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Evanston and Rome

by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

The Evanston Assembly of the World Council of Churches might have been expected to take a stand regarding the Catholic Church. From the earliest years, the shadow of Rome hovered over the first beginnings of the Council. In 1919 when the founders of the future Council were canvassing for member churches, they called on the Holy Father and invited his co-operation, which he courteously declined. In 1937, at the opening service of the Edinburgh Conference on Faith and Order, the Archbishop of York declared: "We deeply lament the absence from this collaboration of the great Church of Rome, the Church which more than any other has known how to speak to the nations so that the nations hear." [1] In 1948, at the First Assembly of the World Council in Amsterdam, one of the principal topics of discussion was on "The Roman Catholic Church and the Ecumenical Movement." And shortly before Evanston, in the opening address at the Lund Conference on Faith and Order in 1952, the chairman, Archbishop Brilioth, frankly stated, "That the Church of Rome has not found it possible to take active part in any of the gatherings which we have been used to calling ecumenical in spite of the absence of so large a part of the Christian world, is a tragic fact which we have had to accept." [2]

Since the Catholic Church is the living answer to the main problem which faced the Evanston delegates, “Our Disunity as Churches,” they declared themselves on the subject in so many ways that the result is a valuable commentary on the whole ecumenical movement. It may be added by way of prelude, in the words of one of its spokesmen, that “This is not really a World Council of Churches, but a World Council of Church Leaders.” [3] Nevertheless when these leaders represent 170 million church members, their statements can be taken as a fair index of how the people in general feel towards Rome.

In the present study, the intention is not to analyze or evaluate the various sentiments expressed at the Assembly, beyond a few comments when strictly called for. The main purpose is to give an adequate sampling, in direct quotation, of the “Roman feeling” that prevailed at Evanston. For lack of space, it is impossible to give either all the public references to the Catholic Church or to quote them in extenso. Yet no major reference will be consciously omitted, with a special effort to reflect faithfully the over-all picture, which is generally critical, but not without some bright lines coming from quarters where we should least expect them.

Roman Catholicism and Religious Liberty

Bishop Barbieri and Latin America

Each of the seven days of speeches before the Accredited Visitors at Evanston had a theme idea around which the talks were to center. The heaviest day was August 20, the day of President Eisenhower's visit, when six addresses by as many speakers were delivered on the subject of "The Present State of Religious Liberty." The opening speaker was Sante Barbieri, Methodist Bishop of Buenos Aires in Argentina, who was later elected one of the six presidents of the World Council. Under the suggestive title of “Crucial Situations in Latin America,” he gave what proved to be the most extensive-and violent-anti-Roman address of the Assembly. Newspaper reports have generally softened the harsh tone which pervaded the speech and omitted some of the principles on which Barbieri founded his thesis that the Roman Catholic Church is still trying to maintain a 300-year-old "iron curtain" in Latin America. The basis for the Church's "totalitarian" ecclesiastical authority, he asserted, is "the underlying Catholic philosophy of 'Ubi Roma, ibi Ecclesia,' i.e., 'Where Rome is, there is the Church,' by which there is no other way to become and remain a Christian except through the agency and the ministration of the Church of Rome." From this he drew the strange inference that, "Outside her fellowship there is either Paganism or Apostacy and both these things, in the multiplicity of their manifestations, have to be eliminated by whatever means are at hand, if not by persuasion, then by force, if force can be exerted either directly or indirectly." [4]

Starting with these premises, the field was open for a series of charges that the governments in Latin America, under Catholic pressure, are unjustly curtailing the religious liberties of non-Catholic denominations. The accusations were promptly branded by the Colombian Ambassador to the United States as "gross exaggerations," but in Barbieri's address they were needed to support the pre-determined conclusion that "we find the Roman Church siding always with the most reactionary political forces, because these are more akin to her ecclesiastical philosophy, and because they are the most natural allies to a system, which, by nature and constitution, is the most totalitarian of all." [5]

The bishop revealed his hand, however, when he aligned himself with the "liberal" philosophy against which he admits the Catholic Church has been fighting for over a century in Latin America. "For more than three centuries she was the only and undisputed religious force with tremendous economic and political power, and so could never accept the liberal spirit of the Latin American Constitutions, which were written mainly under the inspiration of the thinkers who were responsible for the French Revolution." [6] As a consequence, "the liberal spirit of those Constitutions has been a thorn in her flesh and the effort to eliminate it has been unceasing and untiring, with the result that she has succeeded in many countries in modifying it, so as to regain at least some of the privileges she enjoyed in Colonial times." [7]

Gutierrez-Marin and the Protestants in Spain

“There has never been religious freedom in Spain, although people have always fought for it,” was the opening statement of Dr. Gutierrez-Marin, President of the Spanish Evangelical Church, speaking on the same day as Bishop Barbieri. About half as long as the latter's speech, Marin's address was also more restrained, though not less critical of Catholic policy and principle in Franco's Spain. Variations in the tolerance of non-Catholics seem to follow a pattern: “the extent of tolerance which they enjoyed has always depended on the relative closeness of the relations between the state and the Roman Catholic Church.” Thus:

Before the turn of the century tolerance toward Protestantism was on the increase and reached its climax when Spain adopted its Republican constitution. Then the new regime came into power and a radical change took place. The tolerance which is granted to Spanish Protestants today has been reduced to a minimum and this, in turn, corresponds exactly to the close relationship between the state and the Catholic Church without which the concordat concluded in 1953 would not have been possible. [8]

Unwittingly, Gutierrez-Marin pays high tribute to the solid, often militant, Catholicism in the Iberian Peninsula:

The Inquisition guaranteed the purity and the absolute domination of Catholic doctrine.
In Spain the Protestant movement of the Reformation period was completely annihilated.
In Spain the spirit which prevails in state and church today shows an astonishing similarity with the spirit of the 16th and 17th centuries: The same will toward unity in ecclesiastical affairs, the same conviction that Catholicism is the only true religion, the same imperialist outlook, the same messianism, the same attitude toward the "ultimate issues." [9]

But we are no longer in the 16th and 17th centuries. Hence a measure of freedom is allowed the Protestants that was unheard of in former times. For example, Article 27 of the Concordat with the Holy See “provides that lessons in the Catholic religion shall be obligatory from grade school to university. But the sons and daughters of non-Catholics are exempt, if the parents or their representatives apply for such exemption.” [10]

Moreover, although “none of the Evangelical Churches in Spain is legally recognized,” the Protestant denominations continue to operate and even develop, due to a "de facto" recognition that is generally passed over by anti-Spanish polemists. Technically, "a special permit from the provincial governor or of the highest political official is needed" to hold Protestant church services and other religious meetings. But actually:

Today there are 12 Protestant congregations in Madrid and 15 in Barcelona. Their total membership is approximately 5,000. It is estimated that in the entire country there are approximately 300 Protestant congregations comprising…30,000 souls.

Almost all congregations have a Sunday school for children and the young people are organized in youth groups. There is a training institute for future clergymen in Madrid and one in Barcelona. The existence of all this indicates that there is a certain "de facto" recognition of Protestantism in Spain, but above all it shows the faithful persistence of the Spanish Protestants who until 1945, apart from rare exceptions, were permitted to meet only in private houses and in no church rooms whatsoever. [11]

Unlike Barbieri, Marin recognized the right which the Spanish State has to protect the religious interests of its Catholic subjects. He does not even quarrel with the government's special concessions to the Catholic Church. But, inconsistently, he urges that since Protestants have a right to “act according to their conscience,” they also have a right to evangelize, i.e. proselytize among the Spanish Catholics. “Propaganda or proselytizing,” he complains, “is strictly prohibited.” So that “Spanish Protestantism is denied the right to make itself known to a broader public.” [12] It is worth noting how shrewdly Marin appealed to political pressure being brought upon Spain to make her grant still greater concessions in favor of 30,000 Protestants, many of them non-Spaniards, who constitute about one thousandth of the country's population. “Today Spain is no longer an empire, and cannot afford isolationism.” Though her leaders still speak of a “spiritual empire,” it “has to co-exist with other nations. In part it needs their help and must, therefore, take certain precautions. The Protestants partly benefit from this” physical necessity turned into moral persuasion. [13]

Reuben Nelson on Religious Freedom in the United States

The last speech in the series on religious freedom was made by Dr. Nelson, Secretary of the American Baptist Convention, on “The Churches of the United States and the Cause of Freedom.” After describing America as an “eternal haven of freedom,” and declaring that "contemporary threats to religious liberty are of a different type from those contemplated by the writers of our Constitution," he elaborated on what he considered the radical current danger to freedom of conscience in this country. Certain religious groups, notably Roman Catholics, are committed to an authoritarian system of theology which it is hard, if not impossible, to reconcile with the independence of thought required in a politically democratic society like the United States. Consequently "the threat to religious freedom in basic issues is ever with us in the Roman system of doctrine and practice. We do not desire to elaborate upon this system, which asserts its infallibility and leaves no room either for adequate question or answer by the individual. We know that there are thinking, independent members of that communion, but a look at Spain and Italy leads us to some disturbing questions." The problem is: "Can a people brought up on a spiritual program of complete acquiescence be expected to assert their right to individual judgment in other areas of thought? Must not this pattern of conformity inevitably congeal into totalitarianism?" [14]

Dr. Nelson did not answer the question but went on to explain that the real issue at stake is an unfortunate equation between Christianity and authoritarianism which, in the secular sphere, means "reactionary politics." The danger is that, "whatever our religion may be, if religious conviction causes us to abdicate the throne of our intelligence and let someone else decide what we are to think, and do, and be then we are ready recruits for 'the man on the white horse' who may some day ride down the streets of our cities offering to do our thinking for us." [15]

The position of the Roman Catholic Church in America is unique. It has an obligation to solve "the problem of adjustment to democratic action in a measure not experienced in any other nation. And the adjustment must take into account a laity produced in great Universities not associated with the faith, where indoctrination is not so easily accomplished nor the insulation from progressive ideas so easily assured." Then on a personal note, “Many of us have gained a profound respect for thoughtful Roman lay people. One of our hopes for a successful solution of our problem lies in keeping the avenues of communication open with such laymen.” [16] In other words, since the hierarchy and clergy of the Catholic Church are wedded on principle to the "religion of the right," with its consequent "reactionary politics," in order to protect the States from totalitarianism and the union of Church and State, "thoughtful Roman laypeople" should be encouraged to show their independence of a religious system “which teaches men how to apply formulas but not to discover them.” [17]

Orthodox Churches and Roman Catholicism

The intransigent attitude of the Orthodox delegates at Evanston was in striking contrast to the other churches represented in the World Council. On all the main issues which the Council adopted as its official mind, the Orthodox publicly registered their disapproval. After their spokesman had repudiated the Council's Faith and Order report on Church unity, “it left some people wondering why, if they held these views, they wished to continue in the Assembly.” [18] The fact is their presence in the World Council is much valued. "We want to keep them," is the opinion of the Protestants. “They agree with us in so much that we have to say, but they must be allowed to express their dissent on certain points.” [19]

Basil Ionnides of the University of Athens

Consistent with this policy of dissidence was the address given by Basil Ionnides, professor of theology at the University of Athens, who spoke to the Accredited Visitors on "Unity in the Light of Our Common Heritage." His thesis was simple. "There are many who claim that all existing Christian Communions are imperfect and we should not draw our ideal from any of them, but only from the Church of New Testament times. Our meeting place, they say, must be only the Bible and of biblical times. The one Church of Christ, the Una Sancta, does not exist any more and we must seek for it in the apostolic age." But "the Eastern Orthodox Church completely rejects such a viewpoint and holds the view first that the Una Sancta, the one catholic and apostolic Church, has never disappeared; and secondly that our meeting-place must be the life and the faith of the one, ancient and undivided Church of the first nine centuries of the Church's history. The ecumenical Church is the ancient and undivided Church as it existed before the tenth century Schism when East and West belonged together." [20]

Having disposed of the Protestants, Ionnides turned to the Church of Rome, with surprising sympathy. He had three choices before him, any one of which has been held by Orthodox theologians: to declare that Rome is in heresy, or in schism, or in possession of the true faith. [21] At least by implication, he took the latter choice.

In June, 1894, Pope Leo XIII addressed an Apostolic Letter to the rulers and nations of the world, with a view to lead them back to the unity of the true faith. A year later, on October 12, the Orthodox Patriarch of Constantinople published a rejoinder to the Pope's invitation, advising his people “to be on their guard against the false prophet who, coming in the clothing of a lamb, seeks to seduce them by vain and deceitful promises.” [22] Dr. Ionnides recalled the papal letter and also the reaction it provoked among the Orientals. Significantly, however, he avoids the "irreverent and bitter language" of the Patriarch, and quotes only that section from the latter's reply to Leo XIII which allows of an irenic interpretation. "The Eastern Church," he explained, “as was declared by the Holy Synod of Constantinople in its answer to the encyclical of Pope Leo XIII: ‘In view of the sacred purpose of re-union, is ready to acknowledge freely, if it can be shown that she has altered anything from, or lost the possession of anything of, the common possession of the Eastern and Western Churches' united life in the first nine centuries.’” [23]

There is no suggestion here that Rome is not in possession of the common doctrine of the East and West in the first nine centuries; only a defense against the imputation that the Orthodox Church has not preserved this tradition intact. The speaker went on to declare that the Orthodox communion “has preserved unchanged the apostolic faith and the apostolic tradition as the Apostles handed it down to the Church,” [24] but not a word of negative criticism, denying that the Roman Church along with the Orthodox is the Una Sancta of the Fathers. Considering the outspoken rejection of any such claim by the Protestant bodies, this attitude on the part of the Greek delegation is encouraging.

Archbishop Michael of the Archdiocese of the Two Americas

Equally conciliatory from the Catholic standpoint was the address of Archbishop Michael of the Greek Archdiocese of North and South America, who spoke at the plenary session on "The Tensions of the World and Our Unity in Christ." The burden of his message was a protest against proselytism of one Christian denomination among the communicants of another, particularly of the projected Protestant evangelism among the Greeks and Russians behind the Iron Curtain, once those countries are opened to missionary enterprise. He called this “most disquieting and saddens us profoundly because we believe that this interest [of evangelizing Russia] is derived from selfish motives, from motives entirely incompatible with the spirit of love and of mutual understanding that should characterize not only every Christian but generally everyone in the world, everyone who has a Common Father, our God in Heaven; because we steadfastly believe also that our brothers in Russia today, clergy and people alike, hold firmly to the Orthodox Faith to the utmost that is permitted by the conditions and circumstances under which they live.” [25]

Instead of planning grandiose missionary schemes, “the first and most important responsibility we have toward these brothers of ours, whether they be Orthodox, or Roman Catholics, or Protestants, or Jews…is prayer in their behalf-regular and systematic prayer such as moves mountains, accomplishes miracles, makes possible the impossible.” [26]

Moreover, instead of competing with one another, Christian Churches should meet together, through accredited representatives, "for the friendly discussion of such matters as keep us apart." There is not enough of such examination of basic doctrinal differences among the members of the World Council. To illustrate how things should be done, the archbishop recalled his relations with "a very dear friend who has distinguished himself in the field of Roman Catholic theology, a man whom I have known for many years. I must admit that he examines the existing differences between our Churches with a genuine impartiality and a thorough independence of mind." So much so that when some time ago, “we discussed again certain basic differences between our Churches, Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy, we found ourselves fundamentally in virtual agreement, and if the union of the two Churches depended on the two of us, there would perhaps come very very soon that gladsome joyous consequence.” [27]

A similar instance was the famous Malines Conversations held between Cardinal Mercier and "the late lamented Lord Halifax," and approved by Rome. [28] “These two men, outstanding for the profundity of their spiritual life, had by their cooperation generated in the hearts of many Christians the hope of a friendly collaboration between the Anglican Communion and the Roman Catholic Church. If this endeavor had continued even after the passing of these illustrious gentlemen, perhaps the relations of the two Churches would have been brought much closer than they are today.” [29]

The archbishop's final recommendation is the prayerful study of the Scriptures and the reading of the "wonderful masterpieces of the Great Fathers and Teachers of the Church." Seven authors are suggested: three saints and four spiritual writers. The saints are Basil the Great, Gregory the Theologian and John Chrysostom; the writers are Thomas A' Kempis, the Jesuit Nicholas Grou, and two obscure authors whose religious affiliation is unknown. In all of these works, the Assembly was told, "Christians of all denominations" will find ample material “to create and develop [their] spiritual life.” [30] Once this is achieved, the problem of unity among the Churches is more than half solved.

Roman Authoritarianism

Inevitably the difference was emphasized between the freedom of spirit enjoyed by non-Roman Churches and the rigid authoritarianism of Roman Catholicism. However, an obvious difficulty which first had to be removed was the status of the Orthodox communions, members of the World Council, and yet notoriously authoritarian. Samuel Cavert of the Presbyterian Church in U.S.A. handled the problem in a talk on "The Ecumenical Movement Today," in which he admitted that, "As to the nature of the unity which we seek as our goal, there are, of course, different views within the ecumenical movement." In general, though, the tendency seems to be in the direction of "a visible and manifest unity," going "beyond the cooperation of separated and independent denominations." Then the crucial problem: "How to achieve such a unity without losing the values of a rightful freedom and a rightful diversity." Whatever solution is offered, however, the unity must not be "a centralized or monolithic administration on a world scale." Then he added:

At this point the Eastern Orthodox pattern (in contrast with the Roman Catholic) reinforces the Protestant. For Eastern Orthodoxy contemplates churches which are autonomous for administrative purposes, but which share a common faith, are linked in common worship and fellowship, and are guided by ecumenical councils of a representative character. [31]

The World Council seeks unity, therefore, but not the type exhibited by Roman Catholicism. It prefers something along the lines of Eastern Orthodoxy, where authority is vested in democratic councils which, according to the Orientals, have not convened in ecumenical session since the Second Council of Nicea in 787.

An illustration of the "stifling effect of Roman authoritarianism" was given by Pastor Lauriol, in reporting on "The Work of Christians in the Social Struggle in France." After a glowing tribute to the social work of the Reformed Churches in his country, Lauriol observed that, "Our (Roman) Catholic brethren are not lagging behind. They have their 'Social Weeks' (Semaines sociales), their 'Young Catholic Workers' (J.O.C.), their 'French Confederation' (C.F.T.C.)." Until recently, they also had "that wonderful movement called 'Working Priests' (prètres-ouvriers) who, for the purpose of bringing the Gospel to the workers, had become working men themselves, and lived on the same salary." However, “this venture unfortunately has just been smashed, and that not by the French bishops, but by an order emanating from Rome. We also have 'working ministers' who might also act rashly, or even go astray. Have no fear: our Protestant Churches will advise them, will reprove them if necessary, but will always back them up.” [32]

The most significant statement on Roman intolerance was made by Eivind Berggrav, Bishop of Oslo, one of the presidents of the World Council. Speaking of "The Tensions of the World and Our Unity in Christ," he charged that the worst tension calling for remedy is not between the churches and the world but within the churches themselves the suspicion, distrust and sometimes antagonism of one Christian body towards another.

His plea therefore was for charity and tolerance, at whatever cost to self-interest, and no matter how contrary the principles or policy of the offending ecclesiastical body, even where the offender is the Church of Rome. "Let us take the bull by the horns: Is there not in many of our churches anger, sometimes also fear, towards the Church of Rome? And is there not only very very seldom a bit of respect, not to speak of a sense of love?" He anticipated the objection: "I know that you want to interrupt me here and ask: How could we love Rome? My answer would be by means of a question: Does Christ love them? Has he sacrificed himself for them?" This calls for a distinction: “Not, of course, for the organization of the fabric of that Church, but for all its members. Is there love in Christ for these men and these women, yes, even for their priests, wrong-thinking and seemingly also sometimes wrong-doing, as we may consider them? There can be only one answer.” [33]

The bishop then explained the fundamental grievance against the Church of Rome, which flows from the kind of unity desired by the members of the World Council. It is not the unity of authority, but a unity of Christian fellowship:

Our unity in Christ, if taken seriously, prevents us from self-aggrandizement and the feeling of having a monopoly of all truth and wisdom, or of being entitled to be the judges of our fellow-churches rather than being their brethren in Christ. And church prestige is doomed by Christ himself. There exists no master church above the others. What we have got is a "church family" in Christ. [34]

More simply, Christ is said not to have founded one Church but a family of churches. He did not commit to any one body the plenitude of revelation but scattered His teaching over scores of denominations, none of which has the fulness but all a part of the Gospel truth. The implication is that truth may not only be fragmented but mutually contradictory, as among the churches of Protestantism, and yet be considered worthy of the Son of God who revealed it.

Tribute to Catholic Missionaries

The plenary sessions on August 24 studied the problem of Christian evangelization in the modern world, and were highlighted by the greatest tribute paid at Evanston to the missionary work of the Catholic Church. Dr. Ranson of the Methodist Church in Ireland spoke on "World-Wide Evangelism," declaring that, “The one great task which has been given to the Church is to preach the Gospel to the ends of the earth and to the end of time.” [35] He emphasized the fact that in view of present-day “contraction of human society,” affected by the rapid means of communication, a new duty is incumbent on all Christians to prosecute the "apostolic mission to the world."

"In this year of our Lord," he said, "we celebrate the twelve hundredth anniversary of the death of one of the greatest missionaries in Christian history. St. Boniface was martyred on June the 4th, 754." The ministry which he accomplished came at one of the "great turning points of history," not unlike our own:

It was a moment dark with foreboding for the Christian Church. The hammer of Islam has struck with shattering force… . Within a century of the prophet's death, the cry: “Allah is most great” was heard from Spain to China. The Christian Church had suffered terrible losses and its whole future hung apparently in the balance. The issue at stake was whether Christianity or Islam should be the world religion of the future. Christianity in England was weak. Almost all Germany was heathen. Italy was hopelessly distracted. France was the only strong Christian state in Western Europe. And the fanatical armies of Mohammed were on French soil, with a record of staggering successes behind them. This was not an auspicious moment for a great missionary venture. Yet it was at this moment that an English Benedictine monk heard his Lord say: “As the Father hath sent me, even so I send you.” [36]

Boniface's response was utterly selfless. "Turning his back upon the offer of ecclesiastical preferment at home, he set out to evangelize the pagan peoples of Northern Europe. To his contemporaries, this may have seemed a foolish enterprise, for the way of the Cross has always appeared as foolishness to the world." Yet:

It is of Boniface that a modern historian has recently written: "No Englishman has had a greater influence on the world." Without underestimating the importance of the victory of Charles Martel, which turned the tide of Islamic military expansion, it can be said that in the perspective of history the most significant thing that was happening in that rough, turbulent and critical era was the missionary labour of Boniface and his monks. It was their fidelity to the Gospel which, under God, shaped the Christian future. [37]

The lesson is unmistakable. “The Church stands today at a point in history no less critical than that which confronted it at the beginning of the eighth century. We have seen developments in our time which bear a striking similarity to some of the things which happened in the age of Boniface.” [38] There are differences, of course; but "the essential mission" of preaching the Gospel to every creature remains the same.

Dr. Ranson then asked: "What does world-wide evangelism mean today?" He answered with a statement of encouragement and a warning. "The Christian faith is by far the most widely disseminated of all the faiths-religious and secular-that have ever come into existence in the world." However this must not be exaggerated:

Despite the remarkable geographical extension of the Church there are still vast areas of the world where the name of Christ has never been heard and where there is still no hindrance to the preaching of the Gospel save the lack of a messenger. Despite the impressive fact that month by month tens of thousands of people are being added by baptism unto the Church in many parts of Africa and Asia and Latin America, the growth of world population exceeds enormously the numerical extension of the Church. Measured even in these superficial statistical terms the unfinished task of world evangelism is more formidable than it was when Francis Xavier set out on his Asian mission. [39]

A final lesson from Catholic evangelism which the speaker proposed to the Assembly was the principle of missionary mobility recently expounded by a French Catholic priest. The Abbè Godin “in his remarkable book, France-Pays de Mission? wrote that ‘the apostle must never be installè dans la vie.’” This means:

The missionary must never appear to have settled down in this world. Christians must live as those who have no continuing city. What result would it have in the life of the Church and in the effective fulfillment of the world Christian mission if that were accepted and intelligently applied? Is it not true of the Church in every part of the world that its apostles appear to be pretty firmly installè dans la vie? They do not always give the impression of a Church militant and mobile-or as Godin puts it, "wholly geared to conquest." If the Church really did move "like a mighty army" there would be some interesting changes in the deployment of our total resources. [40]

Ranson concluded by deprecating the character of non-Catholic missionary expansion, which is taking place "within the framework of a denominationally divided Church." The result can only be "the projection across the world of the historic divisions of western Christendom." Granted that “we most surely believe… Christ's Church is one. But the failure to express in visible form the unity given in Christ is a formidable obstacle to effective world evangelism.” [41]

Reinhold Niebuhr and Rome

The closing address of the plenary session of the Assembly on August 29 was to have been delivered by Reinhold Niebuhr, professor of Christian Ethics at the Union Theological Seminary, consultant to the World Council, and regarded by admirers as the most fearless theological critic of our age. At the last minute, his physician advised him not to make the trip to Evanston, “where every delegate is his friend and … where the demands on his strength would inevitably have been very great.” [42] He was recovering from a sickness which attacked him about a year before. However, the speech he prepared was delivered for him by Dr. Angus Dun, Episcopalian Bishop of Washington, D. C., under the title, "Our Dependence Is Upon God." In many ways it was the outstanding address of the Assembly, critically analyzing the reasons why "we represent the fragmented portions of a universal church." It was also the most weighty attack on Roman Catholicism made at the Evanston convention.

Niebuhr began by stating his general theme, that the facts of history and the injunctions of Scripture "warn us that it is the business of the Christian Church to bear witness not to the righteousness of Christians but to the righteousness of God," in accordance with the Reformation principle of man's complete depravity. [43] Stated more simply, the important lesson for Christianity to teach is the “reliability of God and the unreliability of men, even in their wisest and most virtuous moments.” [44] It is a lesson we are slow to learn, in spite of the manifest evidence of centuries of experience, especially as taught us by the “historic movements which destroyed the unity of the church for the sake of restoring the purity of the gospel,” in the Eastern Schism and the Protestant Revolt. [45]

Unless we learn this truth, Niebuhr claimed, we shall “make the mistake of assuming that the majesty and unity of the church as the body of Christ is necessary to his glory.” [46] It is not and cannot be, because even where the shell of ecclesiastical unity is most apparent, it hides an inner core of sin and evil as inevitable as the unreliable human beings of which the church is composed. The classic example is Roman Catholicism:

The unity of the Roman church is indeed impressive, and in some respects enviable, in comparison with our unhappy divisions. But the Roman church maintained this unity and a part of the substance of the gospel truth at the price of building two great heresies into the Christian message. [47]

The first heresy was to conceive the Church as the extension of the Incarnation, to invest it with the very attributes of God, to exalt it…as essentially divine, as the mediator of God's judgment, rather than as the locus in human history where the judgments of God can be heard, whether on the righteous or the unrighteous. This heresy was to obscure the chasm between the human and the divine, which the prophets of Israel understood so well; to pretend that there were priests who were privy to God's counsels, were in control of God's redemptive powers and purposes and in possession of the “keys of heaven.” [48]

The second heresy was "either consequent or ancillary" to the previous one. Since the Church was claimed to be divine, it assumed authority to dictate to men how they might work out their salvation:

It changed the gospel of forgiveness to contrite souls into a great scheme for assuring men of their salvation if they would climb a "ladder of merit," chiefly by castigating the passions of the body. This ladder of merit, these ascetic disciplines, did not however guarantee that the self in the pretensions of its self-esteem would be shattered by the "severity" of the divine judgment, that a new self would arise from the crucifixion of the old self. [49]

Dr. Niebuhr felt it was too obvious to have to “recount how these heresies not only changed the message of redemption in Christ but also constructed a very imposing institution and a very vexatious and pretentious priesthood, pretending to have dominion over all the nations in the name of Christ.” [50] Clearly, then, “justice and freedom could not be established on earth, even as the gospel could not be truly preached, until these pretensions were challenged.” [51]

They were challenged, notably by the Protestant Reformers and their disciples, who wished to protect the world from enslavement by this human colossus which called itself divine. Noble as it was, the effort suffered from the common curse of human unreliability. Seeking to purify the Scriptures of Roman idolatry, the Reformers became infected with other heresies, no less apparent than the errors of Rome:

The fact that it has not been possible to purge the gospel of these Roman heresies without exposing it to the corruption of new heresies and of dragging the church behind the chariot wheels of every nation, is as instructive to the Christian as the first chapter of this contest between the righteousness of God and the righteousness of men. [52]

Reflecting on the status of the churches separated from her, “the Roman church has a right to interpret our condition, divided by the intrusion of every historically relative insight and condition into the Christian message, as analogous to the biblical parable of the ‘house swept and garnished,’ of the man exorcised of one devil of heresy who was visited by ‘seven devils more evil than the first.’” [53]

Worse, however, than the sectarian disunity of the churches is the doctrinal corruption into which they have fallen through becoming wedded to ephemeral human philosophies:

It is not only that every national and parochial viewpoint colored the Christian message among us, but that our necessary commerce with the culture of the world, particularly in the 19th century, produced every form of quasi-heresy in which Kantian, Freudian or Marxist forms of thought usurped the wisdom of Christ and the foolishness of the cross with some form of worldly wisdom. [54]

Estimate of Niebuhr's Attack

Niebuhr's stricture of Rome comes as no surprise to anyone familiar with his writings. Over the years; his opposition has centered around the one point that Catholicism regards itself as "an extension of the Incarnation," and therefore has "usurped the majesty of God." Without going into details to answer this charge or to vindicate the Church's title to divinity, it will be enough here to expose the basic inconsistency of Niebuhr's position. Catholics are not alone in taking him to task for posing as a Christian while denying, with militant zeal, the radical doctrine of the Christian faith, which is the divinity of Christ.

To his mind, “the doctrine that Jesus was both human and divine [is] religiously and morally meaningful, and dispenses with the necessity of making the doctrine metaphysically plausible.” [55] Referring to the Council of Chalcedon which defined that the divine and human natures of Christ are united “inconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably," he characterizes this as "wooden-headed literalism of orthodoxy.” [56] When describing the personality of Jesus, he declares, "it is not possible … to assert the sinlessness of every individual act of any actually historical character." Correspondingly, Jesus was "a child of his time," in everything but His revelation of love. “Jesus no less than Paul was not free of these historical illusions. He expected the coming of the Messianic Kingdom in his lifetime.” [57] And most emphatically: “Since the essence of the divine consists in its unconditional character, and since the essence of the human lies in its conditional and contingent nature, it is not logically possible to assert both qualities of the same person.” [58]

As expressed by one Protestant commentator, “the amazing thing about Niebuhr's rejection of Christ's metaphysical divinity … is that it does not seem to trouble him much. The issue is by-passed with almost an air of aloofness.” [59] Yet he denounces the Roman Church for pretensions to divinity, specifically, to extending the Incarnation of the Son of God into current history. But, we ask, what right or title does he have to oppose such a claim if he repudiates the Incarnation itself? To be logical, he should declare himself opposed to the Church's pretensions, not out of respect for the person of Christ, who is only a “symbol of perfection,” [60] but from conviction that since God never became man, there can be no projection into history of a non-existent reality.

There are two ways that Catholics may react to the "Roman statements" made at Evanston: with regret over the generally hostile attitude towards their Church, or more hopefully that below the surface it was not so much hostility as the fear of Rome which prompted this reaction. Disunited among themselves, yet painfully aware of the towering strength in unity of Roman Catholicism, the delegates and speakers were faced with the hard dilemma of capitulating to Rome or of rationalizing their separation from her body. They chose to rationalize, and therefore criticize; but all the while they recognized that “the great Church of Rome is not indifferent to what is being done in order to further a better understanding between Christians of different traditions.” [61]


West Baden College
West Baden Springs, Ind

[1] The Second World Conference on Faith and Order (London, 1938), p. 20.

[2] The Third World Conference on Faith and Order (London, 1953), p. 106.

[3] The Living Church (Sept. 19, 1954), p. 6. Quoted from a press conference of Bishop Berggrav of Norway.

[4] Crucial Situations in Latin America, No. V-9, p. 1.

[5] Ibid., p. 2.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] The Situation of the Protestants in Spain, No. V-13, p. 1.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid., p. 2.

[11] Ibid., p. 3.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid., p. 1.

[14] The Churches of the United States and the Cause of Freedom, No. V-14, p. 2.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid., pp. 3-4.

[17] Ibid., p. 3.

[18] The Christian Century, Editorial (Sept. 22, 1954), p. 1129.

[19] Ibid., p. 1130. Statement by Dr. John Baillie, one of the newly elected presidents of the World Council, and chaplain to Queen Elizabeth of England.

[20] Unity in the Light of Our Common Heritage, p. 3.

[21] Spacil, Theophilus, Orientalia Christiana, 8 (Rome, 1924), 88-89.

[22] AER (Feb., 1896), pp. 99-100. This is the first of a series of four articles by the editor of Civiltà cattolica, in answer to the Patriarch’s rejoinder to Pope Leo XIII.

[23] Ionnides, p. 3.

[24] Ibid.

[25] The Tensions of the World and Our Unity in Christ, No. 12-A, p. 3.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Ibid., p. 5.

[28] The best study is by Lord Halifax, The Conversations at Malines, 1921-25: Original Documents (London, 1930).

[29] Archbishop Michael, p. 5.

[30] Ibid.

[31] The Ecumenical Movement Today, No. V-26, p. 4.

[32] The Work of Christians in the Social Struggle in France, No. V-20, pp. 3-4.

[33] The Tensions of the World and Our Unity in Christ, No. 13-A, p. 3.

[34] Ibid., p. 4.

[35] World-Wide Evangelism in This Generation, No. 10-A, p. 1.

[36] Ibid., p. 2.

[37] Ibid.

[38] Ibid.

[39] Ibid., p. 3.

[40] Ibid.

[41] Ibid., p. 6.

[42] The Christian Century (Sept. 1, 1954), p. 1026.

[43] Our Dependence Is Upon God, No. 15-A, p. 3.

[44] Ibid., p. 4.

[45] Ibid.

[46] Ibid.

[47] Ibid.

[48] Ibid.

[49] Ibid.

[50] Ibid.

[51] Ibid.

[52] Ibid.

[53] Ibid., pp. 4-5.

[54] Ibid., p. 5.

[55] The Nature and Destiny of Man: II, Human Destiny (New York, 1943), p. 70.

[56] Beyond Tragedy (New York, 1937), p. 28.

[57] Human Destiny, p. 73, and An Interpretation of Christian Ethics (New York, 1935), p. 57.

[58] Human Destiny, p. 70.

[59] Carnell, Edward J., The Theology of Reinhold Niebuhr (Grand Rapids, 1951), p. 55.

[60] Human Destiny, p. 65.

[61] The Third World Conference on Faith and Order, p. 106.

American Ecclesiastical Review
Vol. 132, May 1955, pp. 308-327

Copyright © 1998 by Inter Mirifica

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