A Response to PEG

PEG responds graciously to my post from yesterday, but he misunderstands me, and in so doing partly confirms the point I make. He thinks I am asking him to be “wary of taking [his] faith seriously,” to stop thinking about Catholic social doctrine “as a Catholic,” and therefore to commit “a kind of intellectual self-mutilation.” Those would be pretty ridiculous things for me to ask, which is why I didn’t ask them.

Nobody builds straw men like PEG builds straw men, as I have learned to my pain over the years. But I didn’t go into detail in that post, which makes misunderstandings more likely. So let me clarify and specify a bit, using PEG’s response to help me do so. I think a telling moment there comes when he writes, “if a non-Catholic government in a non-Catholic country explicitly built its reforming program on Rerum Novarum and Centesimus Annus, I’m pretty sure Pope Francis wouldn’t cry copyright infringement.” Well, I would hope not! But note the assumption: that Catholics are the ones with the ideas, and other people are free to use them. This made me smile because it manifests the approach to ecumenism that I’ve seen in many of my Catholic friends over the years: “You can be as much like us as you want to be! We don’t mind!”

But what I was suggesting in my post was that I’d like to see more Catholic thinkers turn that around: that is, to acknowledge that Catholics don’t own all the good ideas, that other small-o orthodox (and perhaps even some rather heterodox) Christian traditions have something to contribute to the attempt to renew our political world, and that Catholic thinkers might benefit from seeking out some of those ideas — or at least to show themselves open to such ideas by describing their projects as, maybe, “a distinctively Christian theology of economics.” Because Catholics are Christians, are they not? Surely it’s not “intellectual self-mutilation” for a Catholic to call himself a Christian. And even that slight shift in emphasis can be both welcoming to others and a reminder that Christians from different traditions can learn from one another in substantive ways. It’s worth remembering that Chesterton made contributions to Distributist thought when he was still an Anglican.

I might quote here from the great Catechism of the Catholic Church:

818 “However, one cannot charge with the sin of the separation those who at present are born into these communities [that resulted from such separation] and in them are brought up in the faith of Christ, and the Catholic Church accepts them with respect and affection as brothers …. All who have been justified by faith in Baptism are incorporated into Christ; they therefore have a right to be called Christians, and with good reason are accepted as brothers in the Lord by the children of the Catholic Church.”

819 “Furthermore, many elements of sanctification and of truth” are found outside the visible confines of the Catholic Church: “the written Word of God; the life of grace; faith, hope, and charity, with the other interior gifts of the Holy Spirit, as well as visible elements.” Christ’s Spirit uses these Churches and ecclesial communities as means of salvation, whose power derives from the fullness of grace and truth that Christ has entrusted to the Catholic Church. All these blessings come from Christ and lead to him, and are in themselves calls to “Catholic unity.”

I have no doubt that PEG, like all my other Catholic friends, sees me and people like me as “brothers in the Lord.” But what I think is often missing — and this was the concern I raised in my post — is the translation of that acceptance into both intellectual and practical terms. Ecumenism, in the strongest sense of that term, is always going to be hard when Catholics are involved, because their ecclesiology makes it difficult for them to come to the discussion table with an openness to admitting error. (Balancing this with the need to be “open to conversion” was something that Cardinal Avery Dulles struggled with powerfully.) All the more reason, then, for us to focus on those areas — again, intellectual and practical — where we can find common cause and common achievement.

Let us not be any more divided from one another than we have to be. As John Paul II wrote in Ut Unum Sint, echoing Lumen Gentium, “Dialogue is not simply an exchange of ideas. In some way it is always an ‘exchange of gifts.’”