Listening Committee


The Listening Committee, composed of Diane Zaerr Brenneman, John Rempel, and Ron Pagnucco, identified two major themes in the conference presentations and discussions:

  1. Spiritual Journey, Dialogue and Ecclesiology; and
  2. Confessional Claims and Ethics.

While there is overlap between these two themes, for the sake of presentation we have organized

our summary into these two sections. We conclude with a third section, Listening Committee Comments and Suggestions.

1. Spiritual Journey, Dialogue and Ecclesiology.

Many presenters and participants spoke of the spiritual journey that has brought some Mennonites and Catholics together for dialogue and sharing, and of several ecclesiological issues facing Mennonites and Catholics. This conference is part of a larger movement of dialogue and sharing that has been taking place between Mennonites and Catholics over the past 15-20 years. Individual Mennonite and Catholic theologians and leaders have been involved in dialogue; both groups participated in the ecumenical U.S. Faith and Order consultations that took place in the 1990s, focusing on the unity of the church in peace making; Catholics participated as observers in the Believer’s Church conference (of denominations believing in non-infant baptism); and the Mennonite World Conference and the Vatican has held four annual week-long meetings, with a fifth scheduled for Fall 2002. Three issues in Catholic-Mennonite dialogue were identified: the persecution of Anabaptists by Catholics, which some trace back to the Constantinian shift in the church in the 4th century; the morality of warfare; and ecclesiology.

At the grassroots level, individual Mennonites and Catholics have been meeting to work together and to learn from each other. The immediate predecessor of this conference was a gathering of 25 such individuals at Laurelville, Pennsylvania. Some Catholics are interested in Mennonites because of their peace witness, scriptural foundations, lay involvement, simple living, and hospitality, whereas some Mennonites are interested in Catholics because of their spirituality, liturgy and sacramental imagination. Some individuals identify themselves as Mennonite Catholics or Catholic Mennonites, and some Mennonites have become Oblates of St. Benedict.

Other main points by presenters and discussants:

Globalization is upsetting the world and creating a new one, and is making us all struggle with how to maintain our identities and stay together as communities.

Catholics have structures, but not very good structures for accountability. Perhaps Catholics can learn more about structures of accountability from the Mennonites. There is also a need for Catholic dioceses and bishops to have stronger relations with, and responsibility to, one another. Catholics and Mennonites are struggling with questions of authority/dissent and the need for change, and how to maintain tradition and find ways to reform that tradition.

For Catholics, sacramental spirituality is the ground for peacemaking. The sacramental is incarnational and terrestrial, using things of the earth and words, rites and rituals. Jesus is the primary sacrament, and the church is the sacrament of Jesus. Christ is present in a special way in the seven sacraments, but as Vatican II said, the Eucharist is the source and summit of our life.

Fr. Virgil Michel, a monk at St. John’s who was a liturgical reformer in the 1930s, argued that liturgy should change the hearts of people so they seek peace in the world.

Both Catholics and Mennonites believe that God wants people who follow Jesus, not just people who believe in Jesus. Anabaptists believes in repentance, renouncing the world, and yielding entirely to Christ. With adult baptism, one follows Christ in life, in community and under its discipline. Christ must be born in the heart of every believer, and this produces actual righteousness. It would be fruitful to have Mennonite and Catholic dialogue about what it means to live a “called out” life. Besides perhaps learning something from Catholics about spirituality, Mennonites need to recover their own spiritual roots-for example, they lost the liturgical life/sacramental power of ordinances with the Reformation. Mennonites are not realizing the full potential of their historical spirituality. There are opportunities for Catholics and Mennonites to share spirituality and discipleship in existing Catholic lay ecclesial communities like Sant’Egidio, Focolare, and the Oblates of St. Benedict, all of which are recognized by the Vatican but are not limited to Catholics only. One discussant wondered about the possibility of a Mennonite monastery along the lines of the Methodist monastery near St. John’s. A discussant also noted that there was at one time a small Mennonite community of sisters in the U.S.

2. Confessional Claims and Ethics.

Presenters and participants also discussed the place of peacemaking in the Christian faith and life, the Christian ethic of war and peace, and what Mennonites and Catholics can learn from each other about Gospel responses to violence. From their beginnings, Mennonites believed that following Jesus required them to turn the other cheek, to refuse to take up arms, serve on juries, swear oaths, and (and later) vote in national elections. For many years Mennonites believed that they were citizens of God’s kingdom and that they should keep the national kingdom at arm’s length. For many years the question for Mennonites was  “how do we love enemies and live at peace?” not “how do we make peace” or “how do we transform conflict?” Mennonites saw themselves as a marginalized, separate body and an alternative world. Mennonites didn’t ask questions about responsibility for the world and how the church could help to shape a just society.

Some Mennonites still hold these views; however, there is now another view held by a segment of Mennonites that they must be involved in the wider society as Jesus was and seek the peace of the city. They ask how Mennonites can be engaged in the world and be faithful to the Gospel call of peacemaking and are exploring methods of nonviolent change, peaceful conflict transformation and restorative justice and ways to influence government policies. There are several strengths in the Mennonite view: Their understanding of peace as central to the Gospel message and their emphasis on the reconciliation God offered through Christ; their emphasis on love of enemies and their willingness to suffer; their alternative community; and the questions they raise about nationalism and loyalty to the state. However, some Mennonites would also see weaknesses in their view that need to be addressed: there is a lack of theological understanding of the whole of God’s creation – the world outside the church; the need to develop a better understanding of the Christian’s responsibility for the world and the role of the Christian as citizen; and the need to develop a better understanding of power and social coercion.

The Catholic view of war, peace and nonviolence has developed since Vatican II., which recognized nonviolence as a praiseworthy personal vocation as long as it didn’t abdicate responsibility for the legitimate protection of the community. However, Vatican II contended that states have the right and duty to protect their people, using just war criteria. In the 1983 U.S. Bishops’ Pastoral, The Challenge of Peace, the bishops’ reaffirmed nonviolence and just war doctrine. In 1993, the bishops’ anniversary statement, Harvest of Justice, we see a change: the bishops moved nonviolent responses to evil into the public sphere and argued that the government should use nonviolent methods, and if these efforts fail after repeated attempts, only then can the government legitimately use limited military force to protect the innocent. While some pacifists might disagree, in fact just war and nonviolence are a hybrid in Catholic social teaching. The Catholic bishops’ statement on the war on terrorism stated that nations do have the right and duty to defend their populations from attack only after all alternatives have been exhausted. The bishops stated that there can be no just war on terrorism unless there are efforts to make peace constructively. Any effort to eliminate terrorism must include programs to eradicate poverty and to promote economic development and to foster intercultural understanding. If it is necessary to use military force, it can only be used with a great deal of regret. In a recent speech Pope John Paul II stated that because of the destructiveness of modern weaponry and the likelihood of civilian casualties,  it is even less likely that a just war could be fought today. To have peace we must promote human rights and development and practice solidarity and forgiveness.

The Catholic view of peace is quite developed. It includes an emphasis on developing the methods of peaceful conflict resolution and conflict transformation. Peace is seen as more than simply the absence of conflict and violence; it also includes the presence of justice and right relationships. However, the Catholic view needs to better develop a theology of conflict. The Catholic view of peace also emphasizes the importance of a just world order and the role of international institutions in promoting peace and justice.

There were several questions and comments:

  • We need to explore more fully what would make for a peaceful society and how we can build peace. We need a more developed positive concept of peacebuilding.
  • For the Christian, is nonviolence only something we use if it works? Do we use military force if nonviolence fails? Limited force is a delusion and you can never ask a soldier to do less than what it takes to win.
  • It is not possible to love a human being and to kill a human being.
  • The just war argument is that we need to publicly combat evil and take responsibility for the common good. You kill to protect the innocent and to protect the common good.
  • If you do not use violence, then how do you defend the weak?
  • Just war and pacifism aren’t at opposite poles. We need to clarify what a just war is. Often what people call a just war isn’t one.
  • Why be nonviolent? What are the faith convictions behind nonviolence? Why be politically responsible? What are the faith convictions behind it? For whom and what are we responsible? What does American culture believe?
  • The common good is protected by nonviolence rather than violence, though it is difficult to react to evil nonviolently.
  • Catholics seek the common good through political/civic service. Mennonites disagree on which agency – church or state – is appropriate for promoting peace and justice. Catholic theology basically sees government as good and natural. Mennonite theology hasn’t shared this view.
  • For Mennonites nonviolence is a way of life and is part of their profession of faith. This is not so for Catholics. For Catholics violence is a sin but they are willing to engage in that sin at times – it is a question of last resort and the protection of the innocent.
  • What if the Catholic bishops said that the mere possession of nuclear weapons is immoral, which many believe is the logical conclusion of just war theory?
  • What is necessary for the unity of the church? The Nicene Creed can’t be the basis because some see it as a basis for violence, and the life of Christ is reduced to a comma: “Born of a Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate.” African American tradition says that the denial of the incarnation is racist.
  • Could contemplation be a bridge between Mennonites and Catholics? Contemplation deals with the inner violence within us all.

3. Listening Committee Comments and Suggestions

We recommend the sharing of spiritual biographies, like was done at Laurelville, at future conferences.

People came to this conference with various interests: theological, ethical, historical, personal spirituality, fellowship and friendship, seeking kindred spirits, intercession.

The issue of Mennonite participation in the Mass needs to be discussed openly at the next conference so everyone is clear about the situation. Some Mennonites wanted to know how Catholics would feel about their receiving the Eucharist, etc.

We recommend that the Bridgefolk Prayer be seen as a sign and symbol of  our continuing journey together, and that it be prayed at all future Bridgefolk conferences and that participants be encouraged to prayer this prayer personally as a way of keeping the spirit of the community.

Perhaps we can develop a Bridgefolk book of prayers and meditations.

Some possible topics for future conferences:

  • The sacramental imagination
  • How to have a meaningful unity – how the tent can include diversity without bursting
  • What is the meaning of mission (domestic and overseas)?
  • Concepts of peace and methods of peacebuilding
  • Mennonite and Catholic Identity issues – including what it means to be a Mennonite or Catholic college or university

For future Bridgefolk conferences, we suggest that a handout with a glossary of typical Mennonite and Catholic terms and words, and a handout with a brief historical tracing of Catholic and Mennonite histories and figures.

We also suggest that all of the publications and resources mentioned during the conference be listed on a handout.