Protestant Churches as Ecclesial Communities

An Anglican friend with Reformed sympathies recently suggested to me that Roman Catholicism’s claims to a distinctive degree of church unity are deceptive: after all, Jesuits and Dominicans and Franciscans surely disagree with each other as much as do Presbyterians and Methodists and Baptists. Catholics unite those squabbling factions within common institutional forms, but then again, there are modes of fellowship and cooperation present among many Protestant denominations, too. Protestants disagree with each other about significant doctrinal issues, but then, many in the Catholic church — in some cases, significant parts of entire orders or archdioceses — defy the magisterium over matters of significant doctrinal and moral teaching. Is there really anything distinctive about RCs?

This analogy has a lot to commend it, but here are some considered reservations I have about it:

1) The squabbling orders are a drop in the bucket that is global Catholicism. The vast majority of Catholics, lay or ordained, are “secular” in the sense of being outside the monastic/fraternal rules, and have no stake in debates among the various orders or theological schools. This analogy would work really well if the entire Catholic church consisted solely of monastic and priestly orders, categorized according to their theological distinctives. Instead, the orders, with their debates, are set within a much larger body, with which all of them share (or ought to share) a fundamental set of theological, soteriological, and ecclesiological doctrines. In Newman’s sense, most Catholics participate in the church’s priestly office far more intensely than in its “prophetical office.” And indeed, the analogy between Protestant denominations and Catholic orders/theological schools is suggestive — perhaps Newman was right to think (as a Catholic) that one way of naming the problem with Protestantism is that the “prophetical” or theological office of the church comes to overwhelm both the kingly or hierarchical office and the priestly or worshipping office. (I’ll say a bit below about another, more ecumenically fruitful way of appropriating this insight.)

2) Catholicism has succeeded in maintaining a robust sense of communion among far flung and theologically diverse Christians in a way that Protestantism just hasn’t, notwithstanding the real theological commonalities among Protestants, and the real fellowship among many of them, extending even so far as mutual recognition of orders and sacraments. There are tens of thousands of Protestant denominations, and that number is only increasing with time; the most promising ecumenical work even among Protestants seems to be more focused on working around divisions than on healing them. From Newman’s standpoint, that’s not an accident — the prophetical office has a naturally centrifugal tendency, which needs to be counterbalanced by the strongly centripetal force of the kingly office.

3) The problem of Catholic infidelity is really difficult; I see no evidence that Catholics today — in really any part of the world — are in general better at enforcing church discipline regarding faith and morals than are Protestants of many stripes. My sense though, is that this is a relatively recent phenomenon in the church, its most severe forms almost entirely post-Vatican II, and so I’d want to urge caution in forming judgments about what a Roman Catholic ecclesiology does and doesn’t provide.

Nonetheless, the comparison of Protestant churches with monastic orders is suggestive, and it got me wondering if it could be helpfully tweaked. In fact, I think that the Catholic magisterium has already suggested just such an alternate analogy, in the ambiguous expression, “ecclesial community.” In Unitatis Redintegratio (UR), the Vatican II declaration on ecumenism, the Council Fathers write, “In the great upheaval which began in the West toward the end of the Middle Ages, and in later times too, Churches and ecclesial Communities came to be separated from the Apostolic See of Rome” (III.2.19). What accounts for the distinction of “Churches” from “ecclesial communities”? Just above, the declaration notes that, after the Reformation, “many Communions, national or confessional, were separated from the Roman See. Among those in which Catholic traditions and institutions in part continue to exist, the Anglican Communion occupies a special place” (III.13). And below, it notes that the “ecclesial communities” are particularly marked by differences in sacramental theology, such as those regarding baptism, Eucharist, and orders (III.2.22). At least the Anglican Communion, then, is recognized as less different from Rome than some other Protestant churches, perhaps an implicit recognition of the “Via Media” position that Newman had held as an Anglican and disavowed as a Catholic.

The sense of “ecclesial community” needs clarifying, though. Interestingly, the ’60’s, when the Council was proceeding, were marked by the rise of groups calling themselves, “ecclesial communautes de base,” or “basic ecclesial communities,” composed of laity, clergy, and religious, all united around a common commitment to renewal and evangelism through the cultivation of particular (and sometimes quite distinctive) Spirit-breathed charisms. Some of these were a toxic mixture of Christianity and Marxism and were deeply opposed to the hierarchy of the church. In his encyclical Evangelii Nuntiandi (1975), Pope Paul VI writes, “the communities which by their spirit of opposition cut themselves off from the Church, and whose unity they wound, can well be called communautes de base, but in this case it is a strictly sociological name. They could not, without a misuse of terms, be called ecclesial communautes de base, even if while being hostile to the hierarchy, they claim to remain within the unity of the Church. This name belongs to the other groups, those which come together within the Church in order to unite themselves to the Church and to cause the Church to grow.” These communities remain today, though usually known as “ecclesial movements and new communities.”

Is UR implicitly analogizing some Protestant churches to those “basic ecclesial communities” that have been both a source of renewal and of further division within recent Catholic history? I find the possibility extremely suggestive. On the one hand, the analogy helps account for the reluctance on the part of Catholics to recognize Protestant churches as fully “church”: an “ecclesial community” cannot replace the sacramental and worshipping life of the Church, whose proper center is the diocese united around her bishop, although ordinarily in the person of the priests who minister in his place. As I noted above, the Protestant churches appear, from the Catholic perspective, to suffer from a kind of hypertrophy of the prophetical office, to the exclusion of the kingly (episcopal) and priestly (sacramental, worshipping) offices (and again, UR makes it clear that Anglicans, along with the various Eastern churches, require a different sort of accounting). On the other hand, though, the term “ecclesial community” is not simply one of opprobrium, but implies a definite vocation, indeed a charism, to renewal within the Church and evangelization without it. Just as “ecclesial movements and new communities” embody a vocation of preaching to the lost (“Neocatechumenal Way”), renewal of the family (“Marriage Encounter”), or honoring the disabled (“L’Arche”), so too, Catholics might think, Protestant churches embody distinctive charisms and modes of witness to the one Church to which all the baptized belong: perhaps the Reformed have a special vocation to proclaim the grace and greatness of God, and Wesleyans to demonstrate the possibility of holiness and inner renewal, and Pentecostals to cultivate the gifts of the Spirit. That vocation is deformed, in varying degrees, by their rebellion against the Church’s kingly and priestly offices, but it is not thereby effaced, and remains vitally necessary to the whole Church.

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This entry was posted in Ecclesial Communities, Ecclesiology, Ecumenism, Episcopacy, Eucharist, Prophetical Office of the Church, Protestantism, Sacraments, Threefold Office and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Protestant Churches as Ecclesial Communities

  1. Fredrik says:

    Thanks for the post! It made me think of this quote from William T Cavanaugh’s book Torture and Eucharist:
    William T Cavanaugh – The church is not perfect but flawed and sinful

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