A Response to Timothy George
by James Hitchcock
I appreciate this opportunity to respond to Dr. Timothy George. My comments relate to the general theme of the conference—some specifically to Dr. George’s paper, and some to other things, including, in fact, something that came up this morning in the Catholic discussion group, which might be of interest to the larger audience. I’ll start out with things that don’t relate directly to Dr. George’s paper.
Who Is Your Enemy?
An interesting division arose in the Catholic discussion group between Fr. Richard John Neuhaus and Dr. Robert George over whether one can speak of Christian “enemies.” Robby George said yes, we can, while Fr. Neuhaus said he didn’t think it was appropriate to do so. Dr. George said that if we’re supposed to love our enemies, it must mean that we have some. Fr. Neuhaus said yes, but you cannot regard a fellow Christian as an enemy. Then I said, “Jesus said, ‘There will come a day when a man’s enemies will be those of his own household.” Fr. Neuhaus said, “Yes, but he didn’t mean the Church.” And it went back and forth like this.
Now, I don’t want to belabor the word enemy, but I do think that the concept it embodies is of some importance here. What is an enemy? I would define an enemy as someone who wishes you ill, and I really do think that in many cases, the opponents whom we face—again, of course, across denominational lines and dividing all denominations—are indeed people who wish us ill because they really do wish to evacuate the whole substance of the Christian faith. Dr. Timothy George didn’t make up those quotes from John Shelby Spong. You find people who are perfectly capable of engaging in self-satire, and John Shelby Spong is one. Of course, he is a perfect example of what I mean. There are a number of feminists who would serve the same purpose. They have a hard-driving, almost compulsive desire to evacuate the historic Christian faith.
Going back through the history of the Church and looking at all the great disputes that have arisen over the centuries—Arianism, and so forth—it seems to me that, almost every time, it was a sincere disagreement based upon people’s well-intentioned reading of the sacred texts. While we would accuse some of them of being wrong, maybe even perversely wrong, they were attempting to arrive at the truth. I think what is unique about the situation in which we find ourselves today is that many of the modernists make only the barest pretense of sincerely interpreting Holy Scripture.
The real problem we face here goes deeper than any belief or any doctrine. It is a kind of self-worship in which it is possible to say or believe anything you want about God or about morality simply because these are concepts in your own head. So if you wish God to be a woman, God will be a woman. If you see your way clear to venerating more than one God, you can do that because, in the end, God is just a projection of yourself. This is not often admitted, though sometimes it is. Either way, I believe it creates a chasm even wider than the one that Dr. George referred to earlier.
Scripture, Tradition & Other Issues
Dr. George mentioned several factors that he says are crucial to the Evangelical position. There’s the Trinitarian and Christological consensus of the early Church, quite clearly central. He also made several references to the differences between Protestants and Catholics over the question of tradition and church authority. I think it is extremely important in this context to be forthright about these matters, and I am very grateful to Dr. George that he was. I also look forward to the document he and Fr. Neuhaus have talked about: the Evangelical and Catholic discussion of the issue of tradition and Scripture, in which I think we may find some of these matters clarified. I hope so. I’m not a theologian; I’m a mere historian, but I would say in this regard that there would not have been Trinitarian and Christological disputes in the early Church requiring consensus if, of course, it had not been for the fact that people have always disagreed over the meaning of Scripture.
One of the things that Catholicism at least means by tradition is resolving these disputes by some sort of definitive ecclesial pronouncement, which then itself becomes part of tradition. If these questions were solved by the Scriptures themselves, these disputes presumably would not arise. Well, that may be a somewhat simplified view of it, but I think it is worth noting. Dr. George makes reference to the Protestant Reformation and to the principle that the Word alone should be preached and nothing that is contrary to it. Well, no Catholic would say that anything should be preached that is contrary to the Bible, so we certainly agree with that. But in saying the word alone should be preached, it seems to me that we again have that same kind of problem should we use the word Trinity, which is not found in the Bible. I simply use that as an illustration.
Dr. George makes reference to the doctrine of justification by faith, and, as you know, that does seem to be one area where mainline ecumenical discussion between Catholics and Lutherans has made some progress. Again, I’m not a theologian, so I’m not qualified to evaluate the subtleties of the issue, but we do seem to be closer together on that than we were before. I note this as a historian: People tend to identify the doctrine of justification by faith as the principal dividing line between Catholics and Lutherans in the sixteenth century. In theory, that was correct; in reality, I don’t think it was. I think that what caused much more of a furor, and certainly aroused Rome, was not a doctrine most people thought of as awfully difficult and abstract, but ecclesial issues, again: the sacraments, the priesthood, the episcopacy, things of that nature, which seemed to have a more immediate impact. I think they went back rather later then, and said, “What’s all this business about justification by faith?” At the Regensburg Colloquy in 1545, where there were Catholics and Lutherans participating, they actually found they could agree on justification, but they couldn’t agree on these other issues.
Dr. George refers to the Evangelical awakenings of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. It’s interesting that there is a historical parallel in Catholicism. The eighteenth century for the Catholic Church was one of the low points of its history for a variety of reasons. There was considerable spiritual resurgence after 1815. Somebody did a study a few years ago and found that half of all the religious orders in the Catholic Church were founded in the fifty years following the Battle of Waterloo. Very many of the popular devotions and other things of this nature date from that same period. It’s a fact not generally recognized. I think someone sometime ought to do a comprehensive history of the religious recovery of the early nineteenth century. As with everything else, these things carry with them some negative freight. My impression is that the nineteenth century was in some respects an overly sentimental age, and that sometimes has a lot of negative effects on piety. But it was certainly an age of great religiosity, in which Catholics themselves participated.
The fundamentalist-modernist controversy is self-evident. The specter of modernism had supposedly been laid to rest in the Catholic Church in 1907 by Pope Pius X, but it came surging back in an even more virulent form after about 1965. We have been, of course, battling it ever since.
Towards the end of his talk, Dr. George referred to the fact that Evangelicals on the one hand, and Catholics (and Orthodox perhaps) on the other, have a different view of the visible Church. That certainly has been my understanding—that most Evangelicals would never regard the particular denomination to which they belong as, in some sense, final. They would never say you must at all costs remain a member of the Baptist church or the Presbyterian church. You look for the place where the authentic gospel is being preached. On the other hand, the Catholic and Orthodox position is that you belong to that church, and there is no legitimate way, it is thought, that you could move. That is a very important difference.
I would say this as well, returning again to the idea of the Trinitarian and Christological consensus of the early centuries. Again, I’m not a theologian, but I think I can say with some degree of certitude that there is practically nothing in the Catholic or Orthodox tradition pertaining to the Church—the very high doctrine of the Church that exists among us—that is not rooted in Christology. So one can never make a separation and say, “We’re extremely orthodox about Christology, but we’re a little bit more flexible about ecclesiology,” because correct ecclesiology is rooted in Christology and is seen to be an extension of it.
The Paradox of the New Ecumenism
The famous expression, “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; and in all things, charity” (which I had been fooled into thinking was a statement of Augustine; now you tell me it’s pseudo-Augustine), is a very appealing formula, but it does leave open the question of what are essentials. Dr. George has attempted to identify to some extent what he views as essential. I would enter a caveat at this point, based upon the experience of the Catholic Church since the Second Vatican Council, i.e., roughly the last thirty-five years. It isn’t always so easy to tell the difference between essentials and non-essentials, or, to put it another way, human beings, being what they are, don’t often easily separate out in their minds essentials from non-essentials. It requires a certain type of philosophical mindset to be constantly aware of the distinction.
When you begin rapidly changing all kinds of things that are not essential, the cumulative psychological effect can also be to undermine things that are essential, and I think that is an experience the Catholic Church has had in the last thirty-five years. So if you want to approach things by concentrating on the essentials, you have to be careful about making the distinction between essentials and non-essentials. Certainly people have to be very carefully instructed in these terms, if you’re going to do it.
Dr. George and others have referred to what I call the “paradox” of the new ecumenism, which is really the old ecumenism, as we’ve been reminded. The paradox is this: None of us would be here engaged in ecumenical discussion, and none of us would feel the sympathy we do for one another, if we were not deeply wedded to our own traditions. That’s paradoxical, but it’s true. It’s because we are deeply faithful, or wish to be deeply faithful, to our own traditions that we appreciate those in other denominations trying to do the same. The great task before us, then, is to know, again, what in our traditions is essential and what should or can be done in the interest of breaking down barriers. I think that the paradox I’m referring to here remains essential. That is, the more you are wedded to your own tradition, the more sympathetic you will be to people in their traditions.
Ecumenism, it seems to me, has always been to some extent a question of glass half-empty, glass half-full. In the pre-ecumenical age, growing up and going to a Catholic school around 1950, we knew that Protestants were Christians. We knew that they believed in the Trinity, the divinity of Christ, the Resurrection, the Virgin Birth, the divine authority of the Bible, and the miracles. In fact, we probably overestimated Protestant belief because we didn’t know about liberal Protestantism. I only knew about Missouri-Synod Lutherans. So if you were asked, “Are they Christians?” you said, “Yes,” and if asked, “Can they go to heaven?” you said, “Well, probably.” Nevertheless, we would have emphasized that the glass was half-empty. Now we choose to emphasize that the glass is half-full. So that’s progress. My point is that it’s not as revolutionary as it is sometimes made out to be. (I don’t know what a Protestant would have thought about us in 1950, but we won’t go into that.)
Maturing the New Ecumenism
The scandal of division, which has been referred to a number of times, needs to be thought about rather carefully. I’m not sure that division itself, in the sense of disagreement, need be scandalous. I think that what is scandalous is rancor and bad will. But the fact that sincere believers, who are clearly trying to lead good Christian lives, may disagree with one another about important matters is, to me, not necessarily a source of scandal. Now, in saying that, we of course can’t fall into the trap of saying, “Oh well, there are many roads to God, and we just happen to be on different roads.” Clearly, that’s not the case either.
I’m talking about the way in which we may face the public. I don’t think we necessarily have to beat our breasts and say, “Oh, yes, it’s really true. We haven’t achieved unity, and therefore we are radically unfaithful to the gospel.” I think we have to try very strenuously to practice love towards one another, and understanding, and to minimize the differences to the degree that we can. But very serious matters have been entrusted to us, and we do not have the right to give them away or compromise them simply in the interest of reaching some sort of superficial unity. I think we need to practice candor on the one hand, without falling into offensiveness on the other. I believe that has been done very successfully at this conference. This is a place where one feels he can get up and state positions and disagreements and say, “I think you’re wrong for this reason,” yet do it in a loving way. I think that’s the direction in which this new ecumenism will be going.
The time may not be right for a truly ambitious ecumenism, somewhat like the mainstream ecumenism that goes back forty years or so. In other words, the appointing of committees to get together to study fundamental doctrinal questions and arrive at agreed upon statements and so forth may be an overly ambitious project. It has its place, but it may be a more modest place than has been thought until now.
It may be that the new ecumenism, as we call it, is a relatively new thing. It may be that this takes a long time to mature, that we have to get to know one another in contexts like this, by reading each other’s publications, joining one another in causes of one kind or another, and meeting one another personally, before a relationship and understanding begins to ripen, which could then lead to a more ambitious and formal type of ecumenism.
One important thing to remember is that you don’t learn about other people’s faith just through their books; you learn as much or more by seeing the way they live. I think that has been one of the great benefits of the new ecumenism. We were thrown together, perhaps in unfortunate situations like picket lines at abortion clinics and things of that nature, but it has led to other things as well.
Steve Hutchens alluded today to a point that Fr. Patrick Henry Reardon has made in the pages of Touchstone. It relates to something I have also said before, but I want to reiterate it. What would happen if the authority of the papacy were to be weakened at the present time? While I understand fully the Protestant and Orthodox theological objections—I understand what they’re saying and why they’re saying it, without, of course, agreeing with it—I reiterate that it would be a disaster, I think, for all of us, if the authority of the papacy at this point were seriously weakened. Among the results would be, for example, polygamy in Africa, polytheism in India, Marxism in Latin America, homosexuality in North America—you pick it. What has been holding the Catholic Church together in a somewhat tense way is the authority of the pope. Those of us who believe in a common Christian faith nevertheless have to recognize that, at this point, as far as the Catholic Church is concerned, the pope is indispensable.
So again, there’s that paradox, where those who adhere most strongly to their own traditions can appreciate the traditions of other people.
James Hitchcock is Professor emeritus of History at St. Louis University in St. Louis. He and his late wife Helen have four daughters. His most recent book is the two-volume work, The Supreme Court and Religion in American Life (Princeton University Press, 2004). He is a senior editor of Touchstone.
Not a subscriber? Subscribe to Touchstone today for full online access. Over 30 years of content!
Get a one-year full-access subscription to the Touchstone online archives for only $19.95. That's only $1.66 per month!
Get six issues (one year) of Touchstone PLUS full online access for only $29.95. That's only $2.50 per month!
Transactions will be processed on the secure server of The Fellowship of St. James website, the publisher of Touchstone.
OR get a subscription to Touchstone to read on your Kindle for only $1.99 per month! (This option is KINDLE ONLY and does not include either print or online.)
Your subscription goes a long way to ensure that Touchstone is able to continue its mission of publishing quality Christian articles and commentary.
more from the online archives