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Zen Ecumenism

We heard from James Fitzpatrick after our May issue came out that he thinks the NOR has gotten a tad boring since our dispute with Fr. Richard John Neuhaus about universal salvation has died down, a dispute that included retorts from Fr. Neuhaus in his First Things and letters pouring into the NOR for over a year. Since commentary on Fr. Neuhaus seems to impassion our readers, let’s give it another go (yes, you already got a warm up in last month’s New Oxford Notes section). Instead of universal salvation, let’s focus on ecumenism, where again we see that Fr. Neuhaus is more theologically liberal than many people realize — or are willing to acknowledge.

“These are hard times for ecumenism, hard times for the hope for Christian unity,” writes Neuhaus in the lead article in the April First Things. But he is an ardent ecumenist, and so he tries to transcend those hard times with — with what? — with what sho ’nuff look like Zen. That’s obvious from the title of his article, which is really a Zen koan: “How I Became the Catholic I Was.” Now, as a matter of fact, Neuhaus was a Lutheran and became a Catholic. But of course we’re being rudely empirical, upsetting the deeply felt felt-deeps of Neuhaus’s paradoxical riddle.

Neuhaus quotes from a statement he issued on September 8, 1990, when he was received into the Catholic Church: “As for my thirty years as a Lutheran pastor, there is nothing in that ministry that I would repudiate…” Nothing?

Shortly after being received into the Catholic Church, Neuhaus spoke to a conference of Lutherans, saying these words (the text was printed in America, Feb. 2, 1991): “I will soon, God willing, be ordained in the Catholic Church…. Be assured that I will not be ‘reordained,’ for there is no such thing as a rite of reordination. What began 30 years ago will be continued, completed, fulfilled and rightly ordered.” Soothing words. And indeed, when Neuhaus became a Catholic priest he was not reordained. Rather, he was ordained — for the first and only time — as ordination cannot be conferred more than once. Had he said it that straightforwardly, he may have deeply annoyed his Lutheran audience, for the Catholic Church, in ordaining Neuhaus, was “saying” (yet again) that when Neuhaus was a Lutheran minister he was not — repeat, not! — ordained. But Neuhaus wants us to believe that as a Lutheran minister he was, shall we say, a little bit pregnant, and when he became a Catholic priest his pregnancy was completed and fulfilled. It’s a lovely thought, but it ain’t so.

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