Copyright (c) 1997 First Things 73 (May 1997): 9-10.
In "The Unhappy Fate of Optional Orthodoxy" (Public Square, January), Richard John Neuhaus proposes "Neuhaus’ Law" concerning the life of religious institutions: "Where orthodoxy is optional, orthodoxy will sooner or later be proscribed." In the same issue, James Nuechterlein argues ("In Defense of Sectarian Catholicity") that catholic orthodoxy can nonetheless exist in places outside the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches. Although Mr. Nuechterlein’s claim is surely correct, the existence of "sectarian catholicity" may go further to uphold Neuhaus’ Law than to disprove it. Mr. Nuechterlein and I are both members of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), and I think we can both see the evidence for the gradual proscription of orthodoxy. The interest groups and the merrily bland can happily tolerate each other. What they cannot tolerate is the continual threat of orthodoxy.
The congregationalist structure of the denomination is such that it must at least tolerate islands of catholicity like Mr. Nuechterlein’s Christ Church in Manhattan or Christ Church in York, Pennsylvania, where I serve. There is, however, no deep commitment to maintain it. If I leave, my bishop would likely strive to maintain the tradition of this congregation. The same is true for Mr. Nuechterlein’s congregation (although it was far less clearly true under his previous bishop). Mr. Nuechterlein’s pastor is, like me, disconnected from any reliable authority or magisterium, and we cannot guarantee to our congregations that they will be served in an orthodox manner after we leave. In a sizable, sturdy congregation like mine perhaps two successions can be guaranteed; in a small urban church like Mr. Nuechterlein’s, not a single succession can.
Mr. Nuechterlein’s pastor and I do draw on the riches of the Lutheran Confessional tradition as an expression of, and an entrée into, the great catholic tradition. We preach and teach in faithfulness to Scripture and Tradition. And the Lutheran pastor down the street may do the opposite with complete impunity because our communion is organized not around orthodoxy but around a series of pragmatic compromises designed to hold a loose coalition together. This is not a matter of mere weakness and unfaithfulness; it is a structural commitment to optional orthodoxy. It has the further effect of calling into question the ministries of those of us who strive to be orthodox. Why, after all, are we any better Lutherans than that pastor up the street? Nobody has said so and nobody will.
Orthodoxy is optional and we all know it. Orthodoxy is not preferred and we all know it. In the pulpit and classroom, and in pastoral conversation, we are utterly compromised. I can and do say that the Great Tradition condemns abortion as a violation of the commandment against killing, but the ELCA pays for it and teaches that it is a matter of private judgment. I can say that the first person of the Trinity must be understood as Father, but the ELCA publishes liturgies and educational materials that avoid the masculine term.
Certainly there is always a struggle for faithfulness in the Church, but the difference between our situation, where commitment to orthodoxy is a matter of private judgment, and that of our friends in the more fully catholic communities is very stark, even if a visit to one of our parishes followed by a visit to a weakly led Catholic parish might give a different impression.
In my farewell editorial in the Lutheran Forum, I argued that Lutheranism would need to address at least three critical issues in order to preserve its catholicity: moral theology, the communion of saints, and the role of bishops. These all relate to the question of private judgment. Can the church teach with clarity and authority in a responsible relationship to its own past? No effort to do so emerges from our leadership, and our bishops are constitutionally barred from exercising such authority. Those of us who seek to maintain our catholicity in the ELCA must recognize that we do so with no useful support from the institution. Our struggle to maintain our catholicity therefore remains the matter of private judgment that, as Father Neuhaus notes, Cardinal Manning warned about. I do not know whether I am doing the "whining" Mr. Nuechterlein complains of, but it is indeed what he called an "unhappy predicament"; and the moral and personal price of staying—one hopes for the sake of the gospel and not for meaner reasons—is real.
Even if one agrees with Mr. Nuechterlein that on balance the Reformers had the better of the sixteenth-century argument, being a good Lutheran remains only an option, and not a norm. And good Lutheranism needs to be shepherded by the local pastor through the minefields of institutional democracy, anti-elitism, and American individualism by personal persuasion and force of argument. No committed orthodox teaching office stands behind Mr. Nuechterlein’s pastor or me, and when orthodox pastors, even the most politically deft of them, run afoul of local custom, it is often they who are seen as dispensable by bishops, executives, and bureaucrats for whom not rocking the boat is the first rule of leadership.
This being the case, Mr. Nuechterlein is to be commended for not trying to strengthen his argument by listing the sins of Rome and Constantinople or pointing to the all too real problems with preaching and liturgy in the Roman Catholic Church. Pastoral and personal sins and failures are a different matter from constitutionally designed indifference to catholicity, and calling attention to the smudges on the other guy’s kettle is quite pointless.
Still, I would like to challenge him on the matter of the modern dogmas, since I am convinced that they are not in themselves a sufficient reason for maintaining the sixteenth-century schism from our side. The Marian dogmas are easy. The Assumption only states where Mary obviously is and the Immaculate Conception that she was predestined to be there. And the definition of Papal Infallibility is, after all, carefully restricted. If one is prepared to grant the concept of primacy (and in their more lucid moments Lutherans have) it can surely be seen even by the wary as a great tool for catholicity in the modern world and a reasonable expression of the papal primacy that on occasion we have been willing to grant.
Since Mr. Nuechterlein lists these as problems, however, I am a little surprised that he does not acknowledge a modern Protestant decision as the equivalent obstacle that it in fact is. He tweaks us with the gender of his pastor, but surely he must recognize that the decisions of the Protestant churches to ordain women are at least as much an obstacle to church unity as the Marian dogmas and Infallibility. This is not to argue that women should not be ordained, nor is it to diminish in any way the qualifications and excellent reputation of his pastor, but when stating problems they see in Rome or Orthodoxy, Protestants are, I think, bound to note the ecumenically disruptive character of this action.
Those of us outside Rome and Orthodoxy should note that the question of where the one true Church resides is not quite the problem that Mr. Nuechterlein says it is. Rome has never ceased to recognize the catholicity of the East, a point emphasized in John Paul II’s declaration that the Church must learn to breathe with both her lungs. Orthodoxy has a harder time of it, of course, but surely many Orthodox hierarchs and theologians, for all their objections to Western innovations and the claims of the papacy, recognize the legitimacy and catholicity of the Roman Church and the genuine possibility of full communion.
We plainly are in a different place in spite of the genuine catholicity both of our Lutheran tradition and of many faithful parishes. By and large Lutheranism has dissipated the authority of the ministry, ceased serious discipline, compromised the sacraments, relativized the moral tradition, and eschewed magisterial continuity. Protestant church bodies are sectarian in a way that Rome and Orthodoxy are not. This recognition requires the exodus of no one. Sustaining the optional and sectarian catholicity of parishes such as ours is a noble endeavor. All who are engaged in it should be commended, for they are out there without a net. The arguments that support Mr. Nuechterlein’s conscientious position unfortunately also demonstrate Neuhaus’ Law.
Leonard R. Klein is former Editor of Lutheran Forum and Senior Pastor of Christ Lutheran Church in York, Pa.