November 28, 2004


Right Alliances: Our Ecumenical Touchstone (Robert P. George, “Right Alliances” was given at a dinner celebrating Touchstone’s 100th issue, held in Washington, D.C., in late May)

In the euphoria occasioned by the Second Vatican Council, observers looked forward to a flowering of ecumenism and perhaps even the reunification of the Christian Church. Official commissions were formed to reexamine issues that had historically divided Eastern and Western Christians, Protestants and Catholics, Christians and Jews. Denominational leaders sought opportunities for ecumenical cooperation, and theologians explored the possibility of compromises and new understandings to overcome differences in areas of doctrine, discipline, and authority.

One thing seemed certain back in those days: The ecumenical action would be on the left wing of the various religious communities, not on the right. Traditional Catholics, conservative Protestants, and orthodox Jews were viewed as part of the problem, not part of the solution. After all, interfaith dialogue would require flexibility, openness, tolerance—virtues of the religious and sociopolitical left, it was supposed in those days, not the right. Indeed, the alleged rigidity, dogmatism, and authoritarianism of conservative religious believers would, it was thought, make them obstacles to what was known as “the dialogical enterprise.”

Ecumenism would have to proceed despite anticipated conservative resistance. Then came the culture war.

Secular Assault

The massive assault of the secularist left on traditional Judeo-Christian moral beliefs about sexuality, marriage and the family, and the sanctity of human life—largely acquiesced in, and very often abetted by, the religious left—brought conservative elements of the various religious communities together in the pro-life, pro-family movement.

In the beginning, the pan-orthodox alliance, as I call it, was understood by religious conservatives themselves as a sort of marriage of convenience. And even today there are religious conservatives, including some who are active in the movement, who view it that way. Perhaps it goes without saying that liberal critics of the pan-orthodox alliance are certain that the alliance can never be anything other than a marriage of political convenience.

What is remarkable, and what was in 1965 surely unpredictable, is that at century’s end, and now into the new century, the new millennium, an alliance that began as a marriage of convenience in the moral-political sphere would, without anybody planning or even foreseeing it, blossom into a genuine and profound spiritual engagement, precisely of the sort that manifests itself in Touchstone magazine. As things have turned out, the serious ecumenical action is almost entirely on the religious right, and we have the cultural depredations of the left to thank for it. God really does have a sense of irony, if not humor.

Today, traditional Catholics, Orthodox, Evangelical and other conservative Protestants, and believing Jews are not only working but praying together. Interfaith cooperation in pursuit of operational objectives in the culture war—protecting the unborn, preserving the institution of marriage, and so forth—has occasioned the emergence of genuine and unprecedented spiritual fellowship. The ecumenism of Touchstone magazine is an ecumenism of the streets and the living rooms.

It unites Protestants and Catholics, Eastern Orthodox Christians and Western Christians, people who have in common very practical worries about what Dr. Ruth has in mind for their children and what Dr. Kevorkian has in mind for their parents. It brings together, from different communities of faith, people who listen to Dr. Dobson for advice about parenting, and to Dr. Laura for reassurance that they aren’t the ones who are crazy. [...]

The ecumenism growing out of the pan-orthodox alliance, the Christian ecumenism of Touchstone, is the real thing. It is an ecumenism that takes religious faith, and therefore religious differences, seriously. This ecumenism neither ignores nor trivializes, much less relativizes, the important points of doctrine, discipline, and authority that divide Protestants from Catholics, Catholics from Orthodox Christians, the Orthodox from the Protestants. It proceeds not by pretending that all sincerely held theological positions are equally true or that doctrinal differences don’t matter, but by respectful yet serious engagement of theological differences.

But this creates a puzzle. How can there be genuine spiritual fellowship between people who sincerely consider each other to be in error on profoundly important religious questions? The issues disputed by Christians of different stripes include: the sacraments, the priesthood, the filioque, papal authority, and the Marian dogmas.

Yet the spiritual fellowship of the alliance has emerged despite these obstacles. It has been made possible, in my opinion, by the promotion of interfaith understanding through intellectual work, as well as by common prayer and mutual support. The experience of the past three decades reveals that the misperceptions and mistrust that long impeded fellowship among Christians of diverse points of view—in the days before the culture war—were in many, many cases rooted in misunderstanding of the scope and content of religious differences.

By largely eradicating these misperceptions and overcoming mistrust, the movement has been transformed from a mere marriage of political convenience. Without ignoring their differences, faithful Protestant, Catholic, and Eastern Orthodox Christians have come to understand and appreciate that they have in common much more than what separates them. They share a larger set of beliefs, a view of the world, that includes much that is common in theology, anthropology, sacred history, and religious practice.

It's quite common for arranged marriages to lead to true love.

Us and Them (Maria Poggi Johnson, November 2004, First Things)

My attempt to put my students in touch with the Jewishness of the Scriptures is not limited to those Scriptures that Christians share with Jews. It is hard enough when we read the Old Testament to keep some students from throwing into their essays wildly anachronistic (rather than properly typological, which is way beyond most of them) references to Jesus and the Church. When we turn to the New Testament and meet the baby Jesus in the manger, they imagine themselves on home ground and they can become lazy. I have to remind them energetically that this is still a book largely by and about Jews; that although we are reading about the roots of the Church to which they belong, the world of the New Testament is very different from the novenas, CCD classes, and parish raffles of our area’s deep-rooted Catholic culture. I find that the more I succeed in getting them to “think Jewish” the better readers of the text they become and the more attuned they are to the intense drama of the New Testament. If I can help them to grasp that the apostles and the Pharisees are as passionate about the Law and about their Jewishness as that lady in the hat who came to class to talk to us, then Jesus starts to look a lot more exciting and troubling. They can better appreciate what is at stake in the story of Cornelius’ conversion if they can identify with Peter, who, tossed a few cryptic clues and forced to think on his feet, must rethink hundreds of years of religious tradition in the course of an afternoon. They must learn to side with the conservatives at the Jerusalem conference in the Acts of the Apostles in order to understand the depth of the debate about whether gentiles must be circumcised in order to become Christians.

If I have to remind my students to think Jewish, I have also to remind myself to think Christian. In my eagerness to help my students see that the decision at Jerusalem against circumcision was a difficult one to make, and in my fascination with the lives of my neighbors (a fascination in part foolish and romantic, I admit) I become half a Judaizer myself, and occasionally find myself musing about how it might be nice to do something with candles on Friday evenings or even keep just a very little bit kosher. When Paul bellows, “You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you?” I have to shake myself and remember that this question has already been dealt with, and an answer has been given, with a clarity that it would be more than foolish to second-guess. [...]

The image of Christians as an alien branch engrafted, by the grace of God, into the vine of the Covenant and thus truly of the Chosen People would probably sound thoroughly absurd, at best, to our Jewish friends. For us the image expresses not only a theological proposition subject to analysis and interpretation but also a simple fact of daily life and, as such, it makes perfect sense.

Posted by Orrin Judd at November 28, 2004 6:47 AM


OJ: get your wife to see the Jew in the Eucharist, and the synagogue in the Church, and your work is done

Posted by: JimGooding at November 28, 2004 11:17 AM


The whole Mary thing is a stumbling point for both of us.

Posted by: oj at November 28, 2004 11:34 AM

It was for me, too.

Look, she's the ark, she's gotta be superclean, immaculate and ever-virgin; being superclean, she gets sucked right up to heaven by default; heaven is real and it's where she lives; you can talk at her all you want, it ain't worshipping her; she's our buddy in heaven, we can ask her to pray for us like we'd ask a buddy to pray for us.

Dude, big-brained guys like JP-II are just nuts about her; so if you let her be an obstacle, you're saying JP-II is sort of ... what, insipid? superstitious? The guy writes his PhD thesis in Latin and he's got it all wrong about Mary?

If you've gotten past the resurrection, and James' Catholic epistle (hated by MLuther), and the fact that the eucharist is the real deal and not just some friggin literary metaphor, then you're being a spiritual wussy by using Mary as your out.

Luther had a rendering of the Assumption engraved on his tombstone. In the end, he was just a Catholic wannabe, don't you die one!

Posted by: JimGooding at November 28, 2004 3:45 PM

It's just so Freudian...

Posted by: oj at November 28, 2004 4:10 PM


Posted by: JimGooding at November 28, 2004 6:30 PM

wow, OJ-- do many Jews attend Wheaton? (remember reading somewhere on these pages that your lovely bride attended that school.) Cool, I had thought of it as a niche evangelical college before but perhaps not.

Posted by: Judd at November 29, 2004 6:32 AM

Wheaton, MA, not IL. It was an all girl school when she went.

Posted by: oj at November 29, 2004 8:19 AM

On the other hand, if OJ can see the synagogue in the church, maybe his wife's work is done.

After all, why use an imitation?

Posted by: Joseph Hertzlinger at November 29, 2004 3:17 PM