Copyright (c) 1997 First Things 73 (May 1997): 7-8.
Elsewhere in this issue ("Catholics in Exile," p. 9) Leonard R. Klein responds to my January column, "In Defense of Sectarian Catholicity." He does not disagree with my argument that catholic orthodoxy can exist in places outside the Roman Catholic and Orthodox communions (though he has some reservations about the way I frame the argument), but he expresses serious doubt as to whether that evangelical catholic position can be sustained over time. Indeed, he is so pessimistic about the Lutheran situation—the context in which I framed my argument—as to see it as confirmation of "Neuhaus’ Law" that "where orthodoxy is optional, orthodoxy will sooner or later be proscribed."
I have no fundamental quarrel with Pastor Klein—we are brothers in the faith and cobelligerents in intra-Lutheran controversies—but we do have some differences as to Lutheran and Catholic realities and, perhaps, over what such realities suggest about the choices confronting those of us with evangelical catholic convictions.
I am not, to begin with, persuaded that conditions in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), bad as they are, point to "the gradual proscription of orthodoxy." It is true, as I noted in my column, that the Lutheran catholic tradition "faces threats from both sentimental Protestant evangelicalism and desiccated Protestant liberalism," but the ELCA has not, as an institution, abandoned its commitment to the orthodox Christianity of the sixteenth-century Lutheran Confessions. It is weak on abortion (though there are recent welcome signs of sobriety on that issue) and it tolerates all too much theological foolishness, but it is not in its public doctrine an apostate body. In admittedly weak competition, it is the most orthodox of the mainline Protestant churches.
If I understand him correctly, Pr. Klein’s quarrel with the ELCA goes beyond "pastoral and personal sins and failures" to the very structure of the church body. The problem is not so much bad intention—though there may be a lot of that—as constitutive incapacity. He complains of "structural commitment to optional orthodoxy" and of "constitutionally designed indifference to catholicity." In other words, the absence in the ELCA of a "committed orthodox teaching office" renders whatever inclination there might be in the church to safeguard catholic orthodoxy nothing more than a pious wish.
It is difficult to deny that the presence of an effective magisterium within the ELCA would significantly increase its chances of maintaining orthodoxy, but one is tempted at this point to say to Pr. Klein, Welcome to American Lutheranism. Where has there ever existed among us the magisterium he longs for? When has congregationalism not marked our polity, or when have "institutional democracy, anti-elitism, and . . . individualism" not been beguiling temptations? The history of Lutheranism in America is littered with episodes of theological laxity and doctrinal deviation, some of them more troubling than anything occurring today. Recall, for example, Samuel Schmucker’s misbegotten effort in the mid-nineteenth century to rewrite the Augsburg Confession so as to deny baptismal regeneration and the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, thus—so the idea went—bringing Lutheranism within the general American Protestant consensus.
Pr. Klein might well respond: Just so. Threats to doctrinal stability are the recurring fate of a church without an effective teaching authority. But what has been true of Lutheranism in America has been true of all churches everywhere. What I wrote in my "Sectarian Catholicity" essay was no mere rhetorical flourish: "The history of the Church—including Orthodoxy and Catholicism—is a tale of unending struggle to hold the orthodox center against sundry temptations great and small. There is no reason to believe that God will unburden any part of His Church of that struggle short of the Second Coming." In the meantime, a sense of historical perspective might protect us from premature despair over the ills that currently afflict us.
None of this is to deny Rome’s advantage over Protestant churches in being able to define more effectively and continuously the boundaries of permissible theological speculation. But as Pr. Klein well knows—and as the laments of traditionalist Catholics regularly remind the rest of us—the existence of an authoritative magisterium is no guarantee against slovenly liturgies, banal preaching, and virtually heretical catechesis. And the reverse point holds as well. Adherence to Scripture and the Confessions has maintained within Lutheranism, for all its problems, a surprisingly widespread orthodox faithfulness in congregational life (and not just that of the ELCA) that belies the frequent vapidities of its leadership. I understand the temptation, but it seems to me excessive to describe the theological situation within Lutheranism today as one where "private judgment" and "optional orthodoxy" prevail.
This is not the place for a full-scale discussion of why many evangelical catholics find Papal Infallibility and the Marian dogmas serious obstacles to contemplation of a return to Rome. But I confess myself astonished at the blithe nonchalance with which Pr. Klein dismisses the issue. "The Marian dogmas are easy," he assures us. That is so only if one is unconcerned with their lack of biblical foundation and with the serious implications of belief in the Immaculate Conception for the doctrine of Original Sin. (The latter concern gave even Thomas Aquinas—among many other Catholic theologians—considerable difficulty.) And Papal Infallibility, to put it mildly, is in a quite different category of Petrine authority from those limited forms of papal primacy that (some) evangelical catholics are prepared to consider.
Pr. Klein wonders why I do not acknowledge women’s ordination as "at least as much an obstacle to church unity as the Marian dogmas and Infallibility." I do not deny that women’s ordination is an obstacle to church unity. I nonetheless affirm it because I have not been persuaded by any of the theological arguments against it. It does not, in any case, strike me as the matter of dogmatic necessity the Vatican has declared it to be.
Pr. Klein does not mention the fourth of the post-Reformation issues that I cited as causing unease among many evangelical catholics: Rome’s ban on contraception. The issue of contraception has created a crisis of conscience among many devout and thoroughly orthodox Roman Catholics. These are not liberal or "cafeteria" Catholics, but they find themselves unable to conform their beliefs or practices to Humanae Vitae.
One difficulty of an authoritative teaching office is what happens when its decrees conflict—or are seen to conflict—with the sensus fidelium. If on any major issue the magisterium insists on obedience that the faithful decide they cannot offer, it may undermine its general authority. One hitherto unthinkable refusal of compliance can make succeeding refusals routine. Yet how does the magisterium modify entrenched positions without raising questions as to its authoritative nature? The dilemma in the Catholic Church over contraception ought to remind evangelical catholics that a strong teaching authority, for all its virtues and attractions, has problems of its own.
Pr. Klein suggests that for those outside Rome and Orthodoxy the issue of where the one Church of Christ resides "is not quite the question that Mr. Nuechterlein says it is." (I had noted, in defense of my argument that the One Church has more than one historical manifestation, Rome and Orthodoxy’s competing claims.) I concede his point that Rome recognizes the catholic legitimacy of the East, but the Orthodox churches’ refusal of the Eucharist to all non-Orthodox (Catholics included) and their general (though not universal) insistence that Catholic converts be rebaptized and former Catholic priests reordained indicates that they do not reciprocate. This does not, of course, resolve the dispute over the true meaning of catholicity, but I would continue to argue that evangelical catholics can plausibly claim membership in the one Church of Christ.
So there we are. We "sectarian catholics" continue to face difficult choices. Evangelical Catholics have typically thought of themselves as "temporarily separated" from Catholicism and Orthodoxy, but, as I indicated, it now appears that here "temporary" means short of the Eschaton. Our ecumenical responsibilities require that we offer compelling reasons—reasons beyond habit or tradition—for maintaining the separation. Evangelical catholics within the Lutheran Church who do not find such compelling reasons in the remaining Lutheran differences with Rome and Orthodoxy will have to decide for themselves where the logic of their analysis leads.
"Neuhaus’ Law" suggesting the ultimate proscription of orthodoxy in the churches outside Rome and Constantinople is, in fact, not a law but a prediction. That prediction may come true. If it does—Pr. Klein thinks that likely, perhaps even imminent, and I do not—evangelical catholics will face new, utterly agonizing, choices. Meanwhile, however, they can remain where they are. And do so without regret or apology.