversation with Catholics, I don’t exactly get the sense that he has been been hanging around with Hans Kung or Charles Curran!

    What is the disconnect here, I have to wonder? Has the Church as a whole, in Vatican II, and the forty-plus years hence, not been clear enough that the ultimate goal of ecumenical dialogue is that all believers in Christ would be unified in His Catholic Church?

    I commented, at some length, on Dr. Armstrong’s blog, providing pertinent passages from the Catechism on catholicity and unity. I was hoping that he would engage my comment, but thus far, he has not. Hopefully, Cardinal George can provide helpful, gentle, charitable clarification for him on what these matters mean in the Church’s mind.

  14. Devin:

    At least you got a reply from Armstrong. When CTC published my long post criticizing Keith Mathison, I didn’t even get that.

    My experience in debate with Protestant ministers and seminary professors suggests that most don’t really have a reply to what we believe are the salient arguments. Their strategy, when they have one, is to reframe the questions–which, though not quite the same as changing the subject, is close enough as to make no difference. That’s why I’ve concluded that what’s important in these debates is how they reveal the profound difference of paradigm between orthodox Catholicism and conservative Protestantism. Changing minds requires what I call a “gestalt-flip.” That flip is never arbitrary or unreasonable, but it’s rare to actually argue somebody into it.


  15. Mike,

    I feel the same way you do. I don’t think I’ve ever seen someone publicly, in mid-blog-comment, say “Eureka! I see now what you are saying and will become Catholic right now.”

    But these discussions, arguments, and points are like seeds that sometimes take a long time to grow, after much rumination, within the person’s heart and mind.

    By God’s grace may we become perfectly one!

  16. Here’s the video of the “Conversation on Unity” with John Armstrong and Cardinal George (give it a minute to load):

    A Conversation on Unity from ACT3 Network on Vimeo.

  17. Watching the Armstrong/Cardinal George video now. Around 57 minutes into the video Mr. Armstrong says that though we have differences when it comes to where do we take someone once we share the Gospel with them (the Catholic Church or the Protestant churches), “at least at the point of proclaiming the good news…I think we have so much more to do together than we realize…”. So he basically says we can’t agree on what to do with converts to Christ once we make them but at least we can help each other with proclaiming the gospel and making converts. At first this sounds great but it is actually pretty problematic. Are we really to believe that the world is going to see our great love for each other and is going to be so impressed that they will convert to Christianity when they see we can’t even agree which church they should join once they become Christian? Not to mention the fact that we can’t even agree on what is essential for being a Christian (do you have to be baptized, take the Eucharist, belong to a church and so on). For some reason, I don’t think this is going to impress the world as much as Mr. Armstrong would have us believe.

    Furthermore, the biggest problem is that there are numerous Evangelicals who vehemently disagree with Mr. Armstrong and would not agree to evangelize alongside of Catholics because they believe Catholics preach “another gospel”. For example, the Evangelical speaker Dave Hunt would say that Mr. Armstrong is watering down the gospel and is advocating evangelism with the Whore of Babylon. Mr. Armstrong would say that that is a false view of the Roman church and it is good and necessary to evangelize alongside of Catholics. So, how can an individual Evangelical know which Evangelical view on evangelism is correct?

    Also, is it just me or does the discussion seem to be more about patting each other on the back and complementing each other rather than getting down to what really needs to be discussed in order for us to be fully reunited?

  18. Michael,

    You said,”Also, is it just me or does the discussion seem to be more about patting each other on the back and complementing each other rather than getting down to what really needs to be discussed in order for us to be fully reunited?”

    This is what I got out of it too. They concede that there are good things to learn from each side, which is good in that it at least keeps the conversation going,but there is also a depreciation for what has substantially divided us all this time. They both lament the relativism of our culture and admit that Christian unity will help quell the schizophrenia, but unless there is a way to absolutely define and delineate terms, it will continue. Just look at the debate over monergism and synergism; I don’t think it can be solved except by making synergism the same thing as free will, which is striclty denied by Protestant and Reformed. The Reformed will always hold to its possession of the true gospel and the RCC will always hold to its Christ given authority. Discovering if the gospel is what the Reformers say it is or if the RCC is truly the visible church must be where we search. We might want to ask if “all” our sins are forgiven by Christ, even those commited after baptism, that are left unconfessed purposely or by sloth. The RCC has so much moral description but doesn’t tell one how to put it into practice in a satisfactory way that will keep one from eternal punishment. It would be helpful if “charity” were defined too. Is it enough that faith and love comingle(which they should) or does the Christian need to be afraid that his love didn’t do enough? The RCC says, that it isn’t supposed to be about score keeping and that it’s about charity, but if I must climb up I am tallying my steps. This takes all the romance out. Surely, human nature can work so as to help its spiritual formation, but it can also despair of attaining perfection if success is predicated on enough love. Now, even love becomes coerced. So, prescriptively how is it done? How to RC’s live joyously? We might live comfortably in our philosophical commitments but be seriously mistaken; who’s to know for sure?
    Mr. Armstrong said that people ask him when he is going to convert considering he sings such high praises of the scholarship in the RCC tradition, and he responded, “When the Holy Spirit tell him to.” How does he know how to discern the Spirit except by justified true belief on the preponderance of evidence? As, someone said earlier, a gestalt-flip is what’s needed. Mine came by accident.

  19. Susan, (re: #18)

    I think the intention behind what you see in the video (in comment #16) is much more than mutual back patting. The purpose of this kind of conversation requires first acknowledging common ground, mutual good will, and mutual gratitude. As humans, and even as Christian humans, we enter effectively into a discussion attempting to resolve what divides us only after first establishing trust through discerning mutual good will, and mutually agreeing on common ground. So that’s an important preliminary step, even if nothing substantive is debated or resolved at that stage of the ecumenical process.

    In the peace of Christ,

    – Bryan

  20. Bryan,

    Well, yes now I agree that gaining trust and having mutual goodwill, is the first steps to ecumenism.
    I was once told that “the Reformed aren’t interested in ecumenism”, and at that particuliar point in my journey it didn’t bother me because I wasn’t thinking in terms of “Christendom”, but in a world harmony; that is, I thought ecumenism meant that Catholics wanted Christianity to yield ground to Muslims, Hindus and so forth
    ( We are the world, we are the children….). The Reformed also don’t take part in The National Day of Prayer to avoid this kind of Kumbaya hand-holding because they say that it waters down the gospel.
    Later as I was growing closer to becoming Catholic, I was hurt that my pastors wouldn’t take seriously that I had good reason to be convinced of Catholic arguments. I read and the arguments were cogent to me, but not to them., but instead of dealing with the arguments they told me to stop drinking the kool-aid. I needed help weeding through the articles I found here at Called to Communion and in Joseph Ratznger, Ronald Knox, and especially in Johanne Adam Mohler’s “Symbolism”, and didn’t appreciate being dismissed like that. Calling good arguments poison and calling this site, “Called to ‘Confusion’ , made me want to learn more precisely because I saw that they weren’t able to provide satisfactory return arguements. The dismissive handwaving was revealing, and the indifference towards ecumenism was frustrating and personally painful because I was heading towards Catholicism and the only way they would continue to dialogue with me was if I stayed Reformed and submit myself to a series of meetings. I didn’t feel this was very respectful of me because sometimes I was shamed for even considering Catholic claims;and the meetings felt to be successful for them because I didn’t have the theological and historical background to help me. When I was convinced, having good reasons to be convinced, they no longer listened.
    I believe whole-heartedly in the ecumenical work done here.

  21. My exchange with John in February of 2012.

  22. In comment #16 above I embedded a video of a dialogue between the late Cardinal George, and John Armstrong. This past February 9, at St. Procopious Abbey in Lisle, IL, John Armstrong participated in a similar dialogue with Fr. Robert Barron. I have embedded a video of that discussion below:

    Dialogue: Fr. Robert Barron & John Armstrong from ACT3 Network on Vimeo.

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