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White Horse Inn: Conversational Theology

Clarity Before Unity

Should Protestants and Catholics stop arguing over their various theological differences and join forces with one another, particularly in light of an increasingly secular culture? That was the focus of a 2004 conference held at Beeson Divinity School in Birmingham, Alabama. Shane Rosenthal attended this conference and had the opportunity to interview some of its organizers, including Richard John Neuhaus, R.R. Reno, and Carl Braaten.

Richard John Neuhaus (1935-2009) was a longtime Lutheran minister who converted to Roman Catholicism in 1990. He was the founder of the Institute on Religion and Public Life, and its journal First Things. R.R. Reno is the author of In the Ruins of the Church, and Resurrecting The Idea of A Christian Society. He converted to Roman Catholicism in 2004 and became the editor of First Things in 2011. Carl Braaten is a Lutheran Minister (ELCA) and the editor of In One Body Through The Cross: The Princeton Proposal for Christian Unity. In 1991 he helped to found The Center for Catholic and Evangelical Theology, along with its journal Pro Ecclesia. These interviews were originally published in the November/December 2004 issue of Modern Reformation magazine.

A Conversation with Richard John Neuhaus

SR:  When it comes to the issue of unity between Protestants and Catholics, some have referred to the Pope’s role as “the elephant in the room.” Can you conceive of a scenario in which there could be visible unity between these two bodies without the Pope at its head?

Neuhaus:  I think the expression “at the head” is perhaps not the best way to put it.  If you ask, can one conceive of full communion among Christians that does not include the exercise of Petrine ministry clearly grounded in the New Testament and instituted by our Lord to be a center of strength and guidance for the brethren, then the answer to that is no, because that would be contrary to our Lord’s intention.  Then if you ask, is there any other existing office in the world, present or past, that could exercise that Petrine ministry other than the bishop of Rome, then I think almost everybody would say no, there’s no other believable candidate.  So, no, I think whatever you believe we envision will be one in which that ministry will be exercised by the bishop of Rome.  But as he says, this will be done in a way that is very different from how it has often be exercised in the past, which has often been a source of disunity.

SR:   The Council of Trent in 1564 declares that, “If anyone says that men are justified either by the sole imputation of the justice of Christ or by the sole remission of sins,…let him be anathema.”   Now, if Protestants assert that justification by means of imputation is the heart of the gospel, how can there be any consideration of uniting with Catholics until this issue is resolved?

Neuhaus:  First of all, Trent was very careful to not condemn anybody by name, but said that if someone says such and such, as we understand this term to mean, let him be anathema.  Now, did they understand what Luther, Calvin, or other major Reformation figures meant generally?  Sure, but did Trent anathematize the Reformation consensus on justification?  I think the answer to that is no.  And I think this is the point made by the Joint Declaration.

SR:  So what in the Joint Declaration from your perspective, modifies Trent, or softens its blows against the Protestants?

Neuhaus:  It’s not a question really of modifying Trent…

SR:  Because it’s still in effect, right?

Neuhaus:  Oh, well yes, there are a lot of things in the history of the church that a very orthodox Catholic is very free to say, indeed obliged to say, were not adequately expressed, or were expressed in a way that has to be understood in that particular historical circumstance.  Thus, Catholics believe that through the magisterium of the church through the guidance of the Holy Spirit there is a constant and reliable further unfolding of the truth.  So just as you can’t take one part of Scripture and play it off against another part of Scripture, likewise you can’t take one part of the magisterial tradition and play it off against others. We look at the sixteenth century and many of the things that were said by those chiefly responsible for the divisions on both sides reflect profound misunderstandings of what the other side was saying.  And so, four hundred years later, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, it’s possible for us to see the inadequacies of the expression of all sides.  And so it’s an ongoing fulfillment of Jesus’ promise that he would send his Spirit to the church who would lead us into all truth.  It’s sometimes a messy process, but we believe the promise is still being kept.

SR:  But wouldn’t the first step toward closer unity between Catholics and Protestants be to have Rome issue a clear statement that the canons and decrees of the Council of Trent, which have anathematized Protestants, are no longer in effect?  But to date, there has not been an official recantation of this position. 

Neuhaus:  That’s right.  And there never will be a recantation of a council statement.  See that’s a very Protestant way of thinking.  You say, okay, how are we going to constitute our fellowship?  On the basis of our agreements and disagreements? Catholics understand that it is not doctrinal identity but a continuity of persons and office in the apostolic community that binds us together, and particularly as that is expressed sacramentally in the Eucharist.  And within that community, over 2000 years, you’ve had a lot of schlock!  I mean really bad stuff has happened, as well as the Holy Spirit keeping his promise through all of that stuff.  You don’t go and say, okay, now we’re going to repudiate this part of our tradition, and change our anathemas and turn them around in the other direction.  No, because that would be against the unity of the church.

SR:  But Peter did this.  He was willing to admit that he was wrong when he was confronted by Paul.

Neuhaus:  Yeah, but they didn’t excommunicate one another.  They continued in fellowship.

SR:  But Peter did acknowledge his error.

Neuhaus:  Absolutely, and Pope John Paul II has gone around acknowledging errors like mad.

A Conversation with R.R. Reno

SR:  The way Protestants view it, the Council of Trent condemned the heart of the gospel. Given that perspective, is it then wrong for a Protestant to attempt to re-evangelize a person of the Catholic faith?

Reno:  Doctrinal affirmations are part of systems.  They’re like ecological systems.  The word justification in Tridentine theology is in a different eco-system than the same word in classic Protestant theology. Thus they condemned things from within their own ecology.

SR:  But clearly, a Protestant, hearing Trent’s anathemas would feel condemned.

Reno:  Of course.  What it basically means is that God is going to save us in our bodies.  That’s what the doctrine of purgatory is all about.  Something real has to happen in your life, it can’t just be declarative.

SR:  So how then does one proceed in the ecumenical task with those Protestants who still believe that justification is the article on which the church stands or falls?

Reno:  With those people, I just throw my hands up.  They need to believe that the Catholic Church rules out their position.  They have to believe that.  So, does that mean the church is infallible?  Well, yes.  At some level you have to see that even with the Biblical episode in which Peter does the wrong thing, it comes out right in the end.  The teaching office of the church is not trustworthy propositionally, it is trustworthy spiritually.  It will not do harm to your soul to let your life be formed by the church’s teaching.

A Conversation with Carl Braaten

SR:  The Roman Catholic Council of Trent condemned Protestants for their view of justification, and given that Trent is still officially binding doctrine, how can there be any real ecumenism until either Protestants give up their view of justification or the Catholic side renounces Trent’s anathemas?

Braaten:  The 1999 Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification between Catholics and the Lutheran World Federation says that we don’t have to reiterate all the anathemas anymore.  This was a high level doctrinal discussion which didn’t discount the importance of Trent or say that Lutherans are right and the Catholics are wrong.  Together they worked things out in such a way that the issue of justification is no longer church dividing.

SR:  Was there an explicit recantation of Trent in the Joint Declaration?

Braaten:  There was no recantation on either side, but they concluded that the way the churches are thinking about justification today, those old condemnations no longer apply.   They didn’t say that those issues didn’t apply at that time, so they didn’t recant anything. So history moves on, theology changes, and we don’t have to stick with the old condemnations.  Now, if we still believed that Roman Catholics are teaching heretical doctrine on justification, there would be no Joint Declaration.

SR:  Which side moved from their original position, the Catholic or the Protestant?

Braaten:  I think the right wing in both traditions think there was a sellout.  For example, there are Lutherans who don’t accept the Joint Declaration.  Those are cautionary words, but I think it is the best the two bodies could do at the time and it does help to remove the antagonism, lower the temperature, and make it possible to come to the next round of dialog without all this animosity.  It’s not the end of the road, it’s just one little baby step along the way.  And I don’t think it is the last word on justification by any means.   I can find reasons myself why I wouldn’t say the formulation completely meshes with my own understanding of justification.  But as long as we understand that our justification is in Christ, through faith, in the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, and then we have sufficient ground to come together.  At least as much as is possible under the present circumstances.   We don’t come together at the Table of the Lord; there’s no open communion.  But we do come together in prayer and Bible study and in Bible centered worship.  So a lot of things are going on now that would have never happened fifty years ago, and that’s because of the ecumenical dialogs.