What Have We Learned? II

Picking up the Argument Again:
Reflections on the Dialogue between Catholics and Mennonites

Earl Zimmerman, July 23, 2005

On the wall outside the Menno Simons Historical Library on our EMU campus, there is a large picture of sixteenth-century Anabaptists being burned at the stake by their Catholic tormentors. Next to the people being roasted is a group of people throwing Bibles on a bonfire. It’s gruesome! The picture is an enlargement from an engraving by Jan Luiken in the Martyrs Mirror, the Anabaptist book of martyrs.

You may want to walk up to the second floor of the library to look at it. It’s right by the stairwell. Every religious community has its own way of remembering the past. The sixteenth century is the chosen trauma of Mennonites. These memories live on and shape us in both conscious and subconscious ways.

The heroes are people like Michael Sattler, the Benedictine prior who left his monastery in the Black Forest to become an Anabaptist leader and write the Schleitheim Confession of Faith, historically the first free church document. (Today we’re all free churches.) Within a year of those events, Sattler was burned at the stake by the Neckar River. He gave his life for his convictions.

Identifying villains becomes more problematic. Jesuits who were instrumental in destroying Anabaptist communities in Moravia are on the list. But the most painful separation was with Protestant reformer Ulrich Zwingli in Switzerland. And we cannot forget that Martin Luther turned against the common people in what became known as the German Peasants’ War and, by association, against the Anabaptists.

We need to recognize that some of the Anabaptists were strange, even violent characters. Though that doesn’t justify what their opponents did to them, we must admit that at least some of them were asking for it. They probably would have done the same, given the chance. That’s what our Catholic and Protestant sisters and brothers remember.

Since then, most sixteenth-century church history has been read confessionally-pitting Catholics, Protestants, and Anabaptists against each other. That’s why the recent international dialogue between the Catholic Church and Mennonite World Conference was so significant.
After 475 years we began to re-read church history together with the objective of healing our memories. That’s a huge step!

I have two suggestions for continuing the project. First, Catholics in the global South can help us gain new readings of sixteenth-century Anabaptist history. My own reading has been informed by my years of mission service in the Philippines and the work of Niall O’Brian a Colombian priest who was a nonviolent activist on the island of Negros. There are some profound correlations between contemporary Catholic base communities and the sixteenth-century Anabaptist communities.

According to O’Brien, characteristics of Catholic base communities include: (1) worshipping, praying, and studying the Bible together; (2) sharing time, talent, and material resources; (3) participatory decision making processes; (4) working together to eradicate injustice; and (5) working toward peace and reconciliation. That sounds Anabaptist to me. We miss such connections if we don’t know each other’s stories or participate in each other’s lives.

Second, Father Joe Komonchak, the academic advisor for my doctoral program at Catholic University, once told me, with a twinkle in his eye, that the Anabaptists didn’t have an immaculate conception. They had been formed by medieval Catholicism. The medieval Catholic Church, with all her foibles and strengths, is the mother of us all.

I would love to see a theologically and socially astute Benedictine scholar work on the legacy of Michael Sattler; reading his life and vision through Benedictine eyes. Perhaps Catholics might even reclaim him. He died within two years after he left the monastery and most surely continued to work out of his formation as a Benedictine. Such historical re-reading could even help Mennonites recognize and recover some of our medieval Catholic roots.

Another topic of conversation for North American Catholics and Mennonites, that didn’t come up in the international dialogue, is how deeply we have both been shaped by our experiences as immigrant churches and religious minorities in a predominantly Protestant society.

The most striking similarity is the separatist impulse that led both communities to withdraw into a religious subculture in response to a sometimes hostile Protestant world. For example, we both have a history of starting parochial schools to maintain our religious traditions.

And we both have stories of being ostracized and even having our places of worship vandalized or destroyed.

Our differences are just as instructive. The need to prove that they were good Americans led many Catholics to imprudent, patriotic support for American wars. For Mennonites, however, our peace tradition was integral to our religious identity. During times of war, it created a conflict between our American citizenship and our community of faith.

But Mennonites also wanted to be good Americans. One way to do that was to borrow willy-nilly from our evangelical Protestant neighbors while insisting on a few Mennonite distinctives. We weren’t quite comfortable being Protestants but we sure knew we weren’t Catholics.

We easily bought into American prejudices against Catholics. When I was doing some historical research on Mennonite/Catholic relationships, I found a whole cache of nasty anti-Catholic tracts in the EMU archives. Along with our fellow Americans, we thought that the flood of Catholic immigrants, beginning in the nineteenth century, was bent on taking over our country. We need to repent of such prejudices.

It would be instructive to know how many Mennonites voted against John Kennedy because they were afraid that our government policies would be dictated from Rome. (We certainly didn’t have to worry about that.)

A significant twentieth-century breakthrough in Catholic/Mennonite relationships was when C.J. Dyck, church historian and then president of Mennonite World Conference, attended the final session of the Second Vatican Council in 1965. He wrote extensively about it for the Mennonite press. Those articles offered Mennonites a new, more sympathetic, window into the Catholic world.

I find it difficult to understand how the report of the international dialogue completely overlooks his contribution. It indicates the woeful lack of attention to ecumenical relations among North American Mennonites.

C. J. Dyck was especially pleased with the Vatican II document Dei Verbum, on divine revelation, and its emphasis on one source of revelation-God who speaks through the Scriptures and the experience of the church.

When one priest at the Council commented that Scripture is best understood when read and studied in the circle of the faithful, C.J. felt right a home. It was an Anabaptist understanding of the relationship between Scripture and tradition.

C. J. was less satisfied with the document Lumen Gentium, on the church. He agreed with a German bishop who identified the problem: Der Geist wird Amt (the Spirit becomes office or institution). The ministerium (servanthood) becomes magisterium (hierarchy). That is followed by the arrogance endemic to isolated bureaucracies. It’s not unique to Catholics; we Mennonites have our own version of deadening institutions.

C. J. was greatly encouraged by the document Dignitatis humanae, on religious liberty. He, however, found one sentence in the document rather incongruous. It reads, “The concept of religious liberty leaves intact the Catholic teaching on the one true religion and the one true Church of Christ.” Even if it’s a sop to Catholic traditionalists, it’s still alienating. It’s hard for present-day Mennonites to understand such sectarian sensibilities even though we would not want to count how many times Menno Simons talked about his scattered Anabaptist congregations as the “true church.”

An important footnote is that American Jesuit John Courtney Murray paved the way for the Catholic embrace of religions liberty by his insightful distinction between the state and society and his argument that the state is not a competent judge in religious affairs. The sixteenth-century Anabaptists would have completely agreed. They gave their lives for such convictions.

That brings me back to my own journey with Catholics. I have had so many wonderful Catholic mentors that it’s hard to separate what they taught me from my more Mennonite sensibilities. I use various Catholic textbooks in the courses I teach at EMU. As strange as it may sound, my three favorite theologians are Gustavo GutiĆ©rrez, David Tracy, and John Howard Yoder. Yet I find myself alienated from the institutional Catholic Church.

That gets us into another whole ball of wax. I’ll tell just one story. I was once sitting in our religious department lunch room at Catholic University when a feisty nun who was on the faculty stormed in. She looked me in the eye and said, “Earl, the Catholic Church will ordain you before it ordains me.” The she added, “This is my church; the pope can leave if he wants to but I’m staying right here.” Her pain became my pain.

I was recently grousing about such things with a Catholic friend when I recognized that I was talking like an angry Catholic. I know because I’ve met lots of them through the years. Perhaps my anger makes me more Catholic, not less!

There’s no great disappointment where there’s no great love. According to Bernard Lonergan, one of my favorite Catholic philosophers, an honest disagreement is actually a rare achievement. We must let down our defenses, carefully listen to each other, and reason together to have a real argument. Taking it a step further, according to Alasdair McIntyre, we should think of a religious tradition as a sustained argument through time.

How’s that as a strategy for building ecumenical relationships? What a refreshing alternative in a world of sound bites and double speak. After 475 years Mennonites and Catholics are talking again (actually debating, working together, and being determined to keep at it). That’s the significance of the recently concluded international dialogue, the Bridgefolk movement, and the many other relationships between Catholics and Mennonites. They’re signs of God’s new world coming. Something mysterious is afoot!