Monday, February 07, 2005

Out of the Ruins- R. R. Reno Converts

If you've been reading this blog for a while, you'll already know that I'm a Lutheran theologian with considerable sympathy for the horizon shared between Lutherans and Roman Catholics. Over the years, this has meant different things. Mostly it means I'm consistently more evangelical catholic than Protestant.

There's a number of folks like that out there, maybe a growing number. But recently, a lot of those with evangelical catholic sensibilities have been converting. Reinhard Hütter, for one, Ola Tjørhom for another, and now, one of the most prominent defenders of "staying" within one's own tradition rather than converting, R.R. Reno.

Each time I hear of one of these conversions, I think/feel a couple of things. First, I'm sympathetic. I think I "get" at least in part what drives these theologians. They can no longer justify their presence in their current denomination on any other grounds than stubbornness.

But they also make the move, I think, because they are unusually free to do so. Either they have just retired, or are on the verge of doing so, so a conversion makes no claims on their professional status. Or, if I'm correct re: Reno, his conversion does not impact his current work because his academic setting does not expect a specific confession out of him.

I'm a married Lutheran pastor. Such conversions could not be undergone so easily and freely.

Which is not to say, once again, that I am not sympathetic. Especially Reno, who staked some of his academic and theological credibility on an argument for remaining, does take certain risks. It is a difficult decision for anyone, and I want to honor that.

That said, I find these conversions suspicious, annoying, and even angering. Every once in a while I find myself sympathetic to, and simultaneously frustrated with, such actions. This is one. Maybe it's the kind of feeling you have for those who are close kin. Love and detestation run close together.

So, to Reno's argument for converting. First of all, I find it somewhat specious. He makes much of having decided to stay because of a "theory":

Modern Christianity is modern precisely in its great desire to compensate for what it imagines to be the superannuation, impotence, and failure of apostolic Christianity with a new and improved idea, theory, or theology. The disaster is not the improving impulse. I certainly wish that all Christians would expect more from their teachers and leaders. The problem is the source of the desired improvement. For Newman, "theory" is a swear word because it connotes the ephemera of mental life, ephemera easily manipulated according to fantasy and convenience. Yet in my increasing disgruntlement [with the Episcopal Church], there I was, more loyal to my theory of staying put than to the actual place that demanded my loyalty. It was an artifact of my mind that compelled me to stay put. Unable to love the ruins of the Episcopal Church, I was forced to love my idea of loving the ruins. With this idea I tried to improve myself, after the fashion of a modern theologian.

As much as Reno would like to convince himself that he was loving an ideal rather than a reality, I believe his move to Rome is also the love of an idea rather than a reality. He has a theory about what Rome is (mother church, an ocean, etc.), but this idea is not the reality we all know the Roman church to be. The Roman church is, like all other church's, a church "in the ruins", because it is divided from other communions, first from the east, and second, from all the denominations that spring from the Reformation. Rome is no more the "one church" than any other church, and any claims to this status fail to acknowledge reality. They are theories and ideas of oneness.

Reno proves this to be the case in his response to a friend who was present for his acceptance into Rome. Asked about what it was like to be received into the Roman Catholic communion, he responded, "it felt like being submerged into the ocean." I'm sorry, but what a silly thing to say. The Roman Catholic Church is not the ground of all being, the unmoved mover, or the water that covers the depths of the ocean. It is a church, part of the one holy catholic and apostolic church that is grounded in Christ through the waters of baptism. To confuse the church with anything more primary is to wander into idolatry of a ponderous sort. It also takes very little account of the history that has brought our current world of denominations about. Why is a theologian as gifted as Reno willing to be so naive on these points?

Reno digs himself an even deeper hole. For Reno says that "mater ecclesia", or the "ocean,

needs no justification. It needs no theory to support the movement of its tides. In the end, as an Episcopalian I needed a theory to stay put, and I came to realize that a theory is a thin thread easily broken. The Catholic Church needs no theories. She is the mother of theologies; she does not need to be propped up by theologies. As Newman put it in one of his Anglican essays, "the Church of Rome preoccupies the ground." She is a given, a primary substance within the economy of denominationalism. One could rightly say that I became Catholic by default. . . . Mater ecclesia, she needed neither reasons, nor theories, nor ideas from me.

I'm sorry, but this just doesn't cut it. for one, mater ecclesia is obviously and substantially much broader than the Roman Catholic communion. If mater ecclesia needs no reasons nor theories, then certainly entrance into a variety of denominations (not to mention eastern orthodoxy) is reasonable and secure, because it is Christ who is the one foundation of the Church (1 Cor 3:1-23). Reno and I could certainly agree that there are many troubling things within our respective denominations. And there are times and places where it would be necessary to be "in a state of confession", and as a consequence, leave. But to say that all denominations other than the Roman Catholic denomination are in need of theories in order to stay put, while the Roman Catholic denomination "needs no theory", is to engage in romanticism of the worst sort.

I think I am tired of what I can only term Newman redivivus . And I am tired of it for the same reason Reno is- modernity. Personal conversions to a new communion are ever and always acts of the individual conscience. I was born into the LCA and became a member of the ELCA by merger. I have entered into full communion with other denominations by way of full communion agreements between churches. At each point along the way, my being in communion with such and such body has been the result of actions of the church, not my own individual conscience and action. Not to stretch the point too thin, but Luther and other early reformers were excommunicated by the church. They did not individually leave.

Frank Senn, who has also thought about schism and the evangelical catholic option in some detail, says, "So the first answer to the question of 'why stay?' is that we have nowhere better to go, especially not if is to a church of our own devising. We were brought into a particular church by baptism into the death and resurrection of Christ. While we await our resurrection, we bear the cross of Christ by living in his divided body" (Reasons to Avoid Schism, 2003;

I would find Reno's conversion honorable and compelling if he had entered into communion with Rome together with his Anglican brothers and sisters. As it stands, I see his conversion as the result of modernist theory and romantic idolatry. Thanks for sharing, Dr. Reno, but the ruins are still there whether you bury your head in the ocean or not...


  1. As you can see, I've updated the look of the site, but somehow have lost the connection to old comments with Haloscan in this updated version. If anyone knows how to fix that, I'd love to learn.

  2. Rob K1:23 AM

    Thanks for your comments, Clint. I just happened to come onto your site. From Rob K, an ECUSA Anglo-Catholic who holds great hope for CCM, even though our respective branches of the Church are so troubled right now. I hope you see my entry here and can respond.

  3. Rob, Thanks for your comment here. It's a bit buried, so I'll post something new on the topic and acknowledge your comment at that time. Blessings.

  4. "idolatry" . . .

    That's a trifle harsh, is it not? You seem quite upset; but I wonder whether it is really Reno's rationale that is upsetting you, or something else.

  5. I, like you, could probably be described as an 'evangelical catholic'.

    I've nowhere near the education you have (I can't read Milbank, though I've tried).

    I spent a good portion of the last couple years becoming orthodox and finally reading Catholic theology, with an eye towards potentially converting to Rome.

    Of course, I'm more ecclesially homeless than you. I was excommunicated by the denomination that baptized me into Christ.

    I was invited back, but not before discoving the liturgical church in the ECUSA.

    It's easy to theorize. I came to the ECUSA for the Catholic, only to discover that they're all liberal protestants!

    Nonetheless, for the very reasons you describe, I wouldn't feel right 'converting' to Rome.

    Thanks for your thoughts - 4 years ago.

  6. I spent my early childhood being dragged back and forth to a Catholic Church (my fathers) and a Lutheran church (My mothers). I liked my mom's church because I could understand what was being said and there was a homily. I liked the mystery and ultimately the coherence of the Catholic Church and late in life became a Catholic. I am happy with my choice. What turned me off about Lutheranism was an arrogance or hubris that I sensed from many of the Lutherans together with an almost visceral dislike of Catholicism.( My Mother was the leading contender with this attitude). That comes through in your blog on JJ Reno. Sorry

  7. Well, you're commenting on something I wrote almost seven years ago. However, I do not dislike catholicism and I'm not arrogant towards it. Just the opposite. However, I am judgmental of people who leave our or any denomination to join a "paper" church, which is what I think these folks have done. Hutters more recent disappointments with Catholic theology further illustrate the point.