THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING CATHOLIC: A PROTESTANT VIEW
by Stanley Hauerwas
(Editor’s Note: This paper was originally given as the tenth Paul Wattson Lecture at the University of San Francisco, sponsored by the Franciscan Society of the Atonement.)
I was a Communist for the FBI was the title of a popular book, movie, and television series of the 1950s. In a similar manner, for fourteen years I was a Protestant moral theologian, if not for the Roman Catholic Church, at least for some Catholics around the University of Notre Dame. There is a great deal of hubris in that claim; many Catholics, both at Notre Dame and elsewhere, would be quick to deny that they ever counted me among those holding the high office of moral theologian for the Church of Rome. No doubt they are right. At best, I was a Christian ethicist who was graciously given the opportunity to live, work, discuss, argue, and, most important, worship with Roman Catholics. My stay with Roman Catholics left a mark on me for which I shall ever be grateful. I was given more than I ever got. I am, therefore, grateful for the opportunity to make some small contribution to the ongoing discussion among Roman Catholics about how to do moral theology and/or how to think and live as Catholics in the American context.
Of course, you really left yourself open when you invited me to address questions of ecumenical ethics. I did not spend fourteen years laboring in Roman Catholic vineyards for nothing. I learned a great deal while I was with you, and I have been dying to have an opportunity to unload on someone what I think I learned. It happens that this is the first such opportunity I have had since I left Notre Dame, so you are going to bear the brunt of it. You will get precisely what you do not need—unsolicited advice from a Protestant bystander, one who does not have to live under the discipline of what he advocates. My Roman Catholic friends often pointed out to me that I could be enthusiastic that Catholics at least had the sense to make authority an issue because I did not have to obey those who would exercise that authority.
That, of course, is a fair criticism. Yet it is also the case that, no doubt with a great deal of naivete, most of the time I was at Notre Dame I did not think of myself as a Protestant ethicist—I thought I was Catholic. This delusion at least partly derived from the fact that I was and am a Methodist, an ecclesial commitment I never got most of my Roman Catholic friends to appreciate since they assumed all Protestants were Baptists, especially if they were from the South. I could not convince them that, on at least some readings, Methodism is not a Protestant tradition but rather stands centrally in the Catholic tradition. Methodists indeed are even more Catholic than the Anglicans who gave us birth, since Wesley, of blessed memory, held to the Eastern fathers in a more determinative way than did any of the Western churches—Protestant or Catholic. Of course, this account of Methodism has very little to do with the reality of the contemporary Methodist church, but it means a great deal to those of us who became Christians through the rediscovery of the Catholic substance of the Wesleys. We were committed to a rediscovery of the disciplined nature of the church and thought Wesley provided some important theological and institutional expression of that—or as someone put it, “If Wesley had not been Wesley, he would have been Ignatius.”
Of course, the other reason I thought I was a Catholic was I was trained at Yale. During my interview at Notre Dame, I was asked what problems or difference I thought being a Protestant ethicist would create for my teaching. I replied I did not have the slightest idea because, having gone to Yale, I did not consider myself a Protestant theological ethicist. Aquinas was as much my theologian as he was for Catholics. (And Aquinas did not even know he was a Roman Catholic.) Moreover, I had been taught to regard the encyclical tradition as essential to any Christian theologian’s work. Father Bernard Haering and Vatican 11 were part and parcel of my education.
To be sure, I did not know enough then to know what I did not know, but I soon found myself thoroughly pulled into the Catholic world and into Catholic moral theology in particular. I discovered that Catholicism was a world rich with textures and colors that I literally had not known existed. As a relatively homeless WASP, I felt I had discovered a community where moral discourse still mattered. What more could someone trained in ethics ask? Couple this with the extraordinary generosity of Catholics to welcome and put up with me—even to being willing to take me seriously—and it is natural that I thought I was a Catholic.
However, as one of my colleagues pointed out as I was leaving Notre Dame, I was mistaken ever really to think I was such. I had taken too seriously the idea that theology defined what made Catholics Catholic. Catholicism is more than “doctrine” and theological reflection on doctrine. Rather it is habits and practices that take a lifetime to understand. I appreciate that point. Indeed, it is one on which I want to draw: The point of my remarks is to urge Catholics to stay Catholic, even in America. I have begun with this personal word in the hopes that I will be received not entirely as an outsider, but as one who was and still is at least a little Catholic. But if not an outsider, I am a bystander: I want you to be better Catholics than I can or perhaps am prepared to be.
In that respect I suspect Catholics should be a bit suspicious of Protestants who are enthusiastic about the current possibilities of the Church of Rome. For example, Richard John Neuhaus in his wonderfully intriguing book The Catholic Moment: The Paradox of the Church in the Post Modern World cannot say enough in support of John Paul II and Cardinal Ratzinger. He castigates Catholic liberals for following Protestants whose theology has become but a form of anthropology. In this I must admit I am in deep sympathy with Neuhaus. Despairing of the incoherence of theological discourse in mainstream Protestantism, we cannot help but think that Catholicism still possesses enough substance to mount a good argument. As Neuhaus says, prior to Vatican II, “the problems of Roman Catholicism were ‘their’ problems; now they are our problems.”
And, conversely, many of our problems have become theirs. The nature and mission of the Church, the relationship between Church and world, the role of Scripture and tradition, the question of teaching authority (the “magisterium”) within the Christian community, the connection between teaching authority and theological exploration, the meaning of doctrine and dogma the Roman Catholic Church is working through these questions on behalf of the entire Christian community. Of course there are other Christian communities addressing these questions. Some communities, however, are not capable of that. Much of liberal Protestantism has lost the points of reference, even the vocabulary, required for deliberation and debate on such questions. Most of conservative Protestantism, especially fundamentalist Protestantism, is not aware of the questionsCatholics are suspicious of the Protestant enthusiasm for Catholicism that Neuhaus and I represent because many Catholics have spent their lives reacting against an authoritarian church. I am often sympathetic with such concerns, but those who hold them do not recognize that they rest on a false sense of security. The Church, it has been assumed, could be criticized because its structure would remain always in place—bishops would continue to be bishops, Rome would still be Rome. In like manner, the “old Catholic moral theology” could be criticized without fundamental challenge to the assumption that the distinction between moral theology and fundamental theology made sense—Catholic moral theology should no longer be “legalistic,” but yet the structure of moral theology would remain in place. As a result of this blind spot, criticism of the Church too often has represented a distraction from the real business at hand—namely, helping the church face the challenge of modernity. Catholics in the name of reform work to make the church conform to the norm of American democracy, failing to see that that cannot help but result in a church no longer capable of challenging the status quo. If I seem, therefore, too uncritical of Roman Catholicism, it is only because I have to live out the presuppositions of the alternative. However, let me try to make these remarks more concrete by attending to the question of ecumenical ethics.