A Catholic Reflection on Your Church Is Too Small: A Brief Reply to a Gracious Former-Atheist I Love and Respect

John ArmstrongMissional-Ecumenism, Roman Catholicism, Unity of the Church

Ifprottruesmaller-202x300Catholic apologist, and former-atheist, Devin Rose is a conservative thinker, a clear writer and an extremely gracious Christ-like brother. He has written a recent book titled: If Catholicism Is True: The Reformation Meets Rome. (I have not yet read his book but I will attempt to do so.) Devin Rose has corresponded with me via Facebook in recent months and has recently read my book, Your Church Is Too Small. I respect him as a person, a brother and a man who I believe reviewed my work with a gentle spirit and a good faith argument. I want everyone who cares about this subject to read his review. I will offer a few salient comments below but do not plan to offer an extensive counter-review. I do not desire to enter into the combat zone of Catholic and evangelical apologetics. (There are hundreds, likely thousands, of blogs, tracts and books that do this in various ways and with various styles and approaches. I am not called to this polemical zone!) I'd love to have my Catholic readers respond, whether you agree with Devin or not. I'd also love for Protestants to respond so long as you are kind to Devin and fair in your comments about him and me. My guiding principles are found in 1 Corinthians 13:4-7 and in Ephesians 4:1-7.

I am not suggesting that Devin does not share these same Pauline principles. I believe that he does. I just do not have a divine vocation to serve in the same space that he feels called to work within, namely one committed to the apologetical defense of various inter-church debates that, in my estimation, hinder missonal-ecumenism. My space is one of bridge building with people who have faith in Christ so that we can find new/old pathways that could lead to peace without compromise, in so far as this is possible! (I believe it is more possible than any of us can imagine because Christ loves all his people and prays for their "relational" oneness.)

Devin understands my arguments fairly well, at least at most points. Yet he misses some major points of mine at several critical junctures. Devin seems to believe that my ecumenism is rooted in the kind of effort that embraces a very low threshold of faith which threatens the real catholicity that I actually believe in and practice. Of course we do not agree on what catholicity actually "is" since he sees it as coterminous with the Roman Catholic Church and the magisterium. A friend has written (correctly I think) that "[In] Rose's very good and engaging book review he seems to use apostolic succession as traditional Catholics do as a wedge for separation (unless you convert and come home to mother church) you are not truly catholic." I believe this is an accurate understanding of what you will see in Devin's review, but this is not because Devin has a bad spirit. He is defending the Catholic Church as he understands it. He is not alone in this understanding or this kind of defense. I prefer, however, to speak of apostolic traditions (East and West) as possessing core doctrines ("mere Christianity") that can unify the whole global church, not fully in terms of perfect union, but in terms of the mission of Christ's one kingdom. (This I believe is very clearly stated in my book!) My blogger friend further wrote that: "Rose [in this review] really shows his bias against Protestants when he says that even if Protestants agree with Catholics on the doctrine of apostolic succession, it doesn't matter since they don't possess it. Even if Protestants agree with Catholics, they are still wrong!" This is the rub for all evangelical ecumenists like me. Telling one side in this sadly divided state with a response that says "You are wrong and we are right" is not the type of ecumenism that will lead us to deeper (experienced and shared) Spirit-given relational unity. As gracious as Rose is in his style and person this kind of argument will not help foster what I envision. Disagree with my thesis if you will, and many readers of this blog will disagree, but I am not alone in this thesis. I believe it is both ancient and wise. Rose and I thus have a different vision of unity, at least in terms of the first steps that we should take in this process toward the greater fullness of how we can actually express our inherent unity because we are already one in Christ and share in common Christian baptism. 

DevinroseheadshotIn Rose's understanding the way to unity is simple and straightforward. I should come home to Rome! Yet in the practice of post-Vatican II ecumenism, and the teaching and practice of the last five popes, this is not what I see nor is it what I have experienced in my thousands of hours of conversation with Catholics. The lone exception to my experience usually comes from converts who have left Protestantism and seem to feel a deep need to do a kind of apologetics that shows why Rome is the "true church." Through this approach they conclude that everyone else is outside the true church though somehow we are all mysteriously inside that church in an incomplete way that keeps us, the "separated brothers," from the Table. But even here I have scores of Catholic friends who do not adopt Rose's view. These are not untaught or rebellious (liberal) Catholics. Conservative Catholic apologists take the supposed high ground by using the official teaching of the church on most matters but they seem to miss that there is a continued unfolding of what their church is also saying about unity with non-Catholics, especially since Vatican II. Having spent time inside the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity I speak from firsthand experience, not simply from books and documents. (I have read scores of these books and documents as well and find in these a rich treasury that calls us to new ecumenism!) Having read and discussed ecumenism in inter-church contexts, both in and outside of the United States, I have a perspective which clearly is not the same as Devin's. This doesn't make me better than Devin, just different in my viewpoint. 

Much more problematic for me, and for serious ecumenism to truly advance, is the practice of the Catholic Church with regard to baptism and eucharist. While the Catholic Church accepts my baptism they do not, in most contexts, commune me. Am I the only person who finds this stance in-congruent? Ecumenists, including many Catholic theologians who teach ecumenism inside the Vatican and on the faculty of Rome's famous Vatican universities, see this as a problem to be ultimately overcome in new ecumenical ways. (This may happen first with the Orthodox Church but then no one can say if they would reciprocate since they also exclude all other Christians from the Table!) My friend who writes in response to Devin Rose on my blog says, "What is amazing from an ecumenist's viewpoint [is] that one doctrine makes us one in Christ while the other keeps us separated." Sadly, this is my conclusion as well.  

Finally, Devin Rose does not seem to recognize some of the very official agreements that the Vatican has signed that are game changers in terms of using "old" arguments and recognizing "new" groundbreaking agreements that we now have at many levels. I think especially of The Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification (1999). There is no way around the fact that this is a document agreed to by both the Vatican and the Lutheran World Federation. It is a major step toward the new unity I speak about. And there is no doubt that this agreement answers most of the much debated 16th century questions well. 

Catholics and Protestants continue to have real disagreements. On this Rose and I completely agree. It would have been best, however, if he had also underscored that I agree with this point rather than to write as if I did not see this as an ongoing problem. He lists several huge issues where we still disagree. He and I concur that we still disagree on these; e.g. the magisterium, the meaning of the Mass in terms of ontology, etc. Yet as my friend Chris wrote in his comments on Rose's review, "You would think none of this [the formal and significant agreements] has happened and everything is the same under the conditions of the 16th century break on this issue [justification] . . ."

For all who care about my work and love me as a brother I want you to have the opportunity to read this very fine man's review at the Called to Communion website. It can help us all, especially if we do not stop here but pursue, in genuine Christian love, a growing and deepening conversation about our differences and our agreements. The unity Rose prays for is, at least in spirit, the one I also pray for. We do not agree (yet) about how this will come about but we must never stop loving and listening. Rose shows he desires this path. We may not ever have the full union of all churches but we can strive prayerfully together for what I call missional-ecumenism. We cannot do this without one another. In this spirit I welcome Devin Rose's critical review of my book and encourage you to read it.