The National Catholic Review
Ecumenical conversations and encounters
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My doctor cured me, but she didn’t heal me: she never looked in my face.” Halfway through America’s 100-year history, many Catholics began looking into the face of the rest of us Christians, especially Protestants, and stopped seeing us only as “others.” In turn, many of us others started looking into Catholic faces, so they and we could speak, as the apocryphal medical patient quoted in my first line spoke, of beginning to be healed, not merely cured.

The act of regarding the “face of the other,” in ecumenical and interreligious conversation, does not have to be literal or physical, though it often has included face-to-face meetings. The philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, who stresses the trope of the face, defined it more broadly. In The Renewal of Generosity, Arthur Frank explains that for Levinas, face “does not mean some arrangement of eyes, nose and mouth. To see the other’s face is to recognize that other as needing me and to feel chosen in the primacy of my obligation to meet that need.”

Levinas had written, “If you conceive of the face of the other as the object of a photographer, of course you are dealing with an object like any other object.” Such an image perfectly captures what was going on when Protestants and Catholics were only arguing with each other, objectifying and codifying each other. “But,” Levinas elaborated: “if you encounter the face, responsibility arises in the strangeness of the other and in his misery. The face offers itself to your compassion and to your obligation.” Frank could not stress too frequently how the face of the other relates to “his misery” or “her suffering,” a theme that carries us back to the story of the person who claimed that her physician had cured her but had not healed her.

A centennial thesis: Where Christians have encountered the face of the other across confessional or ecclesiastical boundaries, they have taken responsibility for each other and learned from one another. We historians like to propose landmark dates for processes of change. I choose 1958, almost exactly the midpoint between the founding of America and this centennial. In October 1958 Pope John XXIII, the symbolic and actual agent of change, was elected. Before then we learned about the other. Since then, both philosophically and often actually face to face, we have been able to learn from the other.

Together in Prayer

Revisiting the “before” and “after” provides clues as to how we might learn much more in the century ahead. Meeting and welcoming the other demands and produces stories, which, in Arthur Frank’s terms, “show us what we want, and ask us what we need.... We begin to think with stories when situations in our lives recall these accounts so often that they settle into our awareness and become habits of thought, tacitly guiding our actions.” Let me illustrate with a few stories that led to new awareness and habits of thought, knowing that many readers have parallel accounts.

Though I had lived among Catholic friends all my young life, at age 33 I had never been permitted to join Catholics in any form of prayer. When America was founded, Catholics and other Christians may have included each other generically in prayer, but they learned little from such acts. Then in October 1961, a small group of theologians assembled at the University of Notre Dame for a first ecumenical colloquium. Whereas a decade earlier, “my habits of thought” would have found me and my editors speaking of Catholicism as being “Jesuitical” and “Romanist,” now, across the table or—unforgettably—at the bar, we were gathering face to face, engaging with Fathers Bernard Cooke, Walter J. Burghardt and a few others marked “S.J.”

Before this pioneering meeting, many of us had read each other, or read about each other, or had debated and criticized each other, without learning much. We had seen only each other’s backs, a vision mediated through print in “our” Christian Century, for example, and “their” America. In recognizing the ills of our separate Christian existences, we had begun to seek cures, but had not yet known much healing. At the conclusion of the first Notre Dame gathering, though, we excused and then excluded the press, closed the door, lit a candle and prayed together the Our Father. The one emphatic stipulation was that we were bound not to tell anyone that we had prayed together, something almost universally forbidden then.

During the following four years the Second Vatican Council decrees encouraged what had been forbidden. Ora, pray, has since remained at the center of intra-Christian endeavors. The awareness of the uplifted Divine Face, as in acts of blessing, now started a process of healing, not merely curing, the wounds long caused by gulfs among Christian bodies.

The Work of Dialogue

Ora et labora, pray and work! Since the Catholic and Protestant Reformations, individual Christians often have engaged across denominational lines in works of justice and mercy. Most such works were mediated through civil and other secular organizations or were ad hoc ventures across confessional lines, which could not provide durable exemplifications of Christian responsibility for each other. In the last 50 years, however, through uncountable relief efforts and joint charities and missions, Christians at work together have learned from one another what they had previously only half known separately.

Such work was not only physical. In the second half-century of America’s years, the once tentative or even hostile independent intellectual endeavors with theological focus were changed when Catholics and others turned their faces toward each other. In 1958—that year, again!—in an early interfaith-era book called American Catholics: A Protestant-Jewish View, I complained about how things had been: “When discussion in [interfaith] seminars comes near to vital points, comes tantalizingly close to significance, it is frustrating to be told that the Catholics present are not free to discuss theology. They are under orders to discuss social issues or the free society, but must exclude basic religious issues.”

When the new dialogue partners became free sooner than anyone could have dreamed in 1958, they did not always like what they saw or heard, because they did not find the acts of overcoming differences easy. However, they began to find modes of taking responsibility for one another. Though they had repudiated or had been forbidden for centuries to adopt such modes, change came. The stories henceforth told to each other, not about each other, relied upon the turning of face to face.

The Play of Conversation

The main instrument for initiating, telling or building on the stories has been conversation. My colleague and office-neighbor, the Rev. David Tracy, for decades taught us the difference between conversation and argument. Argument, valuable and necessary in many contexts, such as in the courtroom, the legislature, the classroom or the scientific labs, is guided by the answer. One possesses an answer to publicize, defend and use to defeat the other. Conversation, on the other hand, is guided by the question and includes an element of play. Before 1958, members of Catholic and Protestant parishes had not found healing by debating the doctrine of the Trinity or transubstantiation. Their priests and ministers often argued, and they had to argue, over policy issues. But in argument they were objectifying the “other” and not taking responsibility for the other.

The contrast between argument and conversation was vivid at the Second Vatican Council in 1964. In the morning sessions, one heard very formal Latin argumentation, which was necessary on some levels. I had traded my press pass for a visitor’s license, thanks to the generosity of the bishop of St. Cloud, Minn., who was amused to meet someone who bore the name of his 19th-century predecessor, Martin Marty, O.S.B. I was later told that the bishop was quite a traditionalist, and we would have argued. He took responsibility for me, however, as we looked at each other’s faces, and offered one of the many gestures of healing. At a moment of crisis, at the end of that autumn session, relations sustained in Bar Jonah and Bar Mitzvah, the coffee bars in transepts at St. Peter’s Basilica, the beginnings of restoration occurred through personal ties sustained through conversation among the caffeine-hyped bishops.

Conversation is not “all talk.” Nor is this centennial a celebration of ephemeral chattering. Rather it is a recognition of America for having helped bring about change. David Tracy cited Bernard Lonergan, S.J., for having promoted such conversation with his words: “Be attentive, be intelligent, be responsible, be loving, and, if necessary, change.” But Tracy did not want to restrict conversation to physical face-to-face and mouth-to-ear encounters. He wrote: “We converse with one another. We can also converse with texts. If we read well, then we are conversing with texts. We inquire. We question. We converse. Just as there is no purely autonomous text, so too there is no purely passive reader. There is only that interaction named conversation.”

As in the case of many America editors and contributors through the years, my vocation has taken me to classroom and study, chapel and forum; but through it all, religious journalism has been a calling, in my case usually prosecuted by moonlight. Since around 1950, when I was a non-ecumenical cloistered Lutheran seminarian, still of the Missouri Synod persuasion, I was introduced to the magazine through friendship with a fellow-St. Louisan, Walter Ong, S.J. Reading America has nurtured my “habits of thought, tacitly guiding [my] actions” on the dialogical front. So it has been for many. Rather than embarrass America by over-attribution of influence, I want to use the centennial celebration to recognize how the printed word—and, today, Internet communication—can be and often is a presentation of face, a “taking responsibility for the other.”

We Protestants and Orthodox see this in bodies of documents from which we learned because we were referred to and included in them. This was the case with some Vatican II documents, proceedings from events like the Notre Dame Colloquium and numberless conferences and seminars in which the “separated brothers and sisters” were no longer separated even when they remained “other.” One example: in 1999, after many meetings, Vatican officials and the Lutheran World Federation bodies signed a joint declaration on justification by faith. Its authors made clear that they knew that it was a first word, not the last word, on a subject central to the Protestant-Catholic conversation. The signing represented an effort to show that both “sides” had looked in the face of the other, had seen and known the sufferings manifest in both and now took responsibility for the other.

“Healing” can suggest that joint prayer, action and conversation with the face of the other is a soft venture and can be sentimentalized. It is clear in the records that some ecumenical conferences and ceremonies of this new era have been “brotherhoody” or superficial, or marked by a glossing-over of important differences. But the issues taken up in our periodicals during the last 50 years are not less troubling or more easily dealt with than were those of the “pre-dialogical” half-century. They are, instead, taken up in a different way as each side takes responsibility and builds bridges to the other “in the strangeness of his misery or her suffering.” In my experience, those who risk encounter with the face of the other in intra-Christian conversation do not surrender particularities in the sloppy spirit of “after all, we are in different boats heading for the same shore.” Most of them grow in awareness of their otherness and deepen their conversation on that basis.

‘Let Us Thank God’

My having chosen to compare dealings within the Christian world in the two halves of America’s century might suggest that the way to mark this centennial is to look backward. That would be destructive. It is time to look ahead in the face of problems, sufferings and delights that on a global scale frame our discourse now. Here are a few relevant agenda items:

First, I have been talking about Christian ecumenical realities, but within the most recent third of a century, globalization and pluralism pose whole new sets of interreligious issues, as Christians encounter the face of the other in the form of Muslims, Hindus and those with whom the bond in Christian worship under the countenance or face of God is a more complicated issue. Tendencies up until the recent past have been to objectify the other, e.g., “the Muslim,” not to encounter the face in its strangeness and misery as that face is encountering us.

A second carry-over from the century past is the relation of what gets coded as the secular and the religious in a zone I call the “religiosecular emergence.” Pope Benedict XVI is not alone in being concerned over what happens if and as Western Europe, a Christian heartland for almost two millennia, shows signs that majorities choose to forget or simply do not remember the Christian story and the calls to compassion and obligation that go with it. The northern world, including much of North America, seems ever more secular—witness especially Spain, Ireland and Quebec atop the evidences from France, Italy, Britain and Germany. From other perspectives, however, especially when one keeps an eye on the southern world, the poor world and some sides of North American life, religions are seen to prosper, often under the guise of “spiritualities.” Looking into the face of the secularist sometimes means a confrontation with atheism, but it can just as often reveal the face of those who are “spiritual,” intoxicated with religion. How can we make sense of “the miseries” in such encounters?

That leads to a corollary, a third front for common worship, work and thought: spirituality and religion as they deal with the common and communal life. Can the Christian story be comprehended and kept contemporary entirely apart from its telling in parishes and other forms of gathering? Among provocations in our time are disgust over financial and sexual scandals in the churches, disdain growing out of boredom with tired forms and a quest for novelty. Within the setting of Christian communal life, the greatest frustration and the most urgent call for fresh encounters result from this: that Protestants and Catholics are almost as distant as ever from each other in separate gatherings at the Lord’s table, the Eucharist.

If we look with compassion and in response to commands, as Levinas and Frank encouraged us to, we cannot end this commemoration with talk only of “suffering” and “misery.” There have been achievements, which America has frequently been privileged to chronicle, and there are fresh agendas to greet. It is not my intention here to register all the fronts—global warming, wars, racial conflict, issues of disease and poverty, for instance—but only to discuss a framework for learning and doing. The scope of the problems America will confront in its second century can and should inspire zest and imagination. I remain haunted by a word of Pope Pius XI, whom I quoted in my first book, published in 1958: “Let us thank God that He makes us live among the present problems.... It is no longer permitted to anyone to be mediocre.”

 

Rev. Martin E. Marty is the Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Professor Emeritus at The University of Chicago and a long-time member of the editorial staff of The Christian Century. He was awarded the Campion Award by Amer

Comments

Charles McCaffery | 4/4/2009 - 11:16am
I believe every bishop in North America - US & Canada - should read this article and the one by Timothy Radcliff at their general meetings. Bravo, America - great issue.