Holly Taylor Coolman teaches theology at Providence College.
This is a guest post.
I remember quite clearly, a number of years ago, reading R.R.Reno’s description of his experience of becoming Catholic. “It felt,” he said, “like being submerged into the ocean.” (And the ocean, he went on to note, “needs no justification.”) What I myself felt upon reading the these lines was being mad as hell. I was an Episcopalian, as Reno had been just prior to this ecclesial plunge. It seemed clear to me that what the Episcopal Church needed at that moment–as it faced serious challenges–was for every single one of us to put a shoulder to the wheel. (Or maybe, pick up a paddle and row.). So, in my head, I began writing a letter to the editor, in response to Reno’s piece. “If Professor Reno is longing for the feeling of being submerged, I’ll be happy to take him deep-sea fishing. I can push him off the edge of the boat, and leave him for awhile. Then I’ll reel him back in and we can continue to do the important work that needs to be done.”
It’s probably good that I never sent that letter, since, in the intervening years, I myself somewhat unexpectedly became Catholic, too. What could have possibly led from there to here? Reno himself recently offered a helpful list of things that might lead people to go to Rome: universality, beauty, the saints, etc. In my case, though, it was none of these. I had all of that, and I believed I had everything I wanted. Then, suddenly, I came to feel there was something more.
There was trouble brewing for Episcopalians–and for the whole Anglican Communion–after 2003, when an ordination in the U.S. violated a prior Lambeth resolution against “ordaining those in same gender unions.” Suddenly, diverging opinions on the issue came into direct conflict. What I was focused on was how this was all worked out. Bishops and archbishops gathered and issued a warning that the actions of the U.S. church threatened to “tear the fabric of our Communion at its deepest level.”A “Commission on Communion” was appointed, and they published a report with a similar tone the following year. It was the response of various voices in the U.S. to that report that caught me up short. I, too, had been worried about tearing apart of communion, but many insisted that this was actually an overblown concern. The Anglican Communion, they said, had never been connected by obligation to one another, and certainly not by any need to submit to the whole. The connections between various groups of Anglicans were really best described as “bonds of affection.” And bonds of affection, I was seeing, could be broken–or simply ignored.
But that was not how I had come to understand “church.” Church, I thought, meant a oneness of indissolubility. The same action that made us one with Christ was what made us one with one another, and I thought it had the same strength and permanence. I tried some ecclesiological jujitsu to see if I could allay what was surely–what had to be–a naive concern. I recall a distinct, physical sensation of falling.
When Artur Rosman invited me to make a contribution in this series, he joked, given a little blog post I wrote recently, that I should explain “Why I Remain a Non-Polarized Catholic.” But that title actually reveals the heart of the matter. Especially when it involves finding one’s identity in an ideological camp, and allows dismissal of those in the opposite camp, “polarization” seems to me to be the precise opposite of “church.” This is what made me, and keeps me, Catholic.
There are some philosophical and theological edges to all this. The only context in which conflict makes any sense, I‘d argue, is shared commitment. The only context in which conflict can be called “Christian” includes a commitment precisely to those we oppose. In Catholicism, there is an old-fashioned doctrine of the “treasury of merit,” which, as far as I can tell, means that even our hope of salvation is an immediately and profoundly communal matter, that even the good we do can benefit others not only as recipients, but as if they themselves had acted. In the mysterious calculus of the divine economy, it allows the possibility that it is precisely the love, the goodness, even of someone with whom I am at odds at the moment, brings me to God.