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Church or Faith?

While attention was focused on the Anglican-Episcopal meeting of bishops in New Orleans that hopes to avert schism, yet another Episcopal bishop departed from Canterbury for Rome. Bishop Jeffrey Bishop Steenson of the Diocese of Rio Grande has written a letter to his clergy informing them of his decision, and will write a letter to the diocese shortly. (HT: Amy Welborn.) He is is the process of resigning as bishop in order to clear the way for his move. Steenson is the third Episcopal bishop to swim the Tiber this year; the other two were retired.

Of course, all are welcome. But I find these conversions interesting because 1) they are all from self-styled "orthodox" Christians and 2) they all seem rooted in disaffection and disagreement with the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion.

Certainly ecclesiology is vitally important. But converting to Catholicism because one disagrees with the intra-ecclesial disputes of one's own church--especially in such a "churchy" church as the Anglican Communion--seems to be only a first step on a pilgrimage rather than the final destination as it is often portrayed. What about their thoughts on, say, the Eucharist, for example? Or a host of other key questions that they had previously disputed--unless, that is, they weren't being quite forthright all these many years as Episcopal bishops. Orthodoxy would seem to entail a great emphasis on believing the right things for the right reasons. And if these neo-converts think they're joining a church with no disputations, well, they should check in on this blog.

I of course can't judge anyone's conscience. But going by the public comments of these bishops, I have to ask if these are "conversions of convenience"?


Commenting Guidelines

The Episcopal church has always been very similar to the RCC. The schism was a matter of power and the reason there was no return was a matter of power. A church which had a king direct a new transalation of the bible and actually influence some of the passages is just as dictatorial as Rome. No question this is a move of convenience. Hypocritically he tells his people he loves them and will not resign without the bishop's permission, while really telling them that they are heretics. Extreme absurdity. What did Augie say about the wish being father to the thought?On another level there are so many dynamics going on in the Episcopal Church with a female National President and much disagreement on the issues. It is not easy to digest and understand the importance of all this.

David:I found nothing in the Bishop's statement that would justify your rather judgmental response, at least as I read it, perhaps wrongly. These decisions are always difficult, I think we should give those who come to a decision to go from one community to another the benefit of the doubt as to the dictates of their consciences.

One could hardly expect the US press to take the lead here, but if we raise our eyes above the gay/not gay questions afflicting the Episcopal Church, we run into a number of more important points of great interest. And not only to Episcopalians and Anglicans, but to others as well, very much including our own church.I remember a discussion I had some years ago -- twenty or thirty -- with a great friend of mine, who is a wonderful Episcopal priest, and was then being considered for a bishopric. It had to do with the great southern shift -- meaning that more and more, the numerical strength in both our churches was leaving North America and Western Europe and moving to Africa, Latin America, and to some extent, Asia. What would that mean for Anglican comity, I asked him? In so many ways, the Episcopal Church here as well as the Church of England, seem to draw their attitudes and their modus operandi from some of the best traits in English and Anglo-American culture: the sense of tolerance, of admtting that there are questions that have no answers, and that opinions will differ, of refusing to draw hard and fast lines in the sand, and so forth. But as the C of E and American Episcopalianism more and more are reduced to the status of minority currents within the greater Anglican communion, there are bound to be cultural changes in the ways in which Anglicans perceive themselves and perceive their Christian mission, and they may well not be cultural changes that sit well with the members of what used to be the center.Well, of course, we never reached any conclusion on that issue, but I think of it often these days as I read about the Anglican troubles (wary, of course, that the press is hardly the best place to get a disinterested view). But I think the deeper question is this: how does a church that pretends to universality -- as both Anglicanism and Roman Catholicism do -- come to terms with the need of local churches to reflect, to some degree at least, the the national cultures in which they are situated? If, for instance, the American Episcopal Church insists absolutely on its own autonomy, will it seriously threaten, or even break its ties with the Anglican communion, and become simply a national church, rather than a universal church? And in doing so will it strengthen, or will it vitiate, its Christian mission?Archbishop Rowan Williams is not a pope, as the press keeps reminding us, and lacks the pope's disciplinary authority. Quite true; but even if he were, would that change the situation? Rome has had to perform the same kind of balancing act between heading a universal church on the one hand, and presiding over a congeries of national churches on the other. Sometimes it's been reasonably successful, sometimes not -- surely there were centuries when the French Catholic Church or the Spanish Catholic Church, just to name those examples, pretty much went their own way, regardless of what Rome wanted (and think of the long and bitter struggles over the right to appoint bishops, a struggle that continues to be fought out in China today). And there have been times too when Rome itself has taken on the coloration of the culture surrounding it -- look at the form and style of ecclesiastical governance today, which appears to owe a great deal both to the late Roman empire, and to the emergence of the so-called New Monarchies of the 15th - 17th centuries. Women priests, gay ordinations, new liturgies, new prayer books (look at the great Anglican fight over this last in 1928) all are expressions of such questions; but fundamentally, it seems to me, that they're superficial, and the underlying question remains the question of universality -- Catholicism in short, whether Anglican or Roman -- and separate national cultures on the other.I don't know that this question will ever be answered, but I don't think either Rome or Canterbury has cornered the market on solutions.

Nicholas Clifford writes:"..the underlying question remains the question of universality -- Catholicism in short, whether Anglican or Roman -- and separate national cultures on the other."Excellent description of the question. One of the problems of answering the question is the paucity of writing by more diverse Christians in the first three centuries. Clearly, fourth century revisionists destroyed so many pertinent documents. As a result we have the oft lamented fact of knowing about certain people by their orthodox attackers. The victors indeed get to write the history. Yet we know the "Constantinian" church destroyed important elements in Christianity or at least sent them underground. What amazes me is how scholars buy much of the contamination brought by Constantine or are afraid to teach the truth about it.I believe we can answer the question Clifford if we have honest history and realize that "ex corde ecclesia" lies always in the people not imitating the Scribes and Pharisees.

To Joseph Gannon: In my remarks I did want to allow for the possibility (or probability) that there were many other factors at play in these conversions. That was probably not clear enough. But what strikes me is that the reasons given by these bishops (and many others coming to Rome these days from the CofE) all have to do with ecclesial polity. Not the Eucharist, not the Tradition, not papal primacy--none of those central Catholic teachings and beliefs that are quite different from the ones previously espoused by those bishops and their church. Those teachings are also the motivators of so many other famous conversions in the past. So I was not so much questioning the reality or integrity of the conversions. Rather, I wanted to point to questions that their pilgrimages raise about what conversion is, and what are the differences between Catholicism and Anglicanism and the other churches. If it's just a matter of changing one's ecclesial address, then that's an interesting stance, especially from men who style themselves as very orthodox. As Nichaols Clifford noted, this is beyond the issue of gays and lesbians.

I think Roman Catholics sometimes don't understand just how Catholic some Episcopalians are. Many already believe the same things about the Eucharist. There is nothing in Anglican doctrine that denies transubstantiation.Most have respect for the Tradition (it's always been described one leg of the three-legged stool that gives church teaching stability and authority, along with faith and reason). And many feel the Tradition has been compromised by the of women and actively sexual gay men, and don't feel the current structure can adequate preserve Tradition.Moreover, Episcopalians understand that Papal primacy is not the same thing as infallibility of every utterance the Pope makes. In fact, perhaps they understand that better than some Catholics. So they are prepared to accept it, if not love it.

Given the relatively few differences between Anglican and Roman Catholicism, we have to wonder why someone would convert, but for matters of ecclesial polity--for high Anglicans, at least. For those who have a more low church background, it may not be much different from those Evangelicals who embrace Rome. But a few questions come to mind--at least to my ill informed mind:How prevalent is "low Anglicanism" in the USA?For that matter, how prevalent are conversions to Roman Catholicism outside of the American manifestation of Anglicanism? I wonder whether these conversions aren't in some way indicative of American individualism in addition to religious convictions? Various shows on EWTN are chock full of "Home to Rome" stories. How do these conversions compare with the ones David is referring to? I suspect that most of the EWTN variety are either stories of lapsed Catholics or congregationalists, but I don't know. Watching those shows tends to give me an upset stomach, so I tend to avoid them.

I think the opposition of Church and faith might be a misleading one in this case. I know that for many of the more "catholic minded" Episcopal bishops (and, as I understand it, Bp. Steenson has long been what is known as an "Anglo-Papalist -- i.e. one who saw corporate reunion with the See of Rome as the ultimate goal), the current struggles in the Episcopal Church, and the Anglican Communion as a whole, raise a whole range of questions about what the proper constitution of the Christian community ought to be -- e.g. what is a sufficient basis for communion, how authority ought to be exercised, etc. These are not simply matters of "polity," but fundamental questions about the nature of the Church, which is the bearer and transmitter of the faith. People might think bishop Steenson is wrong in his answer (i.e. Rome is right about the nature of the Church), but the question is not a negligible one.

I think F.C.B. is right on target when he says:"These are not simply matters of 'polity,' but fundamental questions about the nature of the Church, which is the bearer and transmitter of the faith."With my Masters Seminar I'm currently reading Henri de Lubac's Catholicism where the issue is probed with immense erudition and insight.

Interesting points, all. Because of the identities of the converts involved, that is, Episcopalians who identify with a particular wing of Anglicanism, the discussion here does come down to the similarities--or not--between Rome and Canterbury. And I agree as I said up top that ecclesiology is not inconsequential. In fact, I think it is the central debate in all churches right now, and the one Rome would largely prefer not to engage. But in the interests of clarification, is the difference between Catholics and Anglicans only about ecclesiology? What about Holy Orders? In other words, is the Eucharistic in the C of E the same as it is in Catholicism (or at least the understanding of it)? Is the teaching on Tradition the same? (Rome's three-legged stool can wobble a bit, even though the Anglican's are showing that tripods aren't as steady as we were taught.) Or are all those things functions of the doctrine of the church? Which would seem to make ecclesiology the signifying attribute of Catholicism...If the only issue is ecclesiology--largely focused on structural questions of hierarchy--then there would seem to be as few barriers to ecumenism between Rome and Canterbury as between Rome and Constantinople.

Catholics usually pin things down more than Anglicans do. Anglicans are "allowed" a wide range of beliefs about the Eucharist, Marian devotion--just to name a couple of significant examples. An Anglican could be in deep sympathy with Catholicism on most matters of doctrine. Or quite antithetical.

No, it's not just about hierarchy, which is a good question.The Anglican tradition IS the Catholic tradition, but with nods to the Orthodox and early Celtic churches (abandoned or ignored by Rome until 601) thrown in.Rome, remember, more or less forced the English to choose at the Council of Whitby, between the old Celtic Catholic Church, which was beloved of the people, and the Roman Catholic Church, which had been rather heavy-handed in its conversion efforts, but moved England into the mainstream of European life.Within English Catholicism there was always a strain of tension with Rome.Moreover in the centuries of separation since the English Reformation, the traditions have been construed differently. You'd have a hard time persuading Anglicans across the board that a celibate clergy is necessary or even desirable, that artificial birth control is a sin, or that civil divorce ought not be recognized in some cases.However, an Anglo-Catholic like me might reach the point where we feel that we do not have to give up our Anglican perspectives in order to be honest Roman Catholics, and in the interests of unity and to save the Anglican tradition, we've found refuge in the Roman Catholic Church.But I can't speak for other converts.

Fr. Imbelli & F.C.B.--Point taken. I had forgotten we were talking here about bishops and not everyday layfolk. But what about these more common folks who convert? Surely they are not as well read or theologically astute as the students in your masters seminar, Fr. Imbelli? I suspect that for them, it often does boil down to gay or straight bishops, etc.And David, I would think that ecclesiology touches profoundly on questions of Holy Orders, the Eucharist, and Tradition. After all, many Protestants join us in professing a belief in "one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church." Only what they mean by this profession can be very different from what we mean. Clearly, this one phrase is the catch-all holding most of the issues that divide us.

I think David's original point has significant merit.The questions about polity, unity, etc are not new questions --an Anglican bishop would have had to wrestle with them long ago. I look for the specific difference. I found the bishop's letter rather vacuous--in context, I interpreted him as saying he couldn't abide where the Episcopal church is going on gay ordination, etc. so he was moving to Rome. I also think David's point about converts begin at the beginning of a road, not the end of a road, is a good one. I think having a Catholic sensibility is something that takes a while to develop--and it's not the same thing as a Lutheran or Episcopal sensibility that rejects a defined set of progressive changes in their current polity.I find the enthusiasm on EWTN and Welborn etc. about these types of conversions rather distasteful. It's almost like a victory at a football match: score one for our team. As Bob knows, George Lindbeck was one of my doctoral advisors. He inculcated in all of us a sense of the fundamental unity of all Christian churches as the body of Christ, and the sense that we were called to work for unity from our own point in that body. So I tend to see it as a a very sad thing when someone decides that they can no longer fulfill that call.

I wonder if there is such a thing as a Catholic sensibility tout court, I suspect there are quite a few varieties. On the few occasions when I have watched EWTN I have found the sensibilty exhibited quite different from mine.

The question of a "catholic sensibility" is one that interests me mightily but I will resist starting a new thread. I only want to say that ecclesiology is not simply about polity. After all, we profess a faith in the church in the creed. Getting ecclesiology right has powerful ramifications on everything from who gets baptized to who presides at the altar. Being faithful to the Way of Jesus has profound ecclesiological undertones. Often people become Catholics precisely because it is there that they can best nourish their discipleship.

Ah, but is that really Catholic? Or is it the result of the layering of Catholic dogmatism onto an American-Protestant-Evangelical sensibility?

Sorry, that last comment was addressed to Joseph Gannon, about EWTN and Catholic sensibility.

FCB is correct that Bishop Steenson has long been associated with the ultra-Anglo-Catholic wing of Anglicanism as was I,"back in the day." There is no reason to be suspicious that Bishop Steenson (unlike many Anglicans) doesn't hold the same doctrine of the Eucharist as Catholics. As for the issues of ecclesiology, you can find some of his thoughts on the subject in his address "The New Donatists." It is clear that he was very suspicious (rightly so, in my view) of Anglican traditionalists who wanted to separate on the basis of the sexual practices of one bishop, and the encouragement of the same by much of the structure of the Episcopal Church. From reading the address, it is clear that he would never go along with the "Global South Anglicans" in a schism based on Reformation-derived notions of justifiable schism based on the "immorality" of ministers. Despite his sincere attempt to remain a loyal Episcopalian, presumably, he found his position as a bishop untenable in his current situation (and there are some very dark unconfirmed rumors of threats of lawsuits and depositions made against him by establishment Episcopalian leaders) and that any effort to pursue reunion with Rome as an ultimate goal - within the structures of the Episcopal Church - was futile. His departure, so it seems to me, is a principled one for an Anglo-Catholic. I came to this conclusion long before the current Anglican Communion meltdown.I'm reasonably confident, based on what I know of the man, that he would be able to say the profession of faith upon reception into full communion with a good conscience. Here's the "New Donatist" address.

I am grateful that Larry Cunningham clarified the theological nature of ecclesiology; the reduction of eccelsiology to the examination and management of ecclesial structures is one of the reasons that Catholic ecclesiology as a discipline--and the church as a whole--is often impoverished. By contrast, think of how Vatican II's Lumen gentium opens its teaching on the church with three sections on the church's origin in the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This is not pious, idealistic piffle, but the Church's deepest reality and purpose.As to the original posting, I was disappointed that Bishop Steenson's motives were impugned without any reference to his easily Googled paper trail. A cursory review of his writings reveal a bishop deeply rooted in the universal church's tradition and particularly concerned with upholding a genuinely Catholic and catholic ecclesiological sensibility over against the sectarian temptations of Donatism (). Perhaps, like Newman, he finally discerned that Anglicanism didn't have the resources to sufficiently uphold the apostolic faith. That judgment may be wrong or right, but it wasn't hasty or convenient. He will soon have no job or income or house, and he possibly will lose his pension. That's a marriage of inconvenience, and I wonder how many of us would have the courage to suffer similar losses. I wouldn't want to face such a test.

I should add to my previous posting that while Larry Cunningham spoke well of the theological nature of ecclesiology, Fritz Bauerschmidt raised it first--and equally well--on this thread. Thanks.

Christopher, David is perfectly capable of defending himself, but I do wonder whether you're being too hard on him.1. A bishop announces, after a controversial meeting, that he is leaving the American Episcopal Church. 2. He issues a public letter announcing his intentions. That letter, unfortunately, was quite vague as to his reasons--leaving it open to self-contratulatory crowing on the part of some conservative Catholics (the letter was linked to a blog saying something like "well, the debacle isn't all bad--we got ourselves an Anglican bishop" My guess is that they're not crowing because they hate Donatism ))3. It seems to me that we ought to be able to look to that particular letter to explain his reasons--and to gently raise an eyebrow when it doesn't move beyond generalities-- without being accused of "impugning" someone's motives.4. I'm loathe to impose a general duty to google. I think some things ought to stand on their own --including public letters of resignation.5. And, by the way, I am puzzled by the connection of anti-Donatism to his decision to join the RC communion. I don't see how Benedict's evident desire for a smaller, purer Church, is going to be so much more attractive to those whose primary concern is combating those who emphasize purity over charity in the church. 6. To give a concrete example,Professor Taylor, in his cover article in the new Commonweal, does a pretty good job of talking about how purity has historically trumped charity in Catholic sexual ethics. I'd be interested in knowing whether the bishop sees this as an unacceptable manifestation of Donatism, or simply the righteous and unequivocal commitment to doctrinal truth.Cathleen

Cathleen,Might I suggest reading Bishop Steenson's address as it clearly explains why his anti-Donatism would not permit him to join a sectarian continuing Anglican church? Nor does Benedict XVI's pastoral program have anything to do with Donatism. It may very well be that his pastoral program will result in certain laity and clergy voting with their feet out of the Church. That is a different matter than purging everyone that is a "sinner." It has generally been held that, sinners do not cease being members of the Church simply by virtue of being sinners - and that includes sexual matters. (Of course, there may be discipline against sexual sinners, but the discipline in real-world terms is not particularly draconian). Besides, Benedict is a thorough-Augustinian, and there was no one more opposed to the ecclesiological principle of the Donatists than Augustine!In the case of the self-styled "orthodox" Anglicans, the usual argument is that the Episcopal Church ceased being a church because it elected Gene Robinson as bishop. Occasionally, you hear statements that those who stay in the Episcopal Church no longer deserve the title of "Christian." Such statements are common now in evangelical/fundamentalist denominations, but now some exiting Episcopalians are saying the same thing. Some evangelical theologians and bishops claimed that Gene Robinson's sacraments are invalid because he is an unrepentant homosexual. These are very strange statements to a person with Catholic sensibilities. I dare say, there have been a number of Popes and bishops who were public scandals at the time of their election, so the mere fact that Gene Robinson is "openly gay" seems to be an insufficient basis for separation and rebellion from ecclesiastical authority. However, these statements are not at all strange if one accepts the Reformed viewpoint that "corruption" and "immorality" are sufficient reasons for separation.

The question about layering "Catholic dogmatism onto an American-Protestant-Evangelical sensibility" is often on target. There was at least one well-known ultra-belligerent "orthodox" Catholic who flounced out of the Church because of the sex abuse crisis - he could not uphold the truth of Catholicism because of the existence of bad priests and bishops. There is good reason to suspect that many of the "proud to be orthodox" types have that confessional sensibility. Steenson was raised as an evangelical and became Anglo-Catholic in his college years. His career in the Episcopal Church shows that he was steeped in the Fathers and the Great Tradition of the Church Universal in a way the liberal Anglican establishment is not and the angry evangelicals are often not. Jeffrey Steenson is not a Southern Baptist with a mass.

Mark Jameson:I do not know enough about EWTN to comment on the details of the sensibility it displays. In any case, I was only offering it as an example of a sensibility I find somewhat unlike my own. I would tend to assume that a sensibility shared by a group of Catholics is a Catholic sensibility. What I doubt is that we all have the one same sensibility.

Cathy,On the "Donatism" issue: in conversation with my brother, who happens to be an Episcopal bishop, he has raised this same point. On both sides there are those who are so convinced they are right in their view on human sexuality that they are willing to declare their side the pure Church and write off everyone else as not really Christian. To anyone who has a catholic ecclesiology -- as I think my brother and Bp. Steenson (and, from what I can tell, Rowan Williams) have tried to have -- this is not an acceptable path to follow. The only question is, what alternative is there? Bp. Steenson obviously thought Rome was the best option for being truly catholic. I don't see my brother following this path, though my imagination fails in coming up with alternatives (I made my own choice 25 years ago).

Chris Ruddy--I think we (and others here) would find ourselves in agreement on much of what you say about the reduction of ecclesiology "to the examination and management of ecclesial structures." Yet it seems to a great degree that this is exactly what Steenson (and others) are doing.He and others can cite often high-flown "piffle" to provide a theological underpinning for the shift. But that seems to ignore the more obvious and human reality that is going on here--as I think Cathy rightly tried to point out. Why not take them at their word? They don't like the trend of the Episcopal Church, so they're leaving? I think that's honest and understandable. For those of us with the "religious mindset" there is a temptation to want to act only out of the purest motives, the purest beliefs. But that's just not human. To ignore the many human--as well as divine, and yes, even theological--elements that go into the pilgrimage we call conversion doesn't seem sufficiently forthright. It also doesn't help others understand. Again, Steenson put it out there. Yes, I could go read his entire opus. And maybe I will. But this was a blog posting based on his resignation, given for the reasons he cited. I appreciate the feedback. I think we need to hear more (if there is more) from these bishops, and others like R. R. Reno, who wrote an extended essay on his conversion in the February 2005 First Things. He called it "Out of the Ruins" (see: It's lovely, but again not entirely convincing as to motives.It also raises two points/questions I'd pose:1) Conversion is often a rejection of something, usually a religious tradition. But there must also be an attraction (I think) to one's destination. And I think, like my fave Newman (though please God, not with so much writing about i!), that requires some explanantion. Saying "The Episcopal Church has left me behind" is not the same as saying "I want to be a Catholic." 2) There seems to be a geographical elelement to these conversions. I am puzzled why viewing the Episcopal Church--just 3 percent or so of the worldwide communion--go over the edge apparently means that by extension the entire Anglican Communion and its venerable tradition is no longer functional. Why not stay Anglican? Is it a function of geopgraphy? No Anglican bishops in the US? So one has to go to Rome? Just more fodder for debate gang. Cheers.

>>Why not stay Anglican? Is it a function of geopgraphy? No Anglican bishops in the US? So one has to go to Rome? <

I return from teaching two classes and find that I have a bit to respond to, from Cathy and from David!To Cathy,1.) Crowing of any sort in these matters is wrong and unchristian. But, we must distinguish between bloggers (e.g., Amy Welborn) and commenters. I don't see much of a similar concern expressed for self-congratulatory "liberal" cranks on this blog. Do we tar CMWL with the inane, one-note, uncharitable, and ad hominem attacks made by regular commenters on this blog? No, and we shouldn't.2.) Bishop Steenson wrote his letter to his clergy, not the general public. He also promised to speak with them at length this week. I imagine his comments will be forthcoming.3.) Letters don't stand on their own, unless of course you imbibed the "New Criticism" while at Yale! I'd guess that you and many others--like myself--had a question or two when you read Donald Rumsfeld's and Alberto Gonzales' resignation letters.4.) I second Patrick Rothwell's comments on on Donatism and Pope Benedict. I have to say that I find the "smaller, but purer' trope to be, at this point in time, a canard. Benedict's record is clear: he has rejected it as a doctoral student, theologian, cardinal, and pope. I think that some people just don't like Benedict--which is their right--and trot out that phrase as a way of dismissing him. It's a red herring and should be retired. Criticize Benedict all you want, but his words and deeds don't support the claim that he wants to drive out believers or even acquiesce to their leaving. See "God and the World" pp. 441-43 for his clearest statement on the the church's essential catholicity and openness to all.To David:Thanks for your comments. As you know and wrote, we share much in common. I agree, above all, that conversion should be primarily about attraction. That point cannot be said enough in this context.Bishop Steenson's letter makes clear that his conversion is indeed a "positive" one and that this week he will elaborate on those reasons. It wouldn't take more than 30 minutes, though, to scan his "entire opus"--we're not talking Augustinian amounts here--and see his deeply Catholic and catholic instincts. Why not take him at his word and wait for his promised forthcoming comments? The blogosphere is not a patient medium, but I think that patience is called for at this point. Most important, let's pray--I know, I'm getting hopelessly pious and theological again--for the Bishop, the TEC, the Anglican Communion, and the entire Church. None of us will get out of this mess on our own--and no Catholic can be indifferent to (or gleeful over) the sufferings of our Episcopalian and Anglican brothers and sisters.

The question of what the church consists of or what Catholic sensibility is are subjects which we do not talk about enough. I find it promising that we are attempting to address that here. I just wonder whether we might be straying from that point as we focus on the Bishop's motivation rather than his ecclesiology. At any rate my first question is how does moving to Rome solve his problem? In his Donatist speech he is complaining that other colleagues object to his being ordained by a non-orthodox group, which he is willing to do. Now is there a chance that Rome would help him with this or act better in similar circumstances? Maybe I missed something.Secondly, even if the Donatists were wrong does that mean that Augustine was right? I doubt if it is that clear cut. Secondly, Augustine is cited by reputable scholars for bringing mediocrity into the church at this point. Is that something to be championed?Are there not some terrible problems with the overemphasis of ex opera operato?Thirdly, the church that the bishop is entering is much more diverse than he might realize. There are conservatives and liberals who are taking distinctly different paths than Rome is. So the notion or question of what the church is does need a separate thread because it seems to be getting butchered here. Unintentionally,of course.Robert Kaiser relates a story of how John XXIII was approached by a Jewish young man to convert, the pope replied that he should stay a Jew. Maybe Angelo thought the youth might have a better view from the outside.

Patrick, I did read the Bishops speech. I stand by my claim that the speech provides no clear explanation about why he converted Let me explain, showing how his own arguments about Donatism do not support his conversion, but actually undermine the intelligibility of his decision to convert. Lets start with an outline of the argument.1. The bishop begins by making clear his substantive moral views: A. I do not believe that same sex marriages will ultimately be judged to be a legitimate development of the Christian moral tradition.B. I believe it is pastorally irresponsible to ordain people who deliberately choose to live outside this traditional discipline. 2. Nonetheless, the bishop indicates that he does not believe it is appropriate to break communion with those who have ordained the Bishop of New Hampshire, despite the fact that by the very fact of their ordaining him, they disagree with both A and B above.3. The bishop turns to a discussion of Donatism. Here, it seems to me that he clearly distinguishes between a) Donatism in the narrow, technical sense and b) Donatism in the broad sense, which has resonances with groups from Puritans (p. 5) to Jansenists.A.Donatism in the narrow sense is the heretical belief that the validity of the sacrament depends on the worthiness of the minister. (p.2) B.Donatism in the wider sense is a certain attitude toward purity, error, and sin, as well as toward the proper stance on the relationship of the church to the world. On this point, he endorses the eminent Augustine scholar Peter Browns description:The Donatists thought of themselves as a group which existed to preserve and protect an alternative to the society around them. They felt their identity to be constantly threatened, first by persecution, later by compromise. Innocence, ritual purity, meritorious suffering predominate in their image of themselves. . . . The Catholicism of Augustine, by contrast, reflect the attitude of a group confident of its powers to absorb the world without losing its identify. This identity existed independently of the quality of the human agents of the Church; it rested on objective promises of God, working out magnificently in history, and on the objective efficacy of its sacraments. 4.The Bishop summarizes the import of his anti-Donatist (broad sense) agenda:1. The true identity of the Church as Christs Body is in no way diminished by the imperfections and defects of its human members.2.As long as we live in the present age, we must accept that it is Gods will that saints and sinners are mixed together in the Church.3.Breaking communion and separating from the Church is ultimately more damaging than the heretical ideas and practices that may have occasioned them.5. The Bishop addresses the possible response on the part of conservatives that they arent Donatists, because they are uninterested in scholastic arguments about sacramental validity. The Bishop nonetheless emphasizes striking similarities, alluding again to the Broad Donatist position.6.The Bishop does note two differences between today and then:a.Is it possible that schism isnt really a sin against charity, or is it a realignment with the Christian mainstream whose ultimate purpose is greater Christian unityb.Its possible theres a difference between justifying schism on the basis of the moral habits of the clergy. . . and justifying it on credal grounds. He writes, Of a very different order are the credal questions; for instance, same sex blessing held out as marriage is a doctrinal, not a disciplinary matter.In the end, he does not seem to think those differences make a difference. To a good Anglican, schism to avoid heresy is against charity in the same way that schism to avoid morally impure agents is. He quotes Hooker: Here we find all who bear the sign of Christian baptism,yea, although they be impious idolaters, wicked heretics, persons excommunicable, yea and cast out for notorious improbity. In other words, with apologies to James Joyce, here comes everyone.7.He ends by reiterating what he sees as the basic failure of the Donatistsa failure of confidence. Its worth quoting.They feared the intrusion of worldly influences into their community; the future was an ominous place; they wanted to close up the Ark because the rain clouds were on the horizon, and they feared further contagion from the wicked.19 These are the fears that traditional, orthodox Anglicans experience also. Can they sustain themselves and preserve their identity in a hostile church? Will they be overcome by ordination policies and deployment practices designed to deny them of leaders? Will they gradually change to be more like those whose values they despise and abhor? It is such fears that induce faithful people to try schism, and certainly to them encouragement must be given. There is a positive value of living under the authority of this church even in those places where it seems hopelessly compromised. It is not compromise to live faithfully under the laws of such a church. And if we are in fact on the horizon of a newly aligned ecclesial world, it is crucial that we prepare spiritually for this future: by overcoming anger, by subduing passions, with charity to all. The Church that we experience now will not be the Church that will be gathered in heaven. Are not these words of the blessed Augustine wonderfully propos? -- But let the separation be waited for until the end of time, faithfully, patiently, bravely.So in light of this framework, how does HIS anti-Donatism support into his conversion? I just don't see it. In fact, I think conversion requires him to abandon or temper some of his broad anti-Dontatist claims as articulated in this article.1. He might have decided that the liberal American Anglicans are causing the schism, by their withdrawal from the world church on grounds of their liberal moral convictions. But he seems to explicitly reject this view on p. 6. I think a shift on this view would mark, on his own terms, a weakening of his own broad anti-Donatist commitment. (He would in effect now be saying that its permissible to break communion with those breaking communion, which he didn't seem to allow before.)2. He might have decided that the argument against ordaining homosexuals is a doctrinal question worth breaking up the church over. But then what does he say to his own arguments that this is not the case? This shift too would mark a weakening of his own broad anti-Donatist commitment. (He would in effect be saying that it is not against charity to break communion with those who a) do morally objectionable things and,. more importantly b) aver those things are not morally objectionable. 3. He might have decided that the conservative Anglicans were right to fear for the future of their church. But it seems to me that this decision would be to capitulate to the same, broad fear-based Donatism that he criticizes in the final paragraph.So what does he get, by his own lights, according to his own framework, in the Catholic church? 1. He gets a Church that teaches what he believes about same sex marriage, and does not permit ordination of active homosexuals, much less ones that present themselves as married..2. But he does not get a Church that is as broad-minded about this matter as his letter is. He was willing to remain in communion with the bishop who ordained a practicing homosexual in a same sex marriage as bishop. The RC church is not. A RC bishop who ordained a homosexual bishop living openly in a same sex marriage would be excommunicated, not tolerated. He also gets a Church, incidentally, that does not consider his former presiding bishop to be a priest, much less a bishop. A RC bishop who attempted to ordain a woman would be excommunicated, not tolerated. On this matter, purity of doctrine and practice is more important than tolerance of unorthodox views and people..3 One might say that Donatism is about schism leaving the church because of heresy--, not excommunication because of heresy Im not sure the difference makes any difference, if the ultimate touchstone is charity. Schism and excommunication effect the same break in the body of Christ.So I just don't see how this anti-Donatist article supports his decision to leave his own Church and become RC. I think what's doing the work are his substantive moral convictions on the underlying issues (gay marriage, ordination of practicing homosexuals), not his broad anti-Donatism.

Christopher, Read Joe Komanchaks overview of Benedicts theological program. Http:// And then re-read the Bishops quote from Peter Brown, above: It does not seem to me that Benedict reflects the attitude of a group confident of its powers to absorb the world without losing its identity. It seems to me that he sees the Church as a group which existed to preserve and protect an alternative to the society around them. You might not agree with Joe. But I think his analysis suggests that the worries that Benedict is attracted to a broad-Donatism are not misplaced. I think youre overreaching when you call such worries about Benedicts attraction to a smaller, purer church a canardwhich means a false or baseless, usually derogatory story, report, or rumor. There is a basis for the worry.

From its first appearance, the Gospel has always been preceded by the call, "Meta-noia!" "Change your mind!"That cry does not reflect a desire that the chosen ones should be a smaller group, but that there might be at least some who decide to become receptive and available to the truth. All kinds of people have to change their minds: stoics, gnostics, imperialists, and now, nihilists.And it doesn't seem to me to be tenuous that the Pope is insisting that the truth must be founded on some model of metaphysics, in response to the God who revealed Himself, "I am who am."

Dear Cathy,Thank you for your comments. Joes article appeared in the same CMWL issue as my piece, No Restorationist: Ratzinger's Theological Journey. I wrote there: Even if he has taken pains in recent years to emphasize that the church must be never a closed sect but an open church that reaches out to all of society, it remains true that he sees the future church as likely to be a mustard seed or small flock in an often hostile world. This church-world tension runs all the way back to Ratzinger's 1953 doctoral dissertation on Augustine's ecclesiology. There is, I think, an unresolved pastoral tension in this pope between openness and fidelity, between a genuinely catholic and (often unwieldy) church and the brilliant intensity of a small, counter-cultural movement. This is, perhaps, the same tension reflected by the council, which defined the church as both the sacrament of the unity of the human race and the light of the world.I acknowledged then and acknowledge now that church-world tension, but I think it is wrong to conflate that unavoidable tension with a Donatist desire for a purer church. A church that is not in some sort of substantial tension with the world is either corrupt or deluded. Augustine, the anti-Donatist, wrote a few words on that tension, as did Vatican II; the church as leaven and the church as light to the nations are not mutually exclusive realities. Moreover, a concern for identity and orthodoxy cannot be reflexively reduced to a fear-driven desire for purity and security. One can be confident and open, as I believe Benedict is, in the face of a difficult, even hostile situation. His words and actions as pope give little evidence of a fearful, cramped man. On an impressionistic level, he looks relaxed and happy; he wears the yoke of his office lightly and does not seem burdened as Paul VI was. I wrote that the charge of Benedicts Donatist tendencies is a canard, then, because many seem unwilling to accept Benedicts own words or even his deeds, but impute to these various negative motives or fears. I have a close friend, for instance, a priest theologian who has served the church for decades, some at the highest levels. When he heard Pope Benedict's installation homily, he said, "I liked it, except for that part on the desert and the other one on the shepherd who flees for fear of the wolves. Why did he have to be so negative?" I answered, half jokingly and half seriously, "Your problem is with Jesus, not the pope. Go read John 10!" Another example: when Benedict wrote Deus caritas estan anti-Donatist theme if ever there were onea common reaction among professional Catholics, to borrow your helpful phrase, was that the encyclical represented the good Benedict and that the bad Benedict was lying in wait. I said in 2005 to the New York Times that Benedict gave no signs of wanting to purge the church. Over two years later, Ive had no cause to change my mind. Perhaps the underlying problem is not the present pope, but the faith that he is bound to profess. Sometimes that faith is a point of synthesis, and sometimes it is a stumbling block. Affirming Christs unique-universal salvific role or various aspects of sexual morality, for instance, does not always win one friends in contemporary theological or professional circles. But, tension and even outright conflict do not a Donatist make. Only the failure to love does that. Echoing Augustine, the 26-year-old Ratzinger wrote in his dissertation that the Donatists had true sacraments, but lacked love. I believe that the 80-year-old Ratzinger holds the same view and acts accordingly.Chris

Christpher Ruddy wrote:"But, tension and even outright conflict do not a Donatist make. Only the failure to love does that. Echoing Augustine, the 26-year-old Ratzinger wrote in his dissertation that the Donatists had true sacraments, but lacked love. I believe that the 80-year-old Ratzinger holds the same view and acts accordingly."Failure to love and lacked love on the part of Donatists. I admit I am stunned by your words. I do question whether the Donatists lacked love. But more to the point is whether Augustine had love when he is an enthusiastic supporter of violence against the Donatists to force them to join the Catholic church. Augustine even excused the violence in the Old Testament and had the gaul to declare that this justified the persecutions of the Donatists.So Augustine uses the emperor to forcibly make other Christians, the Donatists, to join the Catholic Church. This is love? Help me out here, Chris.

I hate to rain on everyone's parade, but I think it's time to point out that the U.S. National Statutes for the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, which have the force of particular law in the dioceses of the United States, say in paragraph 2: "...the term 'convert' should be reserved strictly for those converted from unbelief to Christian belief and never used of those baptized Christians who are received into the full communion of the Catholic Church." I would further observe that many of those who have written in this thread seem not to have digested the implications of the fact that reception into the full communion of the Catholic Church today no longer includes an abjuration of heresy and schism. In other words, the implied presupposition here that every Episcopalian (or other Protestant) who comes into the full communion of the Catholic Church does so as a reformed heretic who "converts" is not consonant with our official Church's own position on the subject. Ratzinger observed in 1958 that "There is no appropriate category in Catholic thought for the phenomenon of Protestantism today... It is obvious that the old category of "heresy" is no longer of any value. Heresy, for scripture and the early church, includes the idea of a personal decision against the unity of the church, and heresy's characteristic is pertinacia, the obstinacy of him who persists in his own private way. This, however, cannot be regarded as an appropriate description of the spiritual situation of the Protestant Christian. In the course of a now centuries-old history, Protestantism has made an important contribution to the realization of Christian faith, fulfilling a positive function in the development of the Christian message and, above all, often giving rise to a sincere and profound faith in the individual non-Catholic Christian, whose separation from the Catholic affirmation has nothing to do with the pertinacia characteristic of heresy."The Rite of Reception into the Full Communion of the Catholic Church speaks of what the individual has experienced as a free will decision arrived at after careful thought and under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. It is certainly NOT expected to be a move undertaken for convenience, or as a political protest, or anything of the sort. But the real test of it being undertaken as an expression of the Spirit's guidance is probably less to be found in the self-justifications this bishop writes, and more to be found in his ability to live the paschal mystery more fruitfully in full communion with us.

Interesting comments, Rita, many thanks. I was using the term "convert" in the common sense, and also because writing "received into full comunion with the Church" every time would lead to carpal tunnel problems. However, even if a baptized Christian is not a heretic, I do think being "received into full comunion with the Church" does necessitate acceptance of something (actually, a lot of things) beyond the validity of one's baptism. Otherwise, why all the CDF statements regarding the deficiency of non-Catholic churches and "ecclesial communions"? How we are to regard "conversion" today is interesting. The Catholic understanding seems to embrace a denominatonal idea of "religious-switching", Peter Berger's "heretical imperative" at work again.I agree with Chris that we should hope that Steenson (in this case) goes into greater depth in subsequent explanations. Yet I haven't seen such explanations from other "converts" in similar situations. I do think he would do well do explicate what must necessarily be his changed beliefs on the Eucharist, Holy Orders, papal primacy and a number of other matters. If he regards his previous beliefs on these questions as just as valid in the Roman church as in the Anglican Communion, then that would seem to be problematic. I think Cathy Kaveny's parsing of Steenson's anti-Donatist essay on point. But I think her point about his long-standing acceptance of women clergy and a female PB (I think it was Cathy K who said this) even more to the point. Such a development, which has been going on for three decades, is at least as problematic--in ecclesiological terms for a Catholic--than ordaining sexually active gays. Yet Steenson et al made no moves until the homosexuality issue emerged. That seems to undermine once again his arguments.

Rita,There are more subtle ways to express better and worse than "abjuration of heresy and schism."Brother Roger of Taize's very nuanced movement into full communion, for example, was made because he perceived that communion offered him two things that he thought were valuable: the Eucharist and communion with the Bishop of Rome.

As we parse the various meanings of "Donatism" it is well to remember the old Latin adage to the effect that every analogy limps (omnis analogia claudicat). I am in sympathy with my former student, Chris Ruddy, that to think Pope Benedict a Donatist, given his own Augustinian proclivities, is a huge mistake.

Dear Bill,Augustine was wrong to support the use of force against the Donatists. I agree with you. Belief cannot be coerced, as Vatican II belatedly affirmed.However, Augustine believed--wrongly, I judge--that coercing the Donatists was an act of love. Consider the following (rough) quotes from his Letter 185:"Christ, who loved us most, knocked Paul violently off a horse and made him blind." "The shepherd sometimes has to coerce sheep back into the fold."Here's another rough quote from his "Contra Litteras Petiliani":"The punishment of chastising is not an evil; for indeed it is the steel, not of an enemy inflicting a wound, but of a surgeon performing an operation."We both reject Augustine's course of action, but A.'s motives have to be considered, even if they are not exculpatory. He held that the Donatists lacked love because they shattered the church's divine unity and shut themselves off from the world; love tends toward unity, and the Donatists violated that. A. supported their coercion out of a desire to preserve the church's unity. He, I repeat, was wrong to do so, but his intent was charitable in part at least.Of course, these reflections raise the issue of God and violence. If Christ remains nonviolent in his acceptance of the cross, his action in our lives can--as with St. Paul--often be disruptive and painful. Grace is free, but not cheap and not always comfortable or appealing. I don't have an answer to God's relationship to violence, but we'd have to excise a lot of the Old Testament and some of the New to separate completely God and violence. That's Marcionism, and I don't think anyone wants to follow that path, especially with its anti-Jewish overtones.At this point, however, I think it best for this thread to return to its main points.

I can't really improve on Christopher Ruddy's response on Benedict and Donatism to Cathy, so I won't even try. As far as Steenson's anti-Donatism influencing his decision, the essay obviously indicates a rejection of the sectarianism of the Anglicans who are decamping for the Churches of Nigeria, Kenya, etc. But, I also detected a fear and concern about potential sectarianism of the Episcopal Church in, as FCB put it, "[o]n both sides there are those who are so convinced they are right in their view on human sexuality that they are willing to declare their side the pure Church and write off everyone else as not really Christian." The leading advocates of and ecclesiastical superiors implementing the so-called Theology of Inclusion, from my observation, take no quarter and brook no opposition. In any event, Steenson has today provided a more elaborate explanation of why he is going towards Rome, which I've linked below. What appears to be the decisive point for him was the Episcopal House of Bishop's claim of total independence from anyone else, including the rest of the Anglican Communion, which effectively functioned as a rejection of the ARCIC statement "Gift of Authority." IOW, the Episcopal Church has truly embraced sectarianism under the guise of "inclusion."At bottom, at least for Steenson, the issue isn't really about gay sex or "homophobia," but about authority - who has it and whence its source. Steenson, by the way, was an opponent of women's ordination. He could not in conscience recognize women's orders, nor ordain women. At the same time, Episcopal canon law prevents him from not permitting women to function as priests in his diocese. That in itself made his position as bishop quite tricky.

Or, to put it another way, Steenson seems to be recapitulating. in another context, Augustine's anti-Donatist slogan "securus judicat orbis terrarum." That is as much a reproach against the Episcopal Church as it is the Anglican evangelicals.

Patrick, thank you for providing the link--it is a very interesting address.

Chris, I read your article, and am afraid I don't see either the middle ground you want to claim, and why you're not sympathetic to those who are worried that it is not firm or sturdy. Let's take your statement: Even if he has taken pains in recent years to emphasize that the church must be never a closed sect but an open church that reaches out to all of society, it remains true that he sees the future church as likely to be a mustard seed or small flock in an often hostile world. This church-world tension runs all the way back to Ratzinger's 1953 doctoral dissertation on Augustine's ecclesiology. There is, I think, an unresolved pastoral tension in this pope between openness and fidelity, between a genuinely catholic and (often unwieldy) church and the brilliant intensity of a small, counter-cultural movement. This is, perhaps, the same tension reflected by the council, which defined the church as both the sacrament of the unity of the human race and the light of the world.Then you go on to say: "I acknowledged then and acknowledge now that church-world tension, but I think it is wrong to conflate that unavoidable tension with a Donatist desire for a purer church." So two questions:1. What is the actual, concrete difference between a desire for the Church as the "the brilliant intensity of a small, counter-cultural movement" (which you admit he has sympathies for) and the "Donatist desire for a purer church" (which you say is a canard). Another way to put my point, if we're not going to have a seminar on Donatism, is that I"m worried that he is too attracted by that brilliant intensity).2. Where in the long history of Catholic ecclesiology is there any sympathy given to the idea that the Church--the whole Church--not merely its component parts should reflect the "brilliant intensity of a small countercultural movement"? This is not the church of the Holy Roman Empire. This is not the Church whose merits, Augustine thought, were partially proven by the expansion of the Christian worldview through the empire.Cathy

Patrick, thanks for the update. Steenson's further "clarification" till doesn't do much to clear up my questions--and again, this is not to doubt the sincerity of his convictions. He is still becoming Catholic because he doesn't like where the Episcopal Church is headed. He says that. Let's take him at his word. The question remains, is that sufficient? I say there is much else about the Catholic Church that is vitally important than it's political structure--its exercise of authority and the like. Also, news of Steenson's longtime opposition to the ordination of women only deepens the confusion. Again, why was that breach of authority (as he envisions it) something he could live with while the ordination of homosexuals is, all of a sudden, not okay? And why does what the Episcoapl Church do then cause him to reject the entire Anglican Communion, which does not hold to the views of the ECUSA? Finally, the Episcopal Church's view of authority is the same today as it was when he was ordained. It's nice that he first felt himself Catholic when he saw John Paul II elected. But that was 1978. That's almost three decades ago, and he has been an Episcpal bishop much of that time. Major disjunctions going on here. final thing. I'm an ethicist and a lawyer, so the claim that "love" is the difference isn't going to impress me much. Lots of bad things have been justified in the name of love. How do we stop that? Well, we begin by recognizing, that love and justice are interrelated; love can surpass justice, but it can't contradict it.Augustine's idea that you can "lovingly" compel someone by force to come back into the Church is incorrect, in the first instance, because it is an act of injustice to do.

Just to clarify, Steenson says that he believes that the Anglican communion, the Episcopal bishops, and, interestingly, the "extra" bishops (I'm not sure how one refers to them) in some dioceses have all demonstrated a lack of "the inner dynamic toward Catholic unity."I don't think that this kind of concern can be reduced to a simple matter of polity. Motion towards Christian unity, or lack thereof, is a theological matter.

Yet how does Steenson's split qualify as "motion towards Christian unity"? He has the inner dynamic--and no one else does? That's a rather solitary dynamic. Again, he may have long felt "Catholic" and "catholic" in spirit. But he was for years a priest and bishop in the Episcopal Church, which does not, in any way, identify itself as Roman Catholic. Moreover, the Episcopal/Anglican dynamic on authority was a pre-existing condition; Steenson knew that, and now has decided to split off. Why?

Steenson says that his understanding of the Reformation is that of a temporary division, not to be desired as a permanent condition.

I believe this is a rather common idea among some mainline denominations--Lutherans and Anglicans in particular.



About the Author

David Gibson is a national reporter for Religion News Service and author of The Coming Catholic Church (HarperOne) and The Rule of Benedict (HarperOne). He blogs at dotCommonweal.