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Level with me—you’re Catholic, right?

I get this question a lot—from students, folks at church, academic colleagues. I teach theology at a Stone–Campbellite university in west Texas. My friends and neighbors are, almost to a person, low-church believers, whether restorationist or evangelical. Even a whiff of sacred tradition, magisterial authority, patristic doctrine, or medieval ­piety stinks to high heaven, and just about everyone has a nose for it.

The question, therefore, is a loaded one. “Level with me” imputes secrecy or deception. Sometimes it suggests disreputability, given the connotations of the word “Catholic” in the Protestant Bible Belt. It creates a conspiracy, a circle of confidence that demarcates outer form from inner truth. Most of all, it hums with cognitive dissonance. The asker wants to make sense of something that doesn’t hold together. How can I claim or argue X when the logical implication of X is Y, and Y would entail Z, which in turn would mean that the pope is right?

Behind the question often lurk two assumptions. One is question-begging; the other aims an accusation of hypocrisy.

The first assumption arises from a confessional Protestant stance. Suppose my reforming interlocutor is responding to an argument about the canon including the so-called apocrypha, or about episcopacy as the Spirit’s will for apostolic succession in the church. Because these things contradict Protestantism, they must be wrong. The major premise is that magisterial Protestantism is correct, so all other Christian teaching and practice must be conformed to it or come under its umbrella. In effect, this assumption repudiates the ecumenical task by denying the principle of ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda. The work of reform becomes past, not perennial.

A second assumption spies misalignment between speaker and position. Given that I believe such-and-such, should I not belong to a church that teaches or ­practices such-and-such? Should I not live under the discipline of Catholicism (or perhaps Orthodoxy), whose doctrines I seem to affirm, rather than inhabit a Protestant tradition from which I depart in significant ways? And what can it mean that I assent from afar to a tradition that does not recognize my belonging to it? Am I not enacting the very inconsistency any Christian should flee from, a sort of individualistic ­traditionalism—as when ­Stanley Hauerwas, a Methodist at the time, called himself “a high-church ­Mennonite”?

These lines of criticism are understandable. Yet they miss the mark, for they fail to reckon with the true problem. That problem is church division. And the question it raises is fundamental: What does it mean to do theology in the state of a divided church?

Two theologians from the last century modeled a faithful answer to this question: Robert Jenson, an American Lutheran academic, and Joseph Ratzinger, the late pope emeritus. (A third, Ephraim Radner, is a regular contributor to these pages; I’ll let him speak for himself.)

Here is how Jenson opens the first volume of his Systematic Theology, published in 1997:

Theology is the church’s enterprise of thought, and the only church conceivably in question is the unique and unitary church of the creeds. Therefore theology may be impossible in the situation of a divided church, its proper agent not being extant—unless, of course, one is willing to say that a particular confessional or jurisdictional body simply is the one church. To live as the church in the situation of a divided church—if this can happen at all—must at least mean that we confess we live in radical self-contradiction and that by every churchly act we contradict that contradiction. Also theology must make this double contradiction at and by every step of its way.

Jenson does not shy from the scandal of division. He sees clearly that division places a question mark next to every claim the church makes, whether for herself or for Christ. The gospel’s credibility is injured by our fractiousness. Why should anyone believe in the unity of Christ, of the Holy Trinity, or of the works accomplished by the Lord on our behalf, if his own people are not one? If the very canons of Scripture from which we profess faith in him are not one?

Jenson goes on to argue that, for all the good it did, ecumenism could not deliver on its promise of achieving unity. The church cannot make herself one: “An act of God is needed.” This is not grounds for despair, for “God may act tomorrow.” The virtue thus demanded of us, of the church and her theologians both, is patience, a supremely fitting fruit of the Holy Spirit. “In the meantime, it is a great blessing specifically to theology that we need not wait for the church to be undivided to do theology for and even of the undivided church. For theology is itself a form of the waiting we must practice.”

Theology must be written for the sake of the one church that God’s Spirit will someday, we pray in hope, bring into visible unity—as and when he pleases. Theology is therefore properly itself when it is catholic in spirit, sources, and substance, an intellectual labor by and for the singular people of God from Abraham to kingdom come. If the scope of theology is anything less, then it is not about the body of Christ but about some segment thereof.

This is a sober but liberating vision. It means that we need not accept our present divisions as necessary or enduring. We must not do Protestant dogmatics or Methodist spirituality or Reformed doctrine. The whole history of the church is our inheritance. Baptism makes each of us heir to the entire ­Christian witness. Hence, the context and audience of theology is nothing less than the communion of saints. They are not dead but alive in Christ. They will ­eventually include those not yet born or baptized. We are from and for all of them. This is theology at its best; this is catholic theology.

In 1986 Ratzinger, then Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, wrote a letter to the Theologische Quartalschrift on the state of ecumenism. In it the future pope, in conversation with the work of Lutheran theologian Oscar Cullmann, offers a profound reflection on unity and disunity between Protestants and Catholics. In the most striking section, Ratzinger writes:

Certainly, division is harmful, especially when it leads to enmity and an impoverishment of Christian witness. But if the poison of hostility is slowly removed from the division, and if, through mutual acceptance, diversity leads no longer to mere impoverishment but rather to a new wealth of listening and understanding, then during the transition to unity division can become a felix culpa, a happy fault, even before it is completely healed.

What to do in this time of happy fault? Ratzinger proposes that “we should first try to find unity through diversity, in other words, to accept what is fruitful in our divisions, to detoxify them, and to welcome the positive things that come precisely from diversity—of course, in the hope that in the end the division will cease to be division at all and will just be ‘polarity’ without ­contradiction.”

Ratzinger will not cast aside the “separated brethren” of the Reformation. He will not carve out a domain of human history or church life exempt from God’s inscrutable but ultimately wise and merciful providence. He sees the division between Protestants and Catholics for what it is: a wound in the body of Christ. He knows that by Christ’s stripes we are healed, but he also knows that the wounds of Christ remain even after his resurrection. Can we imagine—can we prayerfully beg the Spirit for—a future in which these wounds, however enduring, are no longer open, but healed?

Ratzinger believes the answer is yes. The church today, together with her theologians, should give the same reply.

As a theologian in the divided church, I attempt to follow the vision laid out by Jenson and Ratzinger. I want my work to be catholic, evangelical, and ecumenical. It should concern the one gospel of God in and for the one people of God, with conviction leavened by charity toward all Christ’s sisters and brothers, separated from one another as we are.

So I fall under suspicion of Romishness. Doing theology in this way doesn’t compute. It seems to pertain to a church that doesn’t exist, or perhaps that exists somewhere other than where one currently is. A catholic theology of this sort is an eschatological act: a practice, like the sacraments, ordered to a future God alone can bring about—yet a future he already has brought about in Christ, and which he makes present, here and now, by the Spirit.

For some, receiving this future in the present means leaving, like Abram from Ur, one’s ecclesial household for a catholic promised land. I see no reason to suppose that this is required of everyone (whether they be theologians or not). True, from the perspective of Rome or Constantinople or even Canterbury, it may seem that believers the world over are meant eventually to swim the Tiber, the Bosporus, or the Thames. But in the divided church, if there truly are Christians outside these historic sees—if baptism is, by the Spirit’s gift, one’s irrevocable entry into Christ’s body and adoption as God’s child—then each must discern the will of God for himself. There exists no universal answer that transcends history, culture, ­biography, and faith.

Consider Jenson. Around his eightieth year he wrote that, for decades, he had “regarded a move to Rome as inevitable.” But he changed his mind, and he died at eighty-­seven still a Lutheran. He struggled to formulate exactly what went into his (and his wife Blanche’s) decision. In the end he wrote that their remaining Lutheran accorded with their “stubborn, indeed now somewhat desperate, dedication to that original ecumenical vision,” which had convinced them that the Lord did not desire their departure. Jenson’s life, like his theology, performed both the contradiction that is church division and a contradiction of that contradiction. He did not want to leave the Lutherans behind. He wanted Lutherans and Romans to be one. He spent his whole life working toward that goal. His passing as a Lutheran became one last plea for God to answer his prayer.

“Even as separated brethren we can be one,” Ratzinger observes. Theology that is truly catholic exemplifies this halting, sundered, imperfect unity. Whether we stay or go, whether our lives make sense or our writings hold together, until the Father grants the petition of the Son that his disciples may be one as they are one, this is the task of the church’s pastors and teachers. If it is a cross to bear, we bear it knowing that from death will come life—in God’s own good time.

Brad East is assistant professor of theology in the College of Biblical Studies at Abilene Christian University.

Image by Edal Anton Lefterov via Creative Commons. Image cropped.

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