The American Church in the Church Universal

The son and grandson of Lutheran ministers, JAROSLAV PELIKANhas “grave doubts” about the sustaining power of a divided Christianity, as he welt expressed in his book THE RIDDLE OF ROMAN CATHOLICISM.Dr. Pelikan is editor of the English edition of LUTIIER’S WORKS. This autumn he will become the Titus Street Professor of Ecclesiastical History at Yale.

CATHOLIC is a synonym for “universal.” So is “ecumenical.” Yet in the judgment of many American Protestants or non-Christians, and apparently of a considerable group of American Roman Catholics as well, there is nothing more sectarian and less universal than the Roman Catholic Church, specifically the Roman Catholic Church in the United States. The isolationism of the American Church has frequently been caricatured, but parts of the Church have often worked hard to live up to the caricatures. Apocryphal though the story may be, the legendary headline in a diocesan newspaper, “Tornado in Kansas. No Catholics Killed,” describes a myopia that continues to be the occupational disease of many prelates, clergy, and laymen.

Speaking as a Lutheran who is a historian of the Christian Church and of its theology, I should like to see the American Church more Catholic in the fullest and richest sense of that word. If “Catholic” is to be synonymous with “universal” and with “ecumenical” and is not to be merely a denominational label, the dimensions of Christian-Catholic universality will have to become more evident than they are now in the American Church. There is good evidence for the supposition and hope that the Roman Catholic Church in America is becoming more conscious of these dimensions. It seems to me that Christian universality must extend into at least three dimensions to be authentically Catholic: it must have a universality in space, a universality in time, and a universality in faith, hope, and charity.

Roman Catholicism in the United States accounts for somewhat less than one tenth of the entire Roman Catholic Church. Its contributions to the total life of the Roman Catholic Church include the most comprehensive educational system in Christian history and considerably more than one tenth of the Church’s gross income, but only one saint (Mother Cabrini, born in Italy) and pathetically few theologians, artists, or composers. So it is understandable if the attitude of the American Church toward Roman Catholicism in other lands is, as the therapists like to say, an attitude of ambivalence, of simultaneous and ofttimes exaggerated attraction and repulsion.

Anyone who grew up as part of an immigrant society will recall all sorts of gestures of obeisance to the old country. Its ways were somehow more meaningful, its piety more genuine, and its melons sweeter. Perhaps no Yankee, regardless of how much an Anglophile or one-worlder he may be, can grasp the existential pathos of this mood, subtler by far than mere nostalgia. When immigrants put on their mantillas or babushkas and went to church, they fastened upon visitors or items of news from the Church in the motherland with eagerness and personal involvement. During my boyhood in Pennsylvania, for example, our fellow Slovaks who were Roman Catholics seemed to have a larger stake in the struggles of Father Andrej Hlinka with the Prague government than they did in the aftermath of the presidential campaign of 1928, not to mention Governor Gifford Pinchot’s fight to save the forests and streams. Even the Roman Catholic literati of the United States seem addicted to what one American priest has termed “the assumption that the ultimate intellectual achievement for American Catholicism is to bring to completion an exhaustive raid on what Europeans are saying and to make all this available to the man in the American street.” When an American Roman Catholic does write a solid book, the fashionable reaction in some circles of the Church is to cut it down to size by calling it an oeuvre de vulgarisation cribbed from a monograph published by some French Jesuit ten years ago. And one would have a hard time finding a St. Patrick’s Day dinner even now that did not include some pledge of allegiance to the old sod.

Beneath all the oratory and the diffidence, however, is the immigrant’s version of the myths of the exodus and the new frontier. Remembering how things used to be in Ireland or eastern Europe during his grandfather’s childhood, the Roman Catholic in America fancies himself to be in the vanguard of the Church. It is a shock to discover that ecclesiastically European Christianity is far in advance of the Church in the New World. A drive for greater lay participation, not in societies or sodalities but in the actual life and liturgy of the Church; a fresh approach to the Bible that has put fundamentalism behind and has discovered a new biblical theology; adoption of a strategy of penetration into secularized industrial society — these and similar avant-garde movements have been flourishing on the Continent but have only begun to sprout in the United States. To say that the American Church has a lot of catching up to do is to recognize the present stage in the Americanization of the immigrants and of their descendants.

Flere it would be easy to equate Americanization with a loss of religious identity, as our latterday Know-Nothings were doing just two years ago. There has been considerable loss, or “leakage,” as church sociologists say. But more impressive historically and more significant religiously are the conservation of the second and third generations and the creation in them of the recognition that as members of the Church they live and worship in a universal context. Can there be a parish in America without at least one former GI who discovered during the war that there is a Church on the other side of the mountains and seas? The cliches about modern transportation and communication do have a point, and for the life of the American Church the point is that at no time in the history of Catholic Christianity have so many Christians in one country known the universality of the Church by personal experience. It is a piece of good fortune or of divine Providence that the Roman Catholic Church in the United States has been coming of age at the very time when the United States as a country has committed itself irrevocably to its international responsibilities. Thus “Hansen’s law,” which states that what the children of the immigrants reject, the grandchildren of the immigrants seek to repossess, has been at work to help the American Church discover the richness and variety of Roman Catholicism today.

One can only hope that it has not come too late. For Pan-Atlanticism may soon become as obsolete as colonialism, and the wave of the future, also for the Church, may belong to those movements that can forge a link between the world of the white man and the new worlds of Asia and Africa. Those who are sure that the Roman Catholic Church has forged such a link, and those who are sure that it cannot, must pause before the coincidence, within a period of less than a month, of lay resistance to racial integration in the diocese of New Orleans and the canonization of St. Martin de Porres, a mulatto. Historians of the early Church still wonder whether St. Augustine was a Negro, but it does not take much historical erudition to recognize the truth in this thesis: If Christianity is to survive, it will have to be reminded that it began as a Near Eastern religion and that its intellectual and cultural center in the first three or four centuries was not Europe but North Africa. Under the strains of the 1960s it may be difficult to imagine an America that has outgrown “the race question” or an American Christianity that has realized in its concrete life the gift of oneness in Christ. Yet the long-range implications of the Catholic vision of universality demand that the American Church and its members get out of the way of the redeeming power of a Christ in whom there is neither Jew nor Greek, neither bond nor free. And that goes for all the American churches.

FOR the Roman Catholic Church in America to achieve such a universality in space, it will have to discover a universality in time, too. Theoretically it may be possible for a portion of the Christian community to become worldwide in its sympathies and yet not to regain the continuity of Christianity through time and history, but in practice a liberation from the tyranny of the here and now opens Christians not only to their contemporaries but to their ancestors. If the American Church has missed the full range of what it means to be Roman Catholic in the twentieth century, it has certainly neglected to do its homework about all that it has ever meant to be a Catholic Christian. At the very least, to be a Catholic Christian means to know a universality that extends to the saints and Fathers of all the Christian centuries.

There seems to be plenty of room in the historical consciousness of the American Church for these saints and Fathers, for, apart from St. Patrick and our Lady of Fatima, they do not seem to face very much competition. When Roman Catholics from abroad visit the United States, they often comment upon the absence of a vital sense of tradition both in the parochial life and in the theological thought of the American Church. We who have been working to instill the idea of tradition into American Protestantism have sometimes been inclined to blame the Reformation for destroying the feeling of continuity in our churches and people, but we need only look at Roman Catholicism in the United States to recognize that it is principally a cultural phenomenon, not a religious one, that we face. To cite only one instance from Protestantism, the “old-time religion” memorialized in the gospel song is a form of Christianity that is all of seventy-five years old.

One by-product of the Americanization of Roman Catholicism is the leaching out of the parochial and ethnic traditions of the older generation. Only by pedagogical heroics can the good sisters of St. Ludmilla’s awaken in their pupils an enthusiasm for a patron saint whose name their grandparents invoked almost automatically whenever danger threatened. Even the theologians of the American Church have frequently ostracized entire provinces of the communion of saints, preferring the precise formulas of Thomas Aquinas, or rather of nineteenth-century Thomism, to the vagaries of more Platonic and less conventional Fathers. A compend of the Fathers, properly edited and expurgated, makes a handier syllabus for a seminary course in dogma than does a primary text.

When some awareness of the Catholic heritage rushes into this historical vacuum, that heritage is often equated with a romantic version of the Middle Ages as the age of faith and of a homogeneous Christian culture. The term “Neo-Gothic” applies to more than architecture, although architecture is often a reliable index to the state of the Church and to its understanding of history. In the United States the churches bear many traces of the ethnic origins of their parishes. Traveling across America, one can play a game of trying to identify the original nationality of a city district from the style of its churches. But as the language islands of the Church have broken up, the rococo of their buildings has been giving way to some bold and creative designs. No longer is it the ambition of every parish to erect a miniature cathedral. Instead, as one American Benedictine has put it, the church building is seen as a sacred space whose consecrating power will reach “out from the altar, from the church, to embrace all other areas, all places in which men live and labor, so that all human life and effort may become more directly and consciously part of the great act of sacrificial worship.” Far from being an innovation, this insight is actually a revival of primitive Catholic and even medieval emphases that have been obscured in intervening centuries. What seems most modern is, in fact, the reappropriation of the most hallowed of traditions from the Church Universal.

THERE is a cognate reappropriation of tradition in contemporary Roman Catholic theology in the United States. A generation ago, if a Roman Catholic student wanted to read the Church Fathers in English, he usually had to use editions prepared and translated by Anglicans or Calvinists. And if he wanted to and could consult the Fathers in Greek or Latin, most of the modern critical editions were the work of German Lutherans. The situation is changing rapidly. Roman Catholics in America are producing not one but two editions of the Fathers in English (one of them extremely competent and the other quite uneven), and they are doing so just when Calvinists, Lutherans, and even Anglicans have largely abdicated their responsibility for patristic scholarship. Initially it is the Latin Fathers, and among these the more orthodox ones, whose treatises get on the readinglists. But the first on the list of these orthodox Fathers is usually St. Augustine, and one does not have to study him very long to learn ideas and expressions that break through the static categories of the catechism. His predecessor in North Africa, Cyprian, is memorable both for his martyrdom in 258 and for his attacks upon the Roman Bishop Stephen I. To learn to know a churchman like Cyprian firsthand from his books and epistles is to acquire a better-informed and more sophisticated sense of the universality of the Church.

More sophisticated still is the sense of universality that comes from a study of the Greek Fathers. Throughout the Western Middle Ages, Constantinople was what Paris has been to us, the city of lights and of intellectual enlightenment. Even earlier, when Rome was first in the ascendant to its position as the capital city of Christendom, the theological leadership of the Church stayed with the Greeks, who were also the source of most early heresies. Thus, the most eminent of the Greekspeaking theologians, Origen, got into trouble, albeit centuries after his death, for teaching that all men and even the devil would eventually be saved. Yet the same sort of universalism was propounded by Gregory of Nyssa, a Greek Father of the fourth century whom the Roman Catholic Church venerates as a saint on March 9. Both Origen and St. Gregory of Nyssa are becoming available to Catholic readers in America, both are being studied, both are helping the American Church to plumb the depths of its Catholicity.

In the spring of 1961 I delivered a series of lectures at the University of Notre Dame on St. Athanasius, a Greek Father whom Roman Catholicism honors as a Doctor of the Church. It is impressive to see how Athanasius’ use of primordial metaphors such as light and darkness manages to express the message of the gospel to both Roman Catholics and Protestants in America today with a directness and a relevance that are often lacking in the commonplaces of the textbooks sponsored by both sides. Although these commonplaces may indeed require reformulation in the light of the great tradition of the faith, true Catholic orthodoxy can only be deepened and enriched as it pays attention to the voices of the Christian past.

Among these voices there is one that has yet to be heard in American Roman Catholicism, and that is the voice of Martin Luther. Here again there is an ironic contrast between the Old World and the New. The historical scholarship of German Roman Catholicism has been taking another look at Luther; one theologian has written a book to measure “the astonishing gifts of [Luther’s] spirit and heart, his brilliant view of the actual elements of Christianity” against the superstition and moral compromise of the sixteenth century. Heretic and rebel he still is, but this Luther is not a figure to be dismissed with the slanders that are found among the tracts in the narthex of many an American church. It sometimes seems that Roman Catholics in America know only two things about Luther: that he married a nun and that he once said — in a spirit that was, incidentally, much more Catholic than Protestant — that one should “sin boldly.” By some historical twist, the nation in which Roman Catholics and Protestants have been thrown together most intimately is one in which they continue to understand very little of each other’s histories. Perhaps the new American editions of Luther and Calvin will help to change this, for the Roman Catholic Church in the United States cannot grasp what is meant by the historical universality of the Church until it comes to terms with the history of the Protestant Reformation.

ONCE there is a sense of universality in time, there will also be a sense of universality in faith, hope, and charity. Geographical and historical universality helps to create an awareness of ecumenical universality. Of course, “ecumenical" is a slippery word in ecclesiastical parlance. When Pope John XXIII announced that there was going to be an ecumenical council, many Protestants and even some Roman Catholics jumped to the conclusion that spokesmen for Protestantism and for Eastern Orthodoxy would meet with representatives of Roman Catholicism for a discussion of the issues that divide us. What the Pontiff meant by “ecumenical,” however, was what he means by “Catholic,” the total communion of the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church, whose visible head is the Bishop of Rome. And that is the only thing he could have meant. To negotiate with Protestant communions as with peers, or even with the schismatic sister churches of the East, would be to betray the very foundation of the Church, and then the gates of hell would finally prevail against it. Human nature, as William James once said, can never have enough of anything without having too much; this seems to be as true of its hopes as of its possessions. Expecting too much from the forthcoming ecumenical council, those who yearn for the reunion of Christendom had to be disappointed, and so they are in danger of missing the genuine progress that can come from the council.

For progress there will be, if only, as one priest friend suggested to me, from the sixteenth century all the way to the eighteenth. It was, after all, the Holy Office itself that recognized the ecumenical movement among Protestants as a work of the Holy Spirit, and in 1960 Pope John announced the establishment of a Secretariat for the Promotion of Christian Unity. Not since the Counterreformation have the highest echelons of the Roman Catholic Church been as aware of the positive features of Protestantism as they are today. Gradually this is happening even in the American Church, where there is now widespread discussion of the “vestiges of the Church” in the Protestant denominations. This change does not imply laxity in the Roman Catholicism of America, but rather security. When Roman Catholic immigrants arrived in a largely Protestant America whose literature, traditions, and (let it be remembered) public schools had a decidedly evangelical and Puritan cast, there was a serious question whether the immigrant would keep the faith. But now that the Church is at home in the United States and is acknowledged by all but a shrinking and strident clique as a permanent and positive force in American life, the Roman Catholic Church in America can afford to scrutinize the Christian world beyond its own walls, for it should know by now that it has nothing to lose but its provinciality.

What it has to gain from such scrutiny, l believe, is nothing less than the fulfillment of the Catholic ideal, a universality in faith, hope, and charity. “Schismatic churches” as a term for Eastern Orthodoxy is harsh enough. “Vestiges of the Church,” on the other hand, may sound not only harsh but condescending as an explanation for the presence of grace and the gospel in Protestant Christianity, and yet its implications reach far into the life and doctrine of the Church. Let me put the matter a little rhetorically: If someone is baptized by a Protestant minister in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost and if, after his baptism, he remains devoted to the Lord Jesus Christ and seeks to obey him, what can Roman Catholic theology say about such a person except that he has lived and died as a child of God? There is only one Church, of which the Pope is the head. Baptism is the rite by which a person is initiated into that one Church and incorporated into Christ, though it be baptism at the hands of a layman or a Protestant or even a non-Christian — just so that water is used, the name of the Trinity is invoked, and there is the intention to make this act the baptism of the Church.

In an earlier century St. Augustine battled against the extremism of the Donatist heresy and worked out most of the details of this doctrine. A new Donatism arose in the American Church during the present century, calling itself the Slaves of the Immaculate Heart ol Mary and seeking to restrict the presence and power of grace to the institutional limits ol the Roman communion. Without budging from its insistence that it alone is the Body of Christ on earth, the Church anathematized this attempt to put shackles on the grace of God. One Church, yes, but it may save even where it does not rule. It remains for the teaching office of the Church, perhaps at the ecumenical council, to make explicit for the twentieth century the full meaning of the universality in this Augustinian doctrine.

Roman Catholics in America have more at issue in this doctrine than most of their fellow believers. To be sure, their relations with other Christians are still centered in political and social issues rather than in questions like baptism and the creed. Thus, in a recent symposium on Roman Catholicism by a group ol Jews and Protestants, nearly every chapter referred to the problem of birth control, but none discussed the Virgin Mary, the sacraments, or the Holy Trinity. Some Protestants still act as though American Protestantism had invented religious liberty and had some residual rights to determine who is and who is not a loyal citizen. But a large — and increasing — number of Roman Catholics, Piotestants, and Orthodox in the United States have outgrown the mutual suspicions of an earlier day.

As so often happens, the intuition of the faithful has anticipated the formal definition of doctrine, and Roman Catholics in the United States have learned from their daily contacts with Eastern Orthodox and Protestant Christians that the grace of Christ is not confined to the jurisdictional boundaries of their own parish or diocese. Rome does acknowledge the priesthood of the Eastern Orthodox churches as valid, for they are churches in a sense that the Protestant denominations are not. Nor can the possibility be precluded that a part of the ecumenical development ol Roman Catholicism will be a reconsideration of its relation to such organizations as the World Council of Churches. As it is now constituted, the World Council is not suited to the doctrine and polity of Roman Catholicism. Informal participation of individuals and groups there has been, and the number of such consultations is increasing. But we could witness in our century a more manifest demonstration of how universal the faith, hope, and charity of the Church truly are. That is certainly what American Christians of all churches should pray to see.

Does this mean the achievement of one universal Church in our time? I do not see how this can happen. To me it seems like utter romanticism to expect that one or two generations can make up for four centuries. Protestantism and Roman Catholicism are not simply two versions of one movement; their differences arc fundamental and apparently permanent. Short of a catastrophe that would destroy most of the world we know and would leave, at most, only one possible way of Christian obedience, there seems to be little prospect for the unification ol Christendom. Yet Roman Catholics and Protestants agree that, in the words of the Gospel, “for men this is impossible, but everything is possible for God.” And God is still the ground of the Church’s being and hope, of its unity and its universality.