A Despairing Hope

Or maybe hopeful despair would capture it.

I've often said my relationship with the Roman Catholic Church is one of "love/hate," depending on which side of the bed I got out of this morning. But maybe "despairing hope" captures it better.

This is occasioned, of course, by this conversation on the Future of Protestantism, hosted by Biola's Torrey Honors Institute. The participants were Peter Leithart, my old friend and professor Carl Trueman, and Fred Sanders.

I'm sure the vast majority of people had no idea this conversation was taking place. I think it's safe to say that Vatican City wasn't paying much attention. But the circles in which I run produced a great deal of commentary about this conversation and, well, the future of Protestantism. As I've thought about it, I decided I've got a couple cents to toss.

First, much of the conversation bored me because it was insufficiently focused. Nobody defined beforehand what was meant by "Protestantism," and therefore huge chunks of time were spent on misunderstanding one another. Honestly, it got tedious.

The best parts, really, were the opening statements. And here's the main point of what I want to say. I think a lot of people thought that Carl and Peter * were disagreeing about something; I think they thought Carl and Peter were supposed to be disagreeing about something; and I think Carl and Peter themselves probably thought they were disagreeing about something. But I listened to both of them, and gave a hearty "Amen!" to both presentations.

* I don't mean to slight Fred Sanders here, but he needed to be more assertive. This ended up a dialog, not a trialog.

How is that possible? I might just be really muddleheaded, but I don't think they were contradicting each other at all. There is always a gap between the ideal and reality, but that doesn't mean they're opposites. Peter Leithart gave an ideal vision: what would reconciliation with Rome look like? What ought to happen amongst Protestants to facilitate unity? (By the way, I fully agree with Doug Wilson's really sharp criticism of Peter in this piece. How about we fairly include what needs to happen in Rome for unity to be achieved?) Carl, on the other hand (he's nothing if not curmudgeonly), gave a picture of practical realities on the ground and the serious obstacles that remain before unity can be envisioned. What he said was so self-evident I don't see how anyone could possibly disagree with it.

These two realities: what we long to see and what we actually see perfectly capture my love and my hate, my simultaneous hope and despair. I think we might someday see genuine ecumenical reconciliation. I also believe that will never happen in my lifetime or my children's lifetimes. This century the division between Rome and the East approaches a one thousand year anniversary. Forgive me for thinking that the Rome/Protestant divide might possibly eclipse that length before the days of a happy reunion. That's pretty despairing, I know.

On the other hand, I resonate so strongly with Peter's exhortations: get rid of tribalism for pure tribalism's sake. Recognize, in the midst of serious division, our underlying unity.* And understand that that unity is the very basis of our attempts at correction and reconciliation.

* This might need some clarification. The Reformed tradition has overwhelmingly affirmed Roman Catholic baptisms. This cannot be understood as anything but an affirmation of unity: Rome is a church. Not a healthy church, by any stretch of our Reformed imaginations, but a church nonetheless. We are of "one body," as much as that might come as a shock to those raised on Chick tracts.

I say "three cheers" for everything Peter says. I will continue to search my own heart for hints of pure mean-spirited tribalism. I will try to be fair, charitable, and generous in my interpretations of Roman Catholic dogma and practice. I will continue to greatly benefit from the many, many great Roman Catholic * theologians, philosophers, and social critics working today.

* And Eastern Orthodox. David Bentley Hart gets a special mention here.

But... Carl's (Grumpy? Jolly?) skepticism is fully warranted. Rome doesn't care that we're having this conversation. Let's be real for a minute: Peter Leithart, Fred Sanders, Carl Trueman, any number of Lutherans, and (why not?) Brian Mattson can seek to correct our brother all day long, every day, and twice on Sunday.

I'm sorry to have to say it: our brother believes himself above correction, impervious to criticism of his dogma, and incapable of error.

I'm afraid this is going to be a long slog. But in the interests of ecumenicity, we'll keep trying that "correction" thing.

Brian Mattson