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Robert P. George on Our Ecumenical Touchstone
“Right Alliances” was given at a dinner celebrating Touchstone’s 100th issue, held in Washington, D.C., in late May. It has been revised slightly for publication.
The fact that Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox Christians are able to come together as we do tonight, in a spirit of fellowship and good will, is a tribute to our nation and to its great tradition of religious pluralism. Of course, it has taken us some time, we Protestants, Catholics, and Orthodox Christians, to get to this point.
There are people in this room who can remember a time when hostility and mutual suspicion across the lines of religious division was very much the order of the day. My dear friend Hadley Arkes of Amherst College talks about growing up in the 1950s in a neighborhood of Chicago so rife with religious prejudice that when a Unitarian family moved into the neighborhood the Ku Klux Klan showed up to burn a question mark on the lawn. Thank goodness that sort of hostility and mutual suspicion has disappeared.
Today we have very different lines of division. Touchstone highlighted the most politically salient of these in its provocative issue on “The Godless Party” (April 2003). The key division is not between Catholics and Protestants, or Christians and Jews, but rather between people—be they Evangelical and other conservative Protestants, faithful Catholics, Eastern Orthodox Christians, or observant Jews—who hold to the biblical view of life and cling to the Judeo-Christian ethic on the one side, and liberal secularists on the other.
Of course, not all who identify themselves with the great religious traditions side with the main body of believers or the traditions and faith of the Church. Plenty of self-identified Protestants, Catholics, and Jews side with liberal secularism on the great issues of the day, whether we are talking about abortion, the killing of embryos in scientific research, assisted suicide and euthanasia, marriage and sexual morality, or the place of religion and religiously informed moral judgment in American public life.
Liberal Catholics, for example, try to square the circle by claiming that their personal religious views are purely private matters that ought not to affect their behavior on questions of public policy. This was a dubious proposition when it was first announced by John F. Kennedy in his speech to Protestant ministers in Houston in 1960. Today, it is carried to the point of absurdity by such prominent liberal Catholics as the late president’s brother Teddy, who evidently believes that his religion is so private a matter that he will not impose it even on himself.
Let us take a moment to review the bidding. In the euphoria occasioned by the Second Vatican Council, observers looked forward to a flowering of ecumenism and perhaps even the reunification of the Christian Church. Official commissions were formed to reexamine issues that had historically divided Eastern and Western Christians, Protestants and Catholics, Christians and Jews. Denominational leaders sought opportunities for ecumenical cooperation, and theologians explored the possibility of compromises and new understandings to overcome differences in areas of doctrine, discipline, and authority.
One thing seemed certain back in those days: The ecumenical action would be on the left wing of the various religious communities, not on the right. Traditional Catholics, conservative Protestants, and orthodox Jews were viewed as part of the problem, not part of the solution. After all, interfaith dialogue would require flexibility, openness, tolerance—virtues of the religious and sociopolitical left, it was supposed in those days, not the right. Indeed, the alleged rigidity, dogmatism, and authoritarianism of conservative religious believers would, it was thought, make them obstacles to what was known as “the dialogical enterprise.”
Ecumenism would have to proceed despite anticipated conservative resistance. Then came the culture war.
The massive assault of the secularist left on traditional Judeo-Christian moral beliefs about sexuality, marriage and the family, and the sanctity of human life—largely acquiesced in, and very often abetted by, the religious left—brought conservative elements of the various religious communities together in the pro-life, pro-family movement.
In the beginning, the pan-orthodox alliance, as I call it, was understood by religious conservatives themselves as a sort of marriage of convenience. And even today there are religious conservatives, including some who are active in the movement, who view it that way. Perhaps it goes without saying that liberal critics of the pan-orthodox alliance are certain that the alliance can never be anything other than a marriage of political convenience.
What is remarkable, and what was in 1965 surely unpredictable, is that at century’s end, and now into the new century, the new millennium, an alliance that began as a marriage of convenience in the moral-political sphere would, without anybody planning or even foreseeing it, blossom into a genuine and profound spiritual engagement, precisely of the sort that manifests itself in Touchstone magazine. As things have turned out, the serious ecumenical action is almost entirely on the religious right, and we have the cultural depredations of the left to thank for it. God really does have a sense of irony, if not humor.
Today, traditional Catholics, Orthodox, Evangelical and other conservative Protestants, and believing Jews are not only working but praying together. Interfaith cooperation in pursuit of operational objectives in the culture war—protecting the unborn, preserving the institution of marriage, and so forth—has occasioned the emergence of genuine and unprecedented spiritual fellowship. The ecumenism of Touchstone magazine is an ecumenism of the streets and the living rooms.
It unites Protestants and Catholics, Eastern Orthodox Christians and Western Christians, people who have in common very practical worries about what Dr. Ruth has in mind for their children and what Dr. Kevorkian has in mind for their parents. It brings together, from different communities of faith, people who listen to Dr. Dobson for advice about parenting, and to Dr. Laura for reassurance that they aren’t the ones who are crazy.
Occasionally this ecumenism takes the form of theologians and denominational officials sitting down together to hammer out joint statements about, say, justification, or other doctrinal matters. More often, though, it happens when people of different religious traditions find themselves praying together in front of abortion clinics, marching together for life here in Washington, D.C., and working together in assisting pregnant women in need.
Although it sometimes takes the form of interfaith worship, it more commonly manifests itself in informal shared prayer, counseling, and mutual spiritual support among people who got to know each other not in church, but, for example, at a school board meeting where they had come together to protect their children against indoctrination into the mystery cult of secular sex education.
Shouldering the Oar
To focus on the truly grass-roots ecumenism of this alliance is not to suggest that it lacks an intellectual core or that it swings free of the judgments and actions of religious authorities of our various traditions. A vocal critic, Andrew Sullivan, has described First Things, with which I have the honor to be associated, as “the spiritual nerve center” of the movement. And there is truth in what he says.
But in the past few years, a second magazine, an explicitly and vibrantly Christian one, has emerged to shoulder an important oar. It is that magazine, Touchstone, that we gather together this evening to celebrate. Touchstone is what it self-confidently proclaims itself to be, “a journal of mere Christianity.” Its creed is the Christian creed. Its gospel is the gospel of Christ. Its positions are positions that unite faithful Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox Christians. Even the disputes among the editors are disputes among Christians.
The ecumenism growing out of the pan-orthodox alliance, the Christian ecumenism of Touchstone, is the real thing. It is an ecumenism that takes religious faith, and therefore religious differences, seriously. This ecumenism neither ignores nor trivializes, much less relativizes, the important points of doctrine, discipline, and authority that divide Protestants from Catholics, Catholics from Orthodox Christians, the Orthodox from the Protestants. It proceeds not by pretending that all sincerely held theological positions are equally true or that doctrinal differences don’t matter, but by respectful yet serious engagement of theological differences.
But this creates a puzzle. How can there be genuine spiritual fellowship between people who sincerely consider each other to be in error on profoundly important religious questions? The issues disputed by Christians of different stripes include: the sacraments, the priesthood, the filioque, papal authority, and the Marian dogmas.
Yet the spiritual fellowship of the alliance has emerged despite these obstacles. It has been made possible, in my opinion, by the promotion of interfaith understanding through intellectual work, as well as by common prayer and mutual support. The experience of the past three decades reveals that the misperceptions and mistrust that long impeded fellowship among Christians of diverse points of view—in the days before the culture war—were in many, many cases rooted in misunderstanding of the scope and content of religious differences.
By largely eradicating these misperceptions and overcoming mistrust, the movement has been transformed from a mere marriage of political convenience. Without ignoring their differences, faithful Protestant, Catholic, and Eastern Orthodox Christians have come to understand and appreciate that they have in common much more than what separates them. They share a larger set of beliefs, a view of the world, that includes much that is common in theology, anthropology, sacred history, and religious practice.
Protestants need not accept Marian doctrines to understand that Catholics are truly Christians and not worshipers of Mary. Catholics do not compromise such doctrines when they understand Protestants who decline to accept them as Christian brothers. If Pope John Paul II is to be denied his fondest wish, namely, the restoration of full communion between the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church, still, all of us can nevertheless recognize and rejoice in the tremendous progress that has been made towards the goal, beginning with the lifting of mutual anathemas in the 1960s.
Of course, serious obstacles remain. Some continue to insist that Christian union, reunion, must await the Second Coming of the Lord himself. Still, no sane person can fail to recognize the situation today is not what it was when my Catholic mother married my Syrian Orthodox father fifty years ago this month. And the change has been profoundly for the better.
Well, what about the future of the alliance? Because I believe it to be built on a base of shared understanding, a strong base, I am confident that it will flourish in coming years. Whatever struggles we face in the culture war, whatever losses we endure, whatever victories we win, I believe that we will flourish as a movement. I have no doubt of the capacity of the movement to survive defeats, should they come, in the moral-political struggle. And I am even hopeful of its capacity to survive victories, though that, of course, is the far greater challenge. Certainly there will be many bumps along the way.
Might the whole thing come undone? Of course it might. The matter is ultimately in God’s hands. If reunion is to come, it will be in his time and on his terms. Our job is simply to do his will, and where possible, to at least get out of his way. For those of us who, despite our differences, seek to do that, seek to do his will, there is every reason to hope that he will continue to bless our cooperation and use it to his ends.
Some of the material in “Right Alliances” appeared earlier in First Things.
Robert P. George , a Roman Catholic, is McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence and Director of the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions at Princeton University. His books include In Defense of Natural Law (Oxford University Press) and The Clash of Orthodoxies (ISI Books). He is a Senior Editor of Touchstone.