MENNONITE-CATHOLIC CONVERSATIONS IN NORTH AMERICA:
HISTORY, CONVERGENCES, OPPORTUNITIES
IVAN J. KAUFFMAN
Abstract: After more than four centuries
of dispute, controversy and persecution, Mennonites and Roman Catholics
have begun to enter into various kinds of dialogue. This article gives
a brief historical overview of Mennonite-Catholic relations from the sixteenth
to the twentieth centuries and summarizes a variety of Mennonite-Catholic
conversations now underway. These conversations range from the formal
dialogue being conducted by the Mennonite World Conference and the Vatican’s
Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity to the explorations of
both Mennonite and Catholic scholars and pastors.
The conversations now taking place between
the Catholic Church and the various Mennonite churches is a remarkable
Just how remarkable is indicated by comparing two documents, one from
the sixteenth and the other from the late twentieth century.
The first records an inquisition held in
Flanders in 1569. The inquisitor is a Franciscan named Friar Cornelis.
The prisoner is an Anabaptist pastor and elder named Jacob de Roore. Observing
the inquisition are two government officials who will be required to execute
Pastor de Roore if he is found guilty of heresy. Friar Cornelis opens
by telling Pastor de Roore, “I’ve come here to see whether I can . . .
bring you back to the Catholic faith of our mother, the holy Roman church,
from which you have apostatized to this damnable Anabaptism.” Pastor de
Roore answers, “I have apostatized from your Babylonian mother, the Roman
church, to the . . . true Church of Christ-this I confess and thank God
The Friar responds with predictable indignation.
“Do you call our mother, the holy Roman church, the whore of Babylon!
And do you call your hellish, devilish sect of Anabaptists the members
of the true church of Christ. . . . Who the devil has taught you this-your
accursed Menno Simons I suppose.” At this point the Friar utters an obscenity.
Pastor de Roore responds, “You talk very wickedly.” Then he adds, “It
was not necessary that Menno Simons should have taught us [this] since
John teaches [it] in his Apocalypse . . . in the 14th, 16th, 17th and
“Bah! What do you understand about John’s
Apocalypse!” Friar Cornelis answers. “You were nothing but a poor weaver
and candle maker before you went around preaching and rebaptizing out
here. . . . I have attended the University at Louvain, and studied divinity
so long, and yet I do not understand anything at all about St. John’s
Apocalypse.” To which Pastor de Roore responded, “Christ thanked his heavenly
father, that He had revealed [the truth] to babes, and hid it from the
wise of the world, as is written [in] Matthew 11:25.”
Friar Cornelis once again responds contemptuously.
“God has revealed [truth] to the weavers at the loom, to . . . bellows-menders
. . . scissors grinders . . . and all sorts of riff-raff,” he says incredulously.
“And to us ecclesiastics who have studied from our youth, night and day,
he has concealed it!” He tells Pastor de Roore: “Before you are rebaptized
you can’t tell A from B, but as soon as you are rebaptized you can read
and write. If the devil and his mother do not have a hand in this, I do
not understand anything about you people.” Pastor de Roore replies that
indeed the friar does not understand the Anabaptists, “for you ascribe
to Satan the grace which God grants our simple converts, when we [diligently]
teach them to read.”
Predictably this hostile exchange of opinions
ended with Pastor de Roore being condemned to death. On June 10, 1569
he was executed by the Flemish government in Bruges, leaving behind a
thriving congregation and a wife and several children.
From this tragic story we move forward
to the late twentieth century. It is January 1997 and the Mennonite World
Conference is meeting in Calcutta. At the opening ceremony an official
delegate of the Catholic Church reads this letter:
I send greetings from the Pontifical
Council for Promoting Christian Unity on the occasion of the meeting
of the Mennonite World Conference in Calcutta.
We are most happy to be represented
at the meeting by a member of our staff, Monsignor John Mutiso-Mbinda.
It is our sincere hope that there will be other contacts between the
Mennonite World Conference and the Catholic Church.
We are convinced that it is the will
of Christ that his disciples seek unity, for the scandal of division
among Christians “provides a stumbling block to the world, and inflicts
damage on the most holy cause of proclaiming the good news to every
creature.” Please know that we are with you in prayer during your daily
– Edward Idris Cardinal Cassidy, President
Clearly major changes have occurred
in the 428 years between Pastor de Roore’s inquisition and Cardinal Cassidy’s
letter. This transition from persecution to ecumenical conversation is the
result of major changes that have taken place in both communities, although
only since Vatican II have these changes reached the point that dialogue
has become possible.
HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVES: 1525-1900
the first four centuries after the Reformation there were few conversations
between Catholics and Anabaptist-origin groups. The Anabaptist-origin
groups continued to regard the Catholic Church as an institution that
had been involved in persecuting Christians. Catholics for their part
largely ignored the small marginalized communities left behind by the
Anabaptists. When Catholics did notice the Anabaptist-origin churches
they were viewed as schismatic sects, based on a Pelagian will-centered
theology and a heretical rejection of sacramental grace. The only apparent
convergence was a common belief that the other community had radically
departed from true Christianity. Any conversation between them was thus
pointless, unless it had as its goal the other’s conversion.
seemingly hopeless situation it appears in hindsight that Pastor de Roore
and Friar Cornelis shared certain basic assumptions: both believed they
were right and that it was possible to be right, in an absolute sense;
both were committed to the Church as a visible institution; both believed
their community to be the true heir to apostolic Christianity; both believed
the controversy they were engaged in had eternal significance; both accepted
the scriptures as authoritative and inspired; and both agreed the sacraments
mattered-the Anabaptists enough to die for their view of baptism.
Indeed on several basic points the Anabaptists
held positions which were closer to traditional Catholic views than to
the new Protestant views: the Church must be free of secular political
control; an act of the human will is necessary for salvation; the Church
is both an historical and a spiritual reality; the Christian faith has
specific moral implications in all areas of life.
On the other hand the Anabaptists held
several beliefs which they shared with Protestants, in opposition to the
Catholic tradition: Catholics were always wrong, and had been so ever
since the fall of the Church, an event usually associated with Constantine;
the scriptures were the only authority in the Church, and thus all previous
tradition was merely human and could be discarded; everything necessary
for Christian belief could be derived directly from the Bible; it is possible
for portions of the Church to exist without institutional accountability
to other portions of the Church; and finally, the tradition of priestly-administered
sacraments is totally rejected and replaced with a sermon-centered liturgical
life. Non-ordained Christians are considered equal in authority to those
ordained or in religious vows.
Clearly sixteenth-century Anabaptists differed
with Catholics on what it meant to be a Christian, but they did agree
that being a Christian is the ultimate value in life. They disagreed on
how to interpret scripture, but they agreed that its meaning, if that
could be determined, should govern the Church’s life. They differed on
how the Church should be organized and governed, but they agreed that
it was in the Church, properly organized and governed, that Christ is
present in history. In this both communities revealed their continuity
with medieval Christianity, which was their common historical heritage.
What perhaps most basically distinguished
these two sixteenth-century Christian communities were their beliefs about
the relationship between dogma and religious experience. For Friar Cornelis,
as for most other Catholics in his era, authority was primary. In this
view everything depended on accepting the Church’s dogmas, institutional
structures and sacraments without question. By contrast, for Pastor de
Roore and his fellow believers religious experience was primary. For them
everything depended on adult conversion-something they believed was required
for all Christians, and which would always produce a life demonstrably
Christ-like in its ordinary detail.
This theological difference in turn led
to a fundamental moral disagreement, which concerned the use of lethal
violence. Friar Cornelis presumably believed he was required to suffer
martyrdom if necessary to defend the faith, but he also obviously believed
he was required to cause the deaths of others if that was necessary to
suppress heresy in the Church. Thus Friar Cornelis was willing to cause
Pastor de Roore’s death for the sake of preserving social and religious
order. But Pastor de Roore would not have been willing to cause Friar
Cornelis’ death, even in self-defense, since along with many other Anabaptists
he took the words of Jesus literally: “Love your enemies, bless those
who persecute you.” The rejection of lethal violence under any circumstances
continues to be a major issue dividing Mennonites and the other Anabaptist-origin
groups from other Christian churches.
In the seventeenth century Europeans were
forced to recognize their split into two religiously defined sub-cultures.
They do so by roughly dividing Western Europe into a southern Catholic
area (Italy, Spain, France, South Germany) and a northern Protestant area
(England, North Germany, Scandinavia). This settlement brought relative
peace, but it provided no place for the Anabaptist-origin communities,
since they required religious liberty to practice their faith-something
neither Protestants nor Catholics would be willing to accept for another
century or more. But by the eighteenth century, despite persistent persecution
by both Protestant and Catholic religious and civil authorities, the Anabaptists’
descendants had succeeded in establishing four relatively stable communities-in
the Netherlands, Alsace, Ukraine and Pennsylvania. In addition there were
smaller, less stable communities elsewhere in Europe.
During this period the communities established
by the sixteenth-century Anabaptists began to evolve into the denominations
now known as Mennonites and Amish.
Since intense political opposition made evangelization difficult if not
impossible, these Anabaptist-origin congregations inevitably changed from
communities of persons who had been both baptized as infants and as adults
(e.g., Anabaptists, such as Pastor de Roore) into communities of persons
born into Christian families where the tradition was to defer baptism
until the early adult years (e.g., Baptists, like Pastor de Roore’s children
During these same centuries the Catholic
Church also experienced a major evolution, brought about by the reforms
adopted at the Council of Trent (1545-1563). These reforms produced two
major changes. The first was a much stronger emphasis on individual piety
than had been the case in the late medieval period. The second was a gradual
but major shift in church-state relations, as Catholic leaders increasingly
turned their attention toward religious influence in society as contrasted
to political control of it. Although neither change was radical enough
to satisfy the Anabaptist critique of the medieval church, nevertheless
both represented a convergence with Anabaptist belief, which has always
heavily emphasized personal piety and the institutional separation of
church and state.
Although several Anabaptist-origin communities
survived in Europe, only the Dutch would survive in any number, and they
at the cost of disavowing the pacifism of their founders. The future of
the pacifist Anabaptist tradition would be in North America.
Members of the Swiss Anabaptist community,
who had previously been deported from Switzerland to Germany, began immigrating
to Pennsylvania in the late seventeenth century and continued to do so
until warfare in the 1750s made further migration impossible. Pennsylvania
was then the only place (other than tiny Rhode Island) where religious
freedom existed, and its attraction to the Anabaptists was obvious. Catholic
migration to the U.S. also began in the seventeenth century. For both
communities North America was a fundamentally new environment. Here both
groups were small religious minorities, often discriminated against by
the Protestant majority-Catholics because they were not Protestants, Anabaptists
because they were pacifists-but nevertheless allowed to exist.
Both the Anabaptist and Catholic immigrant
communities adopted a similar survival strategy in English-speaking North
America. The combination of frontier conditions and the eventual establishment
of a democratic political system made it possible to establish rather
tightly-bounded sub-cultures in North America, and both Mennonites and
Catholics did so. By the late nineteenth century both had established
communities across the United States and Canada with their own schools,
cultural traditions and religious organizations. The right to religious
liberty and the separation of church and state which Mennonites and other
Anabaptist-origin groups required came to be sought by American Catholics
as well, since only under these political conditions could they hope to
survive in a majority Protestant culture.
Although Catholics and Mennonites had both
been tiny minorities in eighteenth-century English-speaking North America,
by the end of the nineteenth century Catholic emigration from Europe had
produced a Catholic population much larger than the Mennonite population.
But despite their differences in size, both groups continued to maintain
rather strong religious and cultural distinctions from the Protestant
majority. Catholics did so primarily through their religious practices.
Mennonites did so through both religious and cultural practices, which
included distinctive clothing, ethnic dialects and unique social customs.
Since marriage within the group was the norm in both cases, membership
consisted largely of the descendants of previous members.
There is no evidence of formal dialogue
between Catholics and Mennonites during this period, though contacts between
individual Catholics and Mennonites inevitably occurred. One such conversation
took place in Waterloo County, Ontario where in the late nineteenth century
German-speaking Catholics and Alsatian Amish settled in the same area.
Bishop Peter Litwiller, the leader of the Amish community, and Fr. Eugene
Funcken, the leader of the Catholic community, became personal friends
and engaged in an informal dialogue which has been long remembered in
the Amish Mennonite community in Ontario.
This conversation between two pastors appears to be the earliest Mennonite-Catholic
conversation in North America.
As late as the
middle of the twentieth century Mennonites and Catholics still held views
about one another that were only slightly different than their sixteenth
The change in their relationships marked by Cardinal Cassidy’s letter
to the 1997 Mennonite World Conference would not occur until after Vatican
There are five major historical forces
that together appear to have produced the changes in both communities
that have enabled the current Mennonite- Catholic dialogue to occur: (1)
internationalization of the Church; (2) shift from a dogmatic to an historical
intellectual perspective; (3) democratization of society; (4) liturgical
and spiritual change; (5) changes in the morality of warfare. Catholics
and Mennonites have of course responded rather differently to these historical
forces, but the two communities have found themselves in often surprising
convergence in the final outcomes.
Both the Mennonite and Catholic
communities have become profoundly international in the twentieth century.
The 1997 Mennonite World Conference not only met in India, but the majority
of its members are now Asians, Africans and Latin Americans. On the Catholic
side the situation is similar. This internationalization resulted from
the remarkable surge in missionary activity that took place in the nineteenth
and twentieth centuries. Protestant missionaries found that competition
between Christian denominations greatly hindered their work, and they
returned home with the message that divisions that could be defended in
Europe and America were unacceptable when exported elsewhere. The result
was the ecumenical movement that eventually produced the World Council
of Churches (WCC) in 1948.
For both Catholics and Mennonites the WCC
represented a major challenge. The Catholic commitment to papal authority
adopted at Vatican I, the pre-Vatican II Catholic self-understanding and
its disproportionate size made Catholic membership in a conciliar body
difficult. For their part the Mennonite commitment to Christian pacifism
made membership in a body which espoused the just war doctrine equally
problematic. The General Conference Mennonite Church did join the Federal
Council of Churches prior to World War I but withdrew when the Council
supported the war. Two non-pacifist European Mennonite churches are WCC
members. North American Mennonites have participated in several NCCCUSA/WCC
activities, particularly the Faith and Order Commission. In declining
to join the WCC Mennonites have converged with Roman Catholics.
After World War I the Mennonite denominations
formed their own intra-Mennonite organization, the Mennonite World Conference
(MWC). Although it has few programs and little institutional authority,
it has had a major impact on Mennonites throughout the world. To accept
membership in it is to accept the wide diversity in beliefs and practices
which exist among the various Mennonite denominations; this in turn has
prepared the way for many Mennonites to accept the wide variations between
them and other Christian groups. In recent years MWC has become a vehicle
for ecumenical dialogue with other Christian communities through the participation
of its executive secretary in the annual gatherings of general secretaries
of Christian World Communions.
A second ecumenical dialogue that has emerged
in the Anabaptist community is a series of scholarly meetings called the
Believers Church Conferences. This has brought Mennonite scholars together
with their counterparts in other free churches, such as the Baptists.
The National Conference of Catholic Bishops has sent an observer to several
recent conferences, and Br. Jeff Gros has been a frequent speaker at the
Catholic involvement in the ecumenical
movement took form in the Second Vatican Council. The Decree on Ecumenism
adopted by it created an entirely new relationship between Roman Catholics
and other Christians. After Vatican II it was no longer possible for Catholics
to dismiss other Christians as ‘heretics’-persons so deeply implicated
in error their beliefs and opinions and their very existence could simply
This in turn forced other Christians, including members of the Anabaptist-origin
denominations, to re-examine their attitudes toward Catholics and to ask
if they could regard Catholics as Christians.
C. J. Dyck, executive secretary of the
Mennonite World Conference at the time, attended the Vatican Council,
but only unofficially. The MWC governing board was not able to authorize
his participation as an official observer so Dyck attended at his own
expense with journalistic credentials. He later wrote a series of articles
reporting on the Council which appeared in the major Mennonite periodicals.
Although response from readers at the time tended to be negative it now
appears these articles mark the beginnings of the formal Mennonite-Catholic
dialogue now emerging.
In addition to this more typical dialogue,
another ecumenical activity has emerged in the Mennonite community that
is characteristically Anabaptist. This is cooperative action in international
relief and development. During and after World War II Mennonite groups
throughout North America cooperated in creating the Mennonite Central
Committee (MCC) in its present form. This large organization is now both
a major international relief and service agency and also the predominant
inter-Mennonite organization in North America.
Particularly in the past 25 years, and particularly in Central and South
America, MCC personnel have served with Catholic agencies, and Catholics
have served with MCC as volunteers. In Calcutta MCC cooperates with the
Missionaries of Charity, and Mother Teresa was scheduled to address the
Mennonite World Conference in 1997 until prevented by her final illness.
2. Shift from Dogmatic to Historical Intellectual Perspective
During the twentieth century an
important but seldom noticed intellectual shift has profoundly affected
both the Catholic and Mennonite communities. Early in the century, as
the power of rational thought became apparent in science, medicine and
technology, many persons came to believe that a rationalist approach to
religion would produce similar improvements. The Catholic bishops, and
especially the papacy, strongly opposed this movement, insisting that
Christian faith is based on divinely revealed truths which, although not
contrary to reason, nevertheless can not be derived from reason or any
other more basic source. Many Protestants adopted the Modernist position,
which in turn produced a conservative Protestant reaction in North America
known as Fundamentalism. Faced with this division in the wider Protestant
community, Mennonite groups also tended to divide over it: some adopted
the Modernist position, some the Fundamentalist position, while a middle
group was unwilling to favor either position. The result of the Modernist
challenge for Catholics and for the middle group of Mennonites was a shift
away from doctrinal and theological authority toward a historical perspective,
an intellectual event that has had wide and as yet unmeasured impacts
on both communities.
Significantly the major leaders in both
twentieth-century Catholicism and Mennonitism were historians-Pope John
XXIII, and Harold S. Bender, who was widely known in the Mennonite community
during his lifetime as “Pope” Bender. By convening the Second Vatican
Council Pope John set the Catholic Church on a new course. Harold Bender’s
career had an equal impact on the Mennonite community. He established
the Mennonite World Conference in its present form, founded The Mennonite
Quarterly Review and The Mennonite Encyclopedia, and was a
co-founder of the Mennonite Central Committee and the Associated Mennonite
Biblical Seminaries. Above all he furnished the Mennonite community with
the intellectual ideal of the “Anabaptist Vision” based on his extensive
research into sixteenth-century Anabaptist history.
Change, which is always a threat from a
doctrinal perspective, becomes instead a fundamental element in the tradition
when viewed historically. The historical perspective that both Catholics
and Mennonites adopted in the twentieth century as their response to the
challenges of Modernism and Fundamentalism has allowed both communities
to make major changes in their traditions while at the same time giving
them confidence they were maintaining the essence of their traditions.
This intellectual development has also
made possible an extensive dialogue between Mennonite and Catholic scholars.
In recent centuries both Catholics and Anabaptists have devoted extensive
resources to education with the result that educational levels in both
communities are relatively high. Educated Mennonites are now often aware
of Catholic beliefs, indeed are increasingly studying and teaching at
Catholic universities, and educated Catholics in smaller numbers are increasingly
able to view Anabaptist beliefs with respect. Among prominent Mennonite
scholars who have devoted considerable attention to Catholic beliefs are
John H. Yoder and Paul Peachey, both of whom served on the faculties of
major Catholic universities.
A continuing informal Mennonite-Catholic
intellectual exchange is taking place at several Catholic colleges and
universities where Mennonite graduate students are enrolled. The University
of Notre Dame has attracted an especially significant number of Mennonite
graduate students. In Canada, St. Michael’s College at the University
of Toronto and the presence of both St. Jerome’s College and Conrad Grebel
College at Waterloo University have provided important centers of dialogue.
At the same time Catholic undergraduates have enrolled in significant
numbers in at least two Anabaptist-origin U.S. colleges-Elizabethtown
(Pa.) College where some 30 percent of the students are Catholic, and
Bluffton (Ohio) College where the percentage is smaller but still significant.
At Bluffton, Mennonite theologian J. Denny Weaver offers a course in Catholicism.
3. The Democratization of Society
The belief on which Pastor de Roore’s
execution was based-that human societies can be orderly only if everyone
in them observes the same religious practices-has slowly but surely given
way to very different political beliefs in modern times. The near universal
adoption of democracy and human rights throughout the world in this century
(at least in principle) has fundamentally changed the context within which
Mennonite-Catholic conversations occur.
Indeed the triumph of democracy was a major
vindication for the sixteenth-century Anabaptists, since they were the
first organized group in western history to practice human rights, consensual
government, and separation of church and state. They did so a full century
before the first democratic government in modern times was established
in Rhode Island-and that government was established by Roger Williams,
a Christian pastor who appears to have acquired many of his political
ideas from the Dutch Anabaptists. When the Second Vatican Council adopted
the Declaration on Religious Liberty it accepted the basic principles
of democracy, which vindicated the political beliefs held by Pastor de
Roore, in contrast to those held by Friar Cornelis.
But in actual fact the triumph of democracy
would prove to be a major challenge for twentieth-century Mennonites.
For more than four centuries these communities had lived in the memory
and experience of persecution and had almost inevitably formed a martyr
culture. This culture enabled them to withstand enormous opposition and
social rejection and to maintain their pacifism in World Wars I and II.
But at the same time it inhibited Mennonites, especially the more conservative
communities, from effective participation in democratic society. Democracy
is based on the assumption that persons are able to make free and responsible
choices in a pluralistic environment, whereas a martyr culture almost
inevitably produces a sectarian environment and some form of victim mentality.
Despite these difficulties large segments of the Mennonite community began
to integrate into democratic society in the 1960s, producing a massive
cultural transformation which in a single generation disbanded many of
the cultural defenses erected in the previous four centuries.
At the same time the Catholic community
in the United States was undergoing a similar cultural transformation.
English Catholics had also experienced fierce persecution throughout the
sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Many Irish Catholics
viewed their entire history from the sixteenth century onward as a martyrdom
endured for the Catholic faith. All U.S. Catholics had experienced some
actual persecution from the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries and real
discrimination well into the twentieth century. However, with the election
of John F. Kennedy as president in 1960 the Catholic position in U.S.
society changed fundamentally. This cultural-political change occurred
at the same time as the religious changes instituted at Vatican II; together
the two profoundly altered the sociology of the U.S. Catholic community.
At the beginning of the twentieth century
Catholics and Anabaptists had belonged to two different sub-cultures,
united only by a common rejection of the dominant Protestant culture.
By century’s end both were increasingly participants in the same broad
culture-a rapidly expanding democratic civilization that is international
in extent and ecumenical in spirit.
4. Liturgical and Spiritual Change
A fourth major trend affecting both
Mennonites and Catholics are the substantial changes in liturgy and personal
spirituality which have occurred in the late twentieth century. Liturgical
change normally occurs slowly and incrementally, since liturgical and
worship rituals are inherently conservative. But in recent decades both
Mennonite and Catholic worship practices have changed to an extent that
can only be described as revolutionary.
In the Catholic community the liturgical
reforms adopted by the Second Vatican Council were major ones. The mass
was translated into the vernacular languages and its form and structure
modified. The priestly role was transformed by turning the altar toward
the congregation. Congregational music was emphasized, as were other lay
roles. The post-Vatican II worship service with its increased emphasis
on scripture, homily and lay participation is much more accessible to
most Protestants, including Mennonites, than was its predecessor.
Significant changes in worship style have
occurred as well on the Mennonite side. What had been a relatively stable,
homogenous and conservative worship tradition gave way in the 1970s to
a vigorous pluralism combining charismatic, experimental and pre-Reformation
Concurrently the cultural isolation of the Mennonite community began to
end, bringing many persons from the Mennonite community into contact with
Catholic worship and personal spirituality. Some began reading Catholic
spiritual authors, attending Catholic retreats and attending Catholic
eucharistic services. Others, including several Mennonite pastors, placed
themselves under Catholic spiritual directors. At the same time a widespread
and rapidly growing adoption of traditional pre-Reformation liturgical
practices occurred in many Mennonite congregations.
The charismatic renewal also played a role
in ecumenical dialogue between Mennonites and Catholics. Mennonite participation
in this movement was substantial at the personal level and led inevitably
to conversations with Catholic charismatics. The proximity of the Notre
Dame charismatic renewal to the major center of Mennonite institutions
in northern Indiana was significant. Bishop Nelson Litwiller, a long-time
and highly respected Mennonite missionary to Argentina, became a member
of a predominantly Catholic charismatic community at Notre Dame in 1970
and until his death in 1986 played a major role in changing Mennonite
attitudes regarding Catholics.
5. Morality of Warfare
The four trends which have thus
far been described-internationalization, changes in intellectual perspective,
democratization, and liturgical-spiritual innovation-each played an essential
role in laying the foundations for the dialogue between Catholics and
Mennonites that is now emerging. But without a fifth trend-a growing convergence
between Mennonites and Catholics regarding the morality of warfare-meaningful
dialogue would still remain difficult.
Following World War II a series of conversations
regarding the morality of warfare took place in Europe between Mennonite
and Brethren theologians and European Protestant theologians.
In recent years similar conversations have taken place in the United States,
and since Vatican II there has been significant Catholic involvement in
such conversations. The War, Nation, Church study group organized by Mennonite
scholar Paul Peachey while he was on the faculty at the Catholic University
of America was especially significant in bringing Mennonite and Catholic
scholars into dialogue on this topic. Meeting annually from 1967 to 1987,
it brought together leading scholars of both pacifist and just war beliefs
from a variety of Christian communities for off-the-record conversations.
Several Catholics participated in the colloquium, most notably Fr. Bryan
Hehir, who was selected by the U.S. Catholic bishops to draft their 1983
pastoral letter on the morality of warfare.
On the Catholic side there have been major
changes in thought regarding the morality of warfare since World War II.
These changes appear to have been initiated both by advances in technology
and by an increased moral sensitivity. Although twentieth-century warfare
has been neither more frequent nor more violent in intent than past centuries,
changes in technology have made it much more destructive. This technological
trend culminated in nuclear weapons, which in turn produced the Cold War-a
war which appeared to be inevitable for political and ideological reasons
but which could not be fought militarily because the weapons available
were too destructive to use.
At Vatican II the Catholic bishops declared
the arms race, which the Cold War had produced, “one of the greatest curses
on the human race,” and said, “the harm it inflicts on the poor is more
than can be endured.” The bishops did not offer an alternative to the
just war doctrine but did call for “a completely fresh reappraisal of
Vatican II was followed almost immediately by the Vietnam War, which appears
to have been the first war in history subjected to moral scrutiny by Catholic
theologians from one of the nations engaged in the war. The Vietnam War
had a major role in bringing about the 1983 U.S. Catholic bishops’ pastoral
letter on warfare, a document historic for giving the pacifist option
an official, if optional, legitimacy for the first time.
On the Mennonite side these same twentieth-century
events have had a rather far-reaching impact on the traditional pacifist
doctrine. When faced with the effects of technological warfare on social
justice, Mennonites were forced to ask whether their tradition of non-participation
in warfare was in itself adequate. During World War II, the Korean War
and the Vietnam War Mennonite conscientious objectors had performed public
service as an alternative to military service and had come to accept the
idea that the pacifist was required to offer an alternative to military
service. During the Vietnam War they had been challenged by their relief
work in Vietnam to oppose government actions because of their impact on
the civilian population. Since the Vietnam War there has been a steady
movement within the Mennonite community toward a more proactive approach
This common movement toward a proactive
peace position has produced a convergence between the Mennonite and Catholic
communities that, while still early and only partial, is nevertheless
ecumenically significant, since it concerns the issue which has historically
produced one of their greatest divergences. The participation of the executive
secretary of the Mennonite World Conference in the 1986 World Day of Prayer
for Peace convened by Pope John Paul II in Assisi was the first known
official encounter between Mennonites and Catholics and is an indication
of how critical the growing convergence on the morality of warfare has
been to this dialogue.
21ST CENTURY OPPORTUNITIES
In the 1990s there have been several developments
involving Mennonite Catholic conversation which appear to indicate the
opportunity for a deepened and possibly more formal dialogue in the 21st
century. These developments can be classed as institutional, scholarly,
liturgical-spiritual and personal.
Although Mennonites had not previously
engaged in institutional level ecumenical dialogue, there have been two
instances of such activity in the 1990s and a third involving another
Faith and Order: In 1983 Thomas
Finger of Eastern Mennonite Seminary was appointed to represent the two
larger North American Mennonite conferences on the Commission on Faith
and Order (NCCCUSA). Since that time there have been several significant
Mennonite contributions to this ecumenical forum, in which Catholics also
participate. Primary among these contributions has been the Mennonite
initiative in conducting a series of three Faith and Order consultations
on the morality of warfare, held between 1991 and 1995. Of the 23 participants
in the 1991-1992 consultations seven were Mennonite and two were Catholic.
The 1995 consultation was held at the University of Notre Dame and was
titled “The Fragmentation of the Church and its Unity in Peacemaking.”
Of the 31 participants in this consultation five were Mennonite and three
were Catholic. The 1995 consultation summary reported that participants
“were in agreement that all Christians have a vocation of peacemaking,”
but that “there continues to be significant disagreement over the best
ways to pursue that calling.”
Participation in the Faith and Order dialogue
process has represented a major step in ecumenical involvement for Mennonites.
That this initial participation involved the peace issue again indicates
how fundamental it is for Mennonites. The late Marlin Miller, then president
of the Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary, played a major leadership
role in bringing these consultations into being and in securing Mennonite
participation in them. Finger continues to play a leading role in representing
Mennonites in Faith and Order-related ecumenical dialogue.
Recently the two largest North American Mennonite conferences (now in
the process of merger) have appointed an Interchurch Relations Committee
charged with overseeing Mennonite involvement in inter-church affairs.
Although Faith and Order is a multilateral dialogue, it has brought Mennonite
theologians and scholars into serious formal dialogue with Catholics on
the peace issue.
Vatican-Mennonite World Conference:
In 1986 Paul Kraybill, then executive secretary of the Mennonite World
Conference, attended the World Day of Prayer for Peace in Assisi called
by Pope John Paul II. He participated in the day’s activities, which included
a Christian prayer service at which he read one of the petitions. He later
exchanged an embrace of peace with the other participants, including Pope
Kraybill’s participation in the annual gatherings of general secretaries
of Christian World Communions, a body in which representatives of the
Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity also participate, led
to his invitation to this event.
In 1990 Larry Miller became executive secretary
of Mennonite World Conference. He has continued conversations with officials
of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, particularly
Bp. Pierre Duprey and Msgr. John Rodano. These led to the official representation
by the Catholic Church at the 1997 meeting of the Mennonite World Conference
in Calcutta, clearly an historic step in Mennonite-Catholic relations.
The reference in Cardinal Cassidy’s letter to prayers being offered for
the Mennonite gathering seems especially significant from a Catholic point
The offer for further dialogue in Cardinal
Cassidy’s letter was presented to the Mennonite World Conference executive
committee after the conference and was accepted. An initial dialogue was
held October 14-18, 1998 in Strasbourg, France on the theme “Toward a
Healing of Memories.” Each side presented two papers. The first was a
self-description by each tradition, and the second dealt with the perceptions
of each tradition in the sixteenth century. This dialogue is expected
to continue annually for a period of four to five years.
This international level dialogue will
likely have a major impact on Mennonite-Catholic conversations in North
America. The experiences of Mennonites in Asia, Africa and Latin America
regarding Catholics is often quite different than the experiences of North
American Mennonites with North American Catholics.
Society of Brothers (Bruderhof): The
Society of Brothers, also known as the Bruderhof, is an Anabaptist group
of twentieth-century origin. For a time it was associated with the Hutterites,
an Anabaptist community originating in the sixteenth century. Both practice
economic and residential community.
The Bruderhof is the first Anabaptist-origin community to enter into formal
dialogue with the Catholic Church at the institutional level. Although
this dialogue does not involve Mennonites directly, it has an important
impact on Mennonites because of the theological positions they share with
The Bruderhof-Catholic conversation was
initiated by Pope John Paul II’s apostolic letter on the third Christian
millennium, Tertio Millenio Adveniente, which included a statement
indicating the Catholic Church was prepared to apologize for having in
the past used “violence in the service of the truth.” When the Bruderhof
leadership read this statement they contacted their friend Fr. Richard
Neuhaus, who in turn arranged an appointment with Cardinal O’Connor, the
Catholic Archbishop of New York. The Cardinal received them in March 1995,
accepting copies of their writings and noting the potential for greater
Catholic understanding of Anabaptism.
A few months later the Bruderhof leadership met in Rome with Cardinal
Ratzinger, head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith-the Vatican
official whose sixteenth-century predecessors had been responsible for
executing heretics. The Cardinal listened as his visitors read accounts
of two of the Anabaptists martyred in the sixteenth century. He then made
What is truly moving in these stories is
the depth of faith of these men, their being deeply anchored in our Lord
Jesus Christ, and their joy in this fact, a joy that is stronger than
We are distressed, of course, by the fact
that the Church was so closely linked with the powers of this world that
it could deliver other Christians to the executioner because of their
beliefs. This should be a deep challenge to us, how much we all need to
repent again and again-and how much the Church must renounce worldly principles
and standards in order to accept the truth as the only standard, to look
to Christ. Not to torture others but to go the way of witnessing, a way
that will always lead to martyrdom in one form or another.
I believe it is important for us not to
adopt worldly standards, but rather to be ready to face the world’s opposition
and to learn that Christ’s truth is expressed above all in love and forgiveness,
which are truth’s most trustworthy signs. I believe that this is the point
at which we all have to begin learning anew, the only point through which
Christ can truly lead us together.
Following this meeting in Rome the senior
leader of the Bruderhof, Elder Johann Christoph Arnold, was invited to
an ecumenical reception for Pope John Paul II in New York. Elder Arnold
spoke briefly with the pope at this reception. Later Cardinal O’Connor
visited the Bruderhof.
This entire set of encounters appears to be a major event in Anabaptist-Catholic
relations. Cardinal Ratzinger’s statement appears especially significant
from an Anabaptist perspective. What remains is to explore the possibility,
inherent in Cardinal Ratzinger’s remarks, that the Anabaptist martyrs
could in some way be honored by the Catholic Church for their witness
to religious liberty and the Church’s peace position.
Mennonite scholars have largely
pioneered conversations with Catholics, and in the past decade this on-going
effort has produced two noteworthy developments in the scholarly field.
The first has been a new effort among Mennonite historians to understand
sixteenth-century Anabaptism’s relationship to medieval Christianity.
The second is a program at Elizabethtown College, supported by a Catholic
foundation, which is making possible serious and sustained dialogue between
Anabaptist and Catholic scholars.
Historians: Mennonites are characterized
by an unusually strong historical sense. This trend was strongly reinforced
by Harold S. Bender, whose work as a denominational leader in the period
c.1930-1960 was to a large extent based on historical scholarship. After
Bender’s death in 1962 a younger generation of Mennonite historians continued
the exploration of sixteenth-century Anabaptism. Several non-Mennonite
scholars also joined this effort, eventually producing a somewhat different
view of Anabaptism than Bender and his contemporaries had offered. In
a 1990 encyclopedia article reviewing Anabaptist studies during the previous
two decades Walter Klaassen reports that in this period “a new picture
of Anabaptism” had emerged. In this new view Anabaptists were seen as
a “mosaic of groupings of dissenters” which were “part of the general
history of Western Europe in the sixteenth century.” Klaassen, trained
as an historian at Oxford and long-time professor at Conrad Grebel College
at the University of Waterloo, has through his numerous publications been
a major force in situating Anabaptism in the context of its times.
In 1984 another historian at Conrad Grebel
College, C. Arnold Snyder, published a biography of Michael Sattler, a
sixteenth-century Anabaptist leader who had been a Benedictine monk prior
to his conversion to Anabaptism. Snyder concluded that the medieval monastic
movement played a major role in inspiring the sixteenth-century Anabaptist
Snyder’s book has proven to be seminal, eliciting responses from both
Mennonite and Catholic scholars. Eoin de Bhaldraithe, an Irish Trappist,
wrote an appreciative review in which he states: “The disciples of Benedict
and indeed all Catholics will read Snyder’s book with interest and even
excitement. . . . We easily recognize that we are branches of the same
patristic and medieval tree trunk.”
Dennis Martin responded to Snyder’s work by suggesting that “the movement
of spirituality out of the cloisters onto the streets-begun by the religious
movements of the twelfth century, institutionalized by the mendicants,
and laicized in late-medieval popular piety-perhaps lay more directly
behind Sattler’s imitation of the suffering Christ than did traditional
It will be noted that both responses share the assumption that there were
substantial pre-Reformation influences present in the Anabaptist movement.
Several other Mennonite historians are
also exploring the pre-Reformation context of Mennonitism. Prominent among
them is Peter Erb of Wilfrid Laurier University, who has published three
essays questioning the traditional Mennonite view that Anabaptism restored
the Church to its primitive simplicity and arguing instead for a historical
perspective in which Mennonitism is viewed as part of the larger Christian
Dennis Martin, now a Catholic but then writing as a Mennonite, discussed
the same set of issues in a widely-noted essay published in 1987.
Three Mennonite scholars have made pioneering
efforts in the past decade to view Mennonitism from a patristic viewpoint.
They are Alan Kreider, a missionary-historian and a fellow at Regent’s
Park College, Oxford;
Gerald Schlabach of Bluffton (Ohio) College, whose 1996 Notre Dame dissertation
on Augustine appears to be the first major scholarly study of a patristic
figure by a Mennonite scholar;
and A. James Reimer, professor of theology at Conrad Grebel College, who
studied with the Catholic theologian Gregory Baum.
Several Catholic scholars have also attempted
to understand the Anabaptist movement and its denominational successors.
Msgr. Ronald Knox, the English author and Biblical scholar, included a
chapter on the Anabaptists in his millennial-scale survey of non-traditional
Christian communities published in 1950.
Although a sincere attempt to understand the Anabaptist movement, it was
written before the great growth in Anabaptist studies and is now outdated.
In 1965 Michael Novak, the Catholic author and lay theologian, published
an essay on Anabaptism which is a positive and on the whole accurate treatment
of sixteenth-century Anabaptism from a post-Vatican II perspective.
Bro. Jeffrey Gros, F.S.C., Associate Director
of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Secretariat for Ecumenical
and Interreligious Affairs, has been the Catholic most active in writing
about Anabaptists. Much of this has taken place in his role as Catholic
representative to the Believers Church Conferences, and from his participation
in the Faith and Order dialogues in which Mennonites have participated.
Lisa Sowle Cahill, a Catholic theologian who is professor of Christian
Ethics at Boston College, included a discussion of both the Anabaptists
and of Mennonite theologian John H. Yoder in her 1994 study of the morality
It would appear there is significant opportunity
for further scholarly investigation of Mennonite and Catholic relationships
in both the historical and theological fields. It would appear to be especially
helpful if Catholic scholars were to join in the study of sixteenth-century
Anabaptism and its origins.
Elizabethtown College: This undergraduate
college located in Lancaster County, Pa., was founded by the Church of
the Brethren, another of the Anabaptist-origin denominations in the U.S.
However the student body of approximately 1,500 is now roughly 30 percent
Catholic, and only about 3 percent Brethren. In recent years this institution
has emerged as the setting for a sustained scholarly dialogue between
Catholics and the various Anabaptist groups, including Mennonites.
The Young Center for the Study of Anabaptist
and Pietist Groups at Elizabethtown has emerged as an important center
for Anabaptist scholarship, and two of its recent fellows, both Mennonites,
have engaged in Anabaptist-Catholic research. In 1997 Steven M. Nolt compared
the ways Anabaptist and Catholic immigrant groups adapted to American
culture. In the following year Paul Peachey, presented a series of three
lectures on the topic “Churches Catholic and Free: An American Dialogue,”
each of which were followed by responses from representatives of the local
In 1994 the Connelly Foundation of Philadelphia,
a Catholic foundation, awarded Elizabethtown a major three-year grant
both to aid the college’s services to its Catholic students and to promote
dialogue between Catholics and Anabaptists. This grant allowed the college
to add courses on Catholicism to its offerings and to initiate a series
of scholarly interchanges between Catholic and Anabaptist scholars. One
of the first events was an April 1997 conference titled “Anabaptist and
Catholic Conversations: Points of Convergence and Divergence.”
During the 1997-1998 academic year three
further events were held under the auspices of the Connelly Foundation
Program. The first was a panel titled “Catholics and Anabaptists: Can
We Talk Together'” Br. Jeffrey Gros represented Catholics; John Rempel,
a Mennonite pastor in Manhattan and director of the Mennonite Central
Committee liaison office at the United Nations, represented Mennonites.
The other events were conferences on the general topic “Catholics and
Anabaptists in Conversation about Spirituality.” The first brought together
Prof. Monika Hellwig, a Catholic and former professor of theology at Georgetown
University, and Marlene Kropf, minister of Spirituality and Worship for
the Mennonite Board of Congregational Ministries, for a discussion of
“Women and Spirituality.” The second conference brought together Mennonite
pastor Arthur Boers, who had received spiritual direction from Fr. Henri
Nouwen, and Sue Mosteller, C.S.J., an associate of Nouwen’s at L’Arche
Community, for a discussion of Nouwen’s spirituality.
It would appear that scholarly dialogue
of the kind initiated by Elizabethtown College has a major potential for
facilitating Mennonite-Catholic dialogue.
As noted earlier there has been a movement
in some portions of the Mennonite community toward pre-Reformation spiritual
and liturgical practices in recent decades. This has produced liturgical
changes at the congregational level and the adoption by many Mennonites
of traditional personal spiritual disciplines. Although not directly ecumenical,
this development plays an essential role in laying the spiritual foundations
for a theological and historical dialogue.
Worship practices at congregational
level: During the past two decades there has been a pronounced shift
in some Mennonite congregations toward traditional liturgical practices.
It is estimated that some 35-40 percent of Mennonite Church
congregations now use the common lectionary. The frequency of communion
services in Mennonite Church congregations has increased from the traditional
semi-annual schedule to as frequently as monthly in some congregations,
and the average in North America is now estimated at 6-8 times a year.
The liturgical seasons are now observed in many congregations, and resource
packets for pastors are now published each Advent and Lent by the Mennonite
This interest in pre-Reformation worship
practices has naturally led to various interactions with Catholics. Several
leaders in the Mennonite liturgical movement have studied at Catholic
universities, particularly the University of Notre Dame. Marlene Kropf,
who has been the leader in this movement, attended Notre Dame and has
close contacts with Catholic thought. At her initiative the Mennonite
Church adapted the Catholic Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults (RCIA)
for use in Mennonite congregations.
When this new program was introduced to Mennonite pastors and congregational
leaders in 1997 a Catholic couple was invited to describe the implementation
of the RCIA program in their parish. Following the 1994 Believers Church
Conference on the Lord’s Supper, Kropf organized a conversation for pastors
on this topic at the Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminaries to which
a Catholic representative was invited.
It would appear there is a major opportunity
for Mennonite-Catholic dialogue on the topic of worship. An exploration
of the differing theological assumptions that underlie the two traditions’
practices would appear to be especially promising.
Individual Spiritual Disciplines:
At the same time that many Mennonite congregations adopted elements of
the pre-Reformation liturgical tradition, numerous individuals in the
Mennonite community have adopted traditional spiritual disciplines. It
is difficult to document this trend, since by its nature it involves individuals
rather than institutions, but there is considerable anecdotal evidence
of Mennonites reading Catholic spiritual authors, attending Catholic retreats
and placing themselves under Catholic spiritual directors. The writings
of Henri Nouwen have been particularly popular among Mennonites.
There is also an institutional development
in this area that appears to be significant. In the past decade Mennonites
in northern Indiana have established a retreat center in Three Rivers,
Michigan called The Hermitage, which is closely modeled on similar Catholic
centers. Founded and led by a husband-wife Mennonite pastoral team, Gene
and Mary Herr, it offers silent retreats, guided meditation and spiritual
direction, primarily to Mennonite pastors. The Hermitage has a long-standing
relationship with the Spiritual Life Institute (SLI), a Catholic religious
order of Carmelite origin. Bro. Eric Haarer, an early Mennonite supporter,
is now a Catholic member of SLI and maintains a close association with
The Hermitage, as do other members of SLI.
The number of individuals involved in
Mennonite Catholic conversation at a personal level also appears to have
grown rapidly in the past decade. Although such a generalization rests
on anecdotal evidence, it nevertheless would appear to be a logical corollary
to the expanded institutional interest, which can be documented.
There has also been a growing number of
crossovers in membership between the two communities in recent decades.
What is noteworthy about many of these crossovers, both Mennonite and
Catholic, is that the individuals involved have often maintained connection
with their previous community. A 1997 issue of The Mennonite featured
the stories of two Mennonites who have joined the Catholic Church, a remarkable
ecumenical event by any standard.
The wife of the editor responsible is a former Catholic, perhaps an indication
of how crossover membership is affecting the ecumenical dialogue. The
present author, himself a crossover from Mennonite to Catholic in 1968,
has received several invitations to speak to and write for Mennonite audiences
in recent years.
Many crossovers, both Catholic and Mennonite,
rather than rejecting their previous tradition appear to have made a decision
to attempt to integrate the two. It is possible such persons may be able
to contribute to the dialogue as cultural, historical and theological
taking place between Mennonites and Catholics obviously are not equivalent
to the formal dialogues underway between the Catholic Church and the larger
Protestant denominations. However when viewed from a Mennonite perspective
which emphasizes local initiative, these informal conversations are perhaps
even more significant than a leadership initiated dialogue, since by their
ad hoc nature they indicate a widely dispersed impulse toward dialogue.
The question now appears to be how to conduct
a more formal dialogue between Mennonites and Catholics, and here there
appear to be three major issues: (1) how does a top-down hierarchical
church carry on meaningful dialogue with a bottom-up congregational church?
(2) how can the memories produced by Catholic persecution of Anabaptists
be healed so that productive dialogue in the present becomes possible?
(3) how is the disparity in size between the two groups to be handled?
In regard to the first issue it seems rather
apparent that for conversations between Mennonites and Catholics to move
to a more formal and sustained level, considerable creativity in developing
new techniques for ecumenical dialogue will be required. Applying existing
forms, developed for dialogue between large hierarchically-organized churches,
would hardly be appropriate to the Mennonite tradition which emphasizes
broad-based congregational participation in all church activities. What
is needed is a dialogue format which satisfies the Catholic expectation
that those involved will be accountable to their larger community, while
at the same time satisfying the Mennonite expectation that the dialogue
process will involve broad-based participation by the entire membership.
It may be the new forms of electronic communication will provide opportunities
for ecumenical conversation that would satisfy both requirements.
In regard to the second issue-what has
been called the healing of memories-the role of the sixteenth-century
Anabaptist martyrs appears to be central. The depth of loyalty in the
Mennonite community to these martyrs should not be underestimated.
The general apologies thus far offered by Pope John Paul II are a major
step toward resolving this obstacle to dialogue but will likely not be
sufficient to completely resolve it. What will likely be required in order
for the Mennonite and other Anabaptist communities to put these intense
and painful memories to rest is some action by Catholic authorities which
indicates not only an apology for the religiously-based violence inflicted
on the original Anabaptists, but also a recognition that the beliefs for
which the Anabaptists were persecuted now appear in some cases to be closer
to the heart of the gospel than those of their persecutors. The statement
of Cardinal Ratzinger to the Bruderhof delegation would appear to indicate
that such an action may be feasible from a Catholic standpoint.
There is also the issue of disparity in
size between the two communities. It appears possible if not probable
that both partners in the conversation will be inhibited to some degree
by this factor. Mennonites are likely to fear being overwhelmed by a much
larger and institutionally stronger partner if they enter into serious
dialogue with the Catholic Church. This concern is naturally heightened
by the still strong memories of past persecution at the hands of Catholic
authorities. Catholics for their part may question whether a dialogue
with a relatively small group is justified, given the many opportunities
for dialogue with much larger groups.
Obviously for any dialogue to continue
for an extended period of time both communities must experience some substantive
gain from it. It is possible Catholics will experience such a gain by
learning from the 450-year Mennonite experience of lay discipleship, including
the Mennonite rejection of military service during those centuries. It
may be that as Catholics continue the “completely fresh reappraisal of
war” mandated by Vatican II they will find in Mennonite history certain
lessons of practical value.
For their part Mennonites may find in dialogue
with the Catholic Church the opportunity to share their peace witness
with a politically influential Christian community. At the same time they
may find dialogue with Catholics a way to experience a stronger connection
to the pre-Reformation spiritual and liturgical roots which nourished
sixteenth-century Anabaptism. Dialogue with Catholics would also provide
a stronger relationship to the global Christian community from which Mennonites
have largely been isolated, both by centuries of persecution and by the
counter-cultural lifestyle required to maintain their Christian pacifism.
There is also a potential benefit for other
ecumenical conversations. Mennonites are the oldest of the Protestant
communities that have come to be identified as evangelical, in the North
American use of that term. If Mennonites and Catholics are able to develop
techniques which produce useful dialogue it is likely these same techniques,
or an adaptation of them, will also prove helpful in Catholic dialogue
with other evangelical communities.
It appears likely that a sustained Mennonite-Catholic
dialogue will be difficult. As it progresses very major differences will
have to be confronted. But despite its potential difficulty the prospects
for such a dialogue appear quite hopeful. The very difficulty of the issues
involved ensures that Mennonite-Catholic dialogue will require its participants
to explore the deepest foundations of their faith, an activity which can
hardly fail to bring benefit to all involved. And the rather surprising
growth in Mennonite-Catholic conversations in recent decades would seem
to indicate that there is an impetus for dialogue in these two very different
communities strong enough to overcome even the greatest difficulties.
Ivan J. Kauffman is an independent
author living in Washington, DC. Before becoming a Catholic in 1968 he
was executive secretary of the Mennonite Central Committee’s Peace Section.
1. Mennonites are the largest of the denominational groups that trace
their origins to the sixteenth-century European Anabaptists. Other groups
with similar origins are the Hutterites and the Amish. An eighteenth-century-origin
denominational group, the Brethren, is also referred to as Anabaptist.
In 1998 Mennonite and related groups in North America numbered 416,000
(baptized adults), organized into three larger independent conferences
and numerous smaller ones. Total membership worldwide was 1,060,000 baptized
adults in 60 nations, organized into 193 independent conferences. Return
. Thieleman J. van Braght, The
Bloody Theater, or Martyrs Mirror of the Defenseless Christians (1660),
trans. Joseph F. Sohm (Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 1950), 774-75 (punctuation
altered). This book has played a major role in forming the Mennonite community’s
self-image from its publication to the present. See “Martyr’s Mirror,”
ME 3:527-29. Return to Text
. Copy supplied by Mennonite
World Conference, Strasbourg, France. The quoted portion of Cardinal Cassidy’s
letter is from the Vatican II document on ecumenism, Unitatis Redintegratio,
para.1. Return to Text
. The Amish are an Anabaptist-origin
group which originated in Alsace and Switzerland in the early 1690s from
a split in the Anabaptist community there. Many twentieth-century Mennonite
congregations were originally Amish congregations that began calling themselves
Mennonite as they became acculturated. See Steven M. Nolt, A History
of the Amish (Intercourse, Pa.: Good Books, 1992) and Paton Yoder,
Tradition and Transition: Amish Mennonites and Old Order Amish, 1800-1900
(Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 1991). Return to Text
. The sixteenth-century Anabaptists
did not consider themselves twice-baptized, since they regarded their
baptism as infants to have taken place under compulsion, and thus to have
been invalid. For the most part the European heirs to the Anabaptist movement
refer to themselves as Baptists (Tufer in German, Doopsgezind
in Dutch). The name Mennonite originated in the Netherlands, and was only
adopted by Swiss Anabaptists after their emigration to North America,
in some cases as recently as the twentieth century. Return to Text
. The Mennonite historian Steven
Nolt studied similarities in the historical experience of Catholic and
Anabaptist-origin communities in North America as a Young Center Fellow
at Elizabethtown College in 1997. While at Elizabethtown he offered a
course titled “Catholics and Anabaptists in America,” a summary of which
was presented to the 1997 Connelly Foundation Conference on Anabaptist
Catholic Conversations. Return to Text
. “[They] lived just north of
[Wilmont], geography thus making the two men neighbors. They also shared
a common German European heritage, and apparently were quite broad-minded
gentlemen. Rather than being an obstacle, their religious differences
became an opportunity for dialogue. The two were known to frequently engage
in religious discussions. Such was the apparent mutual respect between
the two that when Bishop Litwiller passed away in 1878 Father Funcken
opened the doors of his church and tolled the church bell when the funeral
procession passed by. He also wrote a short article for a local newspaper
describing the large attendance at the funeral and the virtues of his
fellow clergyman.”-Orland Gingerich, The Amish of Canada (Waterloo,
Ont.: Conrad Press, 1972), 41. See also Peter C. Erb, “‘Himmelhoch jauchzend
/ Zum Tode betrbt’: The Poetry of Eugen Funcken,” Canadian Catholic
Historical Association, Historical Studies 54 (1987), 109-23. Erb,
a scholar at Wilfrid Laurier University, has edited Fr. Funcken’s poetry
for publication, due to appear in the near future. Return to Text
. J. Howard Kauffman and Leland
Harder measured Mennonite attitudes toward Catholics in 1971. See their
Anabaptists Four Centuries Later: A Profile of Five Mennonite and Brethren
in Christ Denominations (Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 1975), 248-52.
According to the 1956 Mennonite Encyclopedia article on “Catholicism
and Anabaptism,” “there are unbridgeable differences between Catholicism
and Anabaptism.”-ME 1:534. Return to Text
. “Mennonite World Conference”,
in ME 3:640-42 and ME 5:574-75. There have been developments
in programs and perspectives in the MWC since these articles were written,
but little structural change. Personal communication to the author from
Larry Miller, executive secretary of MWC. Return to Text
. For the history of the Believers
Church Conferences see Dale R. Stoffer, The Lord’s Supper: Believers
Church Perspectives (Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 1997), 289-92.
Return to Text
. “Some, even very many, of
the most significant elements and endowments which together go to build
up and give life to the Church itself, can exist outside the visible boundaries
of the Catholic Church: the written Word of God; the life of grace; faith,
hope, and charity, with the other interior gifts of the Holy Spirit; as
well as visible elements.”-Unitatis Redinegratio, para. 3. Return
. The articles appeared in
The Mennonite (1965), 758-61, 776-79; Gospel Herald (1966),
104-06, 126-27; 169, 188-89; and Mennonite Weekly Review. See also
Earl Zimmerman’s essay in this issue of MQR entitled “Renewing the Conversation:
Mennonite Responses to Vatican II,” in which the importance of Dyck’s
reports is apparent. Return to Text
. For the history of MCC see
Robert S. Kreider and Rachel Waltner Goossen, Hungry, Thirsty, a Stranger:
The MCC Experience (Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 1988). Return
. Personal communication to
the author from John A. Lapp, MCC executive secretary emeritus. See MCC
Newsletter on the Americas (Summer 1993) for a special issue on
Catholics and Protestants. As early as 1920 there was contact between
representatives of MCC and the Catholic Church. A group of MCC volunteers
passing through Italy en route to Russia met a U.S. Catholic priest who
invited them to attend Pope Benedict IV’s regular papal audience. Among
the three young Mennonites in attendence was Orie O. Miller, who later
became executive secretary of Mennonite Central Committee and built it
into its present institutional status. Arthur Slagel to J. C. Meyer, Sept.
21, 1920. J. C. Meyer Collection, Archives of the Mennonite Church, Goshen,
Ind. This reference courtesy of Steven Nolt. Return to Text
“Bender, Harold Stauffer,”
ME 5:66-67; Guy F. Hershberger, ed., The Recovery of the Anabaptist
Vision: A Sixtieth Anniversary Tribute to Harold S. Bender (Scottdale,
Pa.: Herald Press, 1957). Return to Text
. Yoder, who died in 1997,
was the leading Mennonite theologian of this century. From 1977 to 1997
he was a member of the theology faculty at the University of Notre Dame.
During that time he taught a course titled “History and Theology of the
Radical Reformation.” Yoder’s major work, The Politics of Jesus: Vicit
Agnus Noster, 2nd ed., (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994) has been widely
influential and is footnoted in the 1983 Catholic bishops’ peace pastoral.
Peachey is a prominent Mennonite sociologist who, from 1967 to 1987, was
a member of the sociology faculty at the Catholic University of America.
Return to Text
. Mennonite sociologists have
carefully documented this cultural transformation. See Kauffman and Harder,
Anabaptists Four Centuries Later; J. Howard Kauffman and Leo Driedger,
The Mennonite Mosaic: Identity and Modernization (Scottdale, Pa.:
Herald Press, 1991); Leo Driedger and Leland Harder, “Polymennos: Identities
in Transition,” and Leo Driedger, “Identity and Assimilation,” both in
Anabaptist-Mennonite Identities in Ferment, eds. Leo Driedger and
Leland Harder, (Elkhart, Ind.: Institute of Mennonite Studies, 1990);
and Leo Driedger, Mennonite Identity in Conflict (Lewiston: Edwin
Mellen Press, 1988). Return to Text
. See William V. D’Antonio,
et al., Laity, American and Catholic: Transforming the Church (Kansas
City: Sheed and Ward, 1996). Return to Text
. Marlene Kropf, “Exploring
Worship Diversity,” Builder (Jan. 1994), 2-8. Return to Text
. Pre-Reformation liturgical
practices include use of the lectionary, observance of the liturgical
seasons and frequent observance of communion. Return to Text
. For Mennonite involvement
in the charismatic renewal see J. Howard Kauffman, “Mennonite Charismatics:
Are They Any Different'” 70 MQR (Oct. 1996), 449-72, and the article,
“Charismatic Movement,” ME 5:134-36. For Nelson Litwiller’s role
see, “Litwiller, Nelson,” ME 5: 527. Return to Text
. For a description of ecumenical
dialogue on the war and peace issue involving Mennonite and other Anabaptist-origin
churches by two principal participants, see Donald F. Durnbaugh, ed.,
On Earth Peace: Discussions on War/Peace Issues Between Friends, Mennonites,
Brethren and European Churches, 1935-75 (Elgin, Ill.: Brethren Press,
1978); and John H. Yoder, “40 Years of Ecumenical Theological Dialogue
Efforts on Justice and Peace Issues by the Fellowship of Reconciliation
and the ‘Historic Peace Churches,” in Douglas Gwyn et al., A Declaration
on Peace: In God’s People the World’s Renewal Has Begun (Scottdale,
Pa.: Herald Press, 1991), 93-105. Return to Text
. For an overview of the War,
Nation, Church study group, see Paul Peachey, “Minorities With a Mission
in the Churches,” in Peace Politics, and the People of God, ed.
Paul Peachey (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1986), 25-45. Return to
. Gaudium et Spes (Pastoral
Constitution on the Church in the Modern World), para. 81, 80. Return
. The Challenge of Peace:
God’s Promise and Our Response, National Conference of Catholic Bishops,
May 3, 1983, para. 111-21. Return to Text
. This important shift is described
in Leo Driedger and Donald B. Kraybill, Mennonite Peacemaking: From
Quietism to Activism (Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 1994). Return
. The proceedings of this consultation
were published as Marlin E. Miller and Barbara Nelson Gingerich, eds.
The Church’s Peace Witness (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994). Return
. The consultation report was
published in Ecumenical Review 48 (Jan. 1996), 122-24. John Rempel
and Bro. Jeff Gros are currently editing the full proceedings for publication.
Return to Text
. Thomas Finger is a systematic
theologian whose major work, Christian Theology: An Eschatological
Perspective, 2 vols. (Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 1985, 1989) refers
frequently to Catholic teaching. Return to Text
. Secretariat for Promoting
Christian Unity, Information Service 62 (1986), 4:155-81. The author
was present at this event as a journalist. Return to Text
. For background on both the
Hutterites and the Society of Brothers see “Hutterian Brethren,” ME
5:406-08. After this article was published the Society of Brothers ended
their relationship with the Hutterian Brethren. Return to Text
. “An Historic Meeting,” The
Plough (May/June 1995), 18-19. Personal communication to the author
from Fr. Richard Neuhaus. Return to Text
. “Steps Toward Reconciliation,”
The Plough (Summer 1995), 22-27 (punctuation altered). Return
. “Meeting Brother John Paul
II,” The Plough (Nov./Dec. 1995), 28-29; “Cardinal O’Connor Visits
Woodcrest,” The Plough (Nov./Dec. 1996), 2-3. Return to Text
. Since his retirement from
Conrad Grebel College in 1983, Klaassen has joined the Anglican Church
and regards himself as a “Mennonite Anglo-Catholic.” Return to Text
. C. Arnold Snyder, The
Life and Thought of Michael Sattler (Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press,
1984). See also his “The Monastic Origins of Swiss Anabaptist Sectarianism,”
MQR 56 (Jan. 1982), 5-26, written after his biography of Sattler
was completed. Return to Text
. Eoin de Baldraithe, “Michael
Sattler, Benedictine and Anabaptist,” Downside Review 105 (April
1987), 111-31. Return to Text
. Dennis D. Martin, “Monks,
Mendicants and Anabaptists: Michael Sattler and the Benedictines Reconsidered,”
MQR 60 (April 1986), 139-64. Return to Text
. “Traditional Spirituality
and Mennonite Life,” in The Church as Theological Community: Essays
in Honour of David Schroeder, ed. Harry Huebner (Winnipeg: CMBC Publications,
1990), 275-300; “Between Presumption and Despair: On Remaining Mennonite,”
in Why I Am a Mennonite: Essays on Mennonite Identity, ed. Harry
Loewen (Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 1988), 62-76; “A Reflection on Mennonite
Theology in Canada,” Journal of Mennonite Studies 1 (1983), 179-90.
Return to Text
. Dennis D. Martin, “Nothing
New under the Sun? Mennonites and History,” Conrad Grebel Review
5 (Winter 1987), 1-27. Return to Text
. Alan Kreider, Worship
and Evangelism in Pre-Christendom (Cambridge: Grove Books, 1995) is
a brief but important contribution to patristic studies, bringing an Anabaptist
perspective to the study of the early centuries of the Church. Return
. Gerald Schlabach, “For the
Joy Set Before Us: Ethics of Self-Denying Love in Augustinian Perspective”
(Ph.D. diss., U. of Notre Dame, 1996). See also his “‘Love is the Hand
of the Soul’: The Grammar of Continence in Augustine’s Doctrine of Christian
Love,” Journal of Early Christian Studies 6 (1998), 59-92. Return
. Reimer’s “Trinitarian Orthodoxy,
Constantinianism, and Theology from a Radical Protestant Perspective,”
in Faith to Creed: Ecumenical Perspectives on the Affirmation of the
Apostolic Faith in the Fourth Century, ed. S. Mark Heim (Grand Rapids:
Eerdmans, 1994), 129-61 is an important review of the current status of
Anabaptist theology in relation to the historic Catholic consensus, based
on a strong understanding of both the Anabaptist and Catholic traditions.
Return to Text
. Ronald A. Knox, Enthusiasm:
A Chapter in the History of Religion with Special Reference to the Seventeenth
and Eighteenth Centuries (Oxford U. Press, 1950), 117-38. Return
. Michael Novak, “The Free
Churches and the Roman Church: The Conception of the Church in Anabaptism
and in Roman Catholicism, Past and Present.” Journal of Ecumenical
Studies 2 (Fall 1965), 426-47. See also the response by Robert Friedmann,
“Ecumenical Dialogue Between Anabaptists and Catholics,” MQR 40
(Oct. 1966), 260-65. Return to Text
. See his “Introduction” to
The Church’s Peace Witness, eds., Marlin Miller and Barbara Nelson
Gingerich (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994), 1-14; and “Christian Baptism:
The Evangelical Imperative,” in Baptism and Church: A Believers’ Church
Vision, ed. Merle D. Strege (Grand Rapids: Sagamore Books, 1986),
173-92, a survey of Anabaptist and Free Church influences on the larger
churches, including the Catholic Church. Return to Text
. Lisa Sowle Cahill, Love
Your Enemies: Discipleship, Pacifism and Just War Theory (Minneapolis:
Augsburg Fortress, 1994), esp. the discussion of Anabaptists (157-66)
and of John H. Yoder (223-26). Return to Text
. The present paper was first
presented at this conference. Return to Text
. The largest Mennonite conference
in North America. Return to Text
. This information provided
by Marlene Kropf. Return to Text
. Jane Hoober Peifer and John
Stahl-Wert, Welcoming New Christians; A Guide for the Christian Initiation
of Adults (Newton, Kans.: Faith and Life Press; Scottdale, Pa., Mennonite
Publishing House, 1995). Return to Text
. Sponsored by the Mennonite
Board of Congregational Ministries and held January 27-28, 1995. See “Conversations
Around the Lord’s Table,” The Mennonite (Feb. 28, 1995), 3-7. Return
. “Drawn to Catholicism: Stories
of Two Mennonites Who Joined the Catholic Church,” The Mennonite
(May 27, 1997). The issue contained autobiographical articles by Bro.
Eric Haarer and Ivan Kauffman and an editorial by Gordon Houser, titled
“We Are All Catholic.” Return to Text
. Ivan J. Kauffman, Confessions
of a Mennonite Catholic: Essays 1963-97, includes items written for
both Mennonite and Catholic audiences. It is a photocopied collection
available from the author at KauffmanDC@aol.com. Return to Text
. Mennonite poet
Julia Kasdorf vividly portrays this in her poem “Catholics.”-Julia Kasdorf,
Sleeping Preacher (Pittsburgh: U. of Pittsburgh Press, 1992), 32.
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