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A recent exchange between Rusty Reno and Andrew Haines has played back into previous exchanges between George Weigel (here and here), John Cavadini, and Aaron Taylor. Thanks to the folks at Ethika Politika, these exchanges keep swirling around Weigel’s vision of an Evangelical Catholicism and the ecumenism it promotes as part of the path forward. According to the Ethika-Politika crowd, Reno’s remarks about the need to maintain the commitment to ecumenism, which requires broad reading in Protestantism, in order to counter the dangers of Catholic presumptive self-sufficiency feed into a deficient understanding of the Catholic notion of the church. Behind these concerns is a desire to push through Cavadini’s initial criticisms of Weigel’s project as insufficiently attentive to the Catholic notion of the church as sacrament.

As Cavadini states, “The communion of the Church does not arise from personal friendship with the Lord Jesus, but from Christ’s undeserved, atoning love which, mediated by the sacraments, makes the Church. The Church is the bond of communion, whether it is consciously known in a subjective friendship or not.” Over against what he perceives to be Weigel’s giving too much away to Protestant ideas of communion as personal friendship and encounter, Cavadini reasserts the sacramental priority of grace as grounded in the connection between Christ as primordial sacrament and the church as sacrament (the Totus Christus). In the words of Taylor, in a desire to communicate an experience of communion with evangelical Protestants, Weigel has traded “the traditional Catholic concept of a social communion with Christ through the Church with the classically Protestant concept of a subjective personal communion with the person of Jesus.”

While I have no dog in the hunt as to how best to preserve the Catholic understanding of the church, I do wish to preserve the twenty years of togetherness Catholics and Evangelicals have experienced. I am particularly concerned about the attempt to wed so closely this debate over the nature of the church with religious and political communion. For Catholics and Evangelicals experience a real, albeit imperfect, communion that supplies the theological ground of a shared religious and political communion.

The basis of this genuine communion resides in the “communion of the saints” that together make up the City of God. Although Augustine was want to identify the City of God in its pilgrim state on earth with the Catholic Church of his day, he also acknowledged that “the entire redeemed city” was “the congregation and society of the saints.” For Augustine this included the saints in heaven and the angels, but for us it must necessarily include all baptized believers even if we are “separated brethren.” Such is acknowledged by Vatican II’s Decree on Ecumenism. This points backward to the Spirit of Christ as the ultimate ground of communion in Christ. There was a pneumatological deficiency in Counter-Reformation Catholicism that had to be overcome in the twentieth century by movements like the nouvelle théologie.

Second, as Weigel has made clear, the sacramental basis of Catholic ecclesiology in no way abrogates the need for ongoing conversion. This requires cooperation with the Spirit through the personal act of faith. The sacraments do not remove the need for faith, nor can one sever the link between baptism, confirmation, and Eucharist as together comprising the sacraments of initiation.

At minimum this means that persons can and do move in and out of a state of grace on the Catholic view, which accords with John Wesley’s own approach to renewal as involving spreading scriptural holiness throughout the land. Wesley understood quite well what his Anglican theology of baptism told him about the work of God in the baptized, but he also knew that the adults he now confronted in the cities of England were no longer living out of the grace of baptism. Indeed, Wesley began to assume that there was no grace of baptism left and thus called for a return to the faith once delivered. He called for a personal encounter with Christ through the Spirit. Thus the new evangelization that marked the beginnings of Evangelicalism as a renewal movement within Christianity began on premises similar to those outlined by Weigel. On top of the shared communion between Catholics and Evangelicals is a shared commitment to a mission that begins with the renewal of the people of God both lay and clerical.

Finally, this shared and imperfect communion from which common evangelical mission arises also speaks to a shared vision of the human person and thus a common political life. It finds its Catholic articulation in Vatican II’s Declaration on Religious Freedom. The opening of the document clearly indicates that the demand for human freedom in society expressed in part through constitutional limits on government prompted the council fathers to return to the Catholic Church’s treasury of sacred tradition. Such an admission holds within it an ecumenical method whereby Protestant sources prompted the Catholic Church to return to her own traditions to find further insights into dogmatic issues. Indeed, the document consciously makes use of “the doctrine of recent popes” to formulate solutions, which underscored the critical role of John Courtney Murray in the drafting and the influence of American ideas.

The Declaration on Religious Freedom provided the basis to move beyond the older Catholic approach of thesis/hypothesis, built as it was on the thesis that “error has no rights,” including the theological errors of Protestantism. This meant that in dominantly Catholic lands, Protestantism could be politically suppressed while in Protestant lands the Catholic Church would tolerate other religious positions (the hypothesis). Thanks in part to Murray’s efforts, the religious pluralism inherent to Protestantism became part of the basis for a political life that protects the dignity of the human person whose freedom of conscience to make religious decisions must be preserved. Freedom was grounded in the objective dignity of the human person as entailing a freedom from coercion. Evangelicals and Catholics remain committed to the protection of human dignity on the basis of a shared vision of the human person.

This is a firm, if still imperfect, ground for the ongoing togetherness of Evangelicals and Catholics. It reminds us that both belong to the City of God and therefore to one another because we were baptized by one Spirit. It also reminds us that this same Spirit gives rise to gifts within each group, which allows Evangelicals to become gifts to Catholics and Catholics to become gifts to Evangelicals. It affirms our common evangelical mission first to our lost brothers and sisters and secondly to construct together a Christian culture. At the center of this mission of culture formation is the preservation of human dignity, which is the basis for our common social life. There is much work to be done, and while we will continue with our own intramural debates, let us do so together.

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