Elsewhere in this issue ( The Unhappy Fate of Optional Orthodoxy, Public Square ) my colleague Richard John Neuhaus, citing the nineteenth-century prelate Henry Cardinal Manning, suggests that there is something deeply incoherent about sectarian catholicity. He is referring to the position of those who locate themselves within the Great Tradition of catholic orthodoxy but who are members of neither the Roman Catholic or Orthodox communions. These are people, he indicates, who will not face the reality that orthodoxy and catholicity can be underwritten only by Orthodoxy and Catholicism. They are caught in a fundamental contradiction: they think of themselves as evangelical catholics, yet they remain in church bodies where catholicity may have but a tenuous and marginal hold.
Those of us in the sectarian catholic camp recognize the weight of these arguments. Indeed, we wrestle with them in perpetual internal conversation. If we reject the notion that our situation is incoherent, we nonetheless acknowledge its ambiguities. Yet we persist, more or less unapologetically, in our obduracy. Why?
In the first place, we emphatically deny that we are sectarian. We consider ourselves members of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church. We believe that that one Church has more than one historical manifestation. (And to those in Rome and Constantinople who say that cannot be, we ask in which of those two places the one Church then resides.) Evangelical catholics in my own Lutheran Church consider Lutheranism to be, as Father Neuhaus himself argued for many years, a confessional movement within the one Church of Christ. We do not consider our confessional position (pace Manning) a matter of private judgment, nor will we concede (pace Newman) that ours is a paper church.
We remain evangelical catholics because we have what we consider good reasons not to be Roman Catholics. (To most of us in the West, Orthodoxy is not, for cultural reasons, a live option.) We have no desire to reignite the passions of the sixteenth century, but we think that in the quarrels of the Reformation era the reformers were more right than Rome. Many of those quarrels have been resolved in recent years, but on certain critical issues-such as the relation between justification and sanctification or between Scripture and tradition-differences remain that, however subtle, are not insignificant.
There are, moreover, a number of post-Reformation issues that separate many evangelical catholics from Rome: papal infallibility, the Marian dogmas, ordination of women, contraception. Orthodox Catholics rightly complain of a cafeteria approach to church doctrine in which presumably loyal members of the church do indeed exercise private judgment as to which teachings they will or will not accept as binding on them. It would be a dishonorable act and a grave violation of conscience to seek communion in the Roman Catholic Church while harboring a host of mental reservations as to the Church’s dogma. As I regularly explain to those who ask about my own situation, better a good Lutheran than a bad Catholic.
And I am a good Lutheran. I have no reason to leave a church whose doctrines I find true and compelling. Its confessions persuade me, its piety gives me comfort, its sensibility comports with my own. It is by happenstance that I was born a Lutheran, but it is by deep conviction that I remain one. To me, Lutheranism’s distinctive understanding of the human condition as essentially simul-we are at once, Luther insisted, sinners and saints, enemies of God and yet fully redeemed participants in His Kingdom-captures the dialectical drama of sin and grace better than any other construal of the Christian faith.
I think of Christ Church, the small Lutheran parish on East 19th Street in Manhattan where I worship. Only in such a place could I lead an adult discussion course on Christians and politics that would take Luther’s Two Kingdoms approach to social ethics and responsibilities”rooted in the Lutheran distinction between Law and Gospel”as axiomatic. Our liturgy, conducted with dignity and integrity, follows the ancient rites of the Church, and we hold to the orthodox understanding that in the Eucharist we receive the true body and blood of Christ. At the same time, our hymnody celebrates Lutheranism’s rich musical heritage, and our pastor’s theologically astute and spiritually evocative sermons convey the catholic truths of the faith with distinct Lutheran grace notes. (I cannot imagine that her holy orders should be in question.) As I leave church each Sunday, I reflect, in a variation on Luther’s terms, that while I could do other, I could not do better.
I do not pretend that evangelical catholic Lutheranism is everywhere in such healthy condition as at Christ Church, Manhattan. The Lutheran catholic tradition faces threats from both sentimental Protestant evangelicalism and desiccated Protestant liberalism”as well as from a form of confessionalism that still engages the struggle for orthodox Christianity in sixteenth-century categories. Evangelical catholics in other Protestant denominations face analogous difficulties. But it has ever been so. The history of the Church”including Orthodoxy and Catholicism”is a tale of unending struggle to hold the orthodox center against sundry temptations great and small. There is no reason to believe that God will unburden any part of His Church of that struggle short of the Second Coming.
The argument that sectarian catholicity cannot sustain itself comes down, in the end, to a matter of sociological and historical prediction. That prediction may be correct. But it is by no means certain that it is, and I cannot believe it right to choose one’s church home on the basis of a conjecture as to where history is going. The future is not ours to know with any degree of assurance.
In the meantime, evangelical catholics ought not forfeit a possible future through a failure of nerve. I have no quarrel with those who have determined, for doctrinal or ecclesial reasons, that their proper place is in the Roman (or Orthodox) communion. But I am increasingly impatient with those who cannot bring themselves to leave their present home but who engage in endless whining about their unhappy predicament. If for whatever reason”including maintaining a pastoral living”they determine they must stay where they are, they should do so without undermining the morale of those staying there as a positive, if not untroubled, choice.
Fr. Neuhaus describes evangelical catholics as people who think of themselves as temporarily separated from Catholicism and Orthodoxy. It may well be that here temporary means short of the Eschaton. It is difficult to see, on the issue of women’s ordination alone, any foreseeable future in which evangelical catholics who will not retreat on that question can be reunited with Rome or Constantinople. We sectarian catholics face hard choices. We should make them without illusion and without self-pity.And having made them, we should not look back. We will have to maintain our catholicity where we are.