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Helping Omega Make Its Point: The Pitfalls and Promise of Understanding Catholics

by James T. Baker

Dr. Baker is professor of history at Western Kentucky University, Bowling Green. This article appeared in the Christian Century, January 20, 1982, p. 59. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission.á Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


I am now learning what I suppose ecumenical pioneers have known for decades -- that religious integration is both the simplest and the most complicated of human endeavors: simple in design, complicated in detail. This is true of all kinds of integration – racial, social, sexual, but most of all religious.

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, whatever history’s judgment of his intellectual contributions may be, certainly left religious thinkers a healthy morsel for leisurely munching when he dropped the broad metaphysical hint that all things move constantly toward a point of complete union, which he called the Omega Point. As the God-man, Teilhard’s vision would instruct us, Christ was both the symbol and visible evidence of the process of integration-toward-unification; and as Christians, we must surely see, it is our task to help Omega makes its Point in whatever ways we can. Those who have tried know how exciting but also how difficult this task can be.

I found myself playing a small part in Omega’s pageant last Easter season as I stood in a dressing room of my college’s Newman Center, tossed aside my Baylor (Baptist) sweat shirt, and was fitted with rabbinical robes so that I could act as “father” for a Passover Seder meal. I fully relished my part, as did the elderly black cook who played my wife, as did the young Catholic and Methodist students who played our sons and daughters. It was all very ecumenical: eating our chicken legs (we hadn’t a lamb’s shank), drinking our grape juice (there were Baptists present), singing and praying and having a laugh or two together. Omega seemed to be making its point with clarity.

It was especially nice that after the final prayer the Wesley Foundation chaplain’s wife, as pretty and freshly pink as Meryl Streep playing a Wesley Foundation chaplain’s wife, thanked me profusely for coming to share my faith with her and her fellow Christians. It was a completely appropriate thing to say to a bearded, “Jewish-looking” man who happens to be founder and sole member of a football boosters club called “Southern Baptists for Notre Dame.” But even before the Seder candles had flickered and died, before the brief ecumenical glow dimmed, I was all too aware of just how superficial our acting really was. We had played our parts, and played them well, but Omega had not made its point. The walls that separate religious groups are not so easily scaled or razed.

My caution was perhaps the product of the hard lessons I have learned during the three years that I, a confirmed Protestant, have taught church history at a Roman Catholic seminary located within the confines of a Benedictine prioryá -- a seminary for the education of men with belated vocations. I must say that I have been well treated, if a bit underpaid, and I have made many close friends. I have been made a kind of honorary Catholic, and my students feel that my soul is about as safe as a Protestant’s can hope to be.

I had relatively little trouble surviving the initial Inquisition, a nervous hour when the seminary’s board of directors asked me how I planned to handle the supremacy of Peter and I answered, “Gingerly.” There was never any real trouble from the dean of students, a former Protestant, who reportedly listened to my lectures through the wall of his room with a stethoscope. And we were all able to share a healthy laugh when one of the more conservative students, reacting with some heat to Luther’s Table, Talk, blurted, “Thank God I’m not a Protestant,” and all I could manage was a lame, “Yes, thank God.”

It has all been instructive and rewarding, and I plan to continue offering my services to Omega; but it has also taught me how rocky the ecumenical landscape can be. We have a long way to go, over a rough and still uncharted terrain, before we reach the Point of a universal Christian church and even farther before Christianity and other religions find that Point.

The rocky obstacles we face are, of course, of our own making. Robert Frost, in his famous poem “Mending Wall,” describes in earthy New England symbols the humanity-old dedication to erecting barriers between ourselves and others, the very kinds of barriers that separate religious groups. Frost and his neighbor are reconstructing the wall that separates their land, because stones have fallen during the winter, when it occurs to him how very foolish this annual ritual has become. Neither man any longer has cows. Every year sees the wall broken. But his neighbor continues to override his every objection with the traditional formula: Good fences make good neighbors. Never mind that “something there is that doesn’t love a wall”; this man and his kind the world over will go on stacking stones.

That “something” which, Frost says in classic understatement, doesn’t love a wall, Christians know, from reading St. Paul, is God the Father of Jesus Christ, who has shown humankind in every possible way how ungodly our walls are. Yet humankind keeps building them, and while Christians may learn not to aid the construction, may even work to raze a section here or there, we still have to live in a world of walls.

What I find so maddening in my efforts to negotiate the barriers between my Protestantism and my seminarians’ Catholicism is that while we are united in so many of our convictions and practices, we are divided by differences real enough to make the Omega Point almost as remote as in the bad old days of open hostility between our churches. We share a faith in Christ, the very symbol of universal unity, yet we are divided by our widely different views of such things as Christian freedom.

Our differences over “right to life” go far deeper than the issue of abortion, on which quite a number of Protestants and Catholics agree. Our differences concern the freedom of the individual to determine his or her own fate. Our ecclesiastical differences go far deeper than the debate over the supremacy of Peter to the issue of theological authority itself. It has to do with the Catholic willingness and the Protestant unwillingness to submit to an institution’s opinion or order even when it contradicts one’s own convictions. There’s just too much Aquinas in them and too much Luther in us.

More important and more difficult to deal with than such differences in teaching on will and freedom, however, is a wall known only too well by those of us who have worked with Omega to help it make its Point: the wall of what Catholics are tempted pridefully to call pietistic faith and what Protestants are tempted cynically to call superstition. This is the Catholic devotion to and the Protestant rejection of postbiblical Christian mystical folklore, stories of wonders which most Protestants find amusing or appalling, a characteristic that makes us more the offspring of Erasmus and Voltaire than of Luther or even Calvin.

My feeling is that this wall of popular piety may be the greatest barrier to Omega’s work. It is not that all Catholics are irrational and all Protestants are rational. Far from it. Catholic scholasticism and Protestant pietism disprove that. (Try introducing a Jesuit to a Pentecostal.) It is simply that, given our different views of human nature, human freedom, ecclesiastical authority, and the significance of historical events, we simply differ on what makes religious sense. We experience our religious faith differently because we believe differently; we have known a different set of historical experiences. We are different because we have gone separate ways, and we have gone separate ways because we are different.

In Catholic Naples, for example, the blood of St. Januarius, kept in two vials behind the altar of the cathedral, is said to liquefy twice yearly, once on the day of the saint’s martyrdom and once on the day his remains were transferred to their present resting place. Large crowds come to pray for the recurring miracle and to rejoice when the priest watching the vials announces the liquefaction.

The typical Protestant either shrugs and smiles at all this or asks in sincere bewilderment what difference it makes. During my year in Italy when the blood failed to liquefy, the priest announced that this sign indicated God’s displeasure over the large communist vote the public opinion polls were predicting for the upcoming national parliamentary elections. The Communist Party promptly lost most of southern Italy --and the election.

In Foggia, at the abbey of San Giovanni Rotondo, lies the body of a Capuchin monk named Padre Pio, a shrine attended by Catholics from all over the world, the very epitome of popular piety. Padre Pio became a monk at the age of 15 and at 31 received the stigmata. He is said to have been praying in the choir when his brothers heard him cry out and found him unconscious, bleeding from his hands, feet and side. His five wounds, formed like those of the crucified Christ, remained open, yielding a cup of blood a day, yet uninfected, until his death 50 years later. Padre Pio, though an oddity to Protestants, is not unique. There are some 70 canonized stigmatists, including Francis of Assisi.

We are dealing here, of course, with a Mediterranean Catholicism, not a cerebral German or a pragmatic Irish Catholicism -- nor with that strange blend of cynicism and na´vetÚ called American Catholicism. And it must be noted that not all Catholics in any particular region are devoted to the like of Padre Pio. Many Catholics find such piety a bit of a bother, a good excuse to evade more important responsibilities. Some damn it with faint praise, as did Pope Paul VI, responding to San Giovanni Rotondo’s growing numbers of pilgrims. But few scoff. Most Catholics feel that, whether one likes it or not, the Padre Pio phenomenon makes religious sense.

Not all Protestants scoff either. If the defense of the Turin Shroud by Moral Majority types indicates a future direction for fundamentalism, we may well see Protestant fundamentalists laying flowers at Padre Pio’s tomb. But even fundamentalism’s hunger to prove the historical fact of Christ’s sacrifice by exhibiting an authentic oil negative photograph of Jesus does not extend beyond the death of the apostles. Even fundamentalists hesitate to plunge into the Middle Ages, the “Catholic” centuries. And liberal Protestants are rationalistic enough to be suspicious of all acclaimed miracles. To most Protestants, unlike most Catholics, the pietistic folklore that lies like vast, fermenting compost heaps along the trails our common ancestors walked does not make religious sense.

Padre Pio is admittedly an overstatement, an exaggeration of the piety that separates Catholics and Protestants. But exaggeration, enlargement, is sometimes necessary to identify microscopic causes for macrocosmic effects. For those of us who work for Christian unity, an understanding of such causes is vital.

There is an enormous and sad paradox in the Protestant-Catholic estrangement. Catholics and Protestants are so close yet so far apart. In every Catholic mass (especially in the ones Padre Pio managed so painfully) Christ’s suffering is renewed. The Catholic theology of transubstantiation defines Christianity as the continuing crucifixion of Christ, the continual repetition of his suffering. For the Protestant, so deeply influenced by Luther’s rediscovery of the Christian faith’s historic core, there is not so much a continual repetition of the suffering of Christ as an eternal model, a “once for all” to which the Christian must look backward.

It would at first appear that while the Catholic has a strong sense of the continuing revelation but a somewhat deficient vision of the original model, the Protestant has a strong vision of the model but a somewhat deficient sense of the continuing revelation. But that is not really the case. The Catholic’s continuing revelation is based solidly, if unacceptably to Protestants, on the model; and the Protestant’s model enables him or her to see that Christ’s suffering must and does continue -- if not in the Eucharist, then in the Christian’s life. Protestants and Catholics have the same two sides of the same coin; they are merely reversed.

We need each other. The Catholic can teach the Protestant, and the Protestant can teach the Catholic, faithfulness to the original model and response to the challenge of continuing revelation. But we must not underestimate the difficulty of learning to trust and understand each other. The journey of a thousand miles to Omega Point may indeed begin with a first step; but the one who makes the trip should understand how far a thousand miles is and should be prepared to negotiate a lot of rocky barriers along the way.


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