What Unusual Kindness?

By Adam DeVille

Thirty years ago this fall I began working for Christian unity when I attended a gathering of the Canadian Council of Churches in Quebec City for all those of us who were going to the seventh general assembly of the World Council of Churches in Canberra, Australia in February 1991. After that very memorable assembly I continued to travel around the world (eventually making it to five of seven continents) as moderator of the WCC’s Youth Working Group.

By the time I returned from teaching in Ukraine in 2001, where I encountered the personal pain of Orthodox-Catholic division first-hand and repeatedly, I knew that I wanted the ecumenical problem of papal authority to be the focus of my doctoral dissertation, and so it turned out to be, published a decade later by the University of Notre Dame Press as Orthodoxy and the Roman Papacy: Ut Unum Sint and the Prospects of East-West Unity.

I mention this history only to say that it has now been three decades since I first heard the phrase “ecumenical winter” and I thought I had seen the worst of it off. But perhaps not. Recent blasts of Catholic hatred towards fellow Christians have been almost demonic in their frigidity.

On the very eve of this year’s Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, online mobs of Catholics managed to make themselves so repellent that an invitation to use a Catholic church for an Episcopalian ordination collapsed. This “offer of hospitality” and “act of charity” extended by Bishop Barry Knestout of the Catholic Diocese of Richmond to his local Episcopalian colleagues ended up being refused by the Episcopalians who saw, rightly and sadly, that they had awakened such contempt in their Catholic brethren as to cause more problems and pain than the convenience of using their building was worth to anybody. What a splendid counter-witness on the eve of a week dedicated to Christians praying and working for unity!

My question for such Catholics as signed the online petition against use of a Catholic parish is this: whom do you think you have convinced to draw closer to Christ by your actions? Whose mind have you changed, encouraging a greater openness to Catholic Christianity? Has the countenance of the Catholic Church shone more brightly, clearly, and attractively as a result of your sanctimonious hostility that rendered even the use of a Catholic building for just a few hours so toxic?

Here I would like to tell these petitioners and bullies a story I tell every semester to my students, as I did just last week when my Prayer and Worship class began. I tell them of my maternal grandfather, in interwar Scotland, going to church as a very young man only to be regularly accosted, on the way out of his Protestant gospel tabernacle each Sunday evening, by a man who positioned himself at the doorway and fancied himself some kind of pugilistic pseudo-evangelist. This man regularly accosted my grandfather, grabbing him by the lapels and getting his contorted face into my grandfather’s with a snarling question: “Sonny! Have you been saved yet?”

My grandfather shook him off in silence for a couple of weeks before telling his father that either this man was told to back off or else the next time he did that my grandfather was going to punch him in the nose. Apparently my great-grandfather had a word with this man who backed off, sparing my grandfather the opportunity to indulge the boxing skills he would later hone in the Royal Air Force.

Which of you, I ask my students, would have found that man’s approach a convincing sales tactic? Would you want to buy even a stick of gum from such a man, never mind join his church? Who of you would want to find out more about this salvation and this savior at the hands of such a man as this? How many of you find such an approach an attractive invitation to a deeper exploration of Christianity?

No hands ever go up, so then I ask them this: how many of you find such an approach a disincentive to faith? How many of you find it would make you less interested in learning about Jesus Christ? How many of you can see how counter-productive this is? At this point all hands are in the air.

This ecumenical hostility was just a tempest in a local teacup compared to the fury awakened by the cardinal prefect of the Roman dicastery for liturgy and sacraments whose forthcoming book on the priesthood, with, apparently, some modest contributions from the retired bishop of Rome, has made clear the contempt of said prefect and a lot of other Roman Catholics for Eastern Orthodox Christians and Eastern Catholic Christians, and our practice of a married priesthood.

It is bad enough that Sarah continues propagating wholesale nonsense about an “ontological link” between celibacy and priesthood. (I deal with that rubbish in my forthcoming Married Catholic Priests, under contract with the University of Notre Dame Press and to appear in late 2020 or early 2021.) Sarah’s philosophical gibberish is a tendentious distortion of the Latin tradition itself.

But what is worse is that in excerpts of this book published in Le Figaro Sarah’s rant becomes ecumenically destructive as when, e.g., he denigrates married priests as second class and calls them, inter alia, a “a breach, a wound in the coherence of the priesthood.” Sarah’s hysterical and apocalyptic views are the true wounds here to the hearts and minds of thousands of Eastern Catholic clergy and their families and to any hopes for unity with the Orthodox.

And with what masterful timing all this has taken place! Masterful, that is, by our master below, the father of lies and hatred. For these things emerged, as I noted earlier, on the eve of the Week of Prayer for Christian unity. And what, pray tell, is this year’s theme? “They showed us unusual kindness” (Acts 28:2).

Of whom in the Catholic Church today could that be said? If we cannot be kind to even our fellow communicants and their diverse traditions—as between Latin and Eastern Catholics on married priesthood—nor kind to our fellow Christians, why should the world pay us the least attention? Do we not see how our rancor and disdain is a counter-evangelical witness, perverting the proclamation of the gospel? If we cannot be basically and simply (never mind “unusually”) kind towards one another, are we not sinning against the Holy Spirit, one of whose fruits is indeed kindness?

Associate professor and director of humanities at the University of Saint Francis, Ft. Wayne, IN.; and author of Everything Hidden Shall Be Revealed: Ridding the Church of Abuses of Sex and Power (Angelico Press, 2019)

26 comments

  1. Echo Paul’s comment – thank you We are celebrating a joint ecumenical event at our parish Sunday evening with the local Lutheran church, pastor, community, and Dallas bishop along with the catholic bishop and our local catholic community. Our focus is our partnership in the Dallas Area Interfaith group and joint social justice projects e.g. parish ID, payday lending, affordable housing, health fairs. This is the second year of this event.

  2. Why do you see the speck in your brother’s eye when you have a log in your own? I am very concerned to advance relations with our Christian brothers and sisters and want to be sensitive to hurt that we Catholics might cause them, but I also happen to admire Cardinal Sarah and have found his books useful in my spiritual life. Do you think that I find you convincing when you dismiss his writing as “I deal with that rubbish”? Do you think that I find your supercilious tone attractive? Do you think that I don’t notice that you can’t even bring yourself to use the name Benedict?

    I find this article insincere in the extreme and full of hostility.

  3. Professor Deville is not being fair to the petitioners by characterising them as “haters” of episcopalians. If you believe, as the Church has always taught, that salvation lies within the church alone, then you cannot accept any action which implies otherwise. That doesn’t mean you hate anyone.

    To use an imperfect analogy, I object to people using my club in London if they are not members. I do not hate them, indeed I would be delighted if they joined, but until they do they have no right to come in and if the management lets them in, I will complain – to the management.

    The analogy is imperfect because we are not talking about facilities or “my” rights, but about matters of eternal salvation and truth. But surely you can see that hatred and doesn’t come into it?

    Any anger which the petitioners felt was thus surely directed, not at the episcopalians, but at the Catholic authorities who had invited them.

    To draw a false analogy with a violent man who used to manhandle his grandfather, and insult them with names like “bully”, is in fact to fall into the very vice of which he is accusing the petitioners.

    1. I think the actions of the petitioners can be rightly criticized. These are not actions that exemplify the experiences, the teachings, and the apostolic witness of Saint Paul. However, when I did a ctrl-f search, the only instance of “hate” on this thread was in Mr von Blumenthal’s post.

      In reviewing the original essay, I read of actions being criticized. I did not see name-calling. I certainly think the petitioners’ actions can be criticized as theologically ignorant, damaging to ecumenism, and an ugly witness to the Gospel. Indeed, if anyone reading of this episode was turned away from Christ, then the effort was certainly preaching an antigospel. That strikes me as being far afield indeed from the Church, no matter how or where one believes its authority it constituted.

      That being said, if actions are named and people are owning them, it’s certainly not something you can pin on the initial critic.

      1. Todd: “However, when I did a ctrl-f search, the only instance of “hate” on this thread was in Mr von Blumenthal’s post.”

        From paragraph three of Prof. DeVille’s article: “Recent blasts of Catholic hatred towards fellow Christians have been almost demonic in their frigidity.”

        And from paragraph thirteen: “And with what masterful timing all this has taken place! Masterful, that is, by our master below, the father of lies and hatred. “

      2. Good catch. Point taken on the word. But the author did not call names. Interpreting his criticism as directly calling people “haters” is, in today’s parlance, fake news.

  4. I think the author was identifying the source of Christian division and rejection as being “the father of lies and hatred”.

    Who knows if the Episcopalians felt hated. I’m sure many did. They certainly didn’t feel welcomed. I doubt many will be attending a Catholic Church anytime soon, not out of vengeance but from that same sense of not being welcomed. And in fact it would seem that, in this instance at least, they’re not.

  5. The dust-up over loaning a church to Episcopalians happened at roughly the same time that “online mobs”, with some overlap with those petitioning Bishop Knestout, were suggesting that Methodists about to be cast off from the UMC might find a suitable home, with their congregations and traditions as intact as possible, in the Ordinariate.

    Mr. DeVille, however, is unable to find anything motivating these “mobs” except contempt for Protestants, which means that the discussions that were taking place concerning misuse of a consecrated altar, sacrilege, or simulation of a sacrament must to his eyes have been mere after-the-fact justification.

    An Episcopalian Mass is probably not technically the simulation of a sacrament. That aside, if there is so much contempt for scandalized lay Catholics in the pews that concerns about sacrilegious use of the altar or church building are dismissed as mere expressions of contempt, without even acknowledging that they were raised, we cannot discuss what should and should not be off-limits in sharing with Protestants, nor of the difficulties unique to ecumenical rapprochement with or sharing between Catholics and Episcopalians. Those are the questions which seem to have divided Bishop Knestout from his flock, and those are the questions dividing those who think the petitioners were doing their duty from those who think they were offering an anti-evangelical witness.

    Is this incident going to make it more likely that Episcopalians make use of the provisions of Anglicanorum coetibus and come into communion with us? Probably not. Will it make it less likely? Given just what was going to take place at the cancelled event: probably not. But this article, dismissive as it is of the laity of the Richmond diocese, almost certainly deepens divisions in the Church.

  6. This is a powerful article, and motivated by an important concern over the ongoing “ecumenical winter” — the chill of which dips below freezing through vigilante-style action on the internet and social media. Knowing of the existence of the “cyber militias” I am not surprised by the petition. On the contrary, I am very impressed and cheered to know that the bishop of Richmond countenanced this loan of a worship space in the first place. Good for him! A friendly gesture. What a shame that it should have turned so ugly that he is forced to backtrack.

    How is the battle for progress won? Ecumenism is won by generous practical gestures — they often speak more loudly than teaching statements. Practice leads, reflection follows: this is the usual rule about how people change.

    What I do not like about the post, however, is the reference to the “sin against the Holy Spirit” at the end — which usually refers to that sin which “cannot be forgiven.” If every time we sinned against kindness it could not be forgiven, the whole human race would be in bad trouble indeed. This is hyperbole, and most unhelpful. It’s bad enough to sin against charity. My feeling is: Let’s ask forgiveness for those whose misguided zeal has resulted in an offense, and let us all try again, rather than heaping eternal condemnations on one another.

    1. I would note that Bishop Knestout was not “forced to backtrack” – the Episcopal diocese was the one who decided to change the plans, not the Catholic diocese.

      1. Thank you for the clarification. It is best not to give in if you feel you’ve done right, so as to not encourage others to go in for pressure tactics. I thought the Episcopal diocese was saving face for the Catholic bishop. Evidently not.

  7. Speaking as an Orthodox ecumenist – an increasingly rare breed – the Orthodox Church has taken a decisively anti-ecumenical turn in the post-Soviet period. Even moderate documents like those from the 2016 council of Crete define the Orthodox church as the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church. Surely, the ecumenical winter, or anti-ecumenical turn, is a part of the larger turn inwards we are witnessing in phenomena like Brexit, outbreaks of anti-semitism and Islamophobia in the US, and the new xenophobia in Europe.

    I’m a bit more interested in prof. DeVille’s comment about the married priesthood in the East. Let me begin with criticism of my own: by and large, Orthodoxy fails to honor and acknowledge its Western sibling. We need to do much, much better. That said, Vatican II’s acknowledgement of Eastern Church as “Church” should include a ratification of a married priesthood as canonical and traditional. I cannot see any good in returning to the scandal of John Ireland’s attempt to humiliate Alexis Toth and his community because of married clergy. Is the Roman Church returning to this position? I hope not.

  8. Eminent canonist Ed Peters’ article at First Things on this question deserves to be read.

    A taste:
    “While pastors and bishops should expect to run afoul of good Church sense whenever they run afoul of Church law, in this case, even following canon law (or a reasonable interpretation thereof) did not suffice to keep Church leaders within the bounds of Catholic common sense. An Episcopalian ordination is the purported conferral of holy orders by a faith community that does not possess them on a recipient ineligible to receive them. By what stretch of ecclesial imagination does it make sense to host such rites in a Catholic church?”

    https://www.firstthings.com/web-exclusives/2020/01/canon-law-and-catholic-common-sense

    1. Whenever I encounter comments like Kwasniefski’s, all I can think of is Paul’s teaching: If salvation comes through the Law, then Christ died in vain.

  9. Yes, bring in the lawyers to prosecute charity.

    Whenever I read posts like Mr. Kwasniewski’s I have to remind myself that there are lots of other Catholics who think and act differently.

    1. Ugh, lawyers. Even cardinals and a pope emeritus fumble on theology from time to time. Episcopalians have sacraments as their tradition understands and experiences them. Let’s keep in mind that the effectivity of a sacrament, an encounter with Christ, depends on Jesus and his grace. Not Rome’s definition of their standards for the Roman Catholic tradition. Cardinal Sarah has already shown the theological myopia by tossing Eastern traditions of “Roman-valid” holy orders aside. I doubt a canon lawyer can add much from outside his area of expertise.

      1. “The effectivity of a sacrament, an encounter with Christ, depends on Jesus and his grace. Not Rome’s definition of their standards for the Roman Catholic tradition.”

        Not exactly, see Matthew 16:19. And yes, we can draw lines as to what sacraments we consider valid and those that we don’t, or more diplomatically, those we consider incompatible with our own. The specific subject of the validity of Anglican/Episcopal sacraments was settled by Pope Leo XIII with his encyclical Apostolicae Curae (spoiler: they aren’t). Episcopalians are free to perform their own versions of the sacraments as they so choose, but we as Catholics are not obliged to treat them on equal footing as our own, much less provide our own real estate for their celebration.

      2. Matthew 16:19 says nothing about the efficacy of sacraments. You have repeated the error of the pope emeritus and the CDWDS head: myopia about the Roman way, even to the point of neglect for the validity of Eastern and Orthodox sacraments.

        Catholics are not obliged to act like (to use a theological term) doofuses to stomp and pout and demand their way. They may well claim union with Peter, but that does not grant the random group of internet believers the quality of infallibility. And if such behavior contributes to non-believers dismissing the Church, or fence-sitters to leave, then they are “preaching” an antigospel. Another passage of Matthew is in play, namely 18:6.

        Prudence is a very difficult virtue.

      3. Todd, the sacraments of the Eastern/Oriental Orthodox have a markedly different canonical situation and history vis a vis Rome than the Anglicans (I’ll spare you the details). I’m not sure why so many people here trot out Card. Sarah and Pope Benedict XVI as proverbial black sheep who can be automatically dismissed out of hand. Many forget that both men enjoy close relationships and a high degree of kinship with the current Holy Father. Maybe reread the second sentence in your second paragraph before bringing more charges of errors against these two…

      4. Well, I wouldn’t term Cardinal Sarah and Pope Emeritus Benedict as black sheep. But their view is sometimes narrow, and while not unorthodox, not fully orthodox. Paragraph 2, sentence 2, has nothing to do with these prelates, only their followers.

  10. Coming up on his death anniversary, Feb. 2, 1512, the indigenous chief Hatuey of Haiti/Cuba had fought the Spanish Christians in 1511 when he was finally captured and sentenced to burn to death. When asked by a monk to repent and be baptized so he could go to heaven and not go to hell, the chief asked if the Spanish Christians would be going to heaven. The response came back affirmative to which Hatuey said “then I want to go to hell.”

    Thank you for this thoughtful message and may the Catholic Church lighten the doors that have to be pulled open by so many. May its members who believe they own the only truth of God act like the truth will set them free when they speak together and pray together. May heaven be an attractive option when people think of the Catholics and the way they treat everyone.

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