A few days ago I posted on “First Thoughts” an item contrasting an article from the (Southern) Baptist Press claiming that only two of the 33 miners trapped underground in Chile were Christians, with one by an English Catholic who stressed the miners’ Catholicism and said he had “no doubt at all that there weren’t that many Adventists or Evangelicals down there.” The first respondent wrote that the comments show

that too many people in the churches have no understanding of or appreciation for “mere Christianity”, and certainly do not see their churches as rooms off the same, shared, common hallway, as C. S. Lewis described it. Both the arrogance of the Baptist minister who presumes to know people’s hearts and the dismissive comment of the Catholic writer are disturbing but hardly unique manifestations of “denominational exceptionalism.”

The second and third respondents (the third a good friend of mine) agreed with him. Theirs was a natural and charitable response to the sight of divided Christians squabbling, and I think it quite wrong.

The problem is that image of the house with the rooms, illustrating what Lewis meant by “mere Christianity.” It appears in the preface to Mere Christianity . “I hope no reader will suppose that ‘mere’ Christianity is here put forward as an alternative to the creeds of the existing communions”as if a man could adopt it in preference to Congregationalism or Greek Orthodoxy or anything else,” Lewis writes.

It is more like a hall out of which doors open into several rooms . . . . It is in the rooms, not in the hall, that there are fires and chairs and meals. The hall is a place to wait in, a place from which to try the various doors, not a place to live in. For that purpose the worst of the rooms (whichever that may be) is, I think, preferable.

It sounds irenic and ecumenical, but it is a Protestant image for a Protestant doctrine. It makes the Catholic Church a room like any other room. It is a way of saying that the differences between Protestants and Catholics would be solved very easily . . . if Catholics became Protestants.

These Catholics have to think of the Church as a denomination like any other, and they should stop putting on airs. From the Protestant point of view, the Catholic who insists that his church is the Church is a lot like the old codger in 4B coming round demanding the rent or imposing a curfew on the other apartments. He may be the oldest and wealthiest and most learned person in the building, but still, he’s just the old codger in 4B.

A Catholic, however, can’t remove membership in the Catholic Church from the things that are essential to the definition of Christian. Lewis’s idea of Mere Christianity is ruined as an ecumenical proposal from the start by his making it a theology and moral life lived in fellowship with the like-minded rather than an inc orporation into a Body manifest in history. For the Catholic unity comes from shared membership in the Catholic Church, not from agreement on some distilled essence of Christianity.

He looks at his Protestant brothers as brothers not because he shares with them some essence of Christianity but because they are partly Catholics whether they like it or not. As the Second Vatican Council’s Unitatis Redintegratio declared, “men who believe in Christ and have been truly baptized are in communion with the Catholic Church even though this communion is imperfect.” This includes even those who call the Church the whore of Babylon and the pope the antichrist.

The question is, what is the house? Lewis himself wrote of “the rules common to the whole house,” and therein raised the problem. For the Catholic, one of the house’s main rules is that you have to be a Catholic to live there. The Immaculate Conception of Mary is not a belief required in the Catholic room, while disbelief in it is required in the Protestant rooms; it is a belief required of all those who live under that roof. If someone doesn’t believe it, he can’t have a room in the house. He can set up a shelter in the yard (his communion is real but imperfect)”inside the pale, certainly, and not beyond it, but not in the house.

There is no way around this difference between Protestant and Catholic. Invoking “Mere Christianity” does not help when divided Christians squabble, as when the Baptist who believes Catholics aren’t Christians meets the Catholic who is certain they are. It is not the compromise it appears but a indirect demand for total victory.

The better answer, I think, is as Pope John Paul II famously said: to do together what we can do together, and let our friendships develop as they will. In the twenty-some years I’ve been involved in practical ecumenical enterprises, things have shifted a lot, and for the better.

Among the Southern Baptists, for example, a group I’ve observed closely and among which I have good and valued friends, a liberal-minded group of the now middle-aged and older moved beyond the conservatism of the past, particularly its anti-Catholicism. They will grant, in a way their ancestors would not”in a way they themselves might not have done when they were younger”that some Catholics can be saved despite being Catholic. That is more progress than it may appear.

Some among the younger generation, and among its rising stars, have moved farther still. They will grant that Catholics can be Christians through and as Catholics. That is enormous progress.

But both are still miles from the meeting point. If my observation is correct, the first group would read the Baptist Press writer’s claim without blinking an eye. Despite their relative liberality, they still assume that Catholics are not likely also to be Christians. The second group might notice the judgment being made, but think it still a legitimate generalization.

And yet both are closer to the meeting point than they have ever been, and their momentum is bringing them ever closer.

Although Lewis’s famous image misleads, he ended where I would want to end, with a warning to those who want to do together what they can do together, but will find themselves squabbling even more than before because they are now working as a team.

When you have reached your own room, be kind to those who have chosen different doors and to those who are still in the hall. If they are wrong they need your prayers all the more; and if they are your enemies, then you are under orders to pray for them. That is one of the rules common to the whole house.

Or, as I would put it, common to those in the house and those living in the yard.

David Mills is the deputy editor of First Things . His last article for “On the Square” was From Junior High Down to VH1 . He edited The Pilgrim’s Guide: C. S. Lewis and the Art of Witness (Eerdmans).

RESOURCES

R. Albert Mohler’s No, I’m Not Offended , his response to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s “Responses to Some Questions Regarding Certain Aspects of the Doctrine on the Church.”
R. Albert Mohler’s Standing Together, Standing Apart , subtitled “Cultural Co-belligerence Without Theological Compromise.”
David Mills’ Standing with Christ , his response to Mohler.
The Second Vatican Council’s Unitatis Redintegratio .

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