Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity
“A Realistic Alliance” first appeared in the July/August 2003 issue of Touchstone.
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A Realistic Alliance
A Response to Richard John Neuhaus
by S. M. Hutchens
I will not respond to Fr. Richard John Neuhaus’s presentation point by point, but rather to his larger topic in the context of my own, since my outline was written before I received his. (That is often how conference papers work, I fear.) We will, however, cross paths, and swords, more than once in this one, since our topic and concern are the same. I have been a grateful and reasonably attentive reader of Neuhaus for many years, regarding him as one of my principal teachers on religion and public affairs. While I can’t read his mind, I can to some degree anticipate his trajectories, or, as he might say, “the gravamen of the matter,” when I have his subject in hand.
There is a detail of his presentation, however, to which I wish to respond by way of resistance while it is fresh in my memory, namely, the distinction drawn between ecclesial and un-ecclesial Christians. While a Christian may, for reasons good or ill, have an anti-ecclesiastical bent, non-ecclesial Christians do not, by definition, exist, for to be Christian is to be ecclesial, that is, a member of the Church. I was raised among the Baptists, among whom, when one believed, one entered the invisible Church, and when one was baptized, professed Christ in and before the visible. Their typically “Protestant” understanding of the nature and identity of the Church is different from the Roman Catholic one, but I would not call them un-ecclesial for that reason, and do not think this, but rather the manner in which they are ecclesial, is the real subject of dispute between Catholic and Protestant.
Each of the identities through which I respond to Fr. Neuhaus—of a Protestant responding to a Catholic correspondent and as a senior editor of Touchstone—is full of tension, but it is tension the organizers of this conference think it profitable, indeed necessary, to bear with. Thus the title we have given it: “Christian Unity and the Divisions We Must Sustain.” In this paper, which is meant as an exercise in definition and clarification, I hope to illustrate with some force the divisions between us that conscience persists in sustaining, and then something about the nature and necessity of our alliance. In doing this, I shall take the hand of Pope John Paul II, with particular reference to his encyclical Ut Unum Sint.
We at Touchstone have frequently been told, usually in a kindly or indirect way, as though we were well-meaning but rather feeble-minded, that we are on a fool’s errand—that even if “ecumenical orthodoxy” or “mere Christianity” existed, which is doubtful, those who attempt to do what we are doing will only have the weak-minded or the fool for companions. The weak-minded, because the force of Reason drives the better and more composed minds out of Protestantism firmly into the more unitary churches with strong senses of identity, which define as themselves anything that can be called mere Christianity (recall what Newman said a man deep in history cannot be)—the fool, because ecumenism as it has been practiced in the twentieth century is a hopeless enterprise whenever its object has been to bring spiritually devout and intellectually serious believers to the same Table, for, whatever progress may be made in amity or clarification, the essential and irreducible differences—and enmities—remain.
With respect to the enduring disagreements between Protestants, Catholics, and Orthodox, let me make it plain that we are perfectly aware of them, and experience these painful and not infrequently enraging divisions among ourselves almost daily. We neither ignore them, nor rationalize them away, but do what we can to work within them as brothers and allies. How this is done shall be discussed presently, but I note at the outset that it is often not easy, and that we do not expect the conditions under which we work at present to last indefinitely. What we call “mere Christianity” contains, as our critics have noted, and we know well enough, unresolved elements that cannot remain as such forever. This does not, however, mean that what we are doing must be regarded as invalid by those who confess the wholeness and unity of the Church.
The five heads under which our differences may be summarized are given in Pope John Paul II’s Ut Unum Sint, which I have seen cited in the literature more than any other part of the encyclical. Fr. Neuhaus has already enumerated them, I here extract them from an article by Edward Cardinal Cassidy. They are, as they flow from and into one another:
First, “The relationship between Sacred Scripture, as the highest authority in matters of faith, and Sacred Tradition, as indispensable to the interpretation of the Word of God.”
Second, “The Eucharist, as the Sacrament of the Body and Blood of Christ, an offering of praise to the Father, the sacrificial memorial and Real Presence of Christ and the sanctifying outpouring of the Holy Spirit.”
Third, “Ordination, as a Sacrament, to the threefold ministry of the episcopate, presbyterate, and diaconate.”
Fourth, “The Magisterium of the Church, entrusted to the Pope and the Bishops in communion with him, understood as a responsibility and an authority exercised in the name of Christ for teaching and safeguarding the faith.”
And Fifth, “The Virgin Mary, as Mother of God and Icon of the Church, the spiritual Mother who intercedes for Christ’s disciples and for all humanity.”
This list is noteworthy, from a Protestant perspective, for two omissions: first, the matter of justification, about which clarifications on the doctrine of grace, especially in dialogue with Lutherans, Rome’s original and persisting antagonists on the point, seem to have made inroads substantial enough to justify its omission. The second, concerning both Protestants and Orthodox, is on the identity of the Church and its magisterium as that of the Roman Catholic Church. This conviction underlies each and all of these articles as an articulus fidei—the fundamental self-understanding of the Catholic Church—that will not be revisited.
Let me predict with supreme confidence that these disagreements, particularly on the character and identity of the True Church, will remain until hell freezes over or the Lord returns to straighten out whichever of us is wrong. I make the prediction for two reasons: first, because I am supremely confident of it, and second, because in times past I have made similar sweeping predictions and been wrong, so they are made with the hope that the Lord will be pleased to make a fool of me once again.
It is not that we cannot reach a surprising level of agreement on the enumerated points. I believe this is possible and think it worth working at, as long as we remember that increased contact and understanding can bring about worse relations as easily as better. But at the base of each of these items—and this may also be said about the beliefs that separate Catholics and Orthodox, and Orthodox and Protestant—lies real and intractable disagreement, traceable directly to an article of faith that defines a communion, and so cannot be breached without radical disruption of that communion, disruption of the sort that, as Fr. Patrick Reardon has recently noted with regard to the Catholic Church, none of us desire to see because of the requirement of firm, traditional authority structures to answer to the needs of the times. The Protestant and Orthodox senior editors of Touchstone do not wish to see papal authority diminished to the least degree at present, for reasons that are obvious to everyone who knows and loves the Catholic Church.
When the editors first deliberated on the name of this conference, “Christian Unity and the Divisions We Must Sustain,” in my own mind the divisions were these very limitations to our fellowship imposed by conscience. While we are, on one hand, driven together as members of the same flock, seeing in each other’s eyes, even if we would rather not, the same Lord and Master, if we would remain uncompromised, we know we must not develop the habits of a false ecumenism that pretends, for the sake of feeling good when we should not, to agree where we do not. The Truth, who is Christ, is not served thereby, for there is no room in that attitude for discipline, correction, and the anticipated joy of true agreement in the Lord. There has usually been a speaker or two at our past conferences who, not having read Touchstone much, has taken it upon himself to remind the rest of us forcefully that this is the case.
We probably know it better than he does. There are walls between us we must keep firm until they are removed by wholly legitimate means, involving no half-measures, self-delusion, dissimulation, dilution, or division of the faith that is a seamless whole. They were not built in a day, nor is it likely they will fall in one, unless it is the Day of the Lord. The walls are necessary, just as the exercise of papal jurisdiction is necessary, to retain the visible communion we already have. We note that attempts to breach them have not worked, but predictably resulted in the decomposition of the firm structures of mind necessary to support belief, or in violated and weakened conscience, or in anger, or in conversion, in which mind and conscience see the same wall, but from the other side.
Prayer to Mary & the Saints
This came to the fore once again among us in the discussion of the logistics of the conference, when the subject of our common prayers came up, and with it prayers to Mary and the saints, which I wish to single out as exemplifying our difficulties. While Catholics and Orthodox stand in a large circle of agreement on the matter, there are so few Protestants within this circle, most of us being very far out indeed, that making these prayers in the present context simply alienates Protestants.
And were I Catholic or Orthodox, I would say, rightly so, for whatever Protestants believe, we should do what is right in these matters: Anyone who cannot entreat Mary and the saints shows himself to be outside the mind and tradition of the Church, outside anything that can be denominated mere Christianity, which from the beginning, I would confess, has known this to be right and good.
In this persona I would go on to say that veneration of the saints, Mary first among them, which includes prayers for intercession, is not a minor or disposable thing, but part of the very warp and weft of Christianity itself, connected in every most intimate way to all of what we are and do and believe as Christians, so that it may be rightly said that whoever does not have Mary as the Church has venerated her through the centuries does not have Christ, and whoever does not give her the glory that is her due has to the degree of the defect a faulty Christology, and is a faulty Christian if he is a Christian at all.
To us Protestants, however, there is no more ecumenically hopeless confession, for the disputed parts of Marian doctrine appear to be sub-apostolic, pious but wrong-headed tales read unconvincingly back into Scripture, their incorporation in Christian faith and worship being the traditions of men made doctrine, a huge, pervasive, and old construct of error, answering to certain very powerful human needs, but probably not true, and certainly doubtful enough to be excluded from the common worship of the Church. In the eyes of the devout Catholic or Orthodox, this Marian skepticism may be the most fundamental expression of the modernism that conservative Protestants so futilely profess to oppose, while to the Protestant, these credulities rob the biblical gospel of its power by mixing it with paganism and folklore.
To the conservative Protestant, the effect is this: While he would like to make much of the strength of tradition in his own wars against modernism, he finds very large and very old embarrassments among the churches that hinder him profoundly, weakening his ability to invoke tradition against the heretics—to the point where it may be used only as a historical argument supporting Scripture and reason. To the degree this is true, his opposition to, let us say, feminist egalitarianism, is reduced, in his own eyes, and those of his antagonists, to a mere counter-claim. He must abandon the Strong Argument from tradition as “indispensable to the interpretation of the Word of God” in the sense it is meant by the Catholics, or the very outworking of the Word itself, as among the Orthodox, and accept a weaker one than he would prefer.
He must then grant the devil his due by enduring the temptation to engage the liberals on their own field about the received tradition as a whole, including Holy Scripture, and make special claims for segments of the tradition resting on his beliefs about the activity of the Holy Spirit. This is most welcome to his enemies, for whom the Spirit of God is nothing more than a hyperplasmic effusion of their own imagination, in whose name every blasphemy is advanced, and every abomination blessed. In such matters the Protestant believer is very weak indeed, and has no “argument.” He can only quote Scripture and lift his eyes to the hills.
The knowledgeable Catholic or Orthodox understands this. Indeed, if he is an intellectual convert from Protestantism, the force of this knowledge is very likely one of the things that has carried him over the division. He finds himself wondering why anyone would remain a Protestant on such singularly unfavorable terms. The reply is, the love of truth, which may exist even in people who are mistaken, in which lies, also and only, the promise of reconciliation between all of those whose hope is in Christ—even the elect who have not heard his name.
I hope I have stated the case fairly for both sides with respect to only one of the articles of division the encyclical has identified. There is a very high wall here, through which we hear each other well enough to agree on the virginal conception of our Lord from the Holy Spirit and Mary, the God-bearer. Attempts to do more than this among Touchstone editors, who are the most peaceable and well-disposed of men, have brought us close to blows. It is something we try not to discuss across confessions, for we have each had our say, and it seems to have done more harm than good.
I use this as an example of what I, at least, had in mind when speaking of the matters in which conscience divides us from each other, but in which we are united against soggier forms of ecumenical activity, against every notion that the True Church is divisible, that any of her doctrines are disposable, or that the path to truth is ever found through the will to compromise. As Monsignor Graham Leonard said in a recent interview, “For unity to be authentic, it can only be based on truth,” which is, of course, based on the Will to Truth. I have also used the Marian example to show that in our work we are not unconscious of the huge barriers that divide us. We know them better than most, and are with respect to these the most hard-headed and least sentimental of men. So far as we are building bridges toward each other, our hopes, in general, may be said to bend toward evangelization, to convince each other of truth he has not seen.
Our peaceful coexistence is decidedly “sectarian,” built on the hope that the other might change his mind and come over to a right way of thinking—not based upon softness or confusion, but entreatable and educable conviction. We are therefore the least ecumenical of ecumenists, absolutely unwilling to leave well enough alone, and seeing our fellowship in Christ as real, but as fleeting, as the beach disappears when the tide rises. We may meet on the strand and speak to each other, for a while, on a common ground of faith, but must sooner rather than later go together on to high ground, for those who play with the tides shall be overwhelmed by them. Error is intolerable, and it is better done away with sooner rather than later.
Our Common Witness
All of this being said, and I hope as emphatically as possible, something else needs to be said, too, referred to in Ut Unum Sint as the necessity to present a unified witness. This is really a remarkable expression of desire, for it means that as large as our disagreements may be, an underlying unity is recognized that is no less than unity in Christ. While what has gone before cannot be forgotten, what I am saying now must also be said. To extend the metaphor, it is as though two men were standing on a beach, tide flowing in, swords drawn on each other, ready to kill or be killed in an affair of honor over a lady, when they see on the horizon a ship of war belonging to a common enemy, with its great cannons pointing at their city. The affair of honor remains, but for the moment they must turn their attentions, now as allies, to a danger not larger, but more immediate. While there may be some coldness in their manners toward each other, and they do not eat at the same table, they must now fight together, and perhaps it may be that in the extension of time involved in the fight the dispute over the lady may be settled too, as unlikely as the possibility might seem.
Much of our work is done under the same assumption of fellowship in Christ the pope assumes in the call for common witness. If I may be so bold as to condense the mind of several great Catholic documents on this subject, Ut Unum Sint and Lumen Gentium, I would suggest that the material proof of fellowship they hold forth is our common baptism in the Name of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and the common witness of the martyrs of many communions to that Name. The anti-proofs, if we may call them that—the proofs that the Holy Name is truly common to us, and we are not mistaken when we see our relation as true fellowship in him—lie very much in the unreasoning hatred of demons and evil men against this confession, wherever and by whomever it is given.
This is known best not by those whose Christianity is largely theoretical, exercised behind the lines of battle, or whose bent is to give the enemy ground by “modernizing” the churches, but by those who are actually engaging him, who thus know something of his mind on just whom he regards as his enemies. We observe he is not very discriminating about the variety of Christian he seeks to devour. That tells us something about whom we may regard as our friends.
In this situation the part of their confession we think we do not agree upon does not disappear, but it is, for the moment, and in the heat of our common battle, subordinated to what we must believe is our common life in the Great Confession. If my Catholic or Orthodox brother, while resisting evil by my side in the Name into which we were baptized, calls upon Mary and the saints to pray for him, it would seem a wicked thing for me to turn my sword upon him, then. In such cases we are held by our consciousness of common faith, based on the testimony of water and blood, and the exigencies of the hour, to exercise patience with one another until we are reconciled.
Our Common Enemy
This brings me to my final point, on the enemy itself. We know we do not struggle against flesh and blood, but against unclean spirits that attempt, in hatred and mockery of the spiration of man as a living soul and the incarnation of God as a living man, to take, through usurpation, substantial form in the world, and thus frustrate God’s purposes for the redemption of man and nature.
J. R. R. Tolkien, with mythic power that arose from his sensitivity to the Christian understanding of reality, drew the image of the enemy well in his depiction of Sauron as a creature who, though defeated and damned, could rise, gathering form and power once again. He appears in the trilogy first as the Necromancer hidden in the fastness of Mirkwood, there gathering strength and influence until at length he removes himself to the Dark Tower of Barad-Dur to reestablish and declare himself as the enemy of the light in the West. Thus Tolkien draws for us an eschatology patterned after that of the Scriptures, where the spirit of Antichrist has many risings and fallings in the world, but all in anticipation of the great rising of his incarnation in the Man of Sin.
Part of the wisdom of the Church is to watch and prepare for this rising, to distinguish between the smaller and the greater of them, to assess the movements of the Spirit of the Age. It is to judge the preparedness of the world for deep reception of evil through the media of its entertainment, communication, and news exchange, its organs of education and government, for the last Great Battle—for the apocalypses that have taken place on large but limited scales heretofore, as now ready to take place on a cosmic level, as though a well-laid plan were being put in motion by a pervasive intelligence utterly evil and hostile to man. (This means hostile to our human enemies, too, for whom Christ died.)
All of this was in my outline before the tragedy of September 11, 2001. On the larger meaning of this and similar events I have no ready opinion, nor would it be my place to give one if I had, but I will note it appears we stand poised together as Christians on the verge of times more interesting than perhaps have ever been—which would have been the case even if the great terrorist attacks had never happened—times characterized by strong necromantic stirrings, moving now from their nurturing confinements in dark places to declare themselves in the Hideous Strength, just as abortionism has crept in our lifetimes from the back alleys into the Supreme Court of the United States.
I am particularly concerned with agreements and alliances between governmental power and apostate Christianity as adumbrations of the religious plausibility structure that shall one day be the Church of Antichrist in its fullest expression, and believe that early and concerted resistance, drawing firm lines together as those who are sometimes and sometimes not friends, but are unmistakably allies, is what the pope is calling for when he speaks of our united witness. It is desperately important to carry this out, and firmly to place our concerns and our willingness to fight into the consciousness of the next generations of Christians.
I believe I speak the mind of the senior editors when I say we at Touchstone are all maximalists and do not see our alliance as based upon minimal, but rather simple, agreement, eschatologically extended into judgment. Where we are wrong, we shall be corrected, and those believed-in and hoped-for corrections are reckoned to our present fellowship as the basis upon which we accredit each other’s baptismal confession and witness-bearing. This, or something like this, must be the case, else we are entirely deceived about each other’s Christianity and have no part in each other, as indeed, some have told us is the case. The incumbent of Peter’s throne doesn’t believe this, and for what it’s worth, neither do I.
The manner of life we seek together necessarily involves resistance to manifest evil in the name and Spirit of Jesus Christ, the only begotten Son of God, incarnate from the Holy Ghost and the Virgin Mary, who died for our sins and was raised for our justification, who shall come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and whose kingdom shall have no end. This we confess, and in that confession recognize a true fellowship in the gospel.
S. M. Hutchens is a senior editor and the book review editor of Touchstone.
“A Realistic Alliance” first appeared in the July/August 2003 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue. Support the work of Touchstone by subscribing today!
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