Our Fellow Believers – Friends Not Foes

The denominational identity in me is deeply anchored. Born, baptized and raised Roman Catholic, Roman Catholicism is second nature to me, like a mark on my skin.

Jul 08, 2022

By Father Ron Rolheiser

The denominational identity in me is deeply anchored. Born, baptized and raised Roman Catholic, Roman Catholicism is second nature to me, like a mark on my skin. I don’t regret the congenital hold it has on me, even if now I think of it more as a foundation than an end point in my journey of faith.

The Roman Catholicism in which I was raised inserted me into the mystery of Christ – Jesus, the Church, the sacraments, the Sermon on the Mount. For that, I couldn’t be more grateful. It also taught me to be slow to judge anyone. However, it also taught me (with some allowances for Protestants) that basically only Roman Catholics would go to heaven, that the Roman Catholic Eucharist is the only one that gives full “real presence”, and that Roman Catholicism is the only fully authentic way to be a Christian. Moreover, non-Christians (those who are not baptized) cannot go to heaven, except by serious exception. It was only later that I learned that a number of other Christian denominations and world religions reciprocated and viewed Roman Catholicism as deviant.

Things have changed for me and for many others. I am still a staunch Roman Catholic, but now I live my faith and my Roman Catholicism in communion with Anglicans, Episcopalians, Protestants, Evangelicals, Jewish believers and Muslims, all of whom are now cherished fellow believers for me. At this point in my life, I very deeply appreciate the truth (affirmed by Ephesians) that ultimately there is one Lord, one faith, one baptism and one God who is the Father of all , especially as I come to appreciate more and more that all of us who share this one God also share the same heartaches.

Several years ago I met a group of Divinity students at Yale University. The students came from a variety of backgrounds and Christian denominations, but shared a common goal; all were in training for some sort of ministry, lay or ordained, in their particular denomination. It was an open discussion where they asked me questions. Two questions dominated the discussion. The first was practical, “How do you get a job in the church?” The second concerned our subject. A number of students have asked this question, “Can I belong to more than one denomination at a time?” Can I be both Evangelical and Roman Catholic? Can I be both Protestant Evangelical Roman Catholic if I enjoy aspects of all three faith traditions?

I had no concrete answers and their questions left me with my own questions that I encounter daily in the school where I teach. The Oblate school of theology where I teach has a doctoral program in spirituality which attracts students from various Christian denominations.

These students are together in the same classrooms, dining halls, and social circles for the years they study here, all within a Roman Catholic institution. Very quickly, in months rather than years, as they study, pray, socialize, and share their common ideals and struggles with each other, the denominational issues basically disappear. Nobody cares what denomination anybody else belongs to anymore. Not that they don’t care and that there is a generic fusion of various denominational identities. This does not happen. On the contrary – in the 10 years that we have had this program, not a single student has converted to another denomination.

However, their view of other denominations and their own denomination has changed; in essence, it has been enlarged. There is a universal respect for everyone’s denominations, and more than that. As these students focus on spirituality, they find that it can bring them to a point where each can emotionally support other denominations, while valuing their own more deeply.

The profound lesson is this: there is a communion and intimacy in faith that we can have with one another, and an emotional support that we can give to each other, that lies beyond our denominational differences. By studying together and sharing a common faith (which lies beyond denominational differences), we realize that what is common to us is infinitely greater (and more important) than what separates us. We also realize that we all have the same heartaches.

Moreover, it is not just a rarefied experience that happens in certain schools of divinity. Increasingly, this is becoming the common Christian experience.

So why continue to distrust each other? Why do we defend our own denominational specificity more than proactively move towards adherence to a common faith, especially since this can be done without threatening our own separate denominations and ecclesiologies?

The invitation here is not to move toward an uncritical syncretism that blinds itself to true denominational differences, but rather to increasingly begin to embrace all of our brothers and sisters in faith, not just our own.

(Oblate Father Ron Rolheiser, an award-winning theologian, teacher, and author, is president of the Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio, TX. He writes a weekly column that appears in over 90 newspapers around the world. He can be contacted through his website www.ronrolheiser.com)

Barry F. Howard