Perhaps the biggest difficulty facing a catholic Christian at the beginning of the third millennium is denominationalism. This isn’t simply a protestant model, though I’m certainly working from within that tradition. No, there are plenty of “Traditionalist Catholics” that drive an hour to find their Latin Mass. They pass through a few parishes to get to their destination. Orthodoxy is split around national lines, and let us not also forget that there are plenty of folks who point out that Bulgakov and Lossky changed the face of modern Orthodoxy theology, for better or worse. And as Solzhenitsyn discovered, simply by being in the West, things are different. You can lay the claim to hierarchical unity in these groups, but the ground level experience is difficult to truly distance from that of Protestant denominationalism. The challenge for all sectors of Christendom is becoming basically the same.
The main problem is how to achieve unity and maintain legitimate diversity. It is unlikely that everyone will simply wake up next week thinking, worshiping, and doing ministry like I do. It is just as unlikely that I will be able to transform into them. Somewhat along the same lines, it seems tragic that I would require a shared understanding of limited atonement before I’d recognize a brother as a true brother. So too with the respective relationship between a substance and its accidents during the Eucharist. These just don’t really seem to be the fruits of the Spirit or the way the world will know us, if you’ll forgive my philistine biblicism here.
“Non-denominationalism” is also a dead-end. The first thing is simply that non-denominationalists are their own denomination. Secondly, they often despise history and chop themselves off from their theological fore-bearers. It really is hard to tell when these types move from just weird to a true cult-status. Failing to admit differences doesn’t cut it either, because that’s just dishonesty.
So we have to be able to talk about what we believe and where we differ, while finding a way towards ministerial unity. I have a few points to make which I hope will advance this project:
1) The local church is the catholic church.
The bishop is the head of a local church, and every bishop is the legitimate heir to the apostolic church. The succession is in the waters of baptism and the weekly (re)formation of the body of Christ. As a body of the Holy Spirit, each congregation possesses the fullness of the Church’s essence for it is indwelt by a divine person.
2) The local church is local.
We have to begin serving our neighborhood. I understand reasons why you may drive 45 minutes to find “the right church,” but this approach cannot produce a legacy, and I do not believe it is a faithful application of the great commission. You should know your neighbors, and the only way you could ever bear their burdens or bring a necessary rebuke against them in times of sin is if you already have a relationship of love and trust. You can’t open up the iron gates once a year “to the community” and expect them to all come running in. You have to know them. You have to serve them. You have to die for them. And as soon as you start working with folks where you currently are, you will have your diversity. It is guaranteed.
3) Practice takes priority over theory.
Ironic for a blogger to say isn’t it? But it’s true. Look at what really gets Jesus angry. Now look at what Paul gets mad at. Now check James. How about John? It is always the same. Heretics are those who devour God’s people. They oppress them. They mistreat them. They refuse to love them. They are only interested in their “conversion” so they can boast. Bad theology is fueled by a bad heart. Conversely, the fruits of the Spirit, as well as qualifications for leadership, are mostly behavioral.
4) Theoretical discussions are still necessary and conversations should take place.
Again, there’s no point trying to fool ourselves. Disagreements exist and have been long-standing. We are not honoring history if we toss our forefathers and the things they fought and died for into the trash bin. We want to honor our tradition and truly understand what is Biblical. God is honored by the truth. He is dishonored by our shoddy scholarship and academic and intellectual mistreatment of others. The only way to improve yourself is to have conversations with others who are different and to do so with an open-mind. You don’t have to be naive about this, and first principles are still first principles, but there is always that chance that maybe, just maybe, you might be wrong about something.
5) In order to build a well-rounded vision, our conversations must include history, biblical exegesis, and practical ministry.
As I’ve already mentioned, each of these are important. People tend to be drawn to one of these to the exclusion of the others, but this is only to their detriment. We need to constantly be challenged on all fronts, and the more voices participating in this conversation, the better. We also have to be doing something. We’ve talked enough. Let’s get to work.