Scaer is a big figure in the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, the biggest of several American split-offs from mainstream Lutheranism. I’ve had some genial exchanges with him as a writer. He’s friendly toward Catholics, though not at all toward Catholicism. It’s a common pattern. My old friend the Evangelical patriarch J. I. Packer felt the same.
He wrote about this recently in Facebook posts warning Lutherans against the Roman Catholic Church. “Some friends are leaving Lutheranism out of a desire to be members of the one church going back to Christ,” he explained. Cheering to me, but worrisome to him. He calls Lutherans becoming Catholics “a temptation that leads to worse things.”
Scaer clearly believes that Lutheranism is much more Catholic than the Catholic Church.
Scaer clearly believes that Lutheranism is much more Catholic than the Catholic Church and that it holds the original, pure faith Catholicism has corrupted. Those who leave Lutheranism for Catholicism throw themselves out of the frying pan into the fire.
His first argument against the Church is her understanding of the continuing place of the Jews in God’s plan. “The Roman Church,” he says, “will say that somehow Jews are still members of God’s covenant people, though they deny the Son, who says that if you deny him, you deny the Father. Now tell me who is apostate?” We believe the Church’s teaching faithful to the Gospel, and that he misunderstands Jesus’s words (Matthew 10:33 and John 12:44-45), but he’s not going to buy it.
Scaer rejects the papacy. (He even suggests the current pope isn’t a Christian.) “Rome’s episcopacy is not part of the scriptural foundation,” he claims. He also thinks our Church teaches that “our own works, or the works of the saints, add to our salvation.” Elsewhere he invokes “the Gospel” in that problematic way Protestants do.
We have satisfying reasons to believe everything he denies, but they satisfy me because as a Catholic I see things differently than he does. The differences run very deep. The Church believes, Dei Verbum explains, that “Sacred tradition and Sacred Scripture form one sacred deposit of the word of God, committed to the Church. … In accord with God’s most wise design, [they] are so linked and joined together that one cannot stand without the others.” Peter Scaer would deny this with all his heart, soul, and mind. To him, it is heresy.
It’s hard not to respond to statements like his. But I don’t think we should respond, in the normal course of things. The apologetic impulse depends on the mistake that Christians are less committed to their modes of Christianity than they are.
Both sides share blame for the divisions between Christians. We don’t blame those who grow up as “separated brethren” for being separated.
Scaer is a man of integrity and learning, and obvious faith in Christ. His mind and his life have been deeply formed, and I suspect sacrificially formed, by his Lutheranism. His faith formed him the way the builders formed Notre Dame: a thing with its own logic and integrity, a thing not easily remade in a different form.
That is true of most of his peers, and not just his Lutheran peers. They could no more think of entering the Church than I could imagine moving to a tent in the South Pole. It is literally unthinkable.
In the words of Unitatis Redintegratio, both sides share blame for the divisions between Christians. We don’t blame those who grow up as “separated brethren” for being separated. What else can they be but faithful members of their own Christian body, unless in the odd and unpredictable movement of grace, something moves them toward the Church?
It does this enough to worry a man like Peter Scaer, but it doesn’t happen that often. Most remain their entire lives Christians who, as Unitatis Redintegratio teaches, “are in communion with the Catholic Church even though this communion is imperfect,” and with us “members of Christ’s body.” That being so, we “embrace them as brothers, with respect and affection.”
This is the lesson I draw from Peter Scaer’s anti-Catholicism. You don’t always argue with a brother you want to change. You keep a discrete silence, waiting for chances to say something, because you know he is who he is and that argument won’t work unless he’s ready to hear it, and he might never be. Your own life and your love for him will do the most to change his mind and redirect his life, but he might never change.
At the same time, you never give up hope and you never stop looking for openings to speak. Being outside the Church, your separated brother doesn’t have all God has to give him. Which means he can’t pass on to others, all God has to give them. You want the best for the your brother. You want him a Catholic.
David Mills is a Chapter House columnist.
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