We cannot but start where we are. And that is also true for each participant in an ecumenical dialogue aimed at effecting true unity. So we first have to know where we ourselves are, and then we have to learn where our interlocutors are. That requires an openness, a willingness to listen patiently and sincerely, and learn each other's positions. If we find our interlocutor saying "No, that's a straw man of my position; my position is this", we know we have to listen and understand more carefully. But once we understand each other's positions, where do go from there? The next step, it seems, is to find and agree about what we have in common, and what are our points of disagreement. We seek to understand each other's stories about how we came to be separated, again noting the points of agreement and disagreement regarding how the separation came about.
It seems to me that so much (perhaps most) of the ecumenical task in reconciling and reuniting Protestants and Catholics involves what I have just summarized in the paragraph above. In order to move forward toward the unity of full communion, we have to look backward in time and determine together what happened in the past that caused us to be presently divided from each other.
In the Protestant mind, the Catholic Church at some point during the Middle Ages (or earlier) abandoned the gospel of Jesus Christ. The Reformers recovered this gospel, and thus the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church continues with the Protestants who hold and teach this gospel. From the point of view of the Catholic Church, on the other hand, the Catholic Church never abandoned the gospel of Jesus Christ. According to the Catholic Church, the Protestant versions of the gospel are novelties arising 1500 years after the Apostles, and are falsely read back into the writings of the Apostles by Protestants.
Did the Catholic Church abandon the gospel? (I'm not referring to abuses and corruptions of the sixteenth century, but to the doctrines of the Church.) Or did the early Protestants misinterpret the Scripture and thereby redefine the gospel as something that it never was (e.g. "imputed righteousness")? Instead of jumping right into that debate, I would like to take a step back and ask the second-order question: How should we determine who is right here? How do we go about answering these first-order questions about whether the Catholic Church abandoned the gospel and whether Protestants misinterpreted the Bible to come up with a novel gospel?
If the Catholic Church did not abandon the gospel, then the Protestant ecclesial authorities (i.e. denominational hierarchies, pastors, and uniquely Protestant creeds) are not authoritative, and we should not be following them in order to resolve the Catholic-Protestant schism. Likewise, if the Catholic Church did abandon the gospel (and for the sake of simplicity we set aside the Orthodox), and if the Protestants preserved the gospel, then Catholics should not be submitting to the Pope and Catholic bishops in order to answer these first-order questions.
Instead of turning to the pope or local Catholic bishops, or turning to Protestant authorities or our own interpretation of Scripture, we need a means of answering the first-order questions that does not beg the question, that is, does not assume already at the outset which position is correct. We could each simply stand right where we are, appeal to our present [unique credal and/or ecclesial] authority and present methodology, respectively, and answer the first-order questions. But that would only beg the question (i.e. assume precisely what it is we are trying to determine) on both sides, and thus perpetuate the division between us. That is because it is precisely our present credal and/or ecclesial authorities and present unique epistemic methodologies that are called into question by a sincere consideration of our first-order questions. Although we must start where we are, when resolving disagreements we must recognize that we have to go back, so to speak, to how we got to the point where we are. Taking up our history is in this way part of coming to know and understand where we are now.
That brings me to what I want to say here about ecumenical starting points. How do we get to a non-question-begging starting point? It seems to me that we must turn to history, to that time before the separation, when we (well, actually our ecclesial ancestors) were still united. Only if we go back (so to speak) in history to the point where we were united can we then proceed forward discursively and evaluate together, from a shared conceptual point of view according to shared (and thus non-question-begging) criteria, the actions of our ancestors in our respective ecclesial traditions. But we need to agree on where we can start in history as one united people. And in the Catholic-Protestant discourse, that is not as easy as it may initially appear.
Let me explain. In January, on the feast day of St. Francis de Sales, I discussed here the need for Catholics and Protestants to trace together our history, from Jesus through the Apostles all the way to the sixteenth century. There I talked about the difference between "tracing matter" and "comparing form" in determining in a principled manner, in the case of a schism, which party is the schism and which is the continuation of the Church that Christ founded. In the comments there I wrote:
The Catholic-Protestant discussion is, in a certain sense more difficult, because Protestants (generally) don't "trace matter", but rather "compare form". Anglicans are something of an exception here. But often Protestants, when talking with Catholics about these issues, will bring up the 1054 split, as though that shows that the Catholic Church is just one branch of the Church. So, already, they are thinking of the Church as an invisible Church with visible members. And that implies that they are not thinking in a "trace matter" manner, since there is an historical line that can be drawn from *any* schism back to the Apostles. "Trace matter" therefore doesn't just mean showing historical continuity. It means showing in a principled manner why the Church continues one way, and not the other, through all the schisms she has endured. In order to "trace matter" with Protestants through the 16th century split [i.e. in order to determine which way the Church went], Protestants would actually need to get up to the 1500s with us [in this exercise of tracing the historical path of the Church]. But generally they don't make it that far. See, for example, my discussion of ecclesial deism, in which Al Mohler bails out around 500 AD. While the Catholic-Protestant split takes place in the 16th century, many Protestants retroactively reject the prior 1000 years. So, I think with Protestants, we have to go back to the first five hundred years, i.e. to the Church fathers. When we study the fathers, we see an organic growth and continuity, nothing to justify bailing out at 500 AD and then restarting (supposedly) in 1520 where the Church left off in 500 AD.
So one reason why it is difficult to start with Protestants from a shared and united point in history, and then work forward, is that in principle, for Protestants, everything in Church history is called into question except the writings of the Apostles. So in practice that means that we have to begin our ecumenical exercise in the first century, and trace the path forward together from the time of the Apostles.
When I am talking with Mormons (who claim that the Church was already apostate by the end of the first century), I ask them how they know that St. Ignatius of Antioch, St. Clement of Rome, the Didache, and St. Polycarp were apostate. Other than a subjective appeal to the Holy Spirit (which they describe experientially as a "burning in the bosom"), the answer I generally receive is one of "comparing form". The Mormons claim that the early Church fathers teach a different gospel from the one found in the New Testament. I then ask them how they know that the gospel taught by the early Church fathers is not the same gospel taught by the Apostles, and that the Mormon interpretation of the New Testament is not an erroneous interpretation of the New Testament. The point of my question is to show that there are two paradigms here: one is that of [what I call] ecclesial deism, and the other is that of providential development. These correspond to two fundamental possible stances: We can either read the New Testament through the eyes of the fathers, learning from them how better to understand what the Apostles taught, or we can judge and critique the teachings of the fathers by means of our own personal interpretation of Scripture or our contemporary tradition's interpretation of Scripture. (I came to that same conclusion about these two fundamental stances in Part 2 of What is the True Church?.)
There are obviously many important differences between Mormonism and the various other forms of Protestantism, but they do tend to have something in common, and that is a distrust of the early Church fathers, and a belief that something fundamental was lost for at least a millennium and a half, and was recovered in either the sixteenth century or the nineteenth century. (Think of Alister McGrath's claim that "imputed righteousness" [forensic justification] was unknown from the time of St. Paul to the Reformation, that it fell out of view for 1500 years.) I discussed this shared distrust of the fathers in my post on ecclesial deism. At present, I do not know how to persuade those who take a skeptical stance toward the early Church fathers to trust that the Holy Spirit was working through them providentially to guide the Church into all truth. A stance (or attitude, or disposition of the will) is not the same sort of thing as a proposition. A proposition can be refuted or at least shown to be without justification, or it can be substantiated and confirmed. But a stance or attitude is just not that sort of thing; it is something closer to the level of the heart, not the intellect.
Perhaps the best I can do is to ask my Prostestant brothers and sisters to engage in an exercise in charity, for the sake of trying to achieve unity, by allowing themselves to listen to the fathers as if the Holy Spirit were providentially guiding the Church through the fathers. I'm not talking about cherry-picking from the fathers to support any present ideology. I mean listening to the fathers in an organic way inspired by faith, that is, as if the Church is a Body growing organically and guided providentially by the Holy Spirit from the time of the Apostles onward. (The 'faith' part comes from trusting that the Holy Spirit is continually guiding the Church and protecting her from error.)
How then do the fathers understand the marks of the Church? Do they do so by "comparing form" or "tracing matter"? Do they understand 'apostolicity' primarily in the "trace matter" sense or the "comparing form" sense? I leave the inquirer to answer that question through his own reading of the fathers. But consider the implications of each alternative. If "comparing form" were primary, then every heresy in history could treat its novel interpretation of Scripture as the true gospel that had been lost when the Apostles died, and thus we could not trace the Church through history in a non-question-begging way. Protestants are not unwilling to concede that point. But they respond in two ways. First, they assert the perspicuity of Scripture so as to avoid the implication of an ecclesiology instituted by Christ that obviously leaves the sheep in a situation of massive confusion and endless sectarianism. Second, they object that the "trace matter" approach leaves the believer open to falling into heresy, if the line of bishops being traced has fallen into heresy or apostasy.
But the perspicuity claim seems to be falsified by history itself, for Bible-believing Christians have multiplied sects in vast number, and simply pointing to the various passages in Scripture has failed repeatedly to achieve reconciliation and reunion. Similarly, the worry about the "trace matter" approach carries with it the same distrust we see in Mormonism and the general ecclesial deism of Protestantism. That's not to say that from the Catholic perspective, bishops cannot become heretics; history shows us that they have! But heresy is possible as something objective only if "trace matter" is primary. Otherwise your heresy is my orthodoxy, and vice versa. Heresy in an objective, non-question-begging sense is possible only because ecclesial authority in the "trace matter" sense (and not in the question-begging "those who teach what I believe" sense) has already laid down what is orthodox and what is heresy.
One thing that helped me move from Anglicanism to Catholicism was witnessing an Anglican bishop pick and choose from the first seven ecumenical councils, as if he could take and leave whatever he wanted among them and within them. Either these councils are authoritative, in which case we cannot pick and choose from them, or they are not authoritative. If "comparing form" is the right approach (and not "tracing matter"), then no creed is authoritative, because no council is authoritative. But if "tracing matter" is the right approach, then the creeds and councils are authoritative, not because they happen to agree with our own interpretation of Scripture but because of the sacramental authority in succession from the Apostles of those who constituted these councils. In that case we cannot pick and choose from among these councils according to our own interpretation of Scripture; our own interpretation of Scripture is subordinate in authority to that of the councils. How would we know if an ecumenical council were heretical? It would contradict a dogma that had always been held by the Church and/or had been explicitly taught by the Church's magisterium.
What I am trying to do here in this post is to take us (Protestants and Catholics) to a common starting point, one that does not beg the question either way. And then walk forward together with the Church fathers, using the criteria they use to determine where is the Church in the first centuries. As we walk forward together through the early history of the Church, we can observe what the fathers's conception of apostolic succession is, and what role apostolic succession is playing in determining the identity through time of the Church that Christ founded. That will help us when we come to evaluating the events of the 16th century, by providing shared common ground by which we may mutually evaluate those events and sort them in such a way as to be able to say sincerely to each other, with full agreement: "Ok, you were right about this, but wrong about that. We were right about this but wrong about that. In order to be reconciled and reunited, here's what we need to do." We can't stand nowhere in evaluating these things. We have to stand somewhere. And we should not remain in a starting point in which we assume a priori some theological position that arose in the sixteenth century, even if that is the starting point in which we find ourselves upon entering the ecumenical dialogue. In order for our ecumenical dialogue to be fruitful, we have to find a shared starting point. And that shared starting point, I am arguing, should be that of the early Church, from which point we trace together her organic development and unfolding by the Holy Spirit.
Lord Jesus, please help Protestants and Catholics sense the pain of the wound of our present separation. And by your Holy Spirit, help us make peace and be reunited to each other, in truth and charity and trust. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.