A Breath of Ecumenical Fresh Air

Reading Time: 5 minutes

By: Mary Polking, University of Notre Dame

I don’t remember when I first stumbled on Romans 14, but every time I read the Bible I seem to come back to it. It’s a lovely passage. In the book of Romans, the apostle Paul writes to – as you might have guessed on your own – the early Christians of Rome, offering a lot of exhortations and instructions on a lot of different stuff, but in 14 his instructions center around judging others for their beliefs, mainly regarding clean and unclean foods and holy days. The gist of it is summed up in the thirteenth verse: “Let us therefore no longer pass judgment on one another, but resolve instead never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of another.” We all answer to God eventually, says Paul. If someone is set in the belief that they’re following God, and their beliefs aren’t harming anyone, why unsettle them?

This summer I’m working at an Episcopal summer camp in the mountains of North Carolina. Despite being Episcopal, it’s run by a Methodist family, and hires people of all faiths and of no faiths. My manager structured my schedule so that even when camp is in full session, I’ve still got time off to go to Mass on Sundays. Because I don’t have a car, several of my coworkers that do have offered me rides and even offered to go with me if I don’t want to go alone. Although most of my coworkers are Episcopalian, they don’t try to “win me over” or convince me of anything. We talk about our faith lives and our shortcomings and what God has done for each of us. We pray together and do each other’s laundry and give words of encouragement when we know someone’s had a bad day, or a bad week. The children here are mainly Episcopalian, but there are a handful of Baptists, Jewish-Christians, non-denominational Christians, and the like: all of them are taught mainly that God loves them, that Jesus gave His life for them, and that they are made to reflect God’s love in their lives. When they find out I’m Catholic, they’ll nod and say that they know what that is and they’ll ask me questions about what I believe and nod when I answer as simply but as truthfully as I can. I don’t know how much they understand of my faith, but as with my coworkers, it doesn’t matter much – they understand that I believe in God and I’m telling them about His Love.  

The only person that’s said a word against my faith (besides a teenage crew member who couldn’t resist cracking a “Catholic family” joke when he heard I had seven siblings) is my boyfriend, an Episcopalian who works here with me. In our years of attending the same school, friendship, and dating he’s always been respectful of my beliefs and although we tease each other lightly about being heretics, he’s gone to Mass with me and listened to me talk about faith, and he understands that Catholicism is something I don’t take lightly. He drove me to Mass one Sunday morning, and on the way we joked about how after years of going to a Catholic school where his beliefs were heresy, we were in a place where I was the local heretic. After laughing, he said, “But you’re not the local heretic here. Because we don’t call people heretics.” 

I believe heresy is heresy, and I call it like I see it. But I thought back on some of the comments my Catholic friends made in his presence through my years of Catholic school, and I thought of the Catholic school religion classes that had focused so much on proving other religions wrong and comparatively so little on the things that we all agree upon, and I wondered how I would’ve fared as the local heretic if my Episcopal coworkers had treated me the way our Catholic friends treated him. 

As far as communities go, the Christians here seem a lot more welcoming than the Christians among whom I was raised – the ones with “Your Christian Ancestors Were Catholic!” bumper stickers on the backs of their cars, the ones who, when they found out I would be working at an Episcopal summer camp, made faces and repeated “Episcopal” as if I’d said “vegan” or something equally horrendous, the ones who either frowned at my boyfriend’s name or urged the frowners to pray for his conversion. The word “heresy” came easily out of mouths in that community (mine included, as I said before, I call it like I see it). They’d befriend Protestants, maybe even give a little lip service to the hope for unity of Christians, but at the end of the day they saw the insurmountable differences in style, in philosophy – critical though those differences may be – as too pivotal to allow much deference to the fact that all Christians are made by one Creator, believing in the same God and the salvation brought by His Son. Here, the opposite is true. Differences are noted, but not stressed. What’s remembered is that all of us are following God. No passing judgment, but instead resolving never to hinder one another, like Paul said. Romans 14 can be seen here in ways I never saw it at home. I saw this in ways I still struggle to see with the Catholics I know today.

Writers for Clarifying Catholicism strive, or at least I hope we strive, to clarify Catholicism, whatever that means. We write articles about materialism and its place, about the meaning of truth and the pitfalls of feminism and politics and conspiracies and their connection to the Church. When I was commissioned by circumstance (and Will Deatherage) to write an article on ecumenism, I wasn’t sure how my content could work to clarify Catholicism the way some article on materialism or truth might. But the past month has clarified Catholic life for me through a lens I never expected to have. 

Beyond the dissections of definitions of masculinity and femininity, beyond the dissertations on truth and freedom, beyond the idea of a Church under attack that can so easily turn into a victim complex comparable to the complexes of the neo-liberal movements we deride, I’ve looked at my faith and its treatment of the stranger and the Samaritan and I’ve seen so little of the love put forth in Romans 14. In splitting hairs on morality, theology, a woman’s place and how the sexual abuse scandal we’re all so reluctant to talk about is really a cause to become more rigid in Church teaching rather than choosing to question how so many souls were taken advantage of by the Church leaders they trusted – in all this, we’ve placed so much value on clean and unclean things that it’s difficult to tell whether our actions are led by faith or regulation. Maybe this is our faith – and if so, let it be; as Paul says, “whatever does not proceed from faith is sin”. But if it’s mere regulation, it’s doing nothing but isolating us from our Christian brothers and sisters, who follow the belief that “nothing is unclean in itself”. And that’s a shame.

In the past month I’ve seen Christians living and working with one another to love God and others in spite of vast differences in personal belief. We follow a philosophy that would make Paul proud: “If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s.” There are no heretics here, only people following God by their own faith, their own conviction before God, never putting a stumbling block or hindrance in front of one another. There’s a simplicity to it that I find remarkable, but my other coworkers make it seem commonplace. Romans 14 is alive and well here. I wish it was more common in the Catholic circles I’ve found.

Edited By: Ariel Hobbs, The Catholic University of America

2 Responses

  1. There’s been lots of mudslinging for thousands of years between Catholics and Protestants. Our fallen nature has resulted in each losing sight of their humility, the virtue most exuded by saints. Every religion has much to offer other religions about growing in virtue. For example, Catholicism does well in conveying the importance of the dignity of each person. Ecumenism serves as beautiful opportunity to practice dignifying each other, as long as we hold fast our unique subgroup identity.

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