The term “historic peace churches” refers specifically only to three church groups among pacifist churches: Church of the Brethren, Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) and Mennonites, and has been used since the first conference of the peace churches in Kansas in 1935 (Wikipedia). The Mennonites are associated historically with the Anabaptist movement in Switzerland (Zurich) and to some extent with the theology of Ulrich Zwingli.
Our interest in the peace churches stems from an international dialogue between the Catholic Church and the Mennonite World Conference. A report of the dialogue from 1998 to 2003 is available at the Vatican web site (vatican/va). This very comprehensive report focuses on three main areas: the history of the relationship between the two churches, some basic theological considerations on the nature of the church, sacraments/ordinances, and “toward a healing of memories”.
Considering History Together
The dialogue met five times during the course of its sessions and spent an entire week each time focused on one of the major issues to be resolved. The dialogue begins with the admission that in the course of history the two churches suffered a great deal of animosity toward each other; stereotypes regarding their beliefs and practices as well as their interpretation of history began to emerge.
The goal of the dialogue is to heal memories and reconcile differences. For this to be achieved it is necessary to have an objective and unbiased understanding of the facts and the context of history. The Catholic Church was the established church of Christendom for centuries. The Reformers and the Churches which emerged from their teachings were viewed as new, different, and even heretical. The peace churches were in special difficulty because they interpreted the Gospel as requiring non-resistance to violence, non-violence and peacemaking. Ironically the peacemakers eventually became more established while considering the catholic position as heretical and counter to the Gospel. In some places the oppressed became the oppressors.
The methodology used by the dialogue was to have the authors of the various presentations give the Catholic view on the one hand, and the Mennonite on the other. This allowed the participants to discern similarities and differences in the accounts as well as convergences and areas needing further study.
Three areas of study considered critical for the dialogue were: the nature of the church, sacraments and ordinances, and the commitment to peace. We will consider each of these points in turn, but first some general observations about these areas. The report indicates that the nature of the church has top priority because it is central to the reconciliation of the two world bodies. Many decisions reflect the understanding of what the church is and how it lives its reality. The Catholic view of sacraments emphasizes that they are signs and efficient causes of grace. They were all instituted by Christ and have their saving power from Christ. As Augustine said: “When someone baptizes, it is Christ who baptizes.”
Mennonites call baptism and Lord’s Supper “ordinances”, i.e. something that Jesus commanded to be done. Only two ordinances have clear and explicit scriptural reference in the gospels. Baptism is particularly crucial for Mennonites since it incorporates the Christian into the church of Jesus Christ. Infant baptism is not allowed by Mennonites because profession of faith in Christ as Lord is required before baptism; hence their insistence on adult/believer’s baptism.
The Lord’s Supper (their name for the Eucharist) is the memorial of the Lord’s self-giving on Calvary. It is remembered and celebrated as a means of sharing in the communion with God in Christ and his Spirit. The saving redemption was accomplished once for all on Calvary however the local congregation remembers that saving action (anamnesis) as Jesus commanded.
Finally the commitment to peace is essential (a sine qua non) for the peace churches. The conclusion that all Christians are called to “turn the other cheek” and to refrain from violent response to violence is a mandate of the gospel, and at the heart of the Christian message. Both Catholics and Mennonites are committed to peacemaking though they differ in their understanding of how this is to be done. While Catholics understand that the just war theory is valid in some extreme situations, it also agrees with Mennonites on the right to conscientious objection to modern warfare and specific conflicts, and deplores many aspects of modern warfare.
Toward the Healing of Memories
The dialogue seeks to heal the memories of Christians divided by history and separation over the centuries. To achieve this end an entire section is devoted to repentance for past offenses against unity and charity. The dialogue drafted a joint statement of agreement on what the churches can profess together. It also stresses the work of the Holy Spirit toward reconciliation, forgiveness and unity. This section contains a reflection on the need for working toward improved relations between Catholics and Mennonites.
The Catholic-Mennonite dialogue is an effort to see the positions of the churches as complementary rather than antagonistic. There are divergences, e.g. the Catholic Church believes that security and self defense between nations does allow, under conditions agreed upon by international covenants, for a just war. It must be a last recourse, with hope of eventual reconciliation, and proportionate use of force, etc. The safety of civilians and non-combatants must be assured. The dialogue admits that further study of many areas is necessary: history, theology, reconciliation, improved relations, repentance for past wrongs, forgiveness and amendments and future actions. Much progress was made in the twentieth century in the reconciliation of churches and Christians. It is hoped that the twenty-first will continue this work and move continually forward with God’s help and the guidance of the Holy Spirit.