What Have We Learned? IV

Two Questions for the Mennonite Catholic Dialogue

Drew Christiansen, S. J.
Editor in Chief, America

I want to thank the planners for the invitation to contribute to this conference. Even before I was named editor of America I had informed Tom Michel, the coordinator of Jesuit interfaith activities in Rome, that I would skip the triennial Jesuit ecumenists meeting to join you here, and I declined a related invitation to speak to a meeting for Jesuits in dialogue with Jews also being held this month. Bridgefolk and the Mennonite-Catholic dialogue were my priorities. I am pleased as ever to be here, and I want to express my gratitude to Gerald and to Ivan and Lois for making it possible.

Last year I spoke at the Martyrs’ Conference about sanctity and martyrdom. The first of the two topics I would like to take up this morning is that of Christian holiness. Catholics and Mennonites, along with Wesleyan Methodists among others, share a high doctrine of sanctification. In the postmodern world, both Catholics and Mennonites face common challenges in formulating and living out the call to holiness of life in a post-Christian world. In that sense, the first topic I offer is less a Catholic challenge to Mennonites than a call for mutual exploration of how believer-disciples can live out the Christian life in an increasingly de-Christianized age.

The second topic takes more the style of a Catholic question for today’s Mennonites, especially those who find themselves living, working and socializing in the wider world. It is less a question about church and state than about church and world. Catholics speak of “finding God in the world” and of responding to God’s “action in the world.” One way to phrase the question is to ask, “How do Mennonites find God acting outside the Church?” There is a growing Mennonite literature, to use one favorite formula we have heard here in the past, on “the peace of the city.” That kind of theology recognizes Mennonite involvement in the wider society and the Christian community’s contribution to that society. My question isa little different. It asks, does God speak to the Church through the world? How do we speak of that communication and of the Church’s response to God’s initiative through the world? Vatican II’s Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, Gaudium et Spes, put the issue in a very pointed way when it expressed gratitude for what the Church had been taught even by those who had persecuted her. Could Mennonites ever imagine themselves saying that?

(1) Christian Holiness in the Post-modern World

The first topic of inquiry has to do with the problems post-modern life poses for living the Christian life. The problems take slightly different forms, I think, for Catholics and for Mennonites. But the challenge comes from the wider society: from its commercialism, its competitiveness, its insensitivity to the dignity of human life, to its aggressiveness, to sensuality. In that sense, it is a common challenge, set by the context in which we live. Some, like myself, would see it as a greater challenge in American culture than in Europe. Others see European secularism as a greater threat.

Basic Questions.

I would contend that for Catholics, because they accept the fundamental goodness of creation including the goodness of human societies, the challenge is first of all acceptance-“church-wide and parish deep” as Gerald Schlabach says-of “the universal call to holiness” proclaimed by Vatican II. For Mennonites, at least those of the Dutch-Ukranian-American/Canadian lineage who are grappling with greater involvement in the world, the first question of this Catholic is, as you live more and more in the midst of the larger society rather than apart from it, how do you understand personal and corporate holiness when the traditional public signs of discipleship have faded away.

After Vatican II, some, though not all, Catholic religious orders faced the same problem. Those particularly whose rule focused on the externals of religious life-the habit, the daily order, the cloister-had trouble adapting to life after the Council. I wonder how Mennonites, having departed what John Yoder called “the little Christendoms” and living in today’s world, are now formulating their ideals of holiness and finding styles for living with Christian holiness in the midst of the world..

This-Worldly Spirituality.

Over the centuries Catholics have developed a variety of strategies for living the life of discipleship in the world. These have included the tertiary movements of the monastic orders, the Devotio Moderna and this-worldly spiritualities of which Ignatian spirituality would be a primary example. Today there are numerous ecclesial movements, like Focolare and Sant’Egidio, developing new forms of Christian life. The popularity of Benedictine oblate programs with many Mennonites in Bridgefolk show, I think, the search for a style of holiness for living in the world. There is a historic kinship between monasticism and the Mennonites, and the participation of Father John and Father William in Bridgefolk demonstrate the strength and continuity of that relationship; but I would like to know what kinds of this-worldly spirituality are emerging from within Mennonite communities too.

Cultural Discernment.

The second point I would make on the issue of sanctification concerns the need for active personal and communal discernment about the trends, institutions and modes of life in which we participate and which we encounter simply by living in the world. Such discernment is a pre-condition for finding a way of holiness in the midst of the contemporary world. On the one hand, it helps us avoid dualistic, Manichean, views of the world; on the other, it helps us live our Christian lives with integrity, without compromise with the evil spirit in the world. Discernment also leads us to appreciate the specific, sometimes unique ways in which God is calling us.

There are strong tendencies in the wider Christian community, including the Catholic church, simply to reject not only secular trends but those involved in any way with them. These self-defined orthodoxies represent a counter-position to genuine Christian discernment. For one, their norms are frequently taken from political movements rather than the gospel and the Christian tradition. For another, “the movements of the spirit” to which they give rise are frequently negative ones, like aggressiveness, intolerance, resentment, which are counter-indicators of the Spirit of Christ working within us.

Rather than defining holiness by adherence to naive orthodoxies and personal or political loyalties, both Catholic and Mennonites need to discern attentively the good and the evil in secular developments, or, to put as Vatican II did, to read the signs of the times by light of the gospel. Called to be Peacemakers Together, in its treatment of discipleship, identifies many of the traits by which we will be able to discern the good from the evil in unfolding history. Nonviolence is one virtue, but so is love of the poor. As John Yoder wrote of Stanley Hauerwas, nonviolence is not the singular mark of holiness even in the Mennonite tradition.

Here it is important to note, however, that “discernment” is not only a personal, individual undertaking; it is a process of communal judgment by communities of Christians. Traditionally, communal discernment has been part of Mennonite life, though I understand it has grown harder to do under the influence of the religious right and the politicization of church communities. Though it has been urged by Vatican II and Paul VI and is promoted by many other Catholics today, communal discernment is much rarer in Catholic life. But my sense is that corporate discernment about trends in contemporary society, while necessary, will be difficult for both communities. [NRPE on consumerism]

(2) Finding God in the World

Let me turn now to the question of finding God in the world, which in my research for the concluding essay of Gerald’s new book on just policing has emerged for me as one of the really big questions between us, the proverbial elephant in the middle of the room. Perhaps the largest difference Mennonites and Catholics need to explore has to do with finding God in the world, that is outside the Church, not just in creation, but especially in society and culture. The Catholic tradition has an ancient and rich vein of theology about the presence and action of God in the world “among people of good will.” It pre-dates Constantine, but, of course, in its later formulations partakes in some ways of the Constantinian model, so there will be much to sort out. What exactly this means today in the encounter of world religions is a matter of contention within the Catholic Church, but the recognition of divine action outside the church itself is not in dispute.

One component of this question is the scriptural evidence about God acting in surprising ways, including Jesus’ own discoveries about the mission to the Gentiles, as in the encounter with the Syro-Phoenician woman, and the disciples discovery of preaching and the activity of the Spirit outside their own immediate circle, like Peter’s encounter at the house of Cornelius that Jay described last night.. If Jesus and the early church could discover a wider spectrum of divine action than that found in their own community, whether that was Israel or the early church, can we limit God’s action, action to which we are accountable, to the boundaries of the church community? If God is acting in the world, are we not called to respond to that action too? And if we are called to respond, do we not require some theology of that interaction?

In Catholic social teaching, there are two important revolutions that evolved out of encounter with the modern world. The first was the acceptance of religious liberty, and the second was the recognition and engagement in the human rights movement. As John Courtney Murray put it, Catholicism learned religious freedom from “the American experiment.” We should have learned it from Mennonites and other reformers, but the learning came from secular experience.

Again, though there were significant Catholic anticipations of the modern human rights movement through the early 17th century, for a century and a half the Catholic church reacted against human rights as a fruit of the Enlightenment and French Revolution. But now for forty years, since Pope John XXIII’s encyclical letter Pacem in Terris, human rights have been the cornerstone of Catholic social teaching. The Church has learned in profound ways from the world and learned in fundamental ways about human dignity, human freedom and the intentions of the Creator.

So, in brief, one Catholic’s question for Mennonites, as our dialogue advances, is, can we learn from the secular world? Can we learn even significant moral truths from the world? Can we even learn things that will transform our understanding of church, as “religious liberty” changed the Catholic church’s conception of itself. And can learning from the world be a common part of our shared Christian life?