Mennonite-Catholic Dialogue

Author: Mons. John A. Radano


Mons. John A. Radano
Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity

Common confession of the Apostles' Creed

The Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity and the Mennonite World Conference (headquarters in Strasbourg, France) have organized together a Mennonite-Catholic International Dialogue, which began in 1998 and held its second meeting in October 1999. The Mennonite World Conference includes communities in various parts of the world, with its largest numbers in North America, Africa, India and Indonesia. Its historic centres of origin in Europe in the 16th century are found especially in Switzerland, the Netherlands and France.

The dialogue seeks to promote better understanding of each other's positions and to contribute to overcoming long-standing prejudices. With this in view the conversations have been exploring two areas: first, the events which led to conflict between early Mennonites and Catholics in the 16th century, with the intention of seeking a healing of bitter memories which still persist today. It has also been exploring the contemporary understanding of the Church in the theology of both communities.

Mennonites are part of the "radical reformation" and follow the Anabaptist stream stemming from the 16th century. Some of the Anabaptist early leaders were followers of the reform movements of Luther and Zwingli, but criticized them as not being radical enough. They baptized only those who could make a personal confession of faith, and would rebaptize (therefore "anabaptist") those baptized as infants. They also favoured a radical separation of Church and State. Their perspectives on these questions led them to break with the above-mentioned reformers, as well as with the Catholic Church, and to develop a particular stream of the Reformation. The Mennonites are described also as one of the historic "peace churches" stemming from their radical understanding of complete separation of Church and State, and refusal to bear arms.

Our discussions with one another at the two sessions of the conversations thus have begun to shed light on issues concerning our relationship. For example, though separated since the 16th century, we both point to the previous 15 centuries as our common history in the Western Christian tradition. Our current separation from one another began in the context of the rupture of the 16th-century Reformation. The theological polemics that followed have lent themselves to negative images and stereotypes of each other lasting until today.

But reflecting this common history, our discussions show that Mennonites today express an affinity to some medieval theological currents and movements such as monastic life, and a certain affinity to mendicant movements, such as the Franciscans, and the Devotio Moderna which, like the Anabaptist movement in the 16th century, were critical of tendencies of the Church to accumulate wealth and power. Anabaptist critiques of the Catholic Church in the 16th century were often formulated in medieval Catholic theological categories. Anabaptists, as did the medieval tradition, used the Apostles' Creed, the Lord's Prayer and the Ten Commandments as a basis for instruction and explanation of the Christian faith.

On the other hand, our conversations show that Anabaptists and Catholics have interpreted differently the character of the changes that took place in the wake of the era of Constantine, and particularly Church-State relations. Catholics insist on the continuity of the apostolic Church through every different historical period. Anabaptists speak of a "Constantinian Fall" of the Church. As some scholars have expressed it, the "classical" reformers (Luther, Calvin) were working for a "reformation" of the Church. The radical reformers (including Anabaptists) differ from the classical reformers, as well as from the Catholic Church in that they were working for a "restitution" of the early or apostolic Church which they believed had deteriorated, "had fallen" after the time of Constantine (cf. George Williams, The Radical Reformation, 1992). These radically different positions show the need in our dialogue for the common study of Church history as important for building bridges not only between Catholics and Mennonites, but perhaps also more broadly between radical reformation communities (including Anabaptists and Mennonites) on the one hand and classical reformation churches as well as the Catholic Church on the other.

Besides history, this dialogue continues to explore what Mennonites and Catholics can say about the Church today. A number of convergences as well as differences have been noted. While both say that the Church is a visible community of believers originating in God's call to be his faithful people, we need on the other hand to explore further the meaning of the "communion of saints" as expressed in the Apostolic Creed. We can say together that God's call to be faithful people is offered to all In and through Jesus Christ, and through baptism we become members of the Body of Christ, the Church. On the other hand, we have divergent views regarding the role of the faith of the Church as it bears on the status of infants, and this requires a deeper study of baptism. We both confess the faith of the early Church as expressed in the Apostles' Creed. At the same time we have different ways of carrying the apostolic witness forward in our two traditions, for example, very different understandings of the ministerial structures of the Church. Nonetheless, Mennonites and Catholic together can affirm that the Church is Christ's presence in the world.

The two sessions of dialogue thus far just begun to help us see some of the convergences regarding the Church upon which Mennonites and Catholics can build. We have just begun to explore the significant differences between us as well.

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
8 March 2000, page 10

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