Ecumenism and the Adult Children of the Divorce

In the comments after my review of his book, John Armstrong said:

My brother the last paragraph is the heart of the matter and the reason you and I have had charitable and useful dialogue online.

I think your review is fair except for perhaps one area. You take the Catholics I quote and then do a kind of reverse on them by saying, in effect, they are not trustworthy or cannot be taken seriously.

I hope you read Father Baima’s endorsement. We profoundly disagree and have done so in public settings. He is a great Catholic theologian and not devoted to Hans Kung in any way. You well know citing an author does not mean complete approval of all they write or teach. This is the case with Kung for me, and for that matter with Luke Timothy Johnson, though in the latter case I think your conclusion is less fair to the man and the corpus of his work.

In the end, we have different views of the church clearly. But your conclusion is precisely where I want to move many others. I think many Catholics who are in full communion and doctrinally sound in every way will see much to like in this book and some to dislike. As the “adult children of a divorce” we can work on restoring the family in good faith and that is my prayer, as you well know.

God bless you Joe and thanks for a thoughtful review.

I appreciate his thoughts, and regret it’s taken me so long to respond to it. I wanted to address two distinct parts: the use of Catholic dissidents, an issue on which John felt I was unfair; and our status as “adult children of a divorce,” on which we heartily agree.

On the subject of citing to Catholic dissidents, let me be clear on a couple things. First, I’m not intending to say that by citing someone like Küng, John agrees with everything that he says. And second, while I’m not a fan of the Küng generally, that’s not my original objection. Certainly, I don’t like the theological views Küng stands for, so I’m never going to be thrilled when someone uses Küng to support anything. As the Encyclopedia Britannica student edition notes, he has “questioned such traditional church doctrine as papal infallibility, divinity of Christ, and dogma of Virgin Mary in his writings.” Someone who doesn’t believe in the divinity of Christ isn’t a Christian, period. Küng’s views are closer to Christopher Hitchens than Pope Benedict, as is his credibility on all issues Christian. Worse than his views is the manner in which he has attempted to use his status as a priest to propagate those views, with the eternal fate of souls entrusted to his care. The idea that there are people who have lost faith in God because this priest intentionally deflates and attempts to refute their faith is tragic.

It’s one thing to deny the divinity of Christ, shameful though that it. It’s quite another to deny the divinity of Christ while pretending you don’t, and carrying on as a Catholic priest to the detriment of the Flock. He’s a wound on the Body of Christ, and he makes sure that as a wound, he stays constantly infected. For example, he was quick to use the rape of children to advance his theological agenda:

A leading Roman Catholic theologian has linked clerical sex abuse with priestly celibacy, blaming the Church’s “uptight” views on sex for child abuse scandals in Germany, Ireland and the US.

He is, in short, a snake, and not unlike the abusers he criticizes,* he uses his status as a priest to destroy souls and divert the flock of Christ. (*It occurred to me after I wrote this that he didn’t actual criticize the abusers at any point in this article; rather, he criticized the Church for practicing celibacy, the very practice which would have prevented the child rape to start). So I agree with John’s assessment that I feel that Küng and his ilk “are not trustworthy or cannot be taken seriously.” A man who calls himself a “Catholic priest in good standing” while rejecting Catholicism is untrustworthy.

But that wasn’t my point in the original review. My objection isn’t that these individuals’ identities as dissenting Catholics disqualifies their views; it’s that their identities as Catholics are the only reason I see for their inclusion in the book at all. As I explained in my original review, my concern was that John assumed “that if he can find a self-described Catholic who opposes the Church teaching on a certain issue, the Church is wrong, or the issue is still up in the air,” while in fact, the “presence of heretics doesn’t disprove orthodoxy, or throw it into chaos.” The argument structure seemed to be:

  • The Catholic Church teaches x;
  • Catholic author or scholar disagrees with Church on x;
  • Therefore, x is wrong or debatable – not a settled issue for Catholics.

This argument format is, of course, fallacious. You could use this same argument to “prove” that the divinity of Christ isn’t a closed question for Catholics because of Küng’s views. I don’t mind John arguing against the Catholic Church’s views on the issues in question: an open dialogue is necessary to move forward; nor do I particularly mind him quoting dissenting Catholics to support his point, particularly when (as with the case of Küng), there’s some sort of signal to unfamiliar readers that the Catholic in question isn’t orthodox. But when, instead, it’s simply “Catholic theologian disagrees; therefore, x isn’t a closed issue,” I find that the substance is lacking. My original review highlighted two concrete examples: (1) Luke Timothy Johnson’s misuse of the terms “Catholic” and “Apostolic” in the context of the Creeds; and (2) Küng’s rejection of the Catholic call for doctrinal unity.

(1) In the first case, “Catholic” and “Apostolic” meant a specific thing to the Early Church Fathers; John even quotes (on pg. 99) St. Cyril of Jerusalem explaining what is meant by “Catholic,” and it’s very much opposed to what Johnson claims (nearly two millennia later) was meant by the term. Johnson blames the papacy, purgatory, indulgences, and so forth on “medieval Catholicism,” and claims that these are in opposition to Apostolicity. Of course, (a) none of these are medieval in origin — I dispelled these and a lot more back at the start of my blogging days (skip down to “What Catholic Traditions Differ From The Traditions of the Apostles?”); and (b) “Apostolic” never meant “this group believes what they think the Apostles believe” (virtually all Christian churches attempt to do that); instead it has always meant that Apostolic succession exists: that is, that the Apostles ordained and sent a bishop who ordained and sent another bishop, and so on, down to the present. St. Irenaeus explains this in Against Heresies, and Apostolic succession is an important check on novel interpretations of “what the Apostles ‘really‘ believed” – the same novelties Johnson is guilty of. Finally, I noted that Johnson openly advocates for going against what he acknowledges to be a clear Scriptural ban on homosexual relationships, because we moderns just know that homosexuality is okay. He is, in other words, a pretty unreliable source, since he’s talking out of both sides of his mouth on this issue. John insists that the corpus of Johnson’s work separates him from the likes of Küng. That may be, and my intention isn’t to pass judgment on Johnson as an individual: just to show that on this issue, he’s neither consistent nor remotely accurate, and is directly contradicted by the Fathers he’s supposed to be interpreting.

(2) The second example involves the notion of unanimity, or complete doctrinal agreement. It seems to me that this needs to be our ideal. By this I mean that if I were writing a book on ecumenism, I’d probably say something like, “We Christians need to be striving for total doctrinal unity, being unafraid to tackle the tough issues which divide us, but embracing one another warmly as brothers and sisters in Christ all the while.” It seems both intuitively right, and more importantly, strongly supported by the New Testament. Not only would this neatly fulfill John 17:20-23, but remember that St. Paul begs the Corinthians, “in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another so that there may be no divisions among you and that you may be perfectly united in mind and thought” (1 Corinthians 1:10). So Paul seems to pretty clear that total agreement is the cure for divisions, and the recipe for perfect unity. Because of this, I’m surprised that John seemed to diminish or reject the need for the total doctrinal unity as our goal, and I’m disappointed that for support, he relied so heavily on Küng.

Not, again, because Küng is a bad Catholic, but because Küng doesn’t seem to have anything helpful to say substantively. Küng claims that unity can’t be measured “by externals (canon law, ecclesiastical language, church administration, etc.) is to misunderstand it completely.” But who disagrees with this? Who understands total doctrinal unity to mean only externals like a common code of canon law? The Eastern Catholic Churches are in total Communion with Latin Rite Catholics, but use different canon law and liturgical languages, so even if Küng is 100% correct, it doesn’t refute (or even particularly inform) the Catholic position one way or the other.

Part of John’s comment stuck with me in the two weeks since I originally read it: the phrase “adult children of a divorce.” I’m a huge fan of this phrase to describe the situation modern Catholics and Protestants find themselves. Now, of course, I don’t view the Catholic Church and Protestant denominations as having an equal claim to legitimacy, as two spouses do, but I do think that the metaphor of divorce illustrates the history of the Reformation quite well. The Church was full – as She always is – with sinners, many of whom were abusing their power, including a number of rather bad popes. Like a spouse who’s had enough, the Reformers raised a number of angry complaints all at once (95 of them, in Luther’s case), and the Catholic response was rather defensive. This lead to more fault-finding and more defensiveness with little substantive change, at least at first (Trent was a major step in the right direction). In response to what they viewed as the Church’s refusal to reform, the would-be Reformers divorced instead.

From both a Protestant and a Catholic perspective, this was a disgraceful point in Christian history, and far too few Christians acted as we might have wished in retrospect. Even the arguments which modern Protestants and Catholics have on this history sound like rehashing a divorce. Protestants are quick to point out that Catholics were doing things wrong, citing folks like Pope Alexander VI, while Catholics are quick to note that while that was surely true, it wasn’t grounds for divorce (since there are no New Testament grounds justifying Christians getting a divorce or committing schism).

But there’s a big difference between someone like Luther splitting from the Church, and someone like C.S. Lewis or Sophie Scholl never formally entering. For many converts to Catholicism, leaving the old denomination feels like a divorce itself. It is a painful schism, an awful rending of Christ’s garments, but one in which we’re born into. Certainly, Protestants should still enter the Catholic Church, but those that fail to recognize Her as the true Church are in a much more forgivable position than their ancient ancestors. And this isn’t just some post-Vatican II teaching. Rather, St. Francis De Sales addressed this exact point in Catholic Controversy, written some sixty years after the Reformation. For the first time in history, entire villages of Western European Christians were growing up without ever entering the Catholic Church. As St. Francis noted, many of his Calvinist readers were totally unfamiliar with the Catholic Faith “which hitherto you have not had except perverted and quite disfigured and adulterated by the enemy, who well knew that had you seen it in its purity, never would you have abandoned it.” Even amongst the laity who did leave the Church, St. Francis says of the departure that “your ministers and you also [are] inexcusable, though unequally so, before God and men in having left the Church. ” Now, these are certainly strong words, but it’s instructive that from the dawn of the Reformation, the Church was aware that while schism is a sin, there’s a difference between leading your congregation astray and being lead astray, and a difference between leaving and being born out of the Church. St. Francis also acknowledges quite bluntly that had these Calvinists been exposed to the full and pure truth of the Catholic faith, they’d never have left. He seems to have been right: within four years, some 72,000 Calvinists in the part of southern France he was ministering either converted or reverted to Catholicism.

All of this relates to something I said in the first part of this post: I think that John is an amazing Christian, and I eagerly look forward to the day, whether in this life or in the hereafter, in which we can share in the fullness of Faith with no ifs, ands, or buts. Until then, I continue to affirm him as a devout and good-hearted Christian with a big faith, and hope that we’ll have a chance to discuss both what unites and what divides us, into the future.

By the way, Fr. Baima is Provost of Mundelein Seminary in Chicago, where Fr. Andrew (my co-blogger) went to seminary: cool coincidence!

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