Loyalties to Our People: A Reply to D. Stephen LongAug 2nd, 2014 | By Bryan Cross | Category: Blog Posts
In 2005, D. Stephen Long, professor of Systematic Theology at Marquette University, wrote an article titled “In need of a pope?,” in which he considered reasons why Protestantism might need a pope. Subsequently he was asked repeatedly why he did not become Catholic. So last week he wrote an article in The Christian Century titled “My church loyalties,” explaining why he is not, or at least not yet, Catholic. Stephen’s article is gracious and honest. He is a Methodist who writes with obvious affection and respect for Catholics and the Catholic Church, even while noting and explaining his differences.
I’ve been asked for my thoughts on this article, so here they are. In a scene at the end of Peter Jackson’s version of “The Fellowship of the Ring,” Aragorn comes to a dying Boromir, and hears his confession. Prior to this, there had been tension between Aragorn and Boromir, but at this moment Aragorn says something that clearly brings hope to Boromir’s heart. Aragorn says “I do not know what strength is in my blood, but I swear to you I will not let the White City fall, nor our people fail.” Boromir takes heart from those two words: “our people.” He replies, “Our people, our people. I would have followed you, my brother… my captain… my king.” In those two words, Boromir saw that for Aragorn, the people of the White City were not someone else’s people; they were his people. In this identification Boromir finds kinship with Aragorn, and allegiance to him. Stephen’s article likewise raises the question of loyalties and identification across the Catholic-Protestant divide. Of the Methodists he says essentially, these are my people; I am one with them.
And so he presents as his main reason for not becoming Catholic the sense of betraying the persons from whom he learned to pray, to love both God and Scripture. Explaining this sense, Stephen writes:
The main reason I am not (yet) Catholic and remain a Methodist and an ordained Methodist elder is that I do not know how to become Catholic without betraying the people who taught me to love God, pray, worship, desire the Eucharist, take delight in scripture, and so on. How can I leave the people I love?
He goes on to say that people have even asked him not to become Catholic. I understand that, and sympathize with that. I think most of those of us who have become Catholic after having been for some time, even a lifetime, deeply embedded within a Protestant community, understand this sense. It does feel like a betrayal. I have a friend who was raised in a Presbyterian denomination, and though strongly attracted to the Catholic faith, has been held back by his loyalty to “his people,” his denomination. Even in my own case, I received a phone call from a family member at 6 AM on the day I was to be received, begging me not to go through with it. This was the year after Stephen’s “In need of a pope?” article was published.
It is easy to say “Well, if it is the right thing to do, then it doesn’t matter what people think,” but that’s too facile. It does matter. Community matters, much as family matters. The same reason why “lone ranger Christian” is wrong-headed is one of the reasons why becoming a Catholic isn’t as simple as concluding that the Catholic Church is who she claims to be. We owe things, allegiance, fidelity, presence, reliability, gratitude, personal unity, to the communities in which we have been formed and nourished, much as Socrates explained at the natural level in Plato’s Crito. All that cannot justifiably be dismissed or denied.
In my own case, as I wrestled with this question, and the tension between allegiance to my Protestant community on the one hand, and the claims of the Catholic Church on the other hand, what helped me work through this was not denying or repressing the notion of fidelity and allegiance to my community at the time, but rather taking it deeper. Through studying Church history I came to believe that I was, through no fault of my own (or my parents or grandparents), raised in a community that had developed from a smaller group of persons who had broken allegiance with the Catholic Church in the sixteenth century. Though the Church leaders at that time were not without fault in their actions and inactions by which the Protestant movement was occasioned, nevertheless, my community, as part of the broader Protestant community, had decided to separate from the Church, and had remained separated from her these nearly five hundred years. I had been living in an already-existing situation of community-betrayal, without realizing it.
My sense of obligation toward my present community and tradition, though real and powerful both existentially and emotionally, presupposed the very point in question, namely where is the Church Christ founded? And I knew that a question-begging reason cannot be a deciding factor if truth is at stake. The de facto orientation of my present community allegiance cannot be the determining factor when I am seeking to answer the very question to whom ought I be allied, for the same reason that my US citizenship cannot be the determining factor when answering the question “Is the present war being fought by the US a just war?” As I studied the Donatist controversy, I came to see that if I were a Donatist in the fourth century, and I allowed my existing allegiances to determine the question to which community should I be aligned, I would thereby remain in error, being in a state of schism from the Church. In this way I concluded that if all persons in schism from the Church followed their present community allegiances in determining how to act regarding the resolution of such schisms, none would ever be resolved. So following my present allegiances was not necessarily a truth-determining course of action, because it implicitly presupposed that I was not in schism, and thus already presupposed the very point in question.
All this, however, is easy in the abstract. On the other side of the equation were real flesh and blood persons who loved me, who had poured their lives into me over decades, and who would be hurt by my becoming Catholic. There were people who had stood with me in the hospital while I held the lifeless body of my son, before the caretakers would take him away. There were people who spoke at his funeral, who brought us meals, and cried with us. There were people who prayed with us in the hospital when my younger daughter received chemotherapy. Prima facie, leaving them for another community, one which they all viewed as contrary to the very justification of their existence as Protestants, seemed contrary to charity. But at the same time, I knew that truth and charity had to go together. I recall asking myself the following question: What does my community need more from me: my remaining with them in their state of separation and giving to them the example that so remaining is right and good, or returning to the community Christ founded and from which we separated, and so giving to my present community that example?
For example, when Joan Trumpauer sat with Anne Moody at the Woolworth’s lunch counter sit-in in Jackson, Mississippi on May 28, 1963 (the famous photo can be viewed here), was she doing more for her fellow whites than had she decided to remain an onlooker? Contrary to appearances, her ‘betrayal’ was actually a great gift to her fellow whites, because it was an exemplary demonstration of what it looks like to follow the catholicity of truth and goodness over provincialism and racism, even in the face of persecution and rejection. In this way I reached the conclusion that the better choice, and thus the more charitable choice, for my Protestant community, was for me to seek reconciliation with the Catholic Church. I had to do my part in righting that wrong that those long before me had done in betraying the Church through separating from her, even though they may have done so with the best of intentions.
Stephen notes that the Catechism of the Catholic Church “does not consider Protestants to be heretics, apostates, or non-Christians.” This is true, but there is more to the picture. If from the Catholic perspective, the Protestant condition were not in any way deficient, then from the Catholic perspective there would be no reason to be Catholic rather than Protestant. So the question cannot be determined only by noting the positive truths and goods in Protestantism recognized and affirmed by the Catholic Church. Answering the question must include considering what, from the Catholic Church’s perspective, the Protestant as such is missing. Catholic theology distinguishes between formal and material heresy. The Protestant is not necessarily in a state of formal heresy, that is, morally culpable for his or her denials of certain Catholic dogmas. But nevertheless a person, whether Catholic or Protestant, who denies a Catholic dogma is in that respect at least in a condition of material heresy. Likewise, a Protestant is not necessarily in a state of formal schism, culpable for being in schism from the Church. But a Protestant as such is at least in a state of material schism, not being in full communion with the Church, and therefore is in him or herself not showing forth to the world the unity Christ calls us through love to show to the world. Being in schism, even if only materially, is not a victimless error, because it obscures the love of God to the world and calls into question our testimony as Christians, as Pope Benedict XVI explained:
Leading men and women to God, to the God who speaks in the Bible: this is the supreme and fundamental priority of the Church and of the Successor of Peter at the present time. A logical consequence of this is that we must have at heart the unity of all believers. Their disunity, their disagreement among themselves, calls into question the credibility of their talk of God. Hence the effort to promote a common witness by Christians to their faith – ecumenism – is part of the supreme priority. (Letter Concerning the Remission of Excommunication, 2009)
Furthermore, according to the Catholic Church through the sacraments, and especially through the sacrament of the Eucharist, we grow in the supernatural love poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, and thus in our union with God. Though as Unitatis Redintegratio teaches, significant elements that build up and give life to the Church can exist outside the visible boundaries of the Catholic Church, nevertheless because Protestant communions did not retain the sacrament of Holy Orders, therefore from the Catholic point of view they do not have the Eucharist, for reasons I’ve explained here. And therefore from the Catholic perspective they do not have the fullness of the divinely established means of growing in grace and love for Christ. The importance of the Eucharist is such that the Protestant-Catholic question cannot be determined apart from it, and from underlying questions such as whether valid ordination is necessary for a valid Eucharist, what constitutes a valid ordination, and who has the authority to decide such questions.
But I cannot conclude that by remaining Methodist I am protesting against the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church. In fact, it is my love for and faith in that church that keeps me Methodist.
I can remember sitting in lawn chairs in my front yard with some graduate student friends on a summer evening in 2004 late into the night, smoking cigars, drinking beer, and talking theology. The three of us were all Protestant at the time, and we were talking about ecumenism. Our shared belief at the time was that our commitment to ecumenism required that we remain in our respective Protestant traditions, precisely to show that the Church was not limited only to one denomination or tradition. We agreed that the idea of moving from a Protestant denomination to the Catholic Church, for the sake of unity, would betray ecumenism. It would betray the truth that there are true Christians in every denomination, and that every denomination is a legitimate branch within the universal Church. We conceived the situation among Christian traditions as one of diversity needing only greater mutual recognition and collaboration.
But that year I began to study the concept of schism, seeking to understand how to distinguish in a principled, non ad hoc way, between schism from the Church, and branches within the Church. By the following year I had come to the conclusion that the “one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church” referred to in the Creed was a visible body, that the unity referred to in that first mark included visible unity, that there was such a thing as schism from the Church, and that the episcopal successor of St. Peter in Rome was the divinely established visible principium unitatis for the Church such that full communion with the bishop of Rome determined whether one was within a branch within the Church or within a schism from the Church. (CCC 2089) I could no longer justify reducing schism to heresy or apostasy. (See “Michael Horton on Schism as Heresy.”) Only by prescinding from the question of schism from the Church, and arbitrarily limiting the essentials to the early creeds, had I been able even in the summer of 2004 to conceive of this entity my friends and I referred to as “the catholic church,” (no caps), as the entity referred to in the Creed.
By later in the year 2004, still as an Anglican at the time, when we got to that line of the Creed during the liturgy, I could no longer in good faith say the words out loud, because I had come to believe that what we meant when we said those words “one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church” was not what those bishops who wrote those words meant by them. The fourth century Catholics who recited that line of the Creed, for example, did not mean by it something that included both Catholics and Donatists. So every week when we came to that line of the Creed, I was silent. If I loved the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church, then I had to love being in full communion with her, which required pursuing the very basis for the distinction between full communion vs. imperfect communion, or schism from her. I could not love the Church and be content with the possibility that what I was referring to as ‘church’ was a conceptual construct of the Church and communities in schism from her. Not to concern myself with the principled basis for that delineation would have been a deficit in my love for the Church. But once the nature of schism from the Church became clearer to me, and thus the distinction between schism and apostasy became clear, I could no longer hold the position I held on my front yard in the summer of 2004. It would have been a performative contradiction on my part to appeal to the virtue of loyalty to my Protestant community as a reason for remaining Protestant while at the same time remaining in a tradition (i.e. Protestantism) built precisely on Luther’s and Calvin’s elevation of [their perceptions of] doctrinal truth over loyalty to the community in which they had been baptized and raised, i.e. the Catholic Church. If the elements of sanctification I enjoyed as a Protestant came from the Catholic Church, and had their rightful place in full communion with the Catholic Church, then love for the Church impelled me to seek by all means not to remain in a state of schism from her, even if I had been in a state of grace in that condition of imperfect communion.
Stephen adds another reason:
But God has not seen fit simply to do away with Protestants or take the fruit and gifts of the Spirit from us, so it will not suffice simply for Protestants to cease to exist, which I fear seems to be some Catholic converts’ (perhaps Protestant?) solution.
This is an odd bit of reasoning. Prima facie, it looks like this: God has not done away with Protestants, therefore Protestants as a whole should not return to the Catholic Church. I would question that inference. During the Donatist schism, for example, it was true that God had not done away with Donatists. But that did not entail that the Donatists should not have returned to the Catholic Church. And the same could be said for the Novatian schism in the third century, the Marcion and the Acacian schism in the fifth and sixth centuries. The problem with the inference is that God’s providential allowance of the persistence of some error is not a good reason to believe that persons holding that error should not give it up. That can be seen if we apply that inference to any other sect or religion. God’s allowance of Mormonism’s persistence, for example, does not mean that Mormons should remain Mormons. And if we apply the inference to criminal acts, its problematic nature becomes even clearer. So we have to be careful when attempting to reach conclusions of divine approval from providential allowances. It does not seem to be a safe, truth-determining inference.
Nevertheless, I think what Stephen is actually getting at is that whatever is true and good in Protestantism must not be given up. And I completely agree on that point. I would only add what Fr. Neuhaus did on this point, namely, that in becoming Catholic, one does not need to lose what is true or good within Protestantism. We get to bring it with us. I think that we are even called to bring it with us, because these are part of the resources and gifts that we have been given, and which in love we are to give in service to Christ and His Church.
I support women’s ordination. I don’t have any grand theory about it; I have simply seen it.
This would not be the place or room to go into a full explanation of the Church’s reasons for teaching that the necessary matter for the validity of the sacrament of Holy Orders is that the ordinand be male, and thus that she has no authority to ordain women. I might only say that if the Church is correct, then Stephen has never seen women’s ordination, because no ordination has taken place in such cases, whatever other blessings and gifts may have been given. Here, as in many other matters, the question comes down to the authority of the Church. As for the importance and particularly unique gifting women have, I completely agree with Stephen. But ultimately, as I think Stephen agrees, this is not a schism-worthy issue. If the Catholic Church is who she claims to be, then I could not justifiably form a schism or remain in schism from her, on account of this issue. Two wrongs would not make a right. So this is not a question that should keep Protestants and Catholics in a state of separation. This is the sort of thing that should be worked on and studied from within, already in full communion together.
Second, I am concerned about abuses of authority and power that occur and have occurred in Roman Catholicism.
This is a legitimate concern, again validated by history. But this too is a subordinate question because I cannot justify forming a schism or remaining in schism as a way of helping God prevent the unilateral abuse of power within the Church Christ founded. Again, two wrongs do not make a right. Church leaders will have to answer to God for their sins, as will I were I to choose to remain in schism. Christ only founded one Church. And I am called to suffer in and with that Church, even in the shame of the sins of her members, just as I must suffer in the shame of the public sins of my family. I do not in such cases get to choose a new family.
Third, I struggle to affirm Catholic teaching on contraception. … I do not think every act of sexual intercourse has to be open to the propagation of children. On this point I don’t think I differ that far from Catholic teaching. “Natural family planning” is itself a natural contraceptive practice that requires certain artificial instruments for its employment (thermometers, calendars, etc.). It is unclear to me that it bears a different intentionality from certain other forms of “artificial” contraception.
Here Stephen claims first that natural family planning uses artificial instruments, and implies that this makes it ethically equivalent to the use of artificial contraceptives. Second, he notes that he does not see any difference in intentionality between NFP and other forms of artificial contraception. Regarding his first point, while it is true that artifacts may be used to keep track of a woman’s cycle, this does not mean that NFP and contracepted sex are morally equivalent.
The Church “teaches that it is necessary that each and every marriage act remain ordered per se to the procreation of human life. (CCC 2366, from Humanae Vitae 11) ). This is because no one may break the inseparable connection which God has established between these two meanings of the conjugal act by excluding one or the other of them.” (Compendium 496) As Humanae Vitae teaches:
[A]n act of mutual love which impairs the capacity to transmit life which God the Creator, through specific laws, has built into it, frustrates His design which constitutes the norm of marriage, and contradicts the will of the Author of life. Hence to use this divine gift while depriving it, even if only partially, of its meaning and purpose, is equally repugnant to the nature of man and of woman, and is consequently in opposition to the plan of God and His holy will. But to experience the gift of married love while respecting the laws of conception is to acknowledge that one is not the master of the sources of life but rather the minister of the design established by the Creator. Just as man does not have unlimited dominion over his body in general, so also, and with more particular reason, he has no such dominion over his specifically sexual faculties, for these are concerned by their very nature with the generation of life, of which God is the source. (Humanae Vitae, 13)
Non-contracepted sexual intercourse during the infertile period shares the same secondary end as contracepted sex, i.e. avoiding pregnancy. It is not that shared secondary end but the difference in means that makes contracepted sex disordered and unethical. The contracepting couple deliberately sterilize otherwise fertile intercourse; the NFP practicing couple do not do so. Rather, they deliberately abstain from fertile intercourse. Deliberately abstaining from fertile intercourse is not per se immoral; deliberately sterilizing the marital act is immoral, for the reason explained in the quotation from Humanae Vitae. The use of calendars and thermometers in determining when to abstain does not make abstinence per se immoral, because abstinence by its very nature is not per se disordered. The use of contraceptives, by contrast, directly sterilizes the marital act and thus disorders it, which is why this sort of act is unethical. For this reason, the use of contraceptives is not ethically equivalent to the use of calendars and thermometers.
Regarding Stephen’s second point, the morality of an action is not determined solely by its intention. The contracepting couple and the NFP practicing couple might have the same intention in mind, namely, to avoid pregnancy. But because the morality of an action does not depend solely on its intention, but also includes the object of the act, there is a difference (as just explained above) between the morality of using contraceptives, and the morality of practicing periodic abstinence for the sake of regulating births. (cf. CCC 1750)
I address ethical issues from a christological perspective more than a natural one. Many Catholic colleagues tell me this is a Protestant position. I used to argue with them, but now I have come to accept their criticism. I often worry that Catholic theologians can say “nature” much more easily than they can say “Jesus,” ….
That may be true, and if so, it is problematic. However, a truly Catholic understanding fits nature and grace together, and so fits together the natural law with the law of Christ revealed in the New Covenant. Because grace builds on nature, if we get nature wrong, our understanding of grace will be distorted. So theologically it is important to make sure we get nature right. I assume that Stephen might agree on this point, and I don’t think he would consider this a point justifying schism. What is important to consider, when making a list of conditions that the Church must meet or to which she must conform, in order for one to return to her, is how in doing so to avoid ecclesial consumerism.
Finally he writes:
Every good Protestant Christian must be willing to return to Rome for the sake of the unity of the church once the “Reformation” is over. The Reformation should always be understood as a temporary measure. Perhaps the time for reunion will come in my lifetime.
I couldn’t agree more. I have written two short essays directly on this point: the first, in 2010, titled “Trueman and Prolegomena to “How would Protestants know when to return?”,” and in 2011, “Reformation Sunday 2011: How Would Protestants Know When to Return?.” The key point here is that given this awareness of our obligation to return when the reformation is completed, we need to have before us not only the conditions which upon satisfaction show that it is time to return, but also the principled basis for those conditions. Otherwise, the practical result is a kind of theological indolence that makes living in schism the normative practical default until God either forcefully makes us return or Christ returns in glory. And the long term result of living that way, as I explained in my essays, is forgetting that there is even an obligation to return at all. Schism becomes so ‘normal’ that it is no longer even perceived as such.
To Stephen, I would say thank you for writing your essay. I hope and pray that the Holy Spirit would grant that we may be together in full communion while still here on earth, and that you would continue pondering this question in your heart. Those of us here at Called To Communion, who each separated from our previous community, did not flag in love for that community in doing so. Describing the pain of that separation in my case, would be too personal for a public forum. But one way of maintaining and expressing that love and commitment is not to burn bridges, but precisely to build bridges, to hold hands over fences, to reach out as Catholic to Protestants whom you can still sincerely and truly call “our people,” with an understanding and empathy cradle Catholics simply do not possess. I remember as a new Catholic encountering a couple Catholic youth who believed that all Protestants in first world countries knew that the Catholic Church is who she claims to be, and are therefore culpable for not being Catholic. I immediately protested as one who had been there, and could correct them as one who had been there, inside phenomenologically. “No, I said. That’s just not true at all.” Who will build these bridges if not us? Does not love compel us not to be content with perpetual schisms, but instead to work diligently until the wall of division is torn down? If the Catholic Church is who she claims to be, then what is best for Protestant communities is reconciliation in full communion with her. Protestant communities when so reconciled, need not lose their diversity. They lose only what presently hinders them, namely, their state of separation and particular deficiencies, and instead gain the fullness of that to which every element of sanctification in them points.