Many cradle Catholics I know look at the moral conflicts tearing apart the mainline denominations with sadness, but as a convert from one of them (the Episcopal Church, the most notoriously divided one of them all), I think this is not quite the right response.
We will feel sad at the sight of beloved Christian friends suffering as their churches divide, but we might be heartened to see that because these conflicts express flaws in the original design, they will encourage some to greater friendship, if not full reconciliation, with the Catholic Church.
The sadness we feel will be like the sadness you feel on seeing a pretty old house finally falling down because it was badly built in the first place — built on sand, say — and has been coming apart for most of its life. You’re sad, even when you know it will be replaced by a much better house.
You know your neighbors will miss their old home, but you also know they’ll be happier in a house whose basement doesn’t flood, whose roof doesn’t leak, whose windows don’t let out the heat in the winter, whose pipes don’t clog every other day.
You also know they wouldn’t move into the new house until the old one collapsed. The house held too many memories, was too comfortable, even if damp, and leaving it was too hard.
My own former tradition, for example, developed its own rebellion against the Church by a series of compromises and fudges and mutual agreements to look the other way. It was a house built on sand, but it has stood for a long time. At last, real, unfudgeable differences are forcing their various parties apart.
The question of authority, for one, was never really settled. The Anglican founders declared their belief in the supremacy of Scripture but left unanswered the question of who was to decide what Scripture actually taught. The founders thought this would be obvious. This arrangement worked all right when good, middle-class Englishmen and Americans agreed on the practical matters, until a few decades ago, when they started disagreeing about them and asserting contradictory views of what Scripture taught.
No Anglican authority could convincingly declare who was right.
Some found in the Scriptures the traditional view that ministers must be male, while others found in them a new view (which they claimed to have been the original view, long suppressed): that ministers could also be female. Both sides offered substantial biblical arguments for their position. Many conservatives came to approve the innovation, while a shrinking minority held out. Revealingly, perhaps, the evangelical wing, the one loudest in its declarations of belief in Scripture, has largely accepted the innovation.
In this case, Anglicans came, as they always had done, to an uncomfortable practical accommodation, with the few who couldn’t accept it, leaving — some for Rome, some for “Continuing Anglican” churches. But in the last few years, even that has come apart, with members of the shrunken minority denied ordination or pastorates because their view is “discriminatory.”
With the rise of arguments for homosexuality, they seem to have come to an innovation a large number of conservatives will never approve and, thus, a matter they can’t settle with a theological fudge or practical accommodation. Conservatives who accepted the Rev. Jane Doe won’t accept Mr. and Mr. John Doe.
This is what happens when your body doesn’t have a magisterium. You might get along without one for a long time, as Anglicanism has, for a host of reasons. (One of which, not often noticed, is having the Catholic Church to hold the line for you.)
But when the disagreements finally become too great and too practical to avoid, you will see your church break up as painfully as we are now seeing world Anglicanism break up, into bodies each holding a particular reading of Scripture’s teaching in the controverted matter.
Even here you see problems, as the conservatives are deeply divided on the ordination of women, leading to the possibility of there being at least two conservative bodies separated from mainstream Anglicanism — and also from each other.
This is, as I said, reason to be heartened. Many of our mainline brothers will see that their churches should not have wound up as they have, and many of those will wonder whether the fault is in their founding, if their traditions were flawed from the beginning. Almost all of them will look at the Catholic Church with more sympathy than they had before, and some may begin to ask if she is indeed who she has said she is.
This has been true, at least, of Anglicanism. As a result of their inevitable conflict over the teaching of Scripture, one portion of conservative Anglicans are looking to Rome, some converting by themselves, but many (the Anglo-Catholic party) hoping for corporate reunion.
And other Anglicans, including many of the evangelicals, look at Rome with new respect and sympathy.
I have had evangelical friends say to me privately that for the first time in their lives they see the value of a magisterium and now wonder if the Catholic Church knows something about the nature of church they don’t. Few of them are likely to convert, but they like and will listen to the Church in a way they did not before.
Catholics who see where mainline conflicts can lead will anticipate a new fellowship with our separated brethren and the entrance of a number of them into full communion with the Church and, therefore, with us.
This explains why I think Catholics should be encouraged by the mainline churches’ problems. I know this seems cold-hearted or triumphalistic, but it isn’t. We are not interested in saying, “See, we were right!” — but excited by the possibility of finally being able to say, “Welcome home, good friend.”
David Mills’ Discovering Mary: Questions and Answers About the Mother of God will be published by Servant in late summer.