On Being a Mennonite Catholic
IVAN J. KAUFFMAN*
When I told my wife, whose ancestors have all been Amish or Mennonite since at least the seventeenth century, that I was becoming a Catholic, she answered that it was impossible. Although she and our children later joined me in becoming Catholic, it turns out she was right-as she has been so often in the 45 years we have been married. In the spring of 1968 when I resigned my position in the MCC peace office to become a Catholic, I was 30 years old and at that stage in my life believed it was possible to put one’s childhood in the past and start over again. I did not underestimate the difficulty, but I believed that if one had enough determination and courage it was possible.
I have now concluded it is virtually impossible to be an ex-Mennonite. Anyone who grew up in the Mennonite and Amish community’s unique family environment has been so deeply shaped by that experience that it is virtually impossible to live without constant reference to it and the unique values it has imprinted on us. The alternative is to pretend one has no past, but that option is psychologically impossible, since it is the equivalent of trying to build a house without any foundations under it. American culture tells us, “You can be anything you want to be,” which may be true when referring to the many opportunities open to us. But that truth, I am convinced, must be balanced by another reality that is just as true: “You can only become what your childhood and adolescence have prepared you to be.”
That I was born into the Mennonite community and then left it in early adulthood for another Christian community is not unusual. Many persons born into Mennonite families leave the Mennonite community at some point. If that were not so, the Mennonite community in North America would today number in the millions, rather than the ten thousands, given its high birth rates, its family stability and its three-century existence here. But I am beginning to understand that when we North American Mennonites leave, we do not leave our past behind. We take it with us and incorporate it into North American culture, which has been shaped by this constant integration of persons from the Mennonite communities to a greater degree than we have recognized in the past. We are part of the great American melting pot, and because our character is unique, our contribution to American culture is probably greater than our numbers would imply. The steadily increasing respect that the Mennonite and Amish communities are receiving would indicate that is the case.
I now live in two worlds-the primarily urban Catholic world, and the primarily rural (now semi-rural and suburban) Mennonite world in which I was formed and educated and where many of my family relationships still lie. It has been a rich combination and I feel fortunate to have experienced it, but at the same time it is difficult and often lonely. When I am with Mennonites, I feel very Catholic. When I am with Catholics, I feel very Mennonite. Earlier in my life, I expected that as we moved more deeply into the Catholic world we would at some point outgrow our sense of being Mennonite. But exactly the opposite has happened. The more Catholic I have become, the more deeply Mennonite I realize I actually am. That is why I now refer to myself as a Mennonite Catholic.
The only time I feel completely at home is when I am working on Mennonite-Catholic dialogue, as has been my privilege increasingly in recent years. There I can be both Mennonite and Catholic, serving as a cultural, historical, theological and institutional translator between these two very different worlds. I occasionally describe myself, only half jokingly, as probably the only living person who speaks both fluent Mennonite and fluent Catholic. Certainly my experience of writing for both Mennonite and Catholic publications appears to be unique. This role is not something I ever aspired to, because it is not something I ever imagined could be possible. But as I have followed this rather unusual path I have become increasingly convinced that both groups have an immense amount to offer one another, and I find great joy in helping make that exchange of gifts possible.
Over the years I have observed other persons from the Mennonite community who also live outside the Mennonite community. As a group, we seem to share some basic traits:
We tend to have a greater than usual empathy for marginalized and disadvantaged persons and groups. That comes, I suspect, from the experience of having been part of such a group at an early age. Even those who have entered the business world, where the prevailing ethos favors competitive success more than concern for the disadvantaged, often retain this attitude, which sets them apart from their peers. Anyone who is persecuted in any way, regardless of the reason and regardless of whether we agree with their position, is likely to gain our sympathy and support.
We tend to retain a strong commitment to peace, although not necessarily to simple nonresistance or to idealistic pacifism. I am continually astonished to find that persons from Mennonite backgrounds who appear to have rejected virtually every other aspect of the Mennonite tradition often hold to the commitment to peace that they acquired while growing up in the Mennonite community-even when they have adopted other political positions that appear to be at odds with a peace position. The reason is not clear to me, although I suspect it has something to do with the inherent truth of the peace witness.
As a group we tend to be more highly educated than average, and a disproportionate percentage of us have entered academia, medicine, social work and the other helping professions. This I attribute to the understanding embedded in Mennonite culture that if you wish to live counter-culturally and nonviolently you must find a way to be useful to society, but one that does not require you to participate in violence of any kind.
We have a love-hate relationship with our Mennonite past that we are never able to entirely resolve. We carefully remember all the stories that justify our leaving, but we also remember (although usually more silently and less intentionally) the love and belonging that we experienced growing up in the Mennonite community but that we are seldom able to pass on to our children and grandchildren. I have not known any former Mennonites to say they wished they had remained in the Mennonite community, but I have heard many say they miss things from it very much.
We are seldom able to find a religious community in which we are completely comfortable. The Mennonite religious tradition is so different from any other Christian tradition that it is virtually impossible for former Mennonites to find a religious community where they feel completely at home. This frequently involves the four-part hymn singing we remember from growing up in the Mennonite community before more contemporary musical styles were adopted. But the problem is much greater than music; we also miss the deep sense of community we experienced as children, which rarely exists in other Christian traditions.
The problem we face when we leave the Mennonite community, I have increasingly come to believe, is fundamentally cultural rather than religious. My wife and I experienced this once again, when after being Catholics for more than thirty years, we recently visited St. Peter’s Church in Rome for the first time together. As we walked across St. Peter’s Square with hundreds of others, Catholics and non-Catholics from around the world, I found myself wondering if our being here did not make us traitors to our Anabaptist ancestors, who had been tortured for their beliefs at roughly the same time this building was being constructed. I said nothing, but when we walked inside and began absorbing this church’s immense size and the elaborate decorations that fill it, my wife said, “Is this really necessary'”
The Italians with whom we attended Mass that evening would have found our reactions incomprehensible. For them St. Peter’s epitomizes the great value their culture places on the Church and everything it stands for, and the way the Italian nation has struggled for the past 1600 years to provide a place for the Church’s international center. Mediterranean peoples tend to be much more concerned with what actually is than with what should be; for them, the question is not whether St. Peter’s is necessary but whether it was built. We Northern Europeans are more inclined to view things ethically and to measure historical events against theological standards. A Catholic friend who studied in Rome says Catholics are uncomfortable asking, “What would Jesus do'” They would prefer asking, “What is Jesus doing'”
This heightened cultural awareness has made me understand how unique Mennonite culture is, especially when viewed from within the Catholic context. This in turn has led me to appreciate how valuable the Mennonite tradition is, and how important it is to preserve it, especially its family tradition. That was brought home to me very powerfully a few years ago when I spoke to a group of lay Catholics in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. They had gathered to discuss ecumenical dialogue with Mennonites, and I had been asked to give them some background information. One of the things I mentioned was that Mennonite families are different, which I attributed to the fact that Mennonite men do not serve in the military. This fact, I suggested, produces a different concept of masculinity in the Mennonite and Amish communities, with the result that relationships between women and men, between men and men, and between men and children are significantly different in those communities than elsewhere.
I mentioned this theory only very briefly and then went on to other things. But in the discussion afterwards, and especially in conversations following my presentation, this brief comment, perhaps one minute in a 45-minute speech, was the one people wanted to talk about. “You’re right,” they said-obviously referring to the impact military service has on family life, not to Mennonite family life, about which they knew little or nothing. Their reactions made a great impression on me because they were so obviously heartfelt. These good Catholics appeared to be saying, “If what you say is true, we envy you and we would like to share in that tradition.”
I left the Mennonite community very reluctantly. All my family relationships, all my friendships, all my professional contacts were there. I had experienced great love and security in that community. But a series of profound personal crises were so overpowering that after several years’ struggle I concluded I had no choice. All this began while I was still a student and staff member at Goshen College, years before I made significant personal contact with members of the Catholic Church. Initially, my attraction to Catholic beliefs was an enormous surprise, and looking back I am still amazed at what happened. With the perspective of 35 years, three factors seem to best explain my need to change.
1. I was starving to death spiritually. My formation in the evangelical wing of the Mennonite community had given me very high ideals but no means to achieve those ideals-except will power and the emotional experiences that came from attending revival meetings, which were still popular in the Mennonite community at that time. The result for me was an impossible tension. What I wanted to do and what I thought I should do were so different from what I was actually able to do that it had become unbearable. What was expected from me, and the resources available to me, were completely mismatched.
The tradition I had grown up in praised sacrifice of all kinds as the highest goal for all Christians, but it gave us few positive goals to live for. The major vocational options it offered were becoming an evangelist or preacher or missionary-persons whose lives were dedicated to convincing others that this sacrificial way of life was the one Jesus intended us to follow. If one did not have the skills or motivation to perform these tasks, he or she was expected to work at some secular task that made it possible to financially support those who did. The focus was on what one gave up, not on what one lived for. That produced such great emptiness for me that I could not bear it, although I could not imagine any other option. The evangelical-pietist tradition had imbued me with such a strong belief in the truth of the Gospel that I could not leave it behind, but it was unable to provide me with a way to live it out.
To have accepted this sacrificial theology would have destroyed me, I am now convinced. I now regard it as a perversion of the Gospel, much closer to the merely negative teachings of the Pharisees than to the powerfully positive teachings of Jesus, as summed up his statement, “I came so that your might have life, and more abundantly.” Increasingly over the years I have come to believe that, unless this fundamentally sacrificial theology is condemned as vigorously as Jesus condemned it, we cannot claim to be Christians. But at that time I was still convinced this was the Christian faith, and I knew that to leave the Christian faith would have destroyed me. It was so much a part of who I was that to have left it behind would have been suicidal in a real way. For several years in my mid-twenties it seemed to me that I was damned if I stayed and damned if I left.
Somehow in the midst of this great crisis I discovered that the Catholic faith offered a new approach to this great dilemma. At the time I could not have put my finger on exactly what was different, but Pope John XXIII somehow modeled for me a different way to be Christian, one that I intuitively recognized as valid, at least for me. The Second Vatican Council was taking place and the reports of its debates and decisions that appeared in The New York Times forced me to completely revise my opinions of the Catholic Church. It became clear to me that Catholics were Christians, no less than Mennonites, but that they had a quite different way of being Christian-one that did not produce the tensions that were making my life nearly impossible to live.
I now understand that what was different was the Eucharist. It seems arrogant to have believed, as I once did, that it is possible to follow Christ without constantly depending on Christ for the ability to do so. As I look back it seems to me that, without this constant dependence on the living presence of Christ, being a Christian inevitably becomes doctrinaire, a matter of the will and the intellect. That was certainly the case for me. It appears to me to make little difference whether the beliefs we adopt require wearing certain clothing and observing certain cultural customs, as was the case in my Amish-Mennonite childhood, or whether they require adopting certain theological and political positions, as was the case for me and many other assimilated Mennonites. The result is the same in my experience-an ultimately hopeless struggle to achieve by human effort what can only be given us as a gift.
I have been a much better Mennonite, in a functional sense, for having become a regular participant in the Catholic Eucharist. Had I tried to remain in the Mennonite Church with its relatively weak sacramental tradition, I very much suspect that my contribution would have been a negative one. This, of course, is not true for everyone, but I believe it would have been true for me. To say this is a confession of personal limitation, of course, but to ignore one’s limitations is to allow them to rule one’s life. Not everyone needs or can profit from the Catholic system of sacramental ritual and doctrinal authority, but I cannot imagine having survived without it. The impulse toward pride and egotism was too great to have been overcome in any other way.
2. The intellectual contradictions involved in being a Mennonite had become intolerable. I had grown up being taught to believe in the church. But as the very gifted teachers at Goshen College taught me to think, I inevitably began to ask, “Which church'” I assumed the answer would be “the Mennonite Church,” but in order to assure myself, I set out to acquire a set of reasons for holding that position based on history, and with typical undergraduate ambition took on the great question of exactly when and how the fall of the church had taken place. I had no doubt that such a fall had taken place-that is after all foundational to all Free Church ecclesiology-but it had never been clear to me exactly when this great departure from the New Testament tradition had occurred, and I assumed that by reading a few books the answer would become apparent.
That is not what happened. As my senior research project under John Oyer took me further and further back in time, I found myself reaching the first century without having discovered any incident or set of incidents that could qualify as a catastrophic departure from the apostolic tradition. Instead I found my spirit being stirred by stories of heroism and church growth in the second and third centuries. And I could find nothing in the Constantinian era of the fourth century that appeared to me to be an essential departure from this earlier tradition. Instead, what appeared to me to have taken place was a nearly miraculous triumph of Christianity, made possible above all by the martyrs. This research project was the point at which I moved from being Mennonite to Catholic, although without realizing what was happening. What I learned from it was that the Church is a gift, not an accomplishment.
Shortly after, I spent two years at the Earlham School of Religion studying theology and doing biblical studies. Although it is a Quaker institution, ESR was also a truly ecumenical place, and I was able to explore my growing attraction to the Catholic tradition in this congenial atmosphere. At this point I was trying to find a way to remain a Mennonite, but one with Catholic views-which led me to Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics. I was strongly attracted to Barth’s belief that the theologian’s task is to study and expound the beliefs of the Church, but I was very surprised to find that he was not prepared to explain why he had chosen Reformed beliefs as the basis for his work, as opposed to some other tradition. John Howard Yoder had just returned to Goshen from studying with Barth in Basel and I was able to ask him about this issue, but John’s answer seemed to indicate that he thought the question was unimportant. This issue would be a continuing factor in our conversations, which continued until John’s death.
The original source for my interest in Catholicism had been Carl Jung’s philosophical and psychological writings. Although I left the Jungian world when I became a Catholic, this body of thought had a great deal to do with bringing me to the Catholic tradition. A major element in the personal crisis I was struggling with involved the tensions between the warmly emotional evangelical world I had grown up in and the more intellectual one I had entered when I came to Goshen College. At the time it seemed to me that the evangelical tradition required one to sacrifice the intellect, while the mainstream Protestant tradition required one to sacrifice the emotions. Jung provided a bridge across that great inner conflict and at the same time introduced me to the Catholic tradition. Although Jung was not himself Catholic, many of his associates were, and he had a strong appreciation for the pre-Reformation spiritual and doctrinal tradition that has been maintained by the Catholic community.
This in turn led me to Thomistic philosophy, which was being taught at Earlham with great commitment and depth by the Quaker philosopher D. Elton Trueblood. To discover the basic Thomistic premise-that true Christian faith and rigorously logical philosophy can never be in conflict-was like being released from a prison. I am no Thomist in the academic sense, but I am in the personal sense, profoundly so. Nothing so disturbs me as the slightest hint of dualism in Christian thought-any suggestion that there are areas of human life or human thought outside God’s grace, or that things exist that are not part of God’s creation. I have come to believe there is nothing alien to the Christian except dualism.
That discovery in turn made it possible to connect to the Catholic intellectual tradition in a strong and comfortable way. I remain deeply committed to this way of thinking, which pays great attention to its fundamental premises. I have come to believe rather strongly that no person, Christian or otherwise, can think without first establishing an axiomatic base. For Catholics, that base is the carefully preserved tradition of the Roman Church. Anabaptists and Protestants, on the other hand, have rather decisively rejected the Roman tradition. But in order to think, the intellectuals in those communities have had to substitute other traditions.
The Free Church belief that a catastrophic fall of the Church, which can be described as Constantinian, occurred in the fourth century appears to me to be not only unsupported by the historical record, but personally disastrous for those who base their thought on it, since they are left with the nearly impossible challenge of creating some new tradition to replace the one they have rejected. The alternative traditions that have been proposed over the centuries differ quite substantially. Accepting the Catholic tradition does not require one to believe that everything that happened in the fourth century was good; only that the essential elements of the Christian tradition established in the preceding three centuries survived that period of great growth.
The choice of axioms is of course arbitrary and cannot be contested, since axioms are by definition the beliefs we hold to be true without being able to prove them true by appealing to some more fundamental belief. All axioms are thus by their very nature intrinsically equal, and their adoption is a radically subjective matter. Nonetheless, every person and every intellectual community, religious or secular, must choose some axiomatic basis from which to reason, and if a community wishes to think clearly over a long period its axiomatic principles must be clearly stated. The Anabaptist-origin intellectual tradition seems not to have done that.
3. I came to believe that the Church’s peace witness and the Church’s unity are inseparable. After leaving Earlham in 1966 I accepted an interim assignment as executive secretary of the Mennonite Central Committee Peace Section. I held that position for the next two years, when the Vietnam War was at its most critical stage. Although still in my twenties, I was thrust into the great moral debate then raging throughout the nation and the world, a debate that particularly involved the Christian community, both Protestant and Catholic.
For many Christians, particularly those influenced by Martin Luther King Jr. and the U.S. civil rights movement, this debate involved deciding whether the Vietnam War was morally acceptable. King had clearly indicated that he believed it was not, and other major religious leaders were increasingly indicating public agreement with him. But for the Mennonite community the issue was a different one. It was not that we disagreed with King and the anti-war movement; we believed all wars were immoral. The question that preoccupied MCC during those years was whether Mennonites should join with King and others in opposing the war. On the whole, General Conference Mennonites believed rather strongly that we should, and that it was in fact immoral not to do so. The Mennonite Brethren churches, on the other hand, strongly opposed such action, and indeed suggested they might not be able to remain within MCC if such a course was taken. The Mennonite Church tended to adopt a position between these two.
Two major national meetings were held by MCC during my tenure specifically to discuss this matter. Conservatives argued, in the words of one Pennsylvania bishop, “War is wrong for the Christian, but right for the world.” Liberals argued that if war was wrong for Christians it was wrong for everyone, and furthermore that it was part of MCC’s service to the world to do everything in its power to end the war. How else could we say our goal was to serve the people of Vietnam? This great issue remained unresolved during my years at MCC, although the establishment of the MCC Washington office at the end of my service in 1968 indicated the direction the Mennonite churches would eventually take.
I found myself personally dissatisfied with both positions. The conservative position-also held by many who had adopted pietistic theologies-seemed almost absurdly dualistic. But the liberal position seemed to equate Christian ethics with liberal politics, and although I tend personally to be liberal politically, that approach seemed inconsistent with the Anabaptist-Mennonite-Amish tradition. The MCC leadership at that time consisted of men formed in the World War II experience, when the selective objection to particular wars on which the anti-Vietnam War movement was based had been strongly repudiated throughout the Mennonite community. Guy F. Hershberger’s vision was still operative in our minds:
The mission of nonresistant Christians is not a political one. It is rather a curative mission. It is to bring healing to human society; to prevent its further decay through a consistent witness to the truth. . . A people who provide this witness are not parasites living at the expense of organized society. They are its greatest benefactors. Let those who aspire to nothing higher perform the task of the magistracy, the police, and the military. There will always be more than enough people ready to fill these positions; but candidates for the higher place, which the nonresistant Christian alone can fill, are altogether too few.
Attractive as this vision was, it became increasingly difficult for many Mennonites to convince themselves that traditional nonresistance was a viable response to the Vietnam War. Surely Christians could do something more than simply refusing to participate in warfare. I recall giving a chapel address at Goshen College early in 1968 in which I warned the students that a new kind of war threatened, to which the traditional response of Mennonites would probably not be sufficient. Shortly after a contingent of Goshen students joined the army of young volunteers that helped produce an important political victory for Eugene McCarthy in the Wisconsin presidential primary. The urgency nearly everyone felt in the early months of 1968 remains unforgettable, as was the shock we experienced when Martin Luther King was assassinated that spring.
“How does the Church make peace'” I found myself asking that question with great intensity that winter. The churches were speaking with moral authority but without any real political impact. Meanwhile the war wore on, seemingly with a life of its own, destroying lives both Vietnamese and American by the thousands, to no apparent purpose. Surely there was some way for the Christian community to save the world from this terrible man-made disaster that threatened our very existence. But the ineffectiveness of the anti-war movement had become as obvious as the pointlessness of the war itself, and the churches seemed helpless to do anything.
The answer that came to me in those terrible months was a very simple one: “The Church makes peace by being the Church.” At first these words seemed so nave, so obvious that I doubted their value. But our situation was so desperate that I could not afford to ignore anything that might be helpful, and so I began to turn them over in my mind. When I did, the final link in my journey toward Catholicism was forged. I began to understand that the churches could not do anything to stop the Vietnam War because they had become so weak institutionally that they could not counter the powerful secular and political forces that forced the war to continue, even after it had become obvious to virtually everyone that it was a terrible mistake and that its continuation would bring no benefit to anyone.
The Catholic response to the Vietnam War had been an ambivalent one. At first, the U.S. Catholic community had supported the war. The Vietnamese Catholic community, of course, strongly opposed the Viet Cong and initially supported the American military effort. Large numbers of Catholics, both Vietnamese and U.S., participated in the war. But as the war wore on, opposition grew and eventually the Catholic Church joined in the virtually unanimous consensus against the war that formed in the religious community. But none of this mattered to me at that time. I was not asking which of the churches had the best peace position; it appeared to me that all the churches, including the Mennonite churches, had failed to respond adequately to the Vietnam War. My concern was to learn from our joint failure and to ask what changes needed to be made in order for the church’s peace witness to become politically effective.
One thing that became clear is that unity is a fundamental requirement for political effectiveness. So long as any group is divided within itself, its impact on the political process will be minimal. I had already become convinced that, from a theological perspective, the institutional unity of the Church is essential to its very nature. I now realized that that same unity was essential from a political perspective. With that realization, the last barrier to my becoming Catholic fell. The need for the Church to become a peacemaking force within the democratic process had become so important to me that I felt I should do anything possible to make that possibility into a reality.
In becoming a Catholic I did not change my beliefs about warfare, but I did change my beliefs about the Church. I have come to believe that it is just as wrong to divide the Church institutionally as it is to take another person’s life. As a person committed to nonviolence, I am part of a small minority in the Catholic Church, but despite my minority status it has been possible to have an active career promoting absolute nonviolence as an essential element in Christian faith. That included writing a weekly newspaper column entitled Making Peace, which was syndicated in Catholic publications nationally during the 1980s. It would not have been possible for me to have had an active career as a Mennonite promoting a single institutionally unified Church as an essential element in Christian faith. I would have been a minority of one.
In the 35 years since I made the decision to join the Catholic Church, the Mennonite churches have moved toward greater unity, not only with one another but also with the wider Christian church. And the Catholic Church, particularly under Pope John Paul II, has moved rather dramatically from its past practice of justifying warfare in virtually all cases toward a much more stringent application of the Just War doctrine. Even more important, both communities are moving steadily toward a more proactive approach to peace. However, the crisis of Sept. 11, 2001 made it apparent that a great deal still needs to be done by all churches if the international Christian community is to become an effective peacemaking force. The dialogues now taking place between Mennonites and Catholics provide the basis for hope that a new peace position will eventually emerge that is able to move the Christian community beyond the debate between just war adherents and pacifists, which now appears to have outlived its validity.
For nearly 500 years the Anabaptist-Mennonite-Amish community has had to struggle fiercely simply for the right to exist. The fact that this radically counter-cultural community has survived, despite severe persecution, debilitating legal penalties and strong cultural rejection, is a significant chapter in the Church’s history, and one that will receive increasing attention as the principles upon which this dissident movement was based are incorporated into the mainstream Christian consensus.
Not only has this community survived, it has thrived, experiencing a steady growth in numbers despite centuries of opposition. The current growth in the Old Order Amish community is especially notable. At the same time, the economic and educational status of this community’s members has steadily increased. Perhaps most notable of all are the many institutions this community has created-ranging from MCC, the several foreign mission agencies and the numerous schools and colleges it has founded to numerous summer camps and conference centers. Along with this institutional growth the Anabaptist-origin communities have received steadily increasing respect and influence. Even the Old Order Amish are now being assimilated into the American mosaic-regarded as part of what makes America what it is, rather than an intrusion into a culture whose values it does not share.
This very success has created a new challenge. The Anabaptist-origin communities obviously know how to deal with opposition. But do they know how to deal with acceptance? Can they retain their cohesion as communities without opposition from outside? This challenge appears to be at least as great as any these communities have faced in their nearly five-century history. As the twenty-first century begins, the great issue for most North American members of the Anabaptist-origin communities is not whether they will be integrated into mainstream Canadian or U.S. society but whether they will be able to preserve what is essential from their past while functioning economically, professionally, politically and culturally in societies whose foundational values are quite different from those upon which the Mennonite and Amish communities were based.
Some rather fundamental changes in thinking will have to take place for this change to occur. If Mennonites and other Anabaptist-origin groups want to meet this new challenge, they will have to replace their older Martyr’s Mirror self-image with a newer self-image symbolized by the popular cookbook More With Less. That is, they will need to give up their sense of being a persecuted and separate people whose major challenge is survival, and exchange it for seeing themselves as valued participants in a new civilization, which they are helping to build, and to which they have an essential contribution to make.
Mennonites as a community-now a very diverse community, spread across the world-have important gifts to offer both their fellow Christians and society at large. I would not have realized how great those gifts are had I not been called to live outside the Mennonite community. They include the culture of peace that has developed over the centuries, and the patterns of family and community life that have enabled this community to live peaceably, generation after generation. They include the belief that marriage and family life are compatible with a full commitment to Christian discipleship-the belief that following Christ without compromise is as possible for married persons with children as it is for celibate Christians. They also include the belief that service as a way of life is possible for lay Christians.
Unless the Anabaptist-origin communities can find some way to share their unique traits with the wider community, these traits will eventually be lost. It is a basic rule of the Gospel (and of life itself) that we only get to keep what we give away. That rule appears to be particularly relevant to the Anabaptist-origin communities during this transition from persecution to acceptance. Those who counsel separatism, whether theological or cultural, are profoundly mistaken in my view. What they seek to preserve they are in fact destroying. That has always been the case, but it is exceptionally so at this time, when Christian communities throughout the world are increasingly engaged in ecumenical dialogue, and the entire human family is being forged into a new global civilization by economics, politics and communications.
Mennonites have often prided themselves on taking the Sermon on the Mount seriously, but there is one portion of that great teaching that could perhaps be reflected on with greater attention at this point in history. It is the passage, “You are light for the world. A city built on a hilltop cannot be hidden. No one lights a lamp to put it under a tub; they put it on the lamp-stand where it shines for everyone in the house. In the same way your light must shine in people’s sight, so that, seeing your good works, they may give praise to your Father in heaven.”
The human race is together entering a new era in human life. No person or group of persons will be able to live in the future in the same way they have lived in the past, and that includes the Anabaptist-origin communities throughout the world. It now appears that every American Mennonite community will need to choose one of four major options now available to them.
1. Retain a separate identity. This option reflects the belief that the only way to preserve the unique characteristics of the Anabaptist-origin communities is to avoid accountable relationships with other Christian communities, and even with other Anabaptist-origin communities that differ in significant ways. To do so, each group must maintain its own theology, its own history and its own traditions. The Old Order Amish and the various conservative Mennonite communities have chosen this option, as have the Salvation Army, the Schwenkfelders and many Pentecostal groups. This option can be characterized as “Christians with a difference.”
2. Affiliate with mainstream Protestantism. Anabaptist-origin communities that do not choose the first option are thereby required to form relationships with other Christian communities. For many Anabaptist-origin communities the most obvious community to affiliate with is mainstream Protestantism, the group with whom they already have much in common, including their theology, worship practices and base culture. This option has been chosen by two of the other Historic Peace Churches, the Church of the Brethren and the Friends United Meeting, who are now affiliated with the World Council of Churches and the National Council of Churches in the United States. Such communities regard themselves as “pacifist Protestants.”
3. Join the American evangelical movement. Other Anabaptist-origin communities in North America have elected to join the loosely structured American evangelical movement. Many Mennonites, including some leaders, believe that this is the natural affiliation for Anabaptist-origin communities within the wider Christian community because of its emphasis on individual religious experience and congregational autonomy. Other Mennonites point to the strongly nationalistic and militaristic political positions held by some evangelical groups as reasons to reject this option. Some Mennonite denominations, including the Mennonite Brethren, have joined the National Association of Evangelicals, and many Mennonite congregations have individually affiliated with this movement. Persons and communities who select this option would consider themselves “pacifist Evangelicals.”
4. Form some new relationship with the Catholic Church. For the majority of Anabaptist-origin communities this option is literally unthinkable. Despite strong Protestant opposition to sixteenth-century Anabaptism, most Anabaptist-origin communities today consider themselves Protestant and share the dominant Protestant attitudes toward Catholicism. Nevertheless, a new relationship between the Mennonite and Catholic communities has emerged in recent decades. This new relationship has progressed to the point that a series of formal ecumenical dialogues between the Mennonite World Conference and the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for the Promotion of Christian Unity began in 1998, which has continued annually through 2002. A formal report of these dialogues is expected to be issued some time in 2003. This appears to be the first sustained official dialogue between the Mennonite community and another Christian community to have taken place.
What has made this rather surprising development possible are a variety of profound changes in both communities. On the Catholic side were the major changes adopted at the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s. These include the Declaration on Religious Liberty that, in effect, vindicated the position of the sixteenth century Anabaptists; the decision to give the laity a more active role in the Church; the call for “a completely fresh appraisal of war”; and the obvious demonstration that the Catholic Church can self-reform and that it needs to adopt significant change from time to time. These changes were followed in the 1980s and 1990s by major innovations introduced into the Catholic tradition by Pope John Paul II. These include an irrevocable commitment to ecumenical dialogue; a stated willingness to rethink the papacy itself; a very strong commitment to nonviolence and peace; repeated apologies and requests for forgiveness for past actions of the Catholic Church; and-of special interest to the Mennonite community-strong support for self-governing intentional lay communities.
The Mennonite community has experienced equally great changes. These include rapid growth of the churches in Africa and Asia founded by Mennonite missionaries, resulting in the majority of Mennonites now living outside the West; important intellectual contacts with the Catholic tradition, indicated most clearly by John Howard Yoder’s appointment to the theology faculty at the University of Notre Dame; the steady democratization of American society, which has required Mennonites to rethink their place in the world; and the changes in Mennonite spirituality that took place after the 1960s, which prompted many Mennonites to adopt traditional Catholic liturgical practices and spiritual disciplines. The challenge to the Mennonite peace position that took place during the Vietnam War and the years following has created new opportunities for conversation with Catholics on this issue.
The Catholic Church today is not the same institution that sent Anabaptists to be burned at the stake in the sixteenth century. It is not the same institution that elected Pope John XXIII in 1958, and it is certainly not the same institution that convened the Second Vatican Council shortly after that. Even more certainly it is not the same institution that elected Cardinal Wojtyla of Poland to the papacy in 1978. The Inquisition, which condemned Anabaptists to death, has been replaced by the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of Christian Unity as the means for relating to Mennonites. The ideals of the Crusades have been replaced by the Declaration on Religious Liberty. The doctrine of the just war has in effect been replaced by the principle of human rights. The papal states, whose governance had weighed down the papacy with inappropriate political responsibilities ever since they were created by Charlemagne, are now replaced in the papacy’s attentions by voluntary lay organizations like the Community of Sant’Egidio and World Youth Day.
Nor are the Mennonite churches the same communities they were in 1600, or 1900, or even 1950. The Mennonite community I was born into in 1938 was still distinguished by plain coats for men and coverings for women. We were obsessed with being different. When I came to Goshen College as a student in 1959, many of the male faculty still wore plain coats and a majority of the women in the community still wore coverings. Today both these communities are indistinguishable from mainstream American culture. In the 1960s a joint seminary to serve the Mennonite Church and the General Conference Mennonite Church was highly controversial. Now the two denominations have merged. When I was an adolescent Lent was primarily a time to tell Catholic jokes. Now the Mennonite denominational headquarters each year issues worship materials to help Mennonite congregations observe Lent.
It seems clear that a new relationship between the Mennonite and Catholic communities will emerge in the future. It is too early to predict exactly what that new relationship will be, but it seems certain it will be substantially different from the relationship that has existed in the past, and it also seems certain that it will be an increasingly important relationship for both communities.
One indication of this new relationship was clearly evident in January 2002 when Pope John Paul II assigned the concluding role in the Day of Prayer for World Peace at Assisi to the President of the Mennonite World Conference. The event at Assisi was the Catholic Church’s official response to the crisis of September 11, and its importance in Pope John Paul’s papacy can hardly be overstated. It was a carefully planned international interfaith gathering, which brought representatives from every major world religion together with representatives from virtually every Christian tradition. Approximately 900 accredited journalists from around the world covered the event, and hundreds of official visitors were present. It was televised live throughout the world in several languages.
Participants in the program included the Patriarch of Constantinople, who leads the world’s Orthodox community; the head of the Lutheran World Federation; the head of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches; a Buddhist monk representing the Dalai Lama; the head of a traditional African religion from Benin; a female Hindu lay leader from India; the head of the theological faculty at the leading Muslim university in Egypt; an American rabbi who is the head of World Jewish Congress; and two lay Catholics, the founders of the Focolare movement and the Community of Sant’Egidio.
The daylong event concluded with the participants jointly adopting a pledge for peace, written beforehand. The pledge contained a preamble, ten statements and a concluding paragraph. The Patriarch of Constantinople read the preamble in Greek, and then other leaders were selected to read the ten items in the pledge. “Violence and terrorism are incompatible with the authentic spirit of religion,” read the head of the World Council of Churches in German. “We commit ourselves to educating people to mutual respect and esteem,” read the Indian head of the Sikh delegation in Punjabi. “We commit ourselves to fostering the culture of dialogue,” read a Russian Orthodox bishop in Russian. “We commit ourselves to defending the right of everyone to live a decent life in accordance with their own cultural identity,” read a Serbian Orthodox bishop. “We commit ourselves to frank and patient dialogue,” read the leader of Jerusalem’s Muslims, speaking in Arabic.
“We commit ourselves to forgiving one another for past and present errors and prejudices,” read an Orthodox bishop from Cyprus speaking in Greek. “We commit ourselves to taking the side of the poor and the helpless,” read the head of the Confucian delegation speaking in Korean. “We commit ourselves to taking up the cry of those who refuse to be resigned to violence and evil,” read the head of the Islamic delegation from Iran speaking in Farsi. “We are convinced that in the absence of solidarity and understanding between peoples, technological progress exposes the world to a growing risk of destruction and death,” read the head of the Buddhist delegation speaking in Japanese. “We commit ourselves to urging the leaders of nations to make every effort to create a world of solidarity and peace based on justice,” read the chief rabbi of France speaking in Hebrew.
And then the president of the Mennonite World Conference, Mesach Krisetya of Indonesia, came to the podium to read the concluding paragraph of the joint pledge. He spoke in English: “We, as persons of different religious traditions, will tirelessly proclaim that peace and justice are inseparable, and that peace in justice is the only path which humanity can take towards a future of hope. In a world with ever more open borders, shrinking distances and better relations as a result of a broad network of communication, we are convinced that security, freedom and peace will never be guaranteed by force but by mutual trust. May God bless these our resolutions and grant justice and peace to the world.”
Pope John Paul then ended the day with a ringing statement in Italian: “Violence never again! War never again! Terrorism never again! In the name of God, may every religion bring upon the earth justice and peace, forgiveness and life-love!” With that all the delegates placed a lighted lamp on a single table, signifying agreement with what had just been read.
There had been earlier indications that Pope John Paul was giving special attention to the Mennonite-Catholic dialogue, presumably because this dialogue alone, among the dozen major dialogues in which the Catholic Church is engaged, places the issue of peace on the church’s official agenda. But this gesture at Assisi, in an event personally planned by the Pope and to which he had given the highest priority, simply stunned me. Symbolic actions like this have great importance in the Catholic community-often greater than verbal statements-and this action indicated in a solemn and public way that the Mennonite peace testimony is now held in a place of great respect by the papacy. What that means is that the descendants of the Anabaptists-Christians who were condemned to death by Catholics in the sixteenth century-are now officially regarded as honored colleagues in the great mission of peacemaking to which Pope John Paul II has committed the Catholic Church.
After this historic gesture at Assisi how can the Mennonite community regard the Catholic Church as an enemy? Changing long-held attitudes will be difficult for many Mennonites, and they must be allowed time to absorb this new situation. But this difficulty is no greater than the changes Catholics are being asked to make in accepting their church’s new position on warfare and the Church’s responsibility for peacemaking. They, too, must be allowed the time needed to make substantial changes in attitude.
A second indication of the new relationship that is emerging between the Mennonite and Catholic communities is the Bridgefolk movement that has emerged recently. It was initiated in the late 1990s by Mennonites seeking ways to make contact with traditional Catholic spiritual and liturgical practices, in large part through Gerald Schlabach’s leadership. An initial meeting was held at Laurelville Mennonite Church Center in 1999. Subsequently, John Klassen, the abbot of the nationally prominent Benedictine monastery at Collegeville, Minnesota, offered to host a series of gatherings there, intended to bring together Catholics and Mennonites on an annual basis for informal discussion. The initial meeting in Collegeville was held in the summer of 2002 on the topic, “Creating Peacemaking Communities for the New Millennium: Catholics and Mennonites Bridging the Divide.” A second conference in this series is scheduled for the summer of 2003.
A third significant development is the recently initiated joint study of the Anabaptist martyrs by a group of prominent Mennonite and Catholic historians and theologians. An initial conference will be held at St. Johns University in July 2003, co-sponsored by both Mennonite and Catholic institutions. It is expected that this initial gathering will lead to a long-term joint study of the sixteenth-century Anabaptists.
All this seems nearly miraculous to me. I could never have dreamed any of these developments being possible in my lifetime. But I am now convinced that if we are willing to turn our faces toward the future, and to consign the events of the past to the history books, the changes that have taken place in recent decades, surprising as they have been, will be surpassed by events in the next few decades. The exchange of gifts that has taken place has already greatly enriched both Mennonites and Catholics. Surely it is not too much to believe that continuing this exchange will eventually enable both communities to realize a vision they have long shared-a time when peace will prevail throughout the earth.
[*] Ivan J. Kauffman is an independent author who lives in Washington, D.C.
1. There are of course persons who have achieved much and have changed their way of life significantly despite very impoverished childhoods, but in every case it has been because they very early accepted the challenges their past presented them with as opportunities for growth and personal development.
Return to Text
. Katherine Yohe, “WWJD? WIJD? Living Jesus Today in the Lay Vocation,” The Living Light 38 (2001), 58-65. My informant is Susan Timoney, Associate Dean of the Education for Parish Service program at Trinity College, Washington, D.C.
Return to Text
. This series of newspaper columns appeared in the Catholic diocesan papers between 1983 and 1991. It originated as an attempt to popularize the teachings of the U.S. Catholic bishops’ 1983 pastoral letter, The Challenge of Peace: God’s Promise and Our Response, but over the years the focus broadened somewhat. At that time, about 150 diocesan newspapers were published in the United States with a combined circulation of several million. They were published by each local bishop and distributed through the local parishes. Over this eight-year period I wrote some 325 columns. They appeared regularly in several of the larger papers in the U.S., including Long Island, Philadelphia, Washington, Atlanta, Kansas City, Chicago and San Diego. Probably at one time or another the column appeared in as many as half of the total of 150 papers.
Return to Text
. The author’s website www.ReligiousCommunityInitiative.net contains extensive documentation and commentary on the international churches’ official responses to the September 11 crisis.
Return to Text
. The Declaration on Religious Liberty, also known by its Latin title, Dignitatis Humanae, was approved Dec. 7, 1965. See Austin Flannery, ed., Vatican Council II: Constitutions, Decrees, Declarations (Northport, NY: Costello Pub. Co., 1996), 551-68. It declares that “everyone should be immune from coercion by individuals, social groups and every human power so that, within due limits, no men or women are forced to act against their convictions nor are any persons to be restrained from acting in accordance with their convictions in religious matters in private or in public, alone or in association with others” (par. 2).
Return to Text
. The Decree on the Apostolate of Lay People, adopted Nov. 18, 1965; and the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (also known as Gaudium et Spes), adopted Dec. 7, 1965, both deal with the role of the laity. Gaudium et Spes says, “One of the gravest errors of our time is the dichotomy between the faith which many profess and their day-to-day conduct” (par. 43).
Return to Text
. See Luigi Accattoli, When a Pope Asks Forgiveness: The Mea Culpas of John Paul II trans. by Jordan Aumann (Boston: Pauline Books, 1998). This long series of apologies and requests for forgiveness culminated in the Pope’s statement on Good Friday 2000, which appears to apply to the persecution of the Anabaptists of the sixteenth century.
Return to Text
. Ivan J. Kauffman, “Mennonite-Catholic Conversations in North America: History, Convergences, Opportunities,” MQR (Jan. 1999), 41-49; jointly published in the Catholic ecumenical journal One In Christ 24:3 (1998), 220-46.
Return to Text
. The author was present for this event. A full report, with selected texts from the day’s proceedings, is available on the Web site at www.ReligiousCommunityInitiative.net. Full texts are available on the Vatican Web site at www.Vatican.va.
Return to Text
0. For further information see the News and Announcements section in this issue of MQR; and the Web site www.Bridgefolk.net/martyrs.
The Mennonite Quarterly Review
On Being a Mennonite Catholic