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MICHAEL MCGOUGH

A more tolerant 'one true church'

September 12, 2005|MICHAEL MCGOUGH

Sitting in the media section at Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist's funeral -- a Lutheran service performed in the Roman Catholic Cathedral of St. Matthew in Washington, D.C. -- I flashed back to a rite that took place nearly 40 years ago in the capital's other citadel of Catholicism, the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception.

On Aug. 6, 1966, that was the venue for the wedding of Luci Baines Johnson, daughter of the Protestant president of the United States, and Air Force enlisted man Patrick Nugent. In 1966, I was 14, a political junkie and a Catholic acutely conscious of belonging to a religious minority. The president's daughter had converted to Catholicism the year before (another one for our side!).

By then, we'd already had a Catholic president, but the "otherness" of Catholics hadn't been wiped away. Not that suspicions didn't work both ways. As I well knew, Catholics typically didn't darken the doors of Protestant churches (like the Episcopal church across the street from my parish church) or vice versa.

When Luci joined the Catholic Church, she was "conditionally" rebaptized, on the then-current Catholic theory that christenings in other churches were of dubious validity. That sacramental do-over had angered Protestants (Time magazine reported the story under the headline "Baptism of Fire").After the wedding, Senate Minority Leader Everett Dirksen was interviewed on TV and sought to reassure his fellow Protestants that Roman Catholic rituals weren't as occult and un-American as they might have feared. He had been provided with a guide to the wedding service, and it was easy to follow! I remember being offended that a politician would feel it necessary to explain that my religion, the religion of President Kennedy, wasn't all that bizarre.

Thirty-nine years later, the decision of the Rehnquist family to hold the chief justice's funeral in a Catholic cathedral -- and the archdiocese's gracious offer of that sacred space -- occasioned relatively little comment. And the Rev. Dr. George Evans, the Rehnquist family pastor, appeared to be utterly at ease in St. Matthew's.

What happened? The easy answer is that everybody is more ecumenical these days. No longer, as in Tom Lehrer's song about National Brotherhood Week, do "the Protestants hate the Catholics, and the Catholics hate the Protestants." Anti-Catholicism has waned as American Catholics have entered not just the mainstream but the elite. (If John G. Roberts Jr. is confirmed as Rehnquist's successor, the Supreme Court will include three Catholic Harvard Law School graduates.)

But more is involved than religious "diversity training" or the fact that an office Catholic-basher now runs the risk of offending his boss. The overriding reason for declining anti-Catholicism is that the Roman Catholic Church has changed, largely as a result of the Second Vatican Council and the ecumenical movement the council energized.

On any Sunday, the services in U.S. Lutheran, Episcopal and Roman Catholic churches are virtually indistinguishable (though in Lutheran and Episcopal churches the celebrant of the Eucharist may be a woman). This convergence is partly the result of a rediscovery by churches of the Reformation of rituals once associated with "popery." But it mostly reflects the post-Vatican II translation of the Mass from Latin into the vernacular -- common English, in the United States -- and a greater role in worship for lay people.

It also reflects erosion in the notion, dear to Catholics in the 1950s, that theirs was the "one true church" and that Protestants were heretics. True, the Vatican has sent mixed messages on this one: As head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger in 2000 gave us "Dominus Iesus," a document that asserted that Protestant churches were "not churches in the proper sense." But the future Pope Benedict XVI was also instrumental in a 1999 joint statement in which the Vatican and the Lutheran World Federation reached agreement on the historically divisive doctrine of "justification by faith."

But actions speak louder than words, and Rome has accompanied conciliatory words with new policies. For instance, the "conditional" rebaptism of converts is rare. These days Christians christened in other churches join the Catholic Church in a rite initiated by Pope Paul VI in 1972.

Anti-Catholicism -- especially of the sort that penalized Catholics in civic life because of their religious beliefs -- was no more justifiable before the Second Vatican Council and its attendant reforms than it is now. But it would be naive for American Catholics -- including politically conservative Catholics who make common cause with evangelical Protestants on such issues as abortion -- to think they would be as welcome in government and politics as they are had there been no Vatican II. A Lutheran chief justice's funeral in a Catholic cathedral would not have been a ho-hum affair in the days when Catholics thought of Protestants as heretics and looked askance at their baptisms.

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