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Sunday, November 25, 2007


Mark Brumley

It never ceases to amaze me how some people feel free to characterize a position they have at best only a vague awareness of, on the basis of incomplete newspaper accounts. And yet such people appear eager to teach and correct others. How embarrassing.


The newspaper account was, of course, necessarily incomplete. I had a thousand word limit for an account of 90 minutes of talk. Did the best I could to give some sense of the thing, and to keep comments around a common theme - in this case, truth.


As an initial disclaimer, my comments aren't intended to impugn anyone's motives or honesty, nor to demean, speak ill of, or make sweeping characterizations about any of the persons mentioned or the inherent nature or content of their work. Mr. Brumley and the others who do this type of work render an important service to the Church, and people should recognize that. I have a thought primarily on the way in which we talk about ecumenicism.

I admit continuing to be puzzled by the assertion that Catholics and Evangelicals have so much in common not merely in spite of, but because they disagree. A Baptist who says "Out of fidelity of Christ, I can't go with you on the papacy" is not making an objectively coherent statement. It might be his honest belief, but it can still be mistaken. In legal parlance, this is termed a "mistake of law," and is not a defense to prosecution (e.g. saying "Gee, your honor, I honestly thought the speed limit was 75 on this road" won't get your speeding ticket thrown out). Now, I recognize that moral culpability requires a lot more than this, and the person who honestly believes fidelity to Christ prevents recognition of the Petrine authority does not carry full moral blame for that position, but an imperfect analogy may at least promote thought, in that it reflects the fact that an honest mistake is not the logical equivalent of the truth.

The appearance that some of these statements on dialogue give is that it is better to be an educated Protestant than a simple Catholic -- which is not what the Church has ever taught. Pius XII remarked that modern times do not permit anyone to be mediocre, but I sense that he was not disparaging what Chesterton referred to as the Irish Farmer's Faith. I would rather sacrifice all my learning and hold the Faith purely on custom and authority than reason my way to the most sophisticated and erudite Protestantism (e.g., "Were the Church to teach that the bread turned into an elephant, I would believe it" - H. Belloc). The educational situation of the vast majority of the faithful throughout the vast majority of history (and even up through today in places) supports this proposition. The man who knows Catholicism true believes the Truth, even if he knows nothing else. The man who thinks Catholicism false believes an error, even if he knows everything else.

All that being said, I don't mean to speak ill or disparage the parties on both sides who engage in intelligent Catholic-Protestant dialogue. Heavens knows that's preferable to still having Klan mobs trying to torch the University of Notre Dame, and everyone can agree that useful work comes out of that dialogue. There appears to be plenty of evidence that it's led to the inroads that Catholic philosophy has made in Protestant circles, which in turn seems to have a tendency to generate converts. Nor do I wish to support lackadaisical Catholicism or dishonest conversion -- far from it. But I do intend to say that three things should be kept in mind when thinking and talking about ecumenicism:

1) Kind, polite, intelligent, honest Protestants are still Protestants, and thus believe at least a few things that are erroneous. The fact that we are friends with them doesn't make their errors go away, even if their invincible ignorance erases their culpability for them. There's a thin line between giving encouraging statements to friendly Protestants and saying things that blur the truth of Catholicism -- and if you're dense, prickly, or simply don't follow the debate with great precision, discerning where things fall can sometimes be tricky.

2) Ignorant, honest, obedient Catholics are still Catholics. They don't cease to be in union with Rome because they can only characterize the faith as "I believe what the Church believes and the Church believes what I believe." Those who can learn should; those who cannot can get by on a tautology.

3) "If you're really my friend, you'll show it by making your traditions and culture more amenable to my participation in them" is not an invitation to ecumenicism, but an announcement of cultural imperialism by the non-Catholic group. (This one is more applicable to Muslims, who often seem to take this approach, and perhaps some of Bugnini's work -- I don't know that any of the current serious Catholic-Evangelical dialogue takes this approach.)

Mark Brumley

The newspaper account was, of course, necessarily incomplete. I had a thousand word limit for an account of 90 minutes of talk. Did the best I could to give some sense of the thing, and to keep comments around a common theme - in this case, truth..

Sure. I hope you did not take my comments to be a criticism. Newspaper accounts of complex things are of necessity incomplete. My point was that someone felt justified in (negatively) characterizing my presentation on the basis of that incomplete account--a few quotes given in the article to give a flavor of the discussion, not an exhaustive account of it. Some people seem so eager to criticism and find fault that they can't be bothered to give those they would criticize a fair hearing. It's too bad. I regret to say that the Internet has seriously contributed to this phenomenon.

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