In the aftermath of Archbishop Viganò’s fresh detailing of Catholic clerical scandal and his call for the resignation of Pope Francis, I have been preoccupied with what all this means for me, one of the Catholic Church’s “separated brethren.” As David French put it powerfully at National Review’s website, “Protestants cannot and must not view these events with a kind of detachment or distance.” Indeed, we cannot—or, at least, this Anglican is finding that he cannot.
Like many who have trod the path from low-church Evangelicalism to liturgical, episcopally ordered churches, I have had to face my own complicated relationship to the Catholic Church with both bewilderment and gratitude. Though there remain reasons I cannot now convert, I nonetheless have come to believe that the Catholic Church and the Bishop of Rome anchor and support my own church in a way I can’t yet articulate. Shortly after my confirmation in the Church of England, I read the Methodist theologian Stephen Long’s judgment that “whatever is found of faith in the ‘separated communions’ has as its cause—in some mysterious sense—in the unity Catholicism has maintained,” and I found myself nodding in agreement. Yes, I thought then and continue to think now, there is a way in which my faith depends on what the Catholic Church has safeguarded and nurtured through the centuries and into the present. So it is with the sort of grief that is only possible for an estranged sibling that I have read the reports of abuse, scandal, and division within the Catholic Church in recent days.
It has not been obvious to me where to look for insight or hope. Strangely, perhaps, in the absence of good alternatives, I have found myself turning to St. Paul’s epistle to the Romans, especially chapters 9-11, in which Paul mourns, wrestles through, and finally finds hope in Israel’s scandalous history. In these chapters of his greatest letter, Paul faces squarely the death of Israel and—fleetingly, wondrously—glimpses its resurrection.
I’m not the first reader to look for hope for the Christian church in a passage written more directly about Israel’s fate. In Karl Barth’s famous commentary on Romans, for instance, when he discusses Paul’s “unceasing anguish” (Romans 9:2, NRSV) over his fellow Jews’ unbelief in Jesus as Messiah, Barth writes this:
We must not, because we are fully aware of the internal opposition between the Gospel and the Church, hold ourselves aloof from the Church or break up its solidarity; but rather, participating in its responsibility, and sharing the guilt of its inevitable failure, we should accept it and cling to it…. This is the attitude to the Church engendered by the Gospel. He who hears the gospel and proclaims it does not observe the Church from outside. He neither misunderstands it and rejects it, nor understands it and—sympathizes with it. He belongs personally within the Church. But he knows also that the Church means suffering and not triumph.
Barth, in other words, sees a parallel between Israel’s crisis of identity in the first century and the apostasy and division of the Christian churches in the twentieth. And in a similar vein, the late Lutheran theologian George Lindbeck and the contemporary Anglican theologian Ephraim Radner have mounted sophisticated arguments for an “Israel-like view of the church.” From the severing of Israel’s northern and southern kingdoms in the wake of Solomon’s reign to the division between Jesus-believing and Jesus-rejecting Jews in Paul’s day, Israel’s travails have served as a mirror in which the now largely Gentile church can discern its own vocation and contemplate its judgment and salvation.
But it’s important to be clear about the precise import of the parallel. It is not so much that Protestant churches can align themselves with Israel’s faithful remnant and see Catholicism represented by the unfaithful majority, nor is the reversal of the symbolism—with Catholicism taking the faithful role and Protestantism categorized as rebellious—any better. Rather, the point is that Israel cannot be saved at all in its state of chaotic division and that any future for divided Israel—and, thus, any future for divided Christendom—depends on the overcoming of division through divine judgment and mercy.
This is the insight Paul works out at length in Romans 9-11. He first specifies the contours of the division he sees unfolding in his day: Israel, by and large, is rejecting the claim that Jesus is the Messiah, while some Jews and a vast number of Gentiles are embracing Jesus. Next, he explains why this is a theological crisis: Israel is God’s elect nation, and its widespread unbelief seems to call into question God’s faithfulness to his covenant with Israel. Finally, Paul imagines a time when this division will be undone, not through some immanent historical process but instead through a surprising, apocalyptic act of God:
Just as you [Gentiles] were once disobedient to God but have now received mercy because of their disobedience, so [Israel has] now been disobedient in order that, by the mercy shown to you, they too may now receive mercy. For God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all. (11:30-32)
No one, in this picture, is saved without the “other” whom they’re tempted to despise or ignore. Jesus-believing Jews and Gentiles must not look down on their unbelieving Jewish counterparts, knowing that their own grafting into the tree of God’s favor depends on the “root” of Israel itself (11:18). But neither should unbelieving Israel imagine that it will be saved without its ostensible Gentile rivals (11:25). Mercy’s strategy is to display to Jew and Gentile their mutual dependence, undercutting any attempt to hold oneself aloof from one’s supposedly worse-off counterpart.
None of this is, I concede, a perfect parallel to the current state of the Catholic Church and the churches that remain separate from it, but it’s the one I have been thinking of and clinging to in this dark time of division and scandal. If God refuses to save Gentile converts without also showing mercy to his elect people Israel, I don’t believe he will choose to save me or fellow Protestants without also purifying and renewing the Roman Catholic Church. We are all of us together suffering the consequences of Christian sin, so that—please God—we may all of us together receive mercy. In that time, there will be no more Catholic and Protestant, but God will be all in all.
Wesley Hill is associate professor of biblical studies at Trinity School for Ministry.