Revolutions in consciousness sometimes announce themselves in minor, even trivial, ways.

It was some ten or twelve years ago. My oldest daughter and I were watching a college football game on TV on a Saturday afternoon. Notre Dame was one of the teams, and my daughter, then a teenager, cheered as they scored a touchdown. “Laura,” I asked, “You’re rooting for Notre Dame?” “They’re my favorite team,” she said.

It was a revelatory moment. I flashed back in an instant to my own youth, where Notre Dame also played a prominent role, but one entirely different. Then it was the great satan, the Antichrist. Everything hinged on the momentous annual struggle between the Fighting Irish (the dreaded Papists) and the paladins of Protestantism, the Mustangs of Southern Methodist. Notre Dame won most of the time, but there was an occasional Protestant miracle. Now for a Lutheran, Methodists were decidedly chancy. They tended toward enthusiasm, and they were unreliable on the Real Presence. But they were Protestants, as opposed to Catholics, and that was all that really mattered. It meant they believed, as all Protestants did, in justification by faith, in contrast to the Catholic reliance on justification by works. There were, I was vaguely aware, nuances on both sides, but the theological bottom line was clear enough.

In those days, Reformation Day was for Protestants a church festival subordinate in significance only to Christmas and Easter. And when we sang “A Mighty Fortress,” we knew precisely who it was who would deprive us of “goods, fame, child, and wife,” even as we knew in opposition to whom “the kingdom ours remaineth.” For those who needed reminding, there were the tracts in the narthex of the church instructing us as to “Why I am not a Roman Catholic.” What we learned at church was reinforced at home. My mother’s first question concerning any girl I was dating was, “She isn’t a Catholic, is she?”

It took a long time to complicate my worldview. I was utterly stunned when, as a college freshman, I first encountered the view that Lutherans might have more in common with Catholics than with other Protestants. Only over a long time and through a tortuous process did that idea come to make sense to me. But I did gradually become aware not only that Catholics did not depend on justification by works, but that all too many Protestants, in their habit of translating the faith into either the Social Gospel or indiscriminate niceness, had lost any grasp on justification at all. They were “saved”-to the extent the term meant anything-by earnestness of moral purpose. By the time of that conversation with my daughter, I too could root for Notre Dame-even if (in the interests of full disclosure) with only two cheers. I considered myself by then a Lutheran of evangelical catholic persuasion, a position as complicated and tenuous as the term suggests.

The religious world of my youth has been turned upside down. It’s no longer Protestants vs. Catholics, but orthodox Christians vs. religious liberals. It’s those who can say the creeds without endless mental reservations vs. those for whom the creeds are historical markers but without binding contemporary authority. A while back, a traditionalist Catholic friend told me that he would rather his young son’s religious education were in my hands than in those of the liberated nuns who were currently instructing him. The statement was not so much a compliment to me as a comment on the reconstruction of the contours of religious discourse in our time.

A few years ago I participated in an interdenominational consultation on abortion. At that pro-life meeting, the participants ranged from Anabaptists to Orthodox, with virtually all major Christian groups represented. The ground rules were that we would talk not about politics or strategy but would focus instead on the religious resources we could bring to bear in the effort to protect unborn life. What impressed (and surprised) me-and I’m sure the other participants as well-was the sense that for all our theological differences we had fundamentally in common an allegiance to what C. S. Lewis taught us to call “mere Christianity.” It became clear to us that we were not simply a gathering of cultural conservatives. We were a gathering of Christian believers united by the imperatives of our common faith in a common cause.

It’s a kind of quasi-ecumenism. Ecumenical because it brings together people of different denominations. Lutherans and Catholics (and Methodists and Presbyterians and Whatever) of orthodox persuasion discover that they have more in common with each other than with liberal coreligionists. It’s only quasi because nobody is talking about a new church structure. To the extent that the new traditionalism has institutional implications it is in a move of disheartened Protestants to Rome (or, more esoterically, to Orthodoxy). Rome attracts-historical claims aside-because of its strong ecclesiology, the lack of which many identify as Protestantism’s Achilles’ heel; Orthodoxy attracts because in avoiding the Enlightenment it avoided the capitulation to modernity that did in much of Protestantism. For those traditionalist Protestants for whom Catholicism and Orthodoxy are not, or at least not yet, acceptable choices-well, we indulge in (mostly) improbable hopes for reform within our various churches, meanwhile finding refuge in local parishes (blessedly, many of them remain) that still worship and believe according to the precepts of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic faith.

Perhaps precisely because it is unofficial and noninstitutional, this new ecumenical spirit avoids ecumenism’s perennial temptation: settling for the least common denominator. This ecumenism is restorationist, and its common denominator-nothing “least” about it-is credal seriousness. It is unlikely to appeal to either cafeteria Catholics or lukewarm Protestants.

The new ecumenical paradigm is not, to be sure, everywhere in place. The widespread support for the declaration on “Evangelicals & Catholics Together: The Christian Mission in the Third Millennium” (FT, May) indicates the degree to which the old Protestant vs. Catholic division has been superseded; the (also) widespread opposition to the statement suggests that not all minds have been changed. There are still Protestants who define themselves through anti-Catholicism, even as there are Catholics who cannot understand why Holy Mother Church should concern herself with schismatics.

But the initiative is clearly with the ecumenical traditionalists. We will not likely find frequent opportunity to commune together across denominational lines-a genuine sadness. Yet we will almost certainly find regular occasions for making common cultural and religious arguments in public. Meanwhile, we will encourage and console and sustain one another. Even if we can’t all bring ourselves to join in the Notre Dame fight song.

Articles by James Nuechterlein

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