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dianoigo blog

Tuesday, 28 November 2017

Christadelphians and Catholics: Prospects for Dialogue

As a Catholic and a former Christadelphian, it grieves me that my Catholic family, friends and self and my Christadelphian family and friends, while all desiring to serve God and follow Jesus Christ, are sharply divided on the theory and practice of Christianity. So great are the theological differences between Christadelphians and Catholics that talk of dialogue might seem preposterous. Nevertheless, in this article I would like to reflect hypothetically on the prospects for such dialogue.

Let us first consider the past and present relations between these two religious communities. There is not much to say here. The Christadelphians are a sect that broke away from the Stone-Campbell movement in the mid-nineteenth century. The Stone-Campbell movement was largely made up of people from established Protestant denominations (e.g., Methodists and Baptists) who were dissatisfied with Protestant denominationalism. The Methodist denomination formed through schism with the Church of England and the Baptist denomination arguably did as well. Baptists see theological affinity with the sixteenth-century continental Anabaptists, who reacted against the Reformers, but historical links between the Anabaptists and later English Baptists are disputed.1 The Church of England and the Reformers broke away from the Roman Catholic Church, so Christadelphians are four degrees of ecclesiastical separation removed from the Catholic Church. There is thus really no history of formal interaction between the Catholic and Christadelphian communities. In the absence of historical interaction, we must content ourselves with examining how Christadelphians and Catholics view each other.

How Christadelphians view Catholicism

Dr. John Thomas, the British medical doctor who founded the Christadelphian sect, had strong views on Catholicism. In 1869, responding to a request for information about the beliefs of the Christadelphians from the editor of a British religious magazine called The Rock, Thomas offered a set of 24 propositions comprising "all things from the very first most surely believed and taught by their recognized scribes and their literature". The nineteenth proposition read as follows:
They regard the Roman church as "the Mother of Harlots;" and the papal dynasty as "the name of blasphemy," seated on the seven heads of Rome (Rev. xiii. 1; xvii. 9), and the paramour of the Old Mother. They hold, also, that their harlot-daughters answer to the state churches of Anti-Christendom; and the "abominations of the earth," to all the dissenting names and denominations, aggregately styled "names of blasphemy," of which the European body politic, symbolized by the eight-headed scarlet-coloured beast, is said to be "full." (Rev. xvii. 3).2
For the founder of the Christadelphians, then, identifying the Roman Catholic Church as the archenemy of God was not merely apocalyptic speculation but dogma. (One should add that he appears to have identified "all...denominations" apart from his own sect as part of this evil system.)  Since Thomas did not believe in supernatural evil, in his worldview there was no greater manifestation of sin in the cosmos than the Roman Catholic papacy. Obviously, within such a worldview the notion of dialogue with the Catholic Church is a nonstarter.3 You don't deal with the devil.

When Thomas died in 1871, his protégé Robert Roberts became the de facto spokesman for the Christadelphian community. Roberts shared his mentor's radically negative position on Roman Catholicism,4 but unlike Thomas he stopped short of giving this position the status of dogma. The Statement of Faith adopted by the Birmingham Christadelphian Ecclesia in 1871, authored by Robert Roberts,5 never mentions Roman Catholicism. Since a modified version of this Statement of Faith subsequently became and remains normative for Christadelphians worldwide (despite the community having no hierarchy, representative body or doctrinal authority), Christadelphians today are free to retain or discard their forebears' application of biblical apocalyptic imagery to Roman Catholicism.

It is probably fair to say that the majority of Christadelphians today continue to regard the papacy as the Antichrist and the Roman Catholic Church as the "mother of harlots".6 It is because they view the Catholic Church primarily through apocalyptic lenses that Christadelphians have generally been more interested in—and knowledgeable about—the Roman Catholic Church's role in past and present world politics than in Roman Catholic liturgy, theology, piety, orders, charitable work, etc. In short, many Christadelphians view the Catholic Church primarily as a geopolitical entity. This would be strange to most Catholics, who would regard the Pope's interactions with global political leaders as extremely peripheral to what Catholicism is.

Having said this, some progressive Christadelphians have both adopted different interpretations of apocalyptic "Antichrist" imagery and moderated their doctrinal opposition to Catholicism (toward something perhaps on par with that typically found among Evangelicals).7 There are probably three main reasons why some Christadelphians have moved away from the anti-Catholic vitriol of their founder. Firstly, the religious climate of contemporary Western society is tolerant and pluralistic compared with the rhetorical warfare of the 19th century.8 Secondly, increased Christadelphian awareness of the methods and results of modern biblical scholarship have caused some Christadelphians to jettison their traditional interpretations of biblical apocalyptic imagery. Christadelphians familiar with academic study of the Bible know that the historicist paradigm for interpreting the Book of Revelation, which has been central to Christadelphian anti-Catholic polemic, has no standing in contemporary biblical scholarship.9 Thirdly, historical developments over the past 150 years have made it very difficult to maintain, in good conscience, that the Vatican and the papacy are the nexus of human wickedness. While the papacy has held minimal temporal power during this period, non-Catholic political regimes perpetrated unprecedented violence and genocide during the 20th century: Nazi Germany, Soviet Russia, the Khmer Rouge, the ISIS "caliphate," etc. Could any fair-minded person claim that the Vatican is morally comparable to such regimes, never mind that it is the very epicentre of global evil? Could any fair-minded person liken gentle, virtuous popes like John Paul II, Benedict XVI and Francis to evil dictators like Pol Pot, Bashar al-Assad and Kim Jong Un?

Another promising sign is that Christadelphians have increasingly reacted against pseudo-historical research that previously enjoyed popularity within their ranks, such as the idea that Easter and Christmas are pagan abominations, or various ideas from discreditable tomes like Alexander Hislop's The Two Babylons and Ralph Woodrow's Babylon Mystery Religion (the latter refuted by its own author).

Because of these developments, I believe many Christadelphians today are willing to reappraise Catholicism, even if its doctrines strike them as strange. Of course, some Christadelphians will continue to uncritically parrot the harshest of 19th-century anti-Catholic propaganda and political conspiracy theories. Needless to say, the prospects for dialogue with the latter group are minimal.

How Catholics view Christadelphians

Given that there are about 1.2 billion Roman Catholics in the world versus perhaps 50 000 Christadelphians, it is unsurprising that while all Christadelphians have heard of Catholicism and most have a strong opinion about it, most Catholics have never heard of Christadelphians (especially outside the English-speaking world, where Christadelphians are concentrated). Moreover, the Magisterium—the teaching office of the Catholic Church—has never pronounced anything concerning Christadelphians specifically. Indeed, on the Vatican website, which contains a vast repository of official and unofficial documents of the Catholic Church, the word "Christadelphian" never occurs even once.

Nevertheless, Christadelphians are often mentioned in Catholic documents produced at the level of dioceses or national bishops' conferences. Specifically, such documents include Christadelphians in a list of groups whose baptisms are judged to be invalid. This means that a Christadelphian who wishes to become a Catholic needs to be baptized in the Catholic Church, whereas a Lutheran or a Baptist or a Seventh Day Adventist does not, because his or her baptism is recognized by the Catholic Church as valid. Christadelphians are mentioned in lists of groups that do not confer valid baptism by the Canadian Council of Catholic Bishops, the Archdiocese of Johannesburg, the Diocese of St. Petersburg (Florida, USA), the Archdiocese of Baltimore, the Diocese of Columbus (Ohio, USA), the Diocese of Dallas (Texas, USA), etc. This probably does not mean that each of these dioceses have undertaken an independent investigation into the validity of Christadelphian baptism; rather, the diocesan documents rely on handbooks on Canon Law such as that cited by the Diocese of Davenport (Iowa, USA).

While, as mentioned, the Magisterium has never specifically ruled on Christadelphian baptism, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has ruled on the validity of baptism in a number of other groups, including the New Church (Swedenborgians) and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (Mormons).10 Two documents on the Vatican website (here and here) explain the reasons for the CDF's pronouncement that Mormon baptism is invalid, and these can be applied to the Christadelphian case as well.

The wider context of these rulings is the canons on baptism from the seventh session of the Council of Trent (promulgated in 1547). These canons included the following:
2. If anyone says that true and natural water is not necessary for baptism and thus twists into some metaphor the words of our Lord Jesus Christ: Unless a man be born again of water and the Holy Ghost, let him be anathema.
4. If anyone says that the baptism which is given by heretics in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, with the intention of doing what the Church does, is not true baptism, let him be anathema.
Here we have the rule that doctrinal errors usually do not invalidate baptism, and we also implicitly have three requirements for valid baptism: water (Canon Law allows for either immersion or pouring),11 the baptismal formula ("I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit"), and "the intention of doing what the Church does." As Fr. Luis Ladaria explains, this actually translates into four requirements, since "the intention of doing what the Church does" applies to both the celebrating minister and the recipient (or the recipient's parents/sponsors, in the case of an infant). The four requirements for valid baptism therefore are:

1. The Matter (water)
2. The Form (Trinitarian formula)
3. The Intention of the Celebrating Minister
4. The Disposition of the Recipient12

Christadelphian baptism meets the first requirement since Christadelphians practice immersion. However, Christadelphian baptism generally does not meet the second requirement since Christadelphians have no fixed baptismal formula and often do not use the Trinitarian formula. However, even in cases where Christadelphians might use the Trinitarian formula, the baptism would still not be valid because it would fall short of the third and fourth requirements.13 These two requirements are not very onerous. The Catholic Church does not predicate the validity of baptism on the minister's qualifications.14 However, LDS baptism is judged to fall short of the third requirement because it is performed by Mormon priests, who are "radically formed in their own doctrine" (which is fundamentally different from the catholic doctrine of God), and therefore cannot make "a true invocation of the Trinity" even when using a Trinitarian formula. Christadelphian baptisms are invariably preceded by catechetical instruction which includes the rejection of orthodox Trinitarianism and acceptance of heterodox teachings concerning Christ and the Holy Spirit. Thus both the baptizer and the baptizand are "radically formed" in Christadelphian doctrine and cannot have the intention of doing what the Catholic Church does when it baptizes. Hence, the logic by which the Catholic Church regards Mormon baptism as invalid applies also to Christadelphians.

Since the Catholic Church teaches that baptism is the means by which one becomes joined to the one body of Christ (cf. 1 Cor. 12:13), the ruling that Christadelphian baptism is invalid means that the Catholic Church does not regard Christadelphians as "separated brethren" (like members of most Protestant denominations) but as outside the body of Christ entirely. Most Christadelphians would similarly regard Catholics as outside the body of Christ, since the Christadelphian Statement of Faith maintains that a knowledge of the Truth (i.e. the Christadelphian doctrinal system) is necessary to make baptism valid.

Ecumenical versus Inter-religious Dialogue

Since Christadelphians and Catholics mutually regard each other as outside the body of Christ, dialogue between the two cannot properly be called "ecumenical," which implicitly (based on its etymology) refers to dialogue within the universal Church.

The Catholic Church views Christadelphians as one of a dizzying array of sects or "new religious movements" that have appeared on the religious landscape over the past two centuries.15 A 1993 document approved by Pope John Paul II entitled Directory for the Application of Principles and Norms on Ecumenism elaborates on the situation with regard to sects and new religious movements in the context of ecumenism:
35. The religious landscape of our world has evolved considerably in recent decades and in some parts of the world the most noticeable development has been the growth of sects and new religious movements whose desire for peaceful relations with the Catholic Church may be weak or non-existent. In 1986, a report 49 was published jointly by four dicasteries of the Roman Curia which draws attention to the vital distinction that must be made between sects and new religious movements on the one hand and Churches and ecclesial Communities on the other. Further studies are in progress on this question.  
36. The situation in regard to sects and new religious movements is highly complex and differs from one cultural context to another. In some countries sects are growing in a cultural climate that is basically religious. In other places they are flourishing in societies that are increasingly secularized but at the same time credulous and superstitious. Some sects are non-Christian in origin and in self-understanding; others are eclectic; others again identify themselves as Christian and may have broken away from Christian Communities or else have links with Christianity. Clearly it is especially up to the Bishop, the Synod of Eastern Catholic Churches or the Episcopal Conference to discern how best to respond to the challenge posed by sects in a given area. But it must be stressed that the principles for spiritual sharing or practical cooperation outlined in this Directory only apply to the Churches and ecclesial Communities with which the Catholic Church has established ecumenical relations. As will be clear to the reader of this Directory, the only basis for such sharing and cooperation is the recognition on both sides of a certain, though imperfect, communion already existing. Openness and mutual respect are the logical consequences of such recognition.
In short, because (unlike between the Catholic Church and most Protestant denominations) there is not even "a certain, though imperfect, communion already existing" between the Catholic Church and Christadelphians, ecumenical dialogue between Catholics and Christadelphians is impossible. It could become possible only if Christadelphians accepted the doctrine of the Trinity—a less far-fetched proposition than might first appear, given that some other sects (e.g., Seventh Day Adventists and Worldwide Church of God) have moved from a non-Trinitarian to a Trinitarian doctrinal position.

Any dialogue between Catholics and Christadelphians in the present would fall under the rubric of interreligious dialogue—the same rubric that (especially as promulgated in Nostra Aetate at the Second Vatican Council in 1965) governs relations between the Catholic Church and other world religions such as Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam and Judaism. Nostra Aetate discusses these respective religions in terms of their progressively widening common ground with Catholicism. Hinduism and Buddhism share the Church's quest for "freedom from the anguish of our human condition" or "the state of perfect liberation." Islam shares the Church's monotheism and its reverence for Jesus and honour of Mary. The Jews have a far more profound kinship with the Church, a shared belief in the Hebrew Bible, a shared monotheism and a shared Messianism. What do Christadelphians share in common with Catholics that might form the basis for interreligious dialogue?

Common Ground between Christadelphians and Catholics

Christadelphians and Catholics clearly share a great deal in common in belief and practice. Their doctrinal common ground can be aptly captured by the words of the Apostles' Creed:
I believe in God, the Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth; and in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord: Who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary; suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and was buried. He descended into hell; the third day He rose again from the dead; He ascended into heaven, is seated at the right hand of God the Father Almighty; from thence He shall come to judge the living and the dead. I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Holy Catholic Church, the communion of Saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and life everlasting. Amen.
Although this creed has no liturgical standing among Christadelphians, many would recognise it as a summary of the gospel as they understand it. Catholics do use this creed liturgically and recite it every time they pray the Rosary. Although Christadelphians and Catholics would interpret a few of the clauses differently, it nevertheless contains much highly specific theological content that both communities believe.  At an epistemological level, Christadelphians and Catholics share 66 canonical books in common. There are even areas of doctrine and practice where Christadelphians and Catholics agree over against most Protestant denominations. Both communities believe that regeneration is effected through water baptism and not exclusively through any spiritual experience that occurs without baptism. Both communities hold grace, faith and works in dynamic tension in their soteriology and reject "Sola fide" and "Sola gratia" in the Reformation sense. Both communities teach, or at least practice as a norm (in Christadelphians' case), that the faithful should partake of the Lord's Supper every Sunday. Both communities use a daily Bible readings plan or lectionary to ensure the repeated exposure of the faithful to the full breadth of divine Writ. Apart from the Eucharistic prayer (admittedly a very important difference), the format and content of a Catholic Mass and a typical Christadelphian Sunday service have much in common. Many of the same hymns and choruses are sung by both communities. The Lord's Prayer is cherished and used liturgically in both communities. There are many moral and social causes which both communities can join in supporting wholeheartedly and enthusiastically. All of this commonality could serve as a starting point for constructive dialogue.

Conclusion

Christadelphians have traditionally viewed Catholicism with something resembling contempt, while Catholics have largely remained unaware of Christadelphians' existence. Moreover, theological differences are too great to allow for dialogue under the umbrella of ecumenism, and it is unlikely that formal engagement between the two communities will occur any time soon. Nevertheless, the substantial common ground between Christadelphians and Catholics virtually demands robust dialogue, and renders the adjective "interreligious" embarrassingly inadequate for describing the nature of such dialogue. 


Footnotes

  • 1 Jeff Robinson, "Anabaptist kinship or English dissent? Papers at ETS examine Baptist origins," Baptist Press (2009).
  • 2 Peter Hemingray, John Thomas, His Friends and His Faith (Christadelphian Tidings, 2003), 335-39.
  • 3 Thomas's magnum opus was a multi-volume work entitled Eureka: An Exposition of the Apocalypse that was full of vehement criticism of Roman Catholicism and the papacy in particular. Apocalyptic figures for ultimate evilthe little horn of Daniel 8, the man of lawlessness of 2 Thessalonians 2, the Antichrist—were consistently interpreted as foretelling the "Great Apostasy" (the church's departure from true doctrine) and rise of the papacy.
  • 4 Consider this excerpt from Roberts book Thirteen Lectures on the Apocalypse: "Rome, the implacable enemy and destroyer of the Jews, in all the centuries, Pagan and Papal; Rome, the Papal foe of the Scriptures, and the murderer of the saints; Rome, the inventor of torments and foul iniquities of the monastery and dungeon; Rome, who flaunts among her architectural ornaments the sculptured forms of the dishonoured furniture of Jehovah's sanctuary; Rome of the Caesars, and Rome of the Popes and Cardinals; Rome of the long dark and dreadful history of the world; Rome, the mistress of kings and the debaucher of the nations; Rome, the corrupter of the world to an extent the corrupted populations do not realize in their corruption; seven-hilled Rome on the Tiber, which blasphemes heaven by arrogating to herself the title of the Eternal City, and exhibiting her chief magistrate to all the world as the Holy Father; Great Babylon, the Mother of Harlots and the abominations of the earth".
  • 5 So Hemingray, John Thomas, 339.
  • 6 See, for example, Ron Abel, The Man of Sin: A Future Fuehrer in Jerusalem or Roman Catholic Apostasy? (Torrens Park: Christadelphian Scripture Study Service, 1984); Rick O'Connor, The Things of the Kingdom and the Things of the Name (Christadelphian Books Online).
  • 7 One alternative Christadelphian interpretation of biblical Antichrist imagery reads it primarily in terms of radical Islam. See, for example, Duncan Heaster, New European Christadelphian Commentary, Vol. 10: The Book of Revelation (self-published, 2016).
  • 8 Christadelphians have not been unaffected by the ecumenical and interfaith movements that swept through Christendom in the second half of the 20th century, especially during and after the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). Reunion efforts between different communions ("fellowships") within Christadelphia intensified. Meanwhile, some Christadelphians began to regard "mainstream Christians" as potentially actual Christians rather than deluded apostates, and to regard their own community more as a Christian "denomination" (one among many) than as the definitive household of faith.
  • 9 This is because the historicist paradigm is anachronistic to the core: rather than beginning from the author's historical context (Second Temple Jewish apocalyptic within the Roman Empire), it begins from the reader's historical context (modern Anglo-Protestant polemic within post-Reformation Western society), and attempts to map the apocalyptic language onto events from European history that the reader deems to have been significant. The result includes such exegetical monstrosities as ignoring the clear messianic biblical background of Rev. 12:5 in Psalm 2:7-9 in order to interpret the child imagery as a prophecy about the wicked (from a Christadelphian viewpoint) Roman emperor Constantine! It is heartening that some Christadelphians have reacted against such obviously contrived interpretations.
  • 10 See here, here, here and here.
  • 11 Canon 854 from the Code of Canon Law states, "Baptism is to be conferred either by immersion or by pouring". An openness to these two modes of baptism dates back to the first century, as can be seen in Didache 7.1-3.
  • 12 It is interesting to note that all four of these requirements are in some way implicit in the prescriptions concerning baptism in Didache 7.1-4, which mentions the proper use of water, the Trine formula, and instructs both the baptizer and the baptizand to fast (implying the need for both to have a correct disposition).
  • 13 This is again clear from comparison with the LDS case. As Ladaria points out, Mormons do use a Trinitarian formula and yet their baptism is ruled invalid due to requirements 3 and 4.
  • 14 The Code of Canon Law, Canon 861, states that while "The ordinary minister of baptism is a bishop, a presbyter, or a deacon," "in a case of necessity any person with the right intention, confers baptism licitly."
  • 15 For a Catholic perspective on this phenomenon and its pastoral implications, see the 1986 Vatican document Sects or New Religious Movements: A Pastoral Challenge.

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