Sunday, December 28, 2008

Mennonites

As my eye scanned the list of suggested topics for this paper, none stood out in particular. Sure, there was the man with the great German last name that my professor really liked, but I thought that his theories were silly, and I knew I couldn’t write a paper on him with a straight face. Then there was John Paul II, a pope I am very not-fond of. Vatican II, nope. Feminist theology, DEFINITELY not. Then it hit me. I could write about Mennonites. My best friend is a Mennonite, and I’ve always inquired, when the occasion has presented itself, into various points of belief of his religious sect. It would help me get to know him even better as a friend. Thus, the goal of this paper is to explore the historical Mennonite faith through two particular teachings, refer them to Catholicism, and discuss a point of agreement between the faiths and a modern point of controversy about Mennonites.

The Mennonites really began as Anabaptists, theologically speaking. The Anabaptists, among other things, primarily rejected the entire principle of infant baptism. Like most Protestant denominations, Anabaptists rejected the concept of “two pillars” of doctrine – Scripture and Tradition. Instead, they agreed, with Luther, that “sola Scriptura” was a guiding principle in the understanding and development of doctrine. So, very logically, the Anabaptists concluded that infant baptism was nowhere to be found in Scripture, and therefore, was not to be practiced. James Waltner, in his book This We Believe, comments: “Study of the Scriptures led Anabaptists to this view. Nowhere in the Bible did they find support for the common practice of baptizing infants. Instead, they found baptism related to repentance (Acts 2:38) and with the faith and commitment of the believer (Acts 8:12, 35-38)” (141). Needless to say, while this caused much debate, controversy, and most importantly, death – in the case of murdered Mennonites who were killed for their beliefs – at the time, today it is accepted as commonplace. The “Shared Convictions” published by the Mennonite World Conference on March 15, 2006 still retain this belief, in the 3rd point particularly: “As a church, we are a community of those whom God’s spirit calls to turn from sin, acknowledge Jesus Christ as Lord, receive baptism upon confession of faith, and follow Christ in life” (General Council) (emphasis mine).

As noted above, Catholicism specifically depends on Apostolic Tradition in addition to Scripture, and the reference of 1500 years of the tradition of infant baptism was one starting point, but the Catechism of the Council of Trent states two other interesting, and compelling counterarguments. First, it states that there are two episodes in Scripture in which an entire household is referred to being baptized, and that an “entire” household must necessarily include children, possibly infants (I Cor 1:16 & Acts 16:33). But further, it adds: “Circumcision, too, which was a figure of Baptism, affords a strong argument…that children were circumcised on the eighth day is universally known. If then circumcision…was profitable to children, it is clear that Baptism, which is the circumcision of Christ, not made by hand, is also profitable to them" (177).

Baptism was the topic that named the Anabaptist movement, but it was a man that the Mennonites were named after: Menno Simon. A former Catholic priest, Menno had doubts about transubstantiation, the Catholic belief that the Body and Blood of Christ – the Real Presence – became present under the appearances of bread and wine during the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. While he continued to have doubts, he found himself inspired by the zeal of the Anabaptists whenever he encountered them. This admiration eventually turned into comradeship, and on January 12th, 1536, he renounced his priesthood and his Catholic faith. His later writings go very far to show just how much he had resolved his “doubts” about transubstantiation. Here are some of his thoughts on the Mass, which deserve to be quoted at length:

…yea, they call the disgraceful and sinful mass, the sacrifice of the Lord; and the bread and wine his real flesh and blood; for this is the custom and manner of the ungodly, because they know not the true God, the God of heaven and earth, and believe not his holy and inestimable word; but hate the true service and are opposed thereto. In God’s stead they have a visible and tangible creature; and maintain a service of their own choice. So did Israel with the golden calf; with Baal and Moloch; and Antioch with his Maosim; the Babylonians with their Bel; the Egyptians with their Isis…
Simon, Part I, 50

With his likening of the Mass to pagan sacrifices, Simon shows that he has certainly more than resolved his doubts about transubstantiation. Indeed, if the Mass is idolatry, the above-quoted text is a condemnation of Catholicism as a standard-bearer for the very worst idolatry. Imagine, the Mass, put on a list with Moloch, a god appeased by the sacrifice of children!

The allusion to “sacrifice” is not without some merit – indeed, the Catholic point of view is that what is happening during the Mass – what the Protestants refer to as “the Lord’s Supper” – is an unbloody commemoration of the event at Calvary, not simply a remembrance of the Last Supper. Fr. Michael Muller comments: “Thus did He (Christ) also unite the two kinds of sacrifice of the Old Law in the one adorable Sacrifice of His Body and Blood, which He offered up under the appearance of bread and wine” (123).

But the questions of Baptism and the Eucharist are old arguments – ones that date to the beginnings of the Mennonite movement and have not significantly changed in the last half millennium. The Catholic and Mennonite positions on these two sacraments are irreconcilably opposed. But rather than dwell only on differences, let us examine one area in which there is some agreement between Mennonites and Catholics: social justice. On their official website, the Mennonite Church states as one of their core beliefs the importance of peacemaking: “We believe God defeats evil with sacrificial and unconditional love. We see peacebuilding as an achievable way of life” (www.mennoniteusa.org). The Catholic Church heartily agrees: “He who hates his neighbor loses his peace of mind, and becomes displeasing to God…If peacemakers are called children of God, those who stir up strife and dissension are called children of Satan” (Spirago-Clarke 390). It is heartening that both Catholics and Mennonites see peacemaking as integral to the mission of a Christian.

One final area of belief that needs to be addressed, because I have seen someone misrepresent the “Mennonite position,” is pacifism. At a later date, my friend Brian gave me a very lengthy explanation of the Mennonite position on this issue. In brief, it is this: Mennonites have traditionally been conscientious objectors. Again, in the words of Menno Simon: “…Christians are not allowed to fight with the sword…If we take this view of it we shall easily understand with what kind of arms Christians should fight, namely, with the word of God, which is a two edged sword…” (Part II, 434). Because of this religious belief, both Canada and the United States provided alternative non-war working activities for Mennonite men of draft age. Many of these Mennonite men served longer than their draftee counterparts, often serving long after the war ended in special “CPS” (Civilian Public Service) camps where they helped build roads, log forests, etc. Mennonites, as mentioned above, deeply believe in peace, so this strong stance against war and warmaking is intellectually consistent.

Alas, again we are at a divergence of views from Catholicism. The Catholic position on war can be summarized very succinctly (though an exposition of just war theory would be not just another paper, but an entire book): “If all men did the will of Christ there would be no war. But if some people refuse to do the will of Christ, those who desire to fulfill His will may be compelled to fight and may quite lawfully do so” (Rumble & Carty 287). To put it another way, in the words of one of my drill instructors from Marine Corps boot camp: “the true warrior prays for peace but trains for war.”

There are so many things that have struck me as I have done research for my paper, but I suppose I should confine myself to two points in particular. One, it is hard to imagine what it is to be in the really small minority. As a cradle Catholic, I have been, for my entire life, a card-carrying member of the largest Christian denomination in the world. We are a majority in many places. The Supreme Court of the United States has 5 Catholic justices, the President of Lebanon, must, by constitutional mandate, be a Catholic, and the Vatican is the only internationally-recognized country in the world that is ruled by the leader of a worldwide religion. Some estimates place worldwide numbers of Mennonites at 1.5 million, as of 2006. 1.5 Million. There are probably 1.5 Million Catholics in the state of Kansas! It made me realize that there must be a tremendous conviction in the hearts of Mennonite believers to see themselves as such a small remnant and as keepers of the true Christian faith. Two, I am grieved by how little people care to educate themselves about subjects that they know nothing about. I have, on two occasions that I can recall, witnessed people who probably knew nothing about Mennonites pontificate to me about what Mennonites “did” or “believed,” usually due to anecdotal evidence. If writing this paper has taught me one thing, it is that before you open your mouth in “knowledge” of another religion, you should take care to at least look up some basic facts about it.

Thus, in the Mennonite spirit of peacemaking, though I am a rabid Catholic and always will be, I will allow them the last words, words that I know Catholics can share and wholeheartedly agree with: “This much we know: separation from Christ is hell. Fellowship with Christ is heaven. This fellowship is open to us now” (Waltner 226).
Amen.

Works Cited

Muller, Michael. The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. Rockford, Illinois: TAN Books, 1992.

Pius V, St. The Catechism of the Council of Trent. Rockford, Illinois: TAN Books, 1982.

Rumble, Leslie, and Charles Carty. Radio Replies, Second Volume. Rockford, Illinois: TAN Books, 1979.

“Shared Convictions.” Mennonite World Conference. March 15, 2006.

Simon, Menno. Complete Works. Aylmer, Indiana: Pathway Publishers, 1983.

Spirago, Francis. The Catechism Explained. Ed. Richard Clarke. New York, Benzinger Brothers, 1921.

Waltner, James H. This We Believe. Newton, Kansas: Faith and Life Press, 1968.

1 comment:

Sam said...

There are a little over 400,000 Catholics in Kansas. Just for the record. And about 900,000 in Missouri. So, together, that's pretty close.