Catholic Mennonites or Mennonite Catholics?
In an article from The Christian Century Magazine, “Going Catholic: Six Journeys to Rome,” Jason Byassee explores the faith journeys of six protestant theologians to the Roman Catholic faith. Gerald Schlabach, a Mennonite who had studied at Notre Dame, claims to found a certain consistency in the universality and mission of the two faiths. Noting his conversion, Schlabach claims to now be, “a ‘Mennonite Catholic,’ --before, he had been a ‘Catholic Mennonite,’” (Byassee, p. 3). Schlabach’s personal eschatology seems to leave room for a joint fellowship of all Christians wherein the many denominations have developed unique paths and spiritual gifts. Byassee indicates that, “[Schlabach] affirms the gifts of the Mennonite tradition of enduring persecution and speaking out for nonviolence when the rest of the church is too cozy with imperial power,” but warning that, “God always intends such witness to help transform the whole (catholic) body, not to cement an eternal split,” (Byassee, p. 3).
Byassee compares Schlabach’s understanding of the consequences of this split similarly to that of the Lutheran convert, Mickey Mattox. Mattox writes the inter-Catholic and Lutheran Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification should have been sufficient to re-unite the two faiths and bring the Lutherans back into the Catholic fold, (Byassee, p. 2). Mattox sees a problem in that the Lutherans, in his view, seem more determined to remain apart than to heal the breach that spawned the violence of the Reformation. “Once both Catholics and Lutherans concluded that they have no substantial disagreements on the doctrine of justification--the doctrine on which Lutherans have long said the church stands or falls--then there is no reason [now] why they should not reunite under the bishop of Rome,” (Byasee, p. 2). The fact that the Lutherans are still separated from the Bishop of Rome now indicates not a difference in spiritual understanding but rather, “There is an institutional intransigence, I [Mattox] believe, on our Lutheran side, and a cultural captivity to hyper-Protestant ways of understanding the church that stymies even the best efforts to overcome the visible breach of the sixteenth century,” (Byassee, p.2). Byassee finds these sentiments reflected in Schlabach’s conversion, “Like Mattox, Schlabach worries that Protestant churches have become ends in themselves rather than reform movements dedicated to the church universal,” (Byassee, p. 3).
A Catholic writer, Byassee might be forgiven for overlooking the obvious. Both Mattox and Schlabach might be guilty of oversimplifying the Reformation. Luther pounded 95 Theses to the door in Wurttemburg -- not 1. Justification by Faith might have long been considered the chief of these, but it is not the sole.
I might be forgiven for detecting just the smallest hint of pre-Reformation Arrogance. On his blog, Against the Grain, (11 Feb 2004), Christopher Blosser whose Swiss-Mennonite family converted to Catholicism in the generation prior, he relates a portion of an interview conducted between the Roman Catholic priest, Friar Cornelius, and the Anabaptist leader, Pastor de Roore, in 1569. In The Bloody Theater, or Martyrs Mirror of the Defenseless Christians, Theileman van Braght records the exchange as an historical example of Popish arrogance:
Friar Cornelis: "I've come here to see whether I can . . . bring you back to the Catholic faith of our mother, the holy Roman church, from which you have apostatized to this damnable Anabaptism."
Pastor de Roore: "I have apostatized from your Babylonian mother, the Roman church, to the . . . true Church of Christ-this I confess and thank God for it.
Blosser is intrigued and gladdened to see the great contrast of the two great spiritual actors in the lives of his extended family (his grandparents remain Anabaptist) now speaking to each other and celebrates the new dialogue. He quotes the blessing of Cardinal Edward Cassidy of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity on the World Mennonite Conference, 1997, Calcutta, India: “We are convinced that it is the will of Christ that his disciples seek unity, for the scandal of division amongst Christians ‘provides a stumbling block to the world, and inflicts damage on the most holy cause of proclaiming the good news to every creature.’ Please know that we are with you in prayer in your daily deliberations,” (Blosser, 11 Feb, 2004).
Blosser continues engaging an article written by Ivan J. Kauffman, “Mennonite-Catholic Conversations in North America: History, Convergences and Opportunities.” Blosser follows Kauffman’s reflection on how a greater, more respectful dialogue in now possible, especially in a North American context, “Both [Mennonites and Catholics] adopted similar survival strategies [against early American persecution] by forming tightly-bound subcultures, with their own schools, cultural traditions and religious organizations. ‘The right to religious liberty and the separation of church and state which Mennonites and other Anabatpist-origin groups required came to be sought by American Catholics as well, since only under these political conditions could they hope to survive in a majority Protestant culture,” (Blosser, p. 2). continuing, “Kauffman goes on to describe in great detail how five factors -- 1/ internationalization of the church; 2/ shift from a dogmatic to an historical intellectual perspective; 3/ democratization of society; 4/ liturgical and spiritual change; 5/ changes in the morality of warfare -- shaped Catholics and Mennonites and their interaction with each other,” (Blosser, p. 2).
In these conversations, we need to recognize that Protestants, Anabaptists, and Roman Catholics may share a common faith and one Lord, but that we live in very different, possibly mutually exclusive religious paradigms. Schlabach mentions the two greatest differences between Anabaptism and both the Protestant and Roman Catholic paradigms, again, “the rest of the church is too cozy with Imperial (state) power,” (Byassee, p. 3). Blosser notes, “Friar Cornelis was willing to cause Pastor de Roore’s death for the sake of preserving social and religious order. But Pastor de Roore would not have been willing to cause Friar Cornelis’ death, even in self-defense… The rejection of lethal violence under any circumstances continues to be a major issue dividing Mennonites and other Anabaptist-origin groups from other Christian churches,” (Blosser, p. 1, 2). The same concern has long led many Anabaptists to suspect similar dialogues with the Lutherans who have willing apologized for their roles in the deaths of the early Anabaptist martyrs. The Lutherans will apologize for their actions but not for Martin Luther’s justification for these actions (contained in his Book of Orange).
What Mattox may be missing in his observations of the division between Lutheranism and Catholicism is the increasing Democratic nature of the Lutheran Church and its congregation-led spirit of worship. Mattox states, “We as a family want to venerate the Blessed Virgin Mary, and to unite our prayers with and to the holy martyrs and saints. We want the holy icons, the rosaries, the religious orders, yes the relics too… and to practice and experience the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist meal while retaining the bond of love and fellowship in communion with the bishop of Rome,” (Byassee, p. 1). Having attended a Lutheran service off and on for the last three years, I have seen lots of ecumenical interest and support amongst the congregants, but no desire on their part to re-adopt the trappings of the Catholic liturgy or to again submit themselves to the authority of the Vatican. Mattox’s perspective might indicate a personal desire, but he could hardly state it as a goal in common with his former faith. In fact, he indeed seems to ignore the aforementioned 94 additional theses.
Schlabach, Byassee notes, “sees the Catholic Church as the best hope for a reunion of “liberal” and “conservative,” “protestant” and “catholic” visions of the church, ‘Imagine a church…that could not sing without feeding the poor, or feed the poor without nourishment from the Eucharist, nor pass the peace without living peaceably in the world, not be peacemakers without depending on prayer, nor pray without joining in robust song,” (Byassee, p. 3). Yet, a simple reference to Father Schlabach’s website indicates that he, like Mattox, has perhaps crossed over to preferring the trappings of liturgy and the submission to an authoritarian papal king over the simple, democratic, and humble faith of his forefathers.
Blosser indicates that Pope Benedict XVI might have a clearer understanding of what it would take to reunite the various faiths, or what it is at stake in a conversion between them. During the Bruderhof-Catholic dialogue in 1995, the Bruderhof reacted to Pope John Paul II’s willingness to apologize for the Church’s past use of “violence in the service of the truth,” and commenced several dialogues with the Vatican, including a meeting with Benedict, then Cardinal Ratzinger. Reacting to the readings from The Bloody Theater, Ratzinger responded:
What is truly moving in thse stories is the depth of faith of these men, their beign deeply anchored in our Lord Jesus Christ, and their joy in this fact, a joy that is stronger than death.
We are distressed, of course, by the fact that the Church was so closely linked with the powers of this world that it could deliver other Christians to the executioner because of their beliefs. This should be a deep challenge to us, how much we all need to repent again and again - and how much the Chruch must renounce worldly principles and standards in order to accep the truth as the only standard, to look to Christ. Not to torture others but to go the way of witnessing, a way that will always lead to martyrdom in one form or another.
I believe it is important for us not to adopt worldly standards, but rather to be ready to face the world’s opposition and to learn that Christ’s truth is expressed above all in love and forgiveness, which are truth’s most trustworthy signs. I believe that this is the point at which we all have to begin learning anew, the only point through which Christ can truly lead us together, (Blosser, p. 3).
What is needed now is not for individual non-Catholics who have a preference for High Church services and liturgies to convert, one-by-one as Byassee seems to prefer, but rather to take a hint from both Schlabach and Ratzinger. Again, Schlabach seems to see the various churches as having differing gifts and unique roles in Christ’s Kingdom. Begging to disagree with them however, I would propose that we heed Ratzinger’s exhortation that the churches need to come together in love and forgiveness, not in a political-liturgical unity, so that Christ can truly lead us together, Ratzinger did not use the word unity, rather expressed a togetherness which implies separate components.
The personal faith journeys of Schlabach and Blosser’s father led them to reject Anabaptism in favor of Catholicism, and if they did this in accord with their personal consciences in obedience to the personal journeys to which God called them, then it is all well and good. Nor do I feel that it is impossible to be what Schlabach calls Catholic Mennonite or Mennonite Catholic. But even in these terms one finds the essence of separate identities that cannot be merely united. Ratzinger understands what would be necessary before these identities can truly unite, “I believe this is the point at which WE ALL HAVE TO BEGIN LEARNING ANEW,” (Blosser, p. 3).
It seems that Blosser, a Catholic, maybe learning through the efforts of the Bruderhof and Kauffman’s observations, “What remains is to explore the possibility, inherent in Cardinal Ratzinger’s remarks, that the Anabaptist martyrs could in some way be honored by the Catholic Church for their witness to religious liberty and the Church’s peace position,” (Blosser, p. 4).
Blosser closes also realizing that at this moment, personal conversions and inter-Church dialogues are what we can realistically expect, “To be honest, this [the conversion of my father from Mennonite to Catholic] is something I regard with mixed feelings -- gratitude for myself, at having discovered the Church and the Catholic faith; but at the same time mixed with sadness for my grandparents, because especially as I get older I find much to appreciate about the Mennonites and my background, and I wonder how much, if anything, of their religious heritage will be carried on by their offspring…How does it feel to be in their shoes, I wonder, now separated by the gulf of troubled history and religious tradition, a rift not likely to be healed in this life?” (Blosser, p. 4).
So what can we do now? Blosser has a great suggestion -- that we seek ways to honor and remember the experiences and faith of our fellow Christians. Schlabach’s vision of a church that recognizes and incorporates the unique strengths of its constituents, is a great idea that might be implemented now, without requiring an actual unification of the various bodies. Finally, we might just simply start referring to each other as brothers and sisters and opening our communions to each other that we all, might, as unique individuals responding to singular callings in the Spirit, yet Fellowship in a joint Christian communion. If the Vatican would move forward on that point, then naming the labels that divide us would be increasingly forgotten through the experience of the ties and spirit that bind us.
Blosser, Christopher, "Against the Grain,' personal blog 11 Feb 2004.
Byassee, Jason, "Going Catholic: Six Journeys to Rome," The Christian Century Magazine.
Kauffman, Ivan J., "Mennonite-Catholic Conversations in North America: History, Convergences and Opportunities."
Note that certain bibliographic details have been lost due to software issues.