It’s the ecumenical dog that doesn’t bark. We need him to bark, but he rarely does, and then he’s quickly shushed. It’s the matter of conversion. When we pray for Christian unity, as we do this week, we pray not only for kindness and fellow-feeling and some very foggy idea of joining together in the future, after a gradual convergence somewhere in the middle.
We pray for our separated brethren to give in.
For Catholics, the truest unity requires living together within the Catholic Church. As the bishops said quite plainly at the Second Vatican Council, those they called “our separated brethren” do not enjoy “that unity which Jesus Christ wished to bestow on all those who through Him were born again into one body, and with Him quickened to newness of life. … For it is only through Christ’s Catholic Church, which is ‘the all-embracing means of salvation,’ that they can benefit fully from the means of salvation. We believe that Our Lord entrusted all the blessings of the New Covenant to the apostolic college alone, of which Peter is the head.” The dog barked then.
Our Protestant friends believe the same thing, even the invisible Church ones. Their idea of true unity may not be Christians joined together in one body (the Church being invisible), but it excludes the Catholic distinctives. It excludes faithfulness to the pope and the Magisterium, our rather elaborate (and to them odd if not insane) doctrinal and moral structure, and believing we must live inside the Church and not outside. They’ll let us be Catholics in the hoped-for unified Christianity, as long as our Catholicism is basically Protestantism.
We want them to give in. They want us to give in. When we both pray for Christian unity, we mean this. Otherwise this would be the Week of Prayer for Christian Friendship. This dog doesn’t bark, though. Until someone brings up conversion, and then people bark back. Mention, in the midst of ecumenical good feeling, the troublesome fact that Christian unity will only come when some Christians convert, because however wonderful they are they’re wrong, and your friends will react as if they’d all gathered in a cozy hot tub and you’d peed in the water.
We want each other to give in. This idea bothers people. I don’t know why. It’s just the state of things. We didn’t make up the divisions, but were born into them. Each Christian body makes sense from the inside, and each offers a way to meet Jesus.
Even those of us who’ve moved from one tradition to another know how good people who love God can hold with integrity beliefs we now think in serious error, and live lives of genuine godliness and sacrifice even though we think they’ve got some things quite wrong. (Converts don’t always remember this.) The fellowship of Christians is broken, like everything else in the world. We all want to fix it, but we have very different ideas of what the fixed Church will look like.
We base our friendships across ecclesial lines not on pretending that our friends get right everything they must get right. We build it on the understanding that they love Jesus too, and maybe better than we do. We have some idea of how our failings keep other Christians from seeing the truth of our claims. We depend upon mutual sympathy. As Chesterton said (I paraphrase): The bigot isn’t the man who thinks he’s right. Every sane man thinks he’s right. The bigot is the man who can’t understand how the other man came to be wrong.
And our Protestant friends think the same way. My old friend, the late J. I. Packer, for example. I wrote his obit because he was a good man to whom I wanted to pay a tribute. But Jim — one of Evangelicalism’s patriarchs — remained a hardcore Calvinist.
He and the Catholic writer Thomas Howard taught a course on the relation of Catholicism and Protestantism. They’d been friends for decades. They had a great time, Tom said, with lots of banter and teasing and a real attempt at understanding each other and conveying this to the students. At the end of the last day, Tom was talking to some students when Jim left to get a flight. At the door he turned and said, in a solemn voice, “The Roman Mass is an insult to my Lord,” turned, and left the room.
Jim did not mean to offend. He wasn’t trying to score a point at the end of the class and get the last word. But he felt strongly about the matter and felt he must say something. Worried, I think, that someone would think he approved of the Mass because he hadn’t said clearly he didn’t. The truth must be spoken. He had to speak the truth, as he thought it, for Jesus, whom he loved and adored.
He once told me he wanted Christian unity, a unity that included Catholics. Not everyone in his circles does. Some still don’t think of Catholics as Christians at all. Others (the majority, I think) think of us as Christians, but people saved in spite of our Church, and therefore always in danger of being lost. And a few think we’re Christians saved through our Church.
Jim was the second. He thought the Church dangerously wrong about grace and therefore in some way wrong about almost everything else. I don’t remember the conversation well, but he did genuinely want Christians to be truly one. Yet for him, that meant unity in the Gospel he believed Catholicism distorted and corrupted. Therefore it meant Catholics giving up all those things that made them Catholic.
I’m all for praying for Christian unity and making a big deal of it for a week. But we should be clearer about what this means than the ecumenically-minded tend to be. They prefer the dog not to bark, but the barking dog warns us of something we need to remember.
Jim Packer remembered it. He wanted me to give in. I wanted him to give in. In our own circles, we both barked, and I think felt that a bond. We each knew what the other wanted and remained friends, with a deep respect for each other as well as affection. We enjoyed a great degree of unity despite our differences.
We should pray for Christian unity. But also offer the old-fashioned prayers that our Protestant friends would convert. And be the kinds of Catholics whose lives encourage people to join us.
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