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Ecumenism: The Conversion Question

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Jan 27, 2011

At Vespers on January 25th, Pope Benedict stressed the obligation each Christian has to work for Christian unity. That is clearly true, of course; after all, Our Lord prayed that His disciples might all be one. But the difficulty of the task and the desire to avoid offending people often leads to a misunderstanding of what is involved. We may concentrate so much on impersonal programs and policies that we forget the personal demands which the quest for Christian unity inevitably imposes.

Much as we may work at this or that aspect of ecumenism, it remains impossible to separate the general cause of Christian unity from the need for direct, personal conversion. I do not exclude the conversion of Catholics to a deeper respect for their Christian brothers and sisters, but this is not the type of ultimate conversion I have in mind. An interesting case of what I do have in mind is found in Gilbert Meilaender’s article in the February 2011 issue of First Things, entitled “The Catholic I Am”. The title is very interesting indeed, because Meilaender is a Lutheran.

A frequent contributor to First Things currently serving as Remick Fellow at the Notre Dame Center for Ethics and Culture, Meilaender is a deeply-committed Christian who reflects from time to time on the prospect of reunion with Rome. In his essay, he offers reasons for staying where he is, firmly in the Lutheran communion, and for the Lutheran communion staying where it is, firmly within itself. We have seen just this pattern of argument before—this enumeration of reasons to stand pat—and it often marks a middle stage in the process of conversion to Catholicism. Time alone will tell, but the argument is sufficiently desperate to be worth exploring.

The Catholic Tradition

Like the Anglicans of Newman’s generation, and many before and since, Meilaender chooses to see being Lutheran as one of several ways of living as part of the catholic tradition. Here “catholic” (small c) is perceived as the tradition of faith passed on to us in Scripture and by the Apostles, and represented not only by Roman Catholicism but by Orthodoxy and Protestantism.

Meilaender is not insensitive to a certain confusion about this tradition. Just as we Catholics would distinguish and oppose trends in our own Church which devalue the tradition (e.g., Modernism and the secularization of Catholic thought), so Meilaender recognizes that not all Protestants really seek to live within the tradition. He knows that the mainline Protestant churches have largely been assimilated by secular culture, and this raises questions about the capacity of the tradition for self-preservation. But we’ll set them aside for now.

Suffice it to say that Meilaender sees himself and Lutheranism as a legitimate part of this catholic tradition, one which in the sixteenth century offered a corrective to certain departures from the authentic tradition by the Roman Church, and one which still has an important and distinctive role to play in preserving the catholic tradition and passing it on.

Meilaender enumerates several distinctive features of Lutheranism and Protestantism more generally, but he does not help his case by permitting one of them to loom larger than it should:

A church without the hymns of Charles Wesley is one I would rather not contemplate. Indeed, one need only occasionally attend a Mass here and there (an experience that has never failed to prove disappointing for me) to be forced to ponder what a world without classical Protestant hymnody would be like.

I say this not to poke fun at Meilaender (as an argument, this sort of personal attachment ranks only slightly above the question of whether to use catsup on scrambled eggs), but to indicate how intensely emotional are the comforts of our own religious traditions, how much they have to do with our upbringing, formation and tastes, and how easily we confuse them (as all of us do) with true religion. And then, of course, we grow to regard our own tastes as important manifestations of the “catholic tradition”, from which convenient vantage point they serve as mighty justifications for our own rectitude.

Meilaender acknowledges that Martin Luther did not begin by wanting to form a separate church, and that the quarrels of the sixteenth century over justification by Faith are no longer particularly sharp. Ultimately, to his credit, he abandons the argument that it is important for any Christian group to be “distinctive”. But at the same time, he believes it foolish to jettison the five hundred years of history which have shaped Lutheran religiosity within the larger catholic tradition, and from which—since these things are to Meilaender all part of the same catholic tradition—he has not yet found a compelling reason to turn away. What is perhaps the central passage of his article runs as follows:

For my part, I believe that the Church’s genuine oneness need not be translated into institutional unity. If this commits me to believing that the one holy catholic and apostolic Church is “invisible”, that’s all right. Invisibility in this sense is not a way of escaping from time, place, and embodiment. On the contrary, it is a way of taking time seriously, a way of recognizing the multiform manner in which the one Church—under, surely, the governance of the Holy Spirit—has taken shape in human history. Energy devoted to reshaping Lutheran ministries and practices in order to make them satisfactory to Rome is energy better spent, I suspect, in shaping the lives of Christian people in faithful obedience and in being the voice of Christ in and to the world.

Mere Christianity

The logical response is to ask, “What spirit was really at work, and how do we know? Also, obedience to what? And which alleged voice of Christ?” The trouble with all this is that it presupposes what C. S. Lewis called “mere Christianity”, which in turn presupposes three other principles, all of which are demonstrably false. First, mere Christianity assumes that the beliefs most Christians hold in common are somehow more central or important to Christianity than the beliefs over which they differ, as if mere Christianity is not exactly what it would otherwise appear logically to be, namely merely a Christianity which is missing a number of vital parts, and so is inevitably both broken and dysfunctional.

Second, mere Christianity assumes that it has within it the means to preserve itself when, in fact, one of the things it leaves out is the very authority principle so essential to self-preservation, the one thing required to prevent any group from claiming whatever it wants to be true, the devastating results of which are easily demonstrated through both logic and history. And third, mere Christianity assumes that the differences among various Christian groups are insufficiently powerful to undermine the effectiveness of Christian witness throughout the world, rendering Christianity not so much a witness to truth as the ultimate witness to the proposition that truth is unknowable (if even Christians cannot agree about it). The falsity of this assumption is obvious to anyone who has studied the secularization of the Western world since the Protestant Revolt.

Now the Christian tradition in any form carries within it, as the Second Vatican Council taught so luminously, a number of engraced goods provided by God for our growth in holiness and salvation, and so by virtue of these goods it remains immensely powerful even when it is limping along incomplete. Therefore, it is easy to see why, having experienced Christ through an incomplete tradition, and having witnessed personally that tradition’s power to draw one into greater union with God, any Christian can overlook what may be missing. He may notice it not at all, or regard it as decidedly secondary, or airily dismiss it as false. But as soon as we do notice and begin to examine seriously the differences among various Christian bodies, we must surely beware of deploying a definition of “catholic tradition” which ignores the potential game-breaking dimensions of these very differences.

Mere Christianity, of which I take this concept of “catholic tradition” as a type, simply begs too many questions. Moreover, these questions are, or ought to be, particularly hard to ignore in the face of the sheer size of the Roman Catholic Church in comparison with all others. Even Meilaender notices this elephant in the room, though it has not (yet) frightened him out of his small “c” complacency.

For, yes, in his arguments for staying where he is, Meilaender evidences a certain complacency about true unity, a complacency incomprehensible to an equally-committed Catholic—as did Newman before him while an Anglican, and as do all those who fail to see the importance of Pope Benedict’s recent insistence that efforts toward Christian unity are without question the responsibility of each and every one of us.

Conversion

Ecumenism involves many things, from simple acts of kindness to those in different Christian “communions” to formal explorations of theological differences, in the hope of improving relations and resolving such differences through means which both parties actually accept. Such ecumenical initiatives are important insofar as they remove unnecessary obstacles to unity. But ultimately, ecumenism cannot avoid the question of conversion.

Conversion can be considered partially without losing face, by making use of the idea of unity as an exchange of goods. Indeed, Catholics would be foolish not to see that non-Catholic Christian groups have both prized and fostered certain legitimate aspects of the Catholic (large C) tradition in ways which go beyond their practice and emphasis in contemporary Roman Catholicism. Thus, for example, the Catholic can view the incorporation of the Evangelical emphasis on proclaiming the Gospel in daily life as a gift—an important reminder of a point which is in fact resoundingly Catholic but often neglected—and so too can the Catholic view positively the incorporation of the otherworldly, contemplative attitude of the Orthodox tradition, as manifested, for example, in the use of icons.

But at some point, the non-Catholic party in ecumenical activity, in the quest for Christian unity, must learn to recognize the gifts he can receive from the Catholic Church as not only essential to a full Christianity but as unattainable by any means short of institutional union. To take Meilaender’s case again, at some point the Lutheran must recognize that Christianity can be full and complete without Wesleyan hymnody but it cannot be full and complete without the authority of Peter, a legitimate priesthood, and all seven sacraments. And in recognizing this truth, the Lutheran must also recognize that these goods cannot be appropriated without institutional unity. Or, to put it another way, they cannot be appropriated without conversion to Catholicism.

It goes without saying that these things are worth converting for, as is every other element of the authentic Catholic tradition, every good in it that has been given to us by God as one more key and critical portion of His plan for our union with Him for all eternity. Again, one can understand how some Christian group could ignore those features of the Catholic faith which differ from its own beliefs, or could even dismiss them reflexively as false. But once these differences have really caught someone’s attention, would he dare to suggest that any of them is unimportant or unworthy of the most painstaking examination? What if the authority of Peter really is the sole effective guarantor of Christian truth? Could one then reasonably argue that conversion is unnecessary? Would it really suffice to feed only on those grapes which just happen to have fallen close to the vine?

Thus the question of conversion cannot be avoided, though advocates of the great catholic tradition may forestall its consideration because they do not yet recognize the remarkable weakness of their position. At the Last Supper, on the same occasion when Our Lord prayed that all his followers would be one as He and the Father are one (Jn 17:11), He also prayed that his followers would be sanctified in truth (17), even going so far, in referring to His death, as to say: “And for their sake I consecrate myself, that they also may be consecrated in truth” (19).

At some point in the quest for Christian unity, at some point in the ecumenical task, the non-Catholic party must recognize that he is missing the full truth revealed in Jesus Christ. And then he must care enough about being “consecrated in truth” to be willing to leave his comfort zone. There is no help for it. He must embrace Rome. He cannot rest until he converts.

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Show 10 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: eustachius234 - Feb. 01, 2011 9:34 PM ET USA

    Regarding the Holy Father's call for a week of prayer for Christian unity. Yes Catholics should pray for Chirstian unity. However,what about the scandalous nature of praying with Protestants, i.e. the blurring of the distinction that they are outside the Church? If the Protestants pray with Catholics fine, but for Catholics to pray with Protestants is scandalous.

  • Posted by: jon.cutting5976 - Jan. 31, 2011 11:45 PM ET USA

    The Episcopalians have one of the best hymnals ever produced - even while the denomination continues to implode. But I was there for 5 years before I entered the Church in 2007 and I survived quite nicely on the meaty hymnody (most of which derives from Catholic music history). Now I have the Eucharist and the Truth, but the music and the abysmal manner in which the liturgy is carried off scares off everyone I invite for a visit. And most of the music is REALLY bad, theologically and musically.

  • Posted by: bnewman - Jan. 30, 2011 10:38 PM ET USA

    The music in church is all about praise of God, and so it should be the best possible and consonant with the local culture. Sometimes it seems more praise is going on in a local football game. But in the end it is the Eucharist that counts. No matter the music or the character of the priest, or the wisdom gained from the homily or the aesthetic quality of the liturgy.The Eucharist is found in the Catholic Church: as well as a two-millenia consistency of teaching from the Magisteriem.

  • Posted by: bnewman - Jan. 30, 2011 10:05 PM ET USA

    As a convert myself from Anglicism I found this interesting, although I think the crack about catsup and scrambled eggs was out of line. When all your life you have attended a church where "singing hymns" is what all congregation "does", and sometimes does well, it is a shock of embarassment to enter a catholic church where no-one at all sings and the organist just plays louder and faster, to get it over with.

  • Posted by: Gil125 - Jan. 29, 2011 7:29 PM ET USA

    Tony2311, you're lucky to have found a parish that uses the Adoremus hymnal and Gregorian chant. I converted more than 50 years ago and worship in a more typical parish, I think, that uses paper misalettes and song books. (Missalettes for Catholicetts, somebody has said.) I customarily sit out all the songs, though not the necessary sung parts of the Mass. I suggest you substitute "can be" for "is" in your last sentence.

  • Posted by: koinonia - Jan. 29, 2011 11:17 AM ET USA

    The idea expressed with reference to our religious traditions indicates a certain excessive sentimental, emotional attachment. But holding to Tradition is vital. One thing that distinguishes the Catholic Church is Her remarkable "in-tuneness" with human nature. The great irony of the kindlier, gentler Protestant and modernist innovations is the absence of consideration of the indispensable human element. That "bridge" to the transcendant is conspicuously absent.

  • Posted by: tony2311 - Jan. 29, 2011 6:18 AM ET USA

    I converted 2 years ago, praise God! One of the many benefits is not having to wince at the shallow and often false theology in much of Protestant hymnody, especially the more recent stuff. Sometimes I would "sit out" whole verses because I could not bring myself to actually sing - and thereby affirm - the erroneous words. But now I am thriving on The Adoremus Hymnal, Gregorian chant, and both the English and Latin liturgies. Catholic worship is such a rich and beautiful thing!

  • Posted by: stpetric - Jan. 28, 2011 8:01 PM ET USA

    You abjure poking fun at Meilaender's attachment to classical Protestant hymnody, but I sympathize with him. Catholic liturgical English and music were among the major impediments to my own conversion some years ago, and they remain the most difficult part of my adjustment. I remain convinced that coming over was the right thing to do, but I'm not sure you "get" how ghastly an aesthetic experience much Catholic worship is. And don't sneer, either: Beauty is one of the transcendentals.

  • Posted by: Cornelius - Jan. 28, 2011 11:45 AM ET USA

    Fine article. I have long thought that positions like Meilaender's can only be upheld at the cost of the Principle of Non-Contradiction - which amounts to saying only at the cost of one's sanity. In the end, Truth is one whole thing, internally coherent and consistent in all its parts, a true "seamless garment."

  • Posted by: eustachius234 - Jan. 27, 2011 7:31 PM ET USA

    My compliments on your attempt to bring the Protestants back into the fold. Perhaps you should have touched on the doctrine of "Outside the Church there is no salvation." Another point of interest being, the longterm consequences of Protestant theology leading to the relativity of modern secularist culture ...

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