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EMU Furthers Catholic-Anabaptist Dialogue

Posted on December 12th, 2007


Father George McLean (r.), general editor, presents Paul Peachey with a copy of his book "Building Peace and Civil Society: An Autobiographical Report from a Believers’ Church" (Washington, D.C.: The Council for Research in Values and Philosophy, 2007). Chapters 1-16 is a collection of essays by Peachey, 1952-2003, nearly all previously published in widely scattered sources. The remaining chapters are autobiographical and published for the first time. Photo by Ray Gingerich

Roman Catholics and Mennonites are engaging each other in discussions at many levels.

A much-reported example was the visit of a Mennonite World Conference delegation to the Vatican in October this year. An extraordinary document, "Called Together: Report of the International Dialog Between the Catholic Church and Mennonite World Conference (MWC), 1998-2003," provides a backdrop for much of the current exchange.

At EMU, the Anabaptist Center for Religion and Society (ACRS) sponsored a conference entitled "The Church – Catholic and Anabaptist." The initiative for the Nov. 29-30 event was a long-standing friendship between Dr. Paul Peachey and Father George McLean, both emeritus professors at Catholic University in Washington, D.C. Peachey and McLean have collaborated in a decades-long global inter-religious dialog in Europe and Asia on issues of violence and peace.

The ACRS is an organization started by a group of retired academics to explore issues relevant to the contemporary scene. Dr. Peachey, a prominent ACRS member, suggested that a conversation between Anabaptists and Catholics on ecclesiology might benefit both parties while helping to clarify disparate ways of being in the world.

Father McLean began the proceedings by pointing out that much inter-religious dialog today is rooted in the notion that differences must be understood as conflict. McLean suggested it be cast in a new way – as "diachronic" – that is, differences change in the context of time and as a result of changing circumstances. A current example of diachronic activity, he pointed out, is "the flurry of discussion between Catholics and Anabaptists."

A dinner discussion ensued where Peachey and McLean regaled the gathering with stories of their global inter-religious encounters.

In a subsequent session Dr. Nancy Heisey related the experiences of the MWC delegation to the Vatican, which provided a wonderful real-time element to the conference.

Two major addresses focused on ecclesiology. Ray Gingerich, professor emeritus of religion of EMU, offered an Anabaptist theological perspective on the church. Professor Bill Barbieri of Catholic University offered a descriptive ecclesiological survey of contemporary church issues, especially related to questions of authority.

Perhaps the most important question was the relationship of churchly authority to issues of freedom and coercion from Catholic and Anabaptist points of view.

There is always an asymmetrical quality to Catholic/Anabaptist ecclesial interchange – Catholic verticality and Anabaptist horizontalism. Catholics have a quite precise ecclesiology; Mennonites not so much. This must leave Catholics wondering which strain of Anabaptist thinking represents the Mennonite position.

For ACRS, the encounter was wonderfully engaging and worthwhile. We hope our Catholic counterparts found it equally stimulating.


Albert N. Keim is professor emeritus of history at Eastern Mennonite University.

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