A Catholic theological disagreement Protestants should listen in on

January 20th, 2017

Sometimes, one can gain perspective for thinking through one's own problems by listening in to how others are proceeding in light of analogous problems.

The point of this post is just to direct the attention of Ministry Matters' readers to a conversation which may offer relevant insight. Many Ministry Matters readers are Protestant Christians of one stripe or another, and in particular a significant number of Ministry Matters readers are Wesleyans generally and United Methodists in particular.

It will come as no surprise to United Methodists reading this that we're faced with challenges to our common life. The prospect of institutional or gradual schism, of one type or another, looms large as a significant possibility, if not as an inevitability.

So, I'm directing our attention to the beginning of a theological argument or conversation or dialogue — really, an argument in the best sense of the term — between two important American Christian writers. The situation about which they argue concerns the possibility and actuality of living in Christian unity in the midst of sharp doctrinal or practical disagreements.

What interests me about these writers, Gerald Schlabah and Rod Dreher, is that both have a set of commitments and a personal journey involving difficult discernments which make their conversation both deeper and more illuminating than many such arguments. I hope that they will be helpful as a kind of mirror for Ministry Matters readers, the United Methodists in particular. Really, inasmuch as the issue is about the grounds and possibility of being united with others in Christ and in one Church, the issue goes to the heart of of the character of Christian unity itself — of its possibility, and of its actuality in one or another manifestation of Christ's Church.

A bit about the two writers' journeys, and why I find them so interesting:

Gerald Schlabach is a Mennonite who has come into full communion with the Roman Catholic Church, without ceasing to embrace much or all of the Mennonite way and conviction about the shape of the Christian life. Schlabach now teaches Moral Theology at a Catholic university, yet is married to a Mennonite pastor, and is one of the founders of Bridgefolk, a group of Catholics and Mennonites who gather to enrich their Christian discipleship by benefiting from the riches of each others' traditions. Thus, Schlabach is what is sometimes called an "adult convert" (though 'convert' is a theologically problematic word here) to Catholicism, yet, unlike many, he continues to have meaningful engagement with and be shaped by the spiritual resources of the Mennonite tradition. He has chosen, in a sense, both/and rather than either/or. Schlabach is the author of the important book Unlearning Protestantism, in which he argues that breaking fellowship with other Christians when we discover disagreements with them is at the root of many problems Protestant and Catholic Christians experience today. A lay Benedictine, Schlabach sees the Benedictine commitment to local community amidst disagreement as a model for the Church's continued communal existence in fragmented and polarized times.

Rod Dreher himself has a certain stake in the way the tradition of Benedictine monasticism is helpful for the Church today. Dreher was raised United Methodist, and converted to the Roman Catholic Church. He was and is a successful journalist and conservative writer, and was very committed to a vision of Catholic orthodoxy resonant with the pontificates of Pope St. John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and the Catechism of the Catholic Church. As a journalist, he researched and covered the Catholic sexual abuse crisis in an in depth way. The depth of corruption in the hierarchy, and the desolation of the abused, led to a crisis of faith. (Dreher has written about this crisis publicly.) In its aftermath, he has continued on as a Christian by becoming Eastern Orthodox. In addition to writing books, Dreher writes regularly for The American Conservative.

The context of Schlabach and Dreher's argument is Dreher's forthcoming book about something Dreher has been talking and writing about for years, namely "The Benedict Option." In brief, the Benedict Option recommends that Christians in America (Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox) focus on intensifying and communally fortifying the orthodoxy and faithfulness of our own churches and parishes, in a way analogous to the way the monasticism inspired by St. Benedict preserved civility, learning, virtue, and Christian culture through the barbarism of the Dark Ages.

It seems to me like the argument between Schlabach and Dreher has obvious pertinence to the opposition many United Methodists (and indeed Protestants generally) experience between 'universality/inclusiveness' and 'faithfulness/orthodoxy', whether each of those is conceived in a conservative/traditionalist or liberal/progressive way. Big question: Are the unity of the Church and the orthodoxy of the Church always tragically at odds? If not, how not?

Here's Schlabach's argument explaining and criticizing Dreher.

Here's Dreher's reply.

I'm happy to engage in the comments with anyone who would like to discuss these things.

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