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Drew ChristiansenMarch 03, 2003

Almost 18 years ago I sat on the terrace of a Berkeley coffee bar waiting to meet John Howard Yoder, the well-known Mennonite theologian and ethicist. I was about to leave Berkeley to join the faculty at the University of Notre Dame, where since Vietnam War days Yoder had taught a course on military ethics under the title “War, Law and Ethics,” principally for R.O.T.C. students. He had arranged the meeting to ask me to take on responsibility for the course. As he explained, he thought it better that a course on the morality of warfare be taught by a Catholic, whose church embraced the just war tradition, than by himself, a pacifist.


My meeting with Yoder proved to be the beginning of a long and fruitful relationship. When I left the Golden Dome—the Notre Dame alumni’s nickname for their alma mater—I carried with me three thick files of Yoder’s memos. Yoder, who died in 1997, also offered his advice on the drafting of the U.S. bishops’ letter The Harvest of Justice Is Sown in Peace (1993), published on the 10th anniversary of their peace pastoral The Challenge of Peace; and in 1996 he invited me to contribute a Catholic afterword to the revised edition of hisbook, When War Is Unjust (Orbis).

Yoder’s Growing Legacy

Yoder’s long presence at Notre Dame opened a special relationship between Mennonites and Catholics that seems to be flourishing just now. Socially awkward and by constitution a gadfly, John Howard would probably have resisted the current wave of good feeling. He certainly would have posed hard questions for all concerned. That was his way. Still, Catholics and Mennonites are forging ties and sharing their respective gifts in ways that few could have expected a decade ago.

Who are the Mennonites? They are a family of churches descending from the 16th-century Swiss Brethren and Dutch Anabaptists whose early leader was a former Franciscan named Menno Simons. Hence the name Mennonite. Stressing practice over doctrine and taking the Sermon on the Mount as their new law, they seek to live simple, “quiet” lives. They reject violence, practice conscientious objection and oppose the entanglement of church with state. Within the church, they practice adult baptism. Because that practice entailed re-baptism of those baptized as children, during the Reformation they were among the groups termed Anabaptists (from the Greek ana, “again, anew,” and baptizein, “baptize, dip”). The wider Anabaptist family includes the Brethren, the Amish and the Hutterites.

The International Mennonite-Catholic Dialogue

In late October 2002, the International Mennonite-Catholic Dialogue, convened by the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity and the Mennonite World Conference (which represents half the world’s two million Mennonites), held its fifth annual meeting in Akron, Pa. Earlier, in 2000, I had been asked to join the Catholic team at the third session of the dialogue to discuss what sounded like a characteristically Mennonite question, “What is a peace church?” After World War I, in an effort to give civic color to their traditional ethic of nonresistance and conscientious objection, Mennonites, Brethren and Quakers began referring to themselves as “peace churches.” They believed that their commitment to nonviolence distinguished them from other Christian traditions. Before I could present my own paper at the 2000 dialogue, Mario Higueras, a Mennonite pastor from Guatemala, offered a stunning answer to the question, “What is a peace church?” In his home country, Higueras contended, the Catholic Church has been a peace church by reason of its steadfast defense of human rights of the poor and the indigenous.

The Catholic-Mennonite dialogues have included both theological topics, such as the nature and structure of the church and the sacraments, and historical issues, like the effects of Con-stantine’s recognition of the church on Christian belief and practice and reform movements in the Middle Ages. As the dialogue now prepares a report on the last five years of encounter, both sides see the peace question as one of their most fruitful points of interaction.

The Bridgefolk

Two other significant meetings between Catholics and Mennonites took place in the United States in 2002. In mid-July, Saint John’s Abbey in Collegeville, Minn., hosted an unprecedented grass-roots encounter between Mennonites and Catholics from the United States and Canada, known as “the Bridgefolk.” And in early November at Maryknoll, N.Y., the University of Notre Dame’s Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Catholic Relief Services convoked a planning meeting for a long-term project on “Catholic Peace Building.”

The Bridgefolk meeting brought Catholics and Mennonites together to pray, explore what they held in common and share with one another the gifts of their respective traditions. Bridgefolk organizers believed that Mennonites in search of spirituality and a reinvigorated liturgical life had much to learn from Catholics, particularly from their monastic tradition. (Many Catholic liturgies might also benefit from resonant Mennonite hymn-singing.) The organizers believed that because many Catholics draw inspiration from the Mennonite peace witness and the practice of simple living, these virtues might provide another field for joint exploration.


A leading Mennonite was also a key figure at the Catholic Peace Building meeting. John Paul Lederach is a pioneer in religious “conflict transformation” activities. He now splits his time between Eastern Mennonite University and Notre Dame’s Kroc Institute, the center whose founding in 1986 had brought me to work alongside Yoder. Freely adopting Lederach’s method and terminology for “peace building,” the group—which also included representatives from Maryknoll, the Community of Sant’Egidio, Pax Christi USA, as well as from the U.S.C.C.B.—began to set out a seven-year agenda of research and activity.

Lederach’s ties to both Catholic Relief Services and Kroc help explain the growing mutual attraction of Mennonites and Catholics. For several years, since the 1994 Rwandan genocide, C.R.S. has been exploring how its personnel might assist the church in countries where it serves to prevent and resolve conflict and to contribute to making peace. More recently C.R.S. has turned to Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Va., and its star professor, Lederach, to train C.R.S. personnel in the techniques of peacemaking. Pioneering Mennonite work in conflict transformation and peace-building provides agencies like C.R.S. with the practical elements of a nonviolent pastoral strategy for peace.

For his part, Lederach has worked as a consultant with Catholic bishops from the Philippines to Colombia. He admits “envy” for Catholic universality and “verticality,” i.e., hierarchy. To Lederach the Catholic Church appears to be on the ground nearly everywhere, and its hierarchical structure prepares it to deal with peacemaking at every level of society. For Christian peacemakers, he believes, these are real assets that are not available to small congregational polities like the Mennonites and the Brethren.

As they emerged from rural isolation after World War II, Mennonites came to appreciate more and more the positive Catholic teaching on society and political life, according to Fuller Theological Seminary’s dean, Howard Loewen, a member of the Mennonite Brethren Church and of the international dialogue. They have themselves struggled with how to reconcile their Anabaptist faith with civic responsibility. One such experiment comes from Bridgefolk co-founder Gerald Schlabach, a professor of theological ethics at Saint Thomas University in Saint Paul, Minn. Schlabach proposes “just policing” as a potential point of convergence between the Mennonite tradition of nonviolence and Catholicism’s continued, though increasingly stringent, adherence to the just war tradition.

Loewen points out that Pope John Paul II has continued to lead the Catholic Church in the re-assessment of the morality of war and nonviolence begun by the Second Vatican Council. In his encyclical Centesimus Annus (1991), the pope praised active nonviolence as the truly Christian response to injustice, and in his encyclical Evangelium Vitae (1996) he identifies war as a part of the “culture of death.”

Call to Holiness

One concept Catholics share with Mennonites in a common witness for peace is the “universal call to holiness,” a central tenet of Vatican II. All Christians, not just a select few, by virtue of their baptism are called to sanctify the whole of their lives. A similar belief motivated the radical wing of the Reformation to which the Mennonites belong.

As the Bridgefolk meeting concluded last summer, Saint John’s abbot, John Klassen, O.S.B., led the assembly in lectio divina, a classic monastic way of praying over the Scriptures. In the petitions voiced during the pauses between the Scripture readings, one could sense a longing for holiness. “What really brings us together here,” I thought to myself, “is just this: the yearning for a holy life in community witnessing to an increasingly profane world.”

Among the Bridgefolk participants were two of my former Notre Dame students. One is a Catholic lay member of the staff of a parish in South Bend; the other is a Mennonite educator at the American Studies Program in Washington, D.C., a program of the Council of Christian Colleges and Universities.

The Catholic had been one of my most challenging students. When we first met in my course, “War, Law and Ethics,” his hard questions on issues of war-fighting were so probing, I mistook him for a gung-ho R.O.T.C. student. It turned out he was already deeply committed to nonviolence. Over the years, Jay and I have talked and corresponded, always each other’s most vigorous challenger. In search of community with other peacemakers, he has recently joined the Community of Sant’ Egidio.

The other student, Bret, a modern-day Martin of Tours, became a Mennonite while in Marine Officer Candidate School. Though he had studied with me at Notre Dame, our friendship sprang up only after Sept. 11, 2001, when he called to invite me to participate in a three-way classroom debate on just war and nonviolence. Bret and I were drawn together by a common concern for peace and by understanding that Christian living and rigorous thinking go hand in hand in the call to holiness. We also shared the politically incorrect belief that higher education today ought to continue to be a kind of Christian formation.

For me, Jay and Bret personify today’s Catholic-Mennonite dialogue, whose roots are sunk deep in the church and the believers’ pursuit of holiness. This is not a private search. Even as there is a manifest desire for integrity of life in God’s presence, there is also a deep commitment to the church and public witness to the world.

A drafting committee is expected to meet in March in Strasbourg, France, in hope of concluding a draft report on the first five years of the International Mennonite-Catholic dialogue in preparation for the Mennonite World Assembly in Bulaweyo, Zimbabwe, in August. In June the Catholic peace-building initiative will meet again to expand its agenda, and in July the Bridgefolk will gather at Saint John’s Abbey to explore the interplay of contemplation and action as this year’s focus. Five years after John Howard Yoder’s death, Catholics and Mennonites have begun to become sources of renewal for one another in a holy exchange of gifts he probably never would have expected.

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