The (im)possible conversation: clarifying the intent of Catholics & Calvinists

(** Note: This post was written in the early stages of our website, when it was still dubbed “Catholics & Calvinists,” in order to spell out more fully the aims and goals of our interest in Calvinist and Catholic dialogue. While it still serves as a helpful guide to our conversation, we recommend also reading this more recent post, which elaborates and extends these points, while also providing a rationale for changing the name of our forum.)

A statement from the writers of C&C

When their conclusions are opposite, adversaries must be given the necessary time to understand one another better, to understand themselves better, and so to meet at a still undetermined point which is certainly situated beyond their present positions.
—Etienne Gilson

In attempting to initiate an ecumenical dialogue between Catholic and Reformed Christians, we are aware that our project may be construed as an exercise in futility. The overriding concern of Reformed communities, including our present audience, is “whether there can be a true dialogue or whether dialogue for the Catholic Church is only a means of convincing and converting other Christians.”[1]

If the latter option is the case, then we are proposing ostensibly a conversation that is in fact impossible; that is, our project is attempting rhetorically a ‘dialogue’ that cannot, in principle, take place. Why? There seem to be three primary concerns.

First, it seems disingenuous to claim that Catholics & Calvinists will attempt a scholarly and dispassionate engagement with Calvinist thought in relation to Catholic theology when our writers (thus far) are Catholics from Reformed traditions. How can a website invoke the name Calvinist and seek to honestly engage Calvinism when its writers do not inhabit that tradition?

Second, it seems that Roman Catholic ecumenism harbors a kind of implicit ecclesiastical imperialism that can only seek to eventually absorb ecumenical partners into the Roman Church. It is assumed that a Catholic is bound, naturally, to aim to convert others into the fold, invoking “dialogue” when it seems convenient to accelerate these conversions.

Finally, it seems like a non-starter to re-open theological questions that have already been decisively “settled” by the dogmatic and theological confessions of the Catholic and Reformed traditions; in other words, though it may be possible to broach and charitably discuss commonalities and features that may be shared by these traditions exteriorly, on the level of “first principles” and faithfulness to the evangel, the “old controversies” of the Reformation, Trent and the Counter-Reformation were firmly settled and cannot, at present (or perhaps at any time), be probed for historical clarifications or theological development.

These are substantive criticisms that ought not to be taken lightly. Given that C&C is only beginning to develop and is still working to expand its regular contributor base, our efforts will be vulnerable to legitimate criticisms of its current state, and also perhaps of a failure on our part to properly explain our intentions. Although our initial description of C&C’s purpose was intended to address some of these criticisms, we think that concerns about our own motivations and methodology are legitimate, and know that the burden is on us to state our intentions clearly and honestly and then adhere to them. In a continued effort to gain the trust of our Reformed readers, we offer the following observations and clarifications.

1. On our purpose. We want to state clearly that we recognize and understand the problem of “sheep stealing” – that is, initiating a dialogue with members of another Christian tradition in order to woo our conversation partners away from their tradition into communion with the Catholic Church. We state unequivocally that our purpose for Catholics & Calvinists is not proselytization or conversion. Our goal is to initiate a dialogue with those who are strongly embedded in the Reformed tradition and the New Calvinist movement, not to entice them to become Catholics, but because we understand them to already be our Christian brothers and sisters who, by virtue of our shared participation in Christ, can help us to better understand the Christian mystery. The goal is not conversion to the Catholic Church; the goal is our own continual conversion to Christ. This sort of conversion can and should happen in one’s own Christian tradition, whether Protestant or Catholic. Dialogue entails a growth in understanding and charity, not an abandoning of one’s own position for “the other side.”

Again: one does not need to join the Roman Catholic Church to grow in true knowledge of Christ and his Church. One ought not join the Roman Catholic Church unless it would be a violation of conscience not to do so. And it is the purpose of C&C to try to understand the Reformed and Roman Catholic traditions better, not to encourage crises of conscience. We are here to learn and discuss, not to teach and convert. Surely it must be possible to try in good faith to understand one another better without either side working to incite conversions. C&C exists for the sake of that possibility.

Indeed, we are just as, perhaps more, interested in addressing the dearth of meaningful engagement of magisterial Reformed thought within Roman Catholic circles as we are in persuading Calvinists to see Roman Catholic theology in a new light and initiating a renewal of engagement. It is no overstatement to say that there is an unacceptable lacuna of classical, magisterial Reformation scholarship in Catholic circles, which has generated a legitimate unease among Reformed communities vis-à-vis Roman Catholic ecumenism. Indeed, Roman Catholic ecumenical thinking has clearly focused more on the Lutheran and Anglican traditions than on the Reformed tradition – of course, with the profound exception of Karl Barth. We earnestly hope to create a public space for remedying whatever deficiencies might exist here. C&C is aiming at a renewed project of studying, appropriating, and interrogating Reformed theology, in hopes that we may contribute to an unprecedented moment of Roman Catholic engagement of Reformed thought, with attention to its multifaceted concerns: theology, ethics, politics, natural law, and so on.

Toward this end, C&C is currently discussing writing opportunities with several Reformed theologians and hopes to soon feature their work. This cannot be a project of honest scholarship without participation in scholarly conversations about the systems, norms, and sources of Reformed theology. If all goes well, C&C will soon see a growing number of Reformed contributors who will forward conversations among our communions, all in an ecumenical key that acknowledges the possibility of an exchange of spiritual and theological gifts.

2. On our purpose and ‘ecumenism’. Our refusal to engage in “sheep stealing” is not merely a rhetorical front, as if that posture itself were a guise under which to carry on a still-deeper project of effecting conversions. It is also not a bracketing of theological questions for the time being, as if we will for a time carry on a project of “ground-clearing” only to then change gears and begin bringing in the sheep. We recognize that this a pervasive – and deeply problematic – style of Catholic and Reformed engagement, and we repudiate it in no uncertain terms.

Rather, our approach is rooted in the ecclesiological vision articulated by the Second Vatican Council and by other leading ecumenists that there are genuine gifts cultivated by the Holy Spirit outside the boundaries of those churches in communion with the Bishop of Rome that are genuinely beneficial to the churches which are in such communion, and which lead these churches into a deeper desire for union. We want to understand those gifts more clearly, and we want to help other Roman Catholics understand the under-appreciated richness of the Reformed tradition more deeply. We do this while seeking, of course, to have our own views as Roman Catholics – devoted first to Scripture and then to the Roman Catholic tradition expressed in such thinkers as St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, John Henry Cardinal Newman, and the great theologians of the twentieth century – come to be better understood by our brothers and sisters in the Reformed tradition.

We hope that there can be a place for such an enterprise without suspicion that there are other motivations at work. In the coming weeks, our readers can expect to see pieces that continue to explore these themes and which seek to promote a dialogue between the Reformed and Catholics grounded in trust, honesty, and scholarship. We welcome our readers’ feedback on how to deepen, or even correct, this statement so that we can maintain the trust necessary for genuine dialogue.

[1] Walter Kasper, “Nature and Purpose of Ecumenical Dialogue,” section V. (online)

2 thoughts on “The (im)possible conversation: clarifying the intent of Catholics & Calvinists

  1. Hi,

    I came across this article from a friend that shared it on FB, and he mentioned about possible leaving a comment in here.
    This was part of my reaction about it, which I shared with him:

    “I used to watch a program on catholic TV (EWTN) called “The Journey Home”. It always features former protestants, all theologians or clergymen with strong scholarship, who had converted to Roman Catholicism after receiving theological education at protestant seminaries. Having been born in an evangelical home, and still considering myself one, I found the thing interesting.

    I read the link and thought it was odd that they repudiate “sheep stealing”. I think they’re honest, but a probably would trust a Roman Catholic theologian who wanted to convert protestants more than one who says he wants to have dialogue. What I got from the EWTN programs was that they believe protestants are missing out on the sacraments (the true sacraments as they see them) and if I believed the sacraments are what they claim them to be, I would also think protestants are missing out big time.” (specifically the taking of the elements)

    This is just some feedback, as differences come to the fore sooner or later. For those with an interest to follow and read the correspondence and back-and-forth between theologians from these 2 traditions, or interested to acquaint themselves with the theologians and philosophers who’ve traveled along this conversation through the centuries, it should not be a hindrance at all to meaningful dialogue to hear from those seeking the other’s conversion. I just don’t see the upside, or how there would be more authenticity, or humility, from a man not wanting to engage in “sheep-stealing” compared to one who wants conversion as the end of the dialogue.

  2. Carlos,

    Thanks for your thoughts. You’re certainly right that there is nothing wrong with one wishing that someone else would join their own tradition. Further, you’re right that it would be strange, if not disingenuous, to claim that one would not ever try in any circumstances to bring someone else over to one’s point of view and/or religious practices. I think that the reason we are saying that we are not attempting conversions is because the intent of The Regensburg Forum is to create a scholarly conversation where the participants on both sides are able to interact with Catholic and Reformed traditions and positions for the purpose of learning more about them. As it were, it’s a place for an increase in ‘theoretical’ knowledge. This does not mean at all that we don’t personally ‘hope the best’ for our own respective traditions, since anyone, Catholic or Reformed Protestant, thinks that, all things being equal, their tradition is the best one. But as we’ve tried to articulate in some of our posts (linked in the About page), we think it’s the case that there are different spheres in which a person can operate–teacher, evangelist, student, etc. We see the project at TRF as one more aligned with the student sphere (we are here to learn, and to help each other learn) than the evangelist mode.

    All of that said, I think the “sheep-stealing” issue is a step beyond well-intentioned, honest evangelism. To my mind, TRF understands the term “sheep-stealing” to refer to a sort of proselytization (when the term connotes something negative) that is somewhat (or quite) disingenuous–i.e., working to effect a change in someone’s actions while ostensibly doing something else (“I was just trying to tell him the simple facts about X, and wouldn’t you know it, he became a Catholic! (or Calvinist, or whatever)). This could happen by rhetorical appeals to various attractive features of one’s tradition that attempt, wittingly or not, to downplay serious reflection or gloss over important points (similarities/differences with other traditions, problems in one’s own tradition) for the sake of forcing a decision (which is, after all, the point of rhetoric). There’s some sense in which that approach can circumvent rational thought, or artificially force a person toward conclusions/decisions. This also is something we want to avoid, both because (a) such sheep-stealing does violence to the integrity of the human person, and (b) as stated above, the evangelistic mode is not the one TRF is trying to operate in.

    Does that hang together, and is it helpful?

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