Jeffrey Gros, FSC

Catholic-Mennonite Dialogue in Ecumenical Context

July 12, 2002

I would like to begin with a word of appreciation for the Mennonites who have helped us, Catholics, to find routes to dialogue with the Anabaptist Reformation and Mennonite fellow Christians. If there is time, I will provide some more extent on John Howard Yoder, especially, and Marlin Miller & Thomas Finger at the end of these comments.


In this brief over view I would like to make four historical points: 1) the US initiative, 2) Faith and Order US, 3) the Believers’ Church Conference, and 4) the international prehistory.

1) For many years Yoder represented a Mennonite outpost on the Notre Dame campus. He generated a generation sensitive to the ecumenical, theological and ethical dimension of Catholic – Mennonite relations. From early in the 80s, at least, the Mennonites have had a voice around the Faith and Order table in the US, with Catholics and theologians from other traditions.

In 1985 Dr. Robert Neff, President of the Church of the Brethren, and Cardinal Joseph Bernardin proposed a national dialogue between the USCCB and the historic Peace Churches: Mennonite, Brethren and Quaker, in the context of the Catholic bishops’ pastoral on peace. The Bishops Committee on Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs at that time, referred the Cardinal’s letter to the International Justice and Peace department of the USCCB and no dialogue emerged. However, this initiative, stimulated by Catholics and the Peace Church representatives in Faith and Order US, led to a process within Faith and Order. The dialogue was taken up in the wider context that would include Orthodox and other Protestant voices.

2) Faith and Order is a movement of theologians in dialogue, whose conversations and research together serve the visible unity of the Christian churches. In the 1980s and 90s Faith and Order in the US and the World Council of Churches undertook a study Toward the Common Expression of the Apostolic Faith Today, using the Nicene Creed as a framework for focusing on the truths of the Gospel central to the hierarchy of truths to be reconciled if full communion is to be achieved. The global process produced the 1991 text Confessing One Faith, now before the churches for evaluation and response. Yoder’s position always was that the Peace Church witness was not a “distinctive” or a “social ethical” emphasis only, but an Apostolic claim to the truth of the Gospel, and an ecclesiological principle normative for the unity of the Church, from the perspective of the Peace Churches.

The Faith and Order Commission USA sponsored three consultations and published two books, contributing to this international dialogue on the Apostolic Faith, with a particular focus on the Peace Churches and their witness. The first consultation, at Bethany Seminary, then near Chicago, determined the context and focus of the study. It was cochaired by Catholic theologian Robert Levitt from St. Mary’s in Baltimore and Marlin Miller from the Elkhart seminaries. The most interesting thing about this discussion, in the context of the various church statements on peace, including the Catholic bishops’ 1983, disclosed a new context for this discussion. As we have moved from the church-state ecclesiological context of the sixteenth century, the differences on religious liberty before 1965, and the context of adult baptismal renewal in many of the churches, the debates have shifted.

The major point of debate was whether we should be dealing with the urgent, contemporary issue of nuclear disarmament; or with the apostolic, ecclesiological and confessional claims of the Peace Churches in the same terms as issues of Christology, justification, pneumatology etc. were being discussed in Faith and Order, as church uniting and church dividing issues. At one point in the discussion we had to “shut up” the Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant participants, to allow the Peace Church representatives among themselves to conceptualize how they wanted their witness to be discussed in this ecumenical context.

This “fish bowl” experience was revealing for both the Peace Churches themselves, in reflecting on their identity, and to this group of theologians from the other churches, who were as concerned for the urgency of the times as for the unity of the Church.

The fact that the Quakers, Brethren and Mennonites decided to see their witness as confessional, as a contribution to ecclesiology, and the willingness of their ecumenical partners to accept this claim was, in my view, a major turning point in the ecumenical movement, a decision with significance for our gathering here at Collegeville during these days.

The second and third dialogues are adequately document in two volumes. The Church’s Peace Witness, which treats the different biblical bases used by the churches in their peace witness, and the common ground found among these variety of arguments and conclusions. The Peace Church, Fellowship of Reconciliation and USCCB statements are among those analyzed. This consultation made recommendations to the Apostolic Faith Study and to Faith and Order for a continuation of the dialogue.

The third consultation, held at Notre Dame in 1995, when John Howard Yoder was still alive and able to participate, focused on the historical church dividing issues, the peace teaching developments in the participating churches, and the ecclesiological and ethical implications in the context of the ecumenical movement.

Again, the dialogue, difficult as it was, ploughed new ground. While the churches, including the Catholic participants, acknowledged the weakness of their historical positions and the important corrective that the Peace Churches have brought to their ethical and ecclesiological perspectives, the Peace Churches were not yet able to recognize in the rest of us an “authentic peace making” witness, compatible with the Apostolic Faith, as long as the just war position continued to be an option. Results were gathered in The Fragmentation of the Church and its Unity in Peacemaking.

In the wider studies of the Apostolic Faith, important Mennonite papers were given, including a very early one by Tom Finger published in The Journal of Ecumenical Studies. Discussions of Christology, pneumatology, ecumenical historiography and hermeneutics, and other ecumenical concerns were enhanced by Mennonite input. One of the studies, on the hermeneutics of history, was particularly important and is singled out here as an example.

The fourth century and the Nicene Creed have been a particularly neuralgic point between the Peace Churches and other restorationists on one side; and the Catholic, Orthodox and magisterial Reformation churches on the other. The Creed, biblical canon and episcopacy for most, are seen as normative elements of the Church, from this period, for most Christians. For Mennonites and others, the period 325-381 is seen as a time of the “Constintinian” fall of the Church from its apostolic purity, the era of the emergence of “Christendom,” negatively evaluated.

In the 1960s George Williams wrote a couple of articles on the ‘church-state’ question in the fourth century – articles that asked the same questions that would characterize Liberation Theologies of a decade or two later. His view of this history contrasts somewhat with that of Yoder.

In the conversation, published in the volume Faith to Creed, Mennonite (James Reimer, “Trinitarian Orthodoxy, Constantinianism, and Theology from a Radical Protestant Perspective,”), Catholic and other papers took account of patristic, monastic, Pentecostal, Mennonite as well as Catholic, Orthodox and magisterial Protestant readings of this moment in our common heritage. Among the conclusions, participants were able to say:

There were different perceptions as to whether with the conversion and rule of Constantine a shift took place in the life of the church, and if so how great a shift took place. Some saw it as involving a far-reaching reversal of the relationship of the church to society. Others saw it as a more continuous outgrowth of developments of the preceding centuries whereby the gospel further permeated the world., In general those who saw the Constantinian period as a radical shift tended to evaluate it negatively, while those who saw it as a more natural outgrowth tended to evaluate it positively. (201) Even in our disagreements we experienced the capacity of the creed to unify us by directing our attention to the faith we share. (204)

Would that there were more time to document the rich witness of the Catholic and Mennonite encounter within this context of Faith and Order.

3) I would like to note briefly three of the studies to emerge from the many ecumenical conversations sponsored, informally, by the so called “Believers’ Church Conference,” an occasional, ad hoc gathering to discuss issues of common concern by theologians from churches that do not baptize infants. There is no focus, agenda or permanent leadership to this Conference. However, it provides an ecumenical forum based on particularly free church, voluntary premises. A variety of pastoral and theological topics have been undertaken over the years, the most recent of which highlights the potential Catholic-Mennonite connection; a gathering on the Legacy of John Howard Yoder at the University of Notre Dame.

The three of these over the last twenty years are significant contributions for the Mennonite Catholic dialogue, because they have surfaced some important perspectives including Mennonite, with Catholics participating, as outsiders, of course. These are the Conferences dealing with the themes treated in the World Council text, Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry (1982): Baptism and Church: A Believers’ Church Vision (1986), Servants of the Word: Ministry in the Believers’ Church (1990), The Lord‘s Supper: Believers Church Perspectives (1997).

As the international dialogue progresses, and the US dialogue emerges, these will be important resources.

4) Finally, the dramatic act of repentance for the violence of Catholic Christians and our sins against the unity of the Church, performed on the first Sunday of Lent at St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome in the Jubilee Year, 2000, and the International Theological Commission text, Memory and Reconciliation: The Church and Faults of the Past, documenting the study behind it, are watersheds in the relations among Christians, especially those who have suffered persecution at the hands of Catholics, as did the Mennonites. Following Pope John Paul’s call in 1994 for the Jubilee to be a time of repentance, healing of memories and reconciliation in Tertio Mellineo Adveniente, and the 1995 encyclical on unity, Ut Unum Sint, the international Mennonite – Catholic dialogue has chosen the issue of healing of memories as its first topic in what I hope will be a long and fruitful pilgrimage of reconciliation.

I can remember sitting in a café along a Rhine canal in Strasbourg in 1991, chatting with Larry Miller about what could be done to deepen the communion between Mennonites and other Christians, especially Catholics. Among the ideas discussed, Larry has moved forward on several of them, including this remarkable international process of conversation.

We can stand grateful for the scholars who are willing to give their efforts to this conversation and we can pray the Holy Spirit’s blessings on them for the healing of Christ’s body and the enriching of Christ’s mission in the world.


For years John Howard Yoder pressed upon the churches of the ecumenical movement the catholic claims of the Mennonite tradition, helping us to see beyond the social ethical contribution to Mennonite ecclesiological claims. Of course, this initiative of dialogue toward Catholics and other ecumenical Christians was complemented by his invitation to Mennonites to see beyond their ethnic and sectarian isolation to recognizing your claims and contributions to the Church ecumenical and catholic.

Yoder also was an early lobbyist with the Faith and Order movement for the peace church claims on two fronts: a) that the peace church claims were integral to the Apostolic Faith and to be treated as a church uniting, church dividing issues along side questions of the pneumatology or biblical authority; and b) that Anabaptist ecclesiological claims and sacramental practice were affirmations about the Church universal, and not merely a “denominational distinctive” relativized among other ecclesial expressions.

With this appreciation of Yoder, we must also recognize the burden he placed on our ecumenical discussions by his characterization of the “Constantinian fall” of the Church, inherited from the radical reformers, but a historical judgment that has become current even among Catholic and magisterial Protestant scholars in recent decades. Also his insistence that the Mennonites be treated among the Peace Churches, as it were as an ecclesiological “package,” has made the Catholic dialogue more difficult, as I have shown above. From the Catholic perspective, there are significant ecclesiological differences between Quakers, Brethren and Mennonites. One sometimes got the impression that Yoder saw Quaker ecclesiology as the logical, positive development from the 16th century Anabaptist reformers.

I would also like to express my appreciation for the pioneering work of Thomas Finger, who has attempted to bring a systematic mind to the Mennonite witness. Even if an alien idiom to Mennonites, his work has helped those of us outside the tradition to understand the witness. Likewise, the most sustained dialogue with Mennonite sources and Catholic doctrine and theology is evident in his work.

We have had our public differences, but it is precisely his willingness to enter into the fray that makes such Catholic and Mennonite sparks fly — for the good of the Church and its unity.

I also want to express my appreciation for Marlin Miller whose contribution to internal Mennonite unity on this continent is so monumental, and whose life was cut short before he was able to realize the full measure of his contribution to Faith and Order. We have all been deeply blessed by these Mennonites and many others whose heart for the unity of Christians and whose application of the mind, is a model for us all.

Of course, on the Catholic side, I am deeply in the debt of Kilian McDonnell, Drew Christensen and Ivan Kauffman, mentors, colleagues and friends, all.

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Brother Jeffrey Gros, FSC
Associate Director
Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs
US Conference of Catholic Bishops