Richard B. Steele, PhD
Professor of Moral and Historical Theology
Associate Dean of Graduate Theological Studies
School of Theology, Seattle Pacific University

November 26, 2014

When I was in the sixth grade, a classmate named Billy Finke attempted to befriend me. Billy was unpopular. As far as I knew, he was entirely friendless. He was socially awkward and didn’t bathe regularly – kids called him “Stinky Finke.” I wasn’t personally drawn to him, but truth be told, I was also afraid that if I was known as Billy’s friend, my own popularity would suffer. So after one or two play dates, I stopped responding to his invitations. I probably didn’t say two words to him over the next six years. I had become popular, in a modest and shaky way, but he was still “Stinky Finke.”

Our senior year finally came, and every member of the graduating class had to have a photo taken for the yearbook and write a short blurb to accompany it. The yearbook appeared a week before commencement day, and we graduates spent that week securing “signatures” from our friends and mocking the pictures and inscriptions of those who didn’t belong to our own social circles. At one point I noticed Billy’s picture. But my snooty grin soon froze on my face as I read his message: “I go my way silently and bother no one.”

For me, this was a moment of moral revelation, for I knew that I was partly responsible for the terrible isolation Billy was subjected to, and I certainly lacked the quiet courage that he had somehow mustered to deal with it. I was deeply ashamed of my callousness and cowardice, and vowed never again to turn my back on anyone who sought my friendship. I haven’t perfectly kept that vow, but I’ve never dispensed myself from it, and God willing, I never shall.

I suspect that most of us know what it’s like to be excluded, and to feel shame over the reasons for our exclusion, or bitterness toward those who exclude us, or both. And hopefully we gradually overcome not only the shame and bitterness of being excluded, but more importantly, the truly shameful and embittering tendency to exclude others from the social circles to which we belong. Inclusiveness is a mark of psychosocial maturity in a person, and fearlessly insisting that public institutions practice them toward outsiders is a mark of moral courage and spiritual depth. Nothing in what follows should be taken to deny any of this.

Nevertheless, I want to draw a careful distinction between “inclusiveness” and what Christians have long called “catholicity,” and I want to register a caution against what I think is the common error of taking the former as an up-to-date—and perhaps socially preferable—way of saying what our Christian ancestors meant by the latter. It’s not. No doubt there is much overlap in the semantic fields described by the two terms, respectively, and that overlap is partly responsible for how easily we confound them. But the distinction is real and, I believe, critical.

Inclusiveness is the disposition to welcome the other as other—in his or her particularity and uniqueness, irrespective of any personal characteristics that might be deemed disagreeable, unacceptable or repulsive, and irrespective of his or her membership in any social, political, cultural, ethnic or linguistic group that might be deemed inferior or potentially dangerous to our own. It is, as I say, a mark of maturity, moral virtue, and spiritual depth, both in individuals and in groups. In contrast, catholicity is a theological fact about the universal scope of Christ’s sovereignty. Etymologically, the word “catholic” means “according to the whole,” and to affirm the catholicity of the church is to assert the wholeness of Christ’s family—a wholeness that mysteriously stretches across the centuries and throughout the world, embracing all who are baptized in his name. By faith we affirm the reality of something that is, to our shame, belied by the historical and sociological evidence.

Put sharply, the church must become fully inclusive precisely because it already is truly catholic. But the church does not cease to be catholic when it fails to be inclusive, and the church does not magically become catholic only when and only to the extent that it succeeds in being fully inclusive. Divine realities do not depend on human intentions and performances—as we would be mistakenly implying if we imagined that the catholicity of the Body of Christ was somehow equivalent to or dependent upon the inclusiveness of the institutional church.

What’s more, the fact of the church’s catholicity must sometimes qualify the manner in which it practices the virtue of inclusiveness. For example, it may have to ban certain persons from ecclesiastical office or exclude them from participation in certain sacraments. This is not because it has any right or reason to set limits to the Savior’s grace. It most certainly does not! But the church is responsible for affirming that the Savior respects the freedom of everyone to reject his grace and disobey his laws—that is, in effect, to exclude themselves from fellowship in the earthly community that bears his name and performs his mission. Of course, the exclusion of anyone from office or communion must only be done reluctantly, advisedly, with great fear and trembling, and in deep penitence for the fact we Christians constantly fall short of our calling.

Let me illustrate this point, and close this post, with another story. Many years ago, I made a weeklong retreat at a Trappist monastery near Dubuque, Iowa. Eucharist was celebrated daily, and I blithely approached the altar on the first three days of my stay. After Eucharist on the third day, the guest master asked for a moment of my time. He told me, with tears in his eyes and a quaver in his voice, that several of the older monks weren’t sure that visiting Protestants should be receiving the Blessed Sacrament, and the resident Archbishop would be very displeased to learn that the monastery was serving them. He asked me to abstain from communion during the remainder of my stay.

It was clear that his request hurt him more than it hurt me—and the pain he evidently felt taught me the difference between catholicity and inclusiveness. The dogmatic impossibility of admitting schismatics into Eucharistic fellowship placed limits on the way the monastery obeyed St. Benedict’s injunction to welcome all visitors as Christ himself (Rule of St. Benedict, chapter 53). Needless to say, as a Methodist, I personally disagree with that particular aspect of the Roman Catholic understanding of catholicity, and regard the Eucharistic fellowship as a means by which unity among divided Christians is established, not as a reflection of a juridical unity that must already exist. Nevertheless, my “excommunication” was a deeply moving reminder to me that the theological indicative of catholicity must not be confused with the moral imperative of inclusiveness, and that our devotion to the former must shape our exercise of the latter—even if it sometimes hurts us and offends others.

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