Catholic-Mennonite Dialogue Revisited: “Purification of Memory”

Back in February I blogged about discovering Mennonite-Catholic Dialogue and an article on the history of the dialogue by Ivan J. Kauffman. As I mentioned, the dialogue is of particular interest to me since my background on my grandfather’s side is Swiss Mennonite.

Mr. Kauffman contacted me today to inform me of the publication of the official report of the first five-year series of international-level ecumenical dialogues (1998-2003) between the Mennonite World Conference (MWC) and the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity. The report, titled “Called Together To Be Peacemakers” can be found on the Catholic-Mennonite relations website Bridgefolk.Net.

In the preface to the report, the authors note that Mennonites and Catholics have lived through over four centuries of separation. The purpose of the dialogue was not to strive for full communion (an impossible goal, given the circumstances and the tenants of Mennonite belief) but rather “to assist Mennonites and Catholics to overcome the consequences of almost five centuries of mutual isolation and hostility, [and] to explore whether it is now possible to create a new atmosphere in which to meet each other. After all, despite all that may still divide us, the ultimate identity of both is rooted in Jesus Christ.” The authors of the report affirm the possibility of achieving the “purification of memory” called for by the Holy Father, and in so doing moving beyond mutual hostilities to a more honest recognition of where we stand and how we may better our relations:

The experience of studying the history of the church together and of re-reading it in an atmosphere of openness has been invaluable. It has helped us gain a broader view of the history of the Christian tradition. We have been reminded that we share at least fifteen centuries of common Christian history. The early church and the church of the Middle Ages were, and continue to be, the common ground for both our traditions . . .

Our common re-reading of the history of the church will hopefully contribute to the development of a common interpretation of the past. This can lead to a shared new memory and understanding. In turn, a shared new memory can free us from the prison of the past. On this basis both Catholics and Mennonites hear the challenge to become architects of a future more in conformity with Christ’s instructions when he said: “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (Jn 13:34-35). Given this commandment, Christians can take responsibility for the past. They can name the errors in their history, repent of them, and work to correct them. Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder has written: “It is a specific element in the Christian message that there is a remedy for a bad record. If the element of repentance is not acted out in interfaith contact, we are not sharing the whole gospel witness.”

Present day Mennonites find their origins in the non-violent Anabaptist groups of Switzerland, southern Germany and the Netherlands, which were part of the broader “Radical Reformers” who split from not only the Catholic Church but classical Protestantism as well. The Anabaptists possessed sharply divergent understandings of baptism, ecclesiology, church-state relationships and social ethics, (especially an insistence on radical nonviolence), and the formation of Mennonite identity, spirituality and tradition was fueled by a bitter opposition to the institutional Catholic Church, which they regarded as “fallen” from the time of Constantine. Subsequent persecution and martyrdom of countless Mennonites at the hands of Catholics and Protestants had a major influence in their self-consciousness as well.

Because Mennonites are at odds with Catholics on so many things, the challenges of carrying out successful long-term dialogue is significatly greater than, say, Lutherans or Anglicans, who have retained many elements of Catholic tradition. The fact that Mennonites and Catholics were able to participate in a 5-year dialogue involving close study of each other’s religious history, frank recognition of injustices committed against the other, the renouncement of polemics and mutual stereotypes, and charting of areas in history and theology for further study and discussion is no small achievement in ecumenical relations.

It is my hope that “Called Together To Be Peacemakers” will be the subject of greater attention, reflection and critique by Catholics and Mennonites in the months to come.

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