Cheering on the Beach, Holding a Towel

It’s alternately funny and sad to see conservative Catholics attempting ecumenism. Just as reform2 is sometimes an attempt to recover some idealized golden age of liturgy, I get the sense that for some Catholics, ecumenism is all about standing on the Tiber beach, encouraging swimmers to stroke faster. Maybe they’re ready with a towel.

The biggest fallacy in this view is that is concentrates on the top-down approach (let’s see how many disaffected Anglicans we can lasso in) and has no clue about the day-to-day exchanges between fractured Christians.

It is also relentlessly rational, assessing Christian separation as a fault of the intellect. We Catholics have proven we’re the One True Church. The CDF backs us up. Everybody else just needs to haul their butts back in line. Such limited views ignore the human reality of emotions, of cultures, or even of human sinfulness.

I see a lot of cheering that the Orthodox are so close. Lots of disaffected Catholics admire the Eastern liturgy. They dig it that they even share the same name, with just the difference of a capital “O.” Somebody tried to convince me the obstacle to East-West reunion is that Roman liturgy sucks. Not to mention our biblical scholarship. I wonder how a decentralized system would go down if Catholics started looking more Orthodox. Somebody has to draw the line for everybody else to stand on, right?

Why are you so embittered, they ask me, about separated Christians escaping feminists and homosexuals and coming home to Rome? I don’t feel bitter about people with issues becoming Catholic. I was raised in a Protestant home and became Catholic myself, remember? But the expectation that the burden of Christian unity is all on the non-Romans is not how the Church defines ecumenism.

One commentator insists grass-roots ecumenism is dead. Funny, but last time I checked we have millions of Catholics married to non-Catholics. Neil blogged on these “laboratories of unity” most expertly last summer.

Yet we still have Catholics, even priests, who look upon such families with disdain. Unless the non-Catholic partner opts for RCIA or keeps their mouth shut.

On the horizon, we Roman Catholics could find some concern for the opening rifts among our own. I have a worry there’s a little too much rejoicing in divisions among Catholics. It’s a given that among a billion believers, we’ll have lots of different ways to approach worship, pastoral care, catechesis, and the other essentials of living the faith. But stressing unity as a folksy gathering of anti-feminists (or anti-gay or anti-iconoclsm, or whatever) strikes me as a rather sandy foundation for an edifice that should aspire to Christ and his example of love and sacrifice.

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Todd and his family live in Ames, Iowa. He serves a Catholic parish of both Iowa State students and town residents.
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2 Responses to Cheering on the Beach, Holding a Towel

  1. Neil says:

    Dear Todd,

    Thanks. I would agree with Fr Longenecker’s espousal of “diversity in unity.”

    But I found Fr Longenecker’s piece rather confusing. He provides no persuasive argument to support his conclusion that we are “witnessing the collapse of any viable, coherent Protestant structures.” To be sure, the future of Protestantism will likely be messy – perhaps especially because of a shift of gravity to the global South – but it is not obvious that the Protestant churches will “disintegrate.” Even in the most cited community – the Anglican Communion, the Archbishop of Canterbury said that he was told by many participants in the recent Lambeth Conference, “There is no desire to separate,” and there does seem to be commitment to developing a “share rule of life.”

    Second, there is a complete absence of theology in the article. Why will the Orthodox be impressed by the Latin Mass or the pope’s use of “more ornate ceremonial and vestments”? Is it true that the major obstacles preventing unity with “breakaway Anglican groups” are irregular marriages and the “apostasy” of some of its present members? Why does Longenecker think that we can achieve theological consensus with many of the “small groups” that he expects to see?

    Obviously, one can imagine another piece with detailed arguments about Protestant disintegration and theological analysis. But they are absent here.

    Which leads to the question – Why are they absent? What replaces them?

    Halden Doerge recently commented on another of Fr Longenecker’s articles. Longenecker is apparently fascinated by authority. Doerge on Longenecker: “the pope virtually occupies the place of the autonomous Enlightenment self, who is able to view all things from a God’s-eye position.” Thus, for Longenecker, being Catholic allows the “radical eschewal of vulnerability” (Doerge) – all the threats of modernity (e.g., Longenecker’s “feminist/homosexualist agenda”) can be immediately expelled in the face of “absolute certainty.”

    Thus, it would seem that Longenecker believes that the Protestant churches are inevitably doomed because they cannot achieve this God’s eye position. They must disintegrate. And he believes that Protestants and the Orthodox will inevitably be attracted to the Catholic Church’s enduring absolute order and discipline.

    Note, in this piece, his use of military analogies to favorably describe the Catholic Church – the Pope is “flying the Catholic flag” and “rallying” others “to his flag.” He likens Catholic-Protestant relations to the Cold War, and, “just as the Soviet Union broke into many little parts,” Protestantism will apparently collapse before the superior Catholic Church.

    I find this vision problematic. Perhaps I’ve misinterpreted Fr Longenecker. If so, I’m sorry.

    Best,
    Neil

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