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October 1975 · Vol. 4 No. 4 · pp. 355–65 

The Free Church Tradition and Church Renewal

Sergio Negro

Every time I am invited to participate actively in a program at Pacific College, to appear in a classroom of the Biblical Seminary, to address a group of people who look for the roots of their religious traditions and experience, not just to the Reformation, but to the “radical Reformation,” to the “left-wing of the Reformation,” I marvel at the fact that I, a Roman Catholic priest, am addressing a community gathered under Mennonite sponsorship. And now I speak on the day that marks the four hundred and fiftieth anniversary of one of the main Anabaptist traditions. It does not help at all to remember that Luther placed Catholics on the left; because he located the radicals on the right, and we are still not on the same side! 1 I am filled with wonder and I humbly recognize the mystery of God at work within us, in the saving presence of his Son, and in the power of His Spirit, that has made it possible for us to meet in peace. I humbly give thanks to God our Father for this most precious gift, that Christians, even with profound differences, are able to meet as brothers and sisters.

I am well aware of the distance that I have had to travel personally to reach this kind of moment, this kind of feeling. Until the age of twenty I grew up in the only area of Italy where are to be found sizeable numbers of Protestants, a group descended from the ancient Waldensians. Our encounters were dominated by heated debates and mutual bitterness. Then I came to the United States as a theological student and absorbed a type of mentality that looked upon statistics on the number of converts as one of the signs of growth, vitality, and validity of the Church. And conversion did not mean necessarily a personal turning to God more wholeheartedly or living more totally a sincere Christian life. For the statistics, a convert was a person who had recognized the error of his Protestant ways and had been received as a member of the one true Church. But in the last fifteen years the isolation has been broken, the apologetic and defensive stance has been transformed into an effort to understand and to learn, the antagonisms and the suspicions have given way to an appreciation of the goodness and the beauty to be discovered in another person’s faith experience and Christian perspective. My own process of change is neither isolated nor unique: large number of persons in the Roman {356} Catholic tradition have shared this experience, a number large enough to allow me to say with assurance that the Church itself has changed in this manner, not withstanding the presence of both a right wing and a left wing in the Church that would interpret the present historical situation quite differently.

I would assume that the personal history of many of you here and a history of your communities in recent years would also show some process of change by which attitudes and understandings have been modified in a similar fashion. But this question is best left to someone speaking from within the tradition.

My question is not so much how the changes took place; rather, given the present situation and the changes that have taken place, at what points, in what areas, to what extent can we find a resonance, a presence, an affinity between some of the basic attitudes of the Free Church tradition and the movement of renewal in the Roman Catholic Church.

I will not attempt to discuss specifically the influence of the Anabaptist and Free Church traditions on the renewal of the Church. I don’t know that even a lifetime of study could do justice to this problem. A Catholic source states

The Anabaptist contribution to a voluntaristic view of church and separation of Church and State has been demonstrated. In these matters, Anabaptists have exerted an influence upon Christian thinking in general and Protestant thinking in particular quite out of proportion to their numbers. 2

We can begin with the assumption that the Roman Catholic Church has been challenged and influenced by Anabaptist communities and Free Church traditions. The years of renewal that began with the leadership of Pope John XXIII are witnesses that the challenge is being accepted and the influence is bringing visible results.


Since January 21 is the anniversary of that adult baptism in the house of Felix Manz in Zurich which is widely regarded as the decisive act of Anabaptist beginnings, it seems only appropriate to begin with the question of baptism.

No, the Roman Catholic Church has not changed its practice of baptizing infants, although not long ago an article in U.S. Catholic suggesting that we should stop baptizing infants drew a great deal of positive as well as negative reaction.

But some developments in the theory and practice of sacramental initiation through baptism and confirmation are clear indications of a growing awareness of the need for the free, personal, adult commitment of faith, and of the need to find a way to express and celebrate this commitment.

The official doctrine of the Church as stated, for example, in the {357} documents of the Second Vatican Council insists on the necessity of baptism as the door through which a person enters the Church, a necessity predicated on the notion that the Church itself is necessary for salvation. 3 But subsequent theological developments have begun to modify this understanding of the Church, as we shall see a little later, as well as other doctrines related to the question of the baptisms of infants.

For example, Limbo, that theological construct that described the fate of infants who died without baptism, has become obsolete and is being quietly forgotten. I have not read it or heard it discussed as a valid option for several years. Instead the emphasis has shifted to the mystery of God’s will to save all humankind and the whole of creation and to the power of God’s grace to accomplish his will beyond the limitations of human signs and actions. God’s love and power is not shackled by the structures and limitations of man’s weakness.

Secondly, the concept of original sin is being understood more and more as the reality of being born into a sinful historical situation, being confronted with the challenge of evil, being called to overcome it. Baptism, then, is understood not so much as the washing away of a stain of sin received from our ancestors, but as a sign that man cannot overcome evil and be delivered from his sinfulness by his own power, as a recognition of the need of God’s saving, victorious grace in Jesus Christ, and as a proclamation that God has pledged this grace and gives it in abundance as he shares in man’s struggles and calls man to work with him in the process of establishing the kingdom of peace and justice.

Thirdly, the new rite of infant baptism is focused on the faith of the parents and godparents rather than on the potential faith of the child. The new ceremony has done away with the fiction of the godparents answering questions of Christian commitment and professing the Christian faith in the name of the child. Now parents, godparents, all members of the Christian community who might be present for the celebration of baptism, are asked to proclaim their own faith, to renew their own baptismal covenant and commitment. The celebration of infant baptism has become very clearly a sign of the faith of the parents, of the fact that they belong to a Christian community, of their will to share their faith experience with their child, of their desire that their child be welcomed with them into the community of faith, hope, and love which is the Church. Almost every parish in Fresno has some form of preparation required before infant baptism for the sake of the parents and godparents. Many of us will try to discourage the celebration and at times refuse to participate in it if there is no sign of faith and Christian life in the parents.

Finally, after more than four hundred years, the Roman Catholic Church is beginning to heed Schwenckfeld’s suggestion: “If you won’t agree to eliminate infant baptism, at least there should be set a {358} ceremony by which the baptized children, when they have reached the right age, will be dedicated to Christianity.” 4 The pastoral practice of the Church has moved in the direction of making the sacrament of confirmation this ceremony. By and large we have stopped confirming all young people in the seventh or eight grade. We are suggesting that they wait several years, until the time when they will be ready to make a personal, free serious commitment of faith to Christ and to a life of true discipleship.

We are in a period of transition. We are faced with confusion, uncertainly, ambiguity, conflicting ideas and practices. But I am convinced that the challenges of the Free Church tradition have been a major factor in the rethinking of baptism and adult faith, and I am convinced that the Church has still much more to learn from the Anabaptist tradition on the meaning of discipleship.


Whether one views baptism as the sign of adult faith and the experience of new life or as the entrance door to the community of salvation, it is obvious that the concept of the Church is intimately related to our understanding of baptism. John Yoder has written that the most striking feature of Conrad Grebel’s letter to Thomas Muentzer was, “The totally new concept of the Church.” 5

This totally new concept of the Church has been variously described as the “voluntary church,” the “believers’ church,” a “fellowship of disciples of Christ sharing common faith, and under a common Lord helping one another achieve the fulness of abundant life which the Saviour came to bring,” “a brotherhood of love.” 6 This concept was totally new by contrast with the notion of Christendom of Medieval times, the view of the church as co-extensive with the political state, pervasive of all social and cultural life, and in absolute control of all religious life in union with the State.

There are contemporary expressions and forms of this ancient understanding of the Church. In the encyclical letters Mystici Corporis (1949) and Humanis Generis (1950) by Pope Pius XII the Church is presented as

a hierarchically structured institution, founded by Christ to communicate the fruits of the redemption to all mankind. The Church exists to save people, and it is the normal or ordinary means of their salvation. It is Christ’s very Body, and as such it is at the center of everything. All men must come to terms with it. The Church is God’s agent in the world, and the world’s only real hope of getting to God. 7

As late as last May (1974) the Pope and Italian bishops became involved in a political struggle to repeal by referendum the divorce law in Italy because they believed that a Christian nation should defend the sacredness of the family by law. They lost. This year in {359} Italy a battle is shaping up on the issue of legal abortion and ultimately on the issue of the Concordat between Church and State. I feel that these are the last attempts to preserve the medieval concept of the Church. I doubt that these efforts will be successful; I doubt that the Medieval Church will survive in our historical situation. And this statement has no relationship to my personal convictions on divorce or abortion.

In the documents of the Second Vatican Council we still find expressions of the traditional view of the Church, but the Council did advance the understanding of the Church “beyond the uncritical notion that the Church is a visible hierarchically structured organization which exists to save people.” 8 The point of departure for the theology of the Church in Vatican II is quite different. The Church is mystery, sacrament, and pilgrim community before it is institution and organization. It is the mystery of the Lord’s merciful presence among men, the sign of the visible presence of Christ in the world, and the people of God in pilgrimage through history, on the move towards an ultimate goal and not already arrived and settled in a perfect order. Morever, the concept of Church and ecclesial community is extended in the documents of Vatican II to include all other Christian denominations.

But theology following Vatican II, now with a different starting point and a more biblical perspective, has advanced beyond the official statements. One of the best authors in this area is Richard P. McBrien. His thesis is that the main problem in the traditional view of the Church was the identification of the Church with the Kingdom of God: this is what absolutized the Church and made it the center of all life and history. McBrien’s theology insists that the Church and the Kingdom are separate, that the Church must be seen as subordinated to the Kingdom, that the Kingdom is the only absolute, and that the Church must be understood as a function of the Kingdom. This view accepts fully the diaspora condition, the minority status, of the Christian Church. All men are called to the Kingdom of God, but all men are not called to be members of the Church. The Kingdom happens wherever and whenever a person does the will of the Father that we should love one another as he has loved us in Christ. The Church happens whenever and wherever individuals accept the special call, the special election, to be Christian. This is not a call to privilege or to the assurance of salvation, but to responsibility and mission.

Men are elected by God to become affiliated with the Christian community so that they might share the task of giving explicit witness to what has happened, what is happening and what will happen in history. The Christian is the one who must publicly attest to his faith in the Lordship of Christ, that all human life and history makes sense because Jesus is Risen. And the Christian {360} community has the unique responsibility of announcing this fact to the world, of committing itself to the task of bringing about the Kingdom of God here and now, and of showing others what it really means to live in Christ. 9

The first function of the Church, then is to proclaim the Kingdom of God in Jesus Christ; secondly, to be a sign, a sacrament, of the possibility and of the limited realization of the Lord’s Kingdom of justice and peace.

I would suspect that sixteenth century Anabaptists and their modern descendants would find themselves more at ease with this understanding of the Church than with the Church of Trent, of Zwingli, of Calvin, or of Luther. At least I see some solid ground for dialogue and understanding.

I would like to mention briefly an important corollary of the theology of the Church just described. By deemphasizing the structural, institutional, aspects of the Church and by giving prominence to the concept of the mystery of God’s saving presence and of pilgrim people, the hierarchical aspects, the vertical pyramid of power and authority are challenged and brought more into proper proportion. The result is the emergence of a new sense of the essential and primary role of the lay people in the Church. The starting point is the biblical attitude that there is one Lord and the rest of us are brethren, and it is only out of this brotherhood and basic equality that some are chosen to serve the community in special ways.

Two developments deserve special attention. The first is the importance of the local congregation and the leadership role exercised there by the lay people. There is a growing awareness that the Church begins with the local parish community. There is a growing acceptance of local and lay control through the establishment of parish councils. I must confess that the growth is slow and haphazard and fraught with difficulties. A conservative retrenching would quickly reverse the trend and destroy all progress. In this area we really need to learn and profit from your experience and that of other free Churches.

The second development is an explicit and strong recognition of the priesthood of all the faithful, of “the priestly dignity of all who through faith and baptism share in the priesthood of Christ.” 10 In the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church of the Second Vatican Council we read about the laity that “besides intimately associating them with His life and His mission, Christ also gives them a share in His priestly function of offering spiritual worship for the glory of God and the salvation of men.” 11

In another passage it is stated: “Though they differ from one another in essence and not only in degree, the common priesthood of the faithful and the ministerial or hierarchical priesthood are {361} nonetheless interrelated. Each of them in its own way is a participation in the priesthood of Christ.” 12

I have some difficulties with the statement that the priesthood of the faithful and the ministerial priesthood are different in essence. If both are a participation in the one priesthood of Christ, on what basis can an essential distinction be made? Is not the essence that one priesthood of Jesus Christ which is shared by both the lay persons and the ordained priest? I would like to suggest that we must take the next logical step and abandon this distinction of essence and rather speak of a difference of function, a difference of relationship between the priesthood of all believers and the ministerial priesthood. Since priestly ordination is a sacrament, therefore, in the category of sign, I would prefer to see my priesthood, the ministerial priesthood, as the concrete sign, the historically visible sign of the one priesthood of Christ shared by all. I would prefer to understand myself, the ordained priest, as the one who stands in the midst of the Christian community as the sacramental sign, the visible reminder of the priestly character and priestly functions that are the gift and the task of every Christian.


The voluntary Church cannot depend on the secular state for either support or protection, and the free believer brings with him by his very presence, as well as by his theory, the demand for religious liberty. Some of the early Anabaptists kept themselves apart from the political structures of their time by refusing to participate in government and its judicial system, to participate in war, and to take an oath, especially the oath of allegiance to the state. Some of the early Anabaptists proclaimed the need of religious freedom and experienced its denial even to the point of martyrdom. This was the continental beginning of the slow and painful movement towards the separation of Church and State and the historical realization of religious liberty which eventually would reverse the union of Church and State begun with the Constantinian church.

The relationship between continental Anabaptists and the free churches in England has not been fully established, and consequently also the link between Anabaptism and the “lively experiment” of disestablishment and constitutionally guaranteed religious freedom in America remains problematic. We need only to say, however, that the Free Church position was a major factor in the success of the American separation of Church and State and that the ideal of religious freedom embodied in the First Amendment is in the same line of development as that which began with the Anabaptist principles.

I want to use the American historical experience because it offers a unique example of doctrinal development within the Roman Catholic {362} Church precisely on the question of separation of Church and State. I can only give you a sketchy outline, hoping that it will be sufficient to illustrate the main points.

The Roman Catholic Church in America found itself in a minority situation and with very little influence during the colonial period. It had no choice at all but to accept the historical situation of the disestablished and voluntary churches as the result of the First Amendment. But church leaders realized very soon the advantages of religious liberty. The research of John Tracy Ellis has shown that the American hierarchy has accepted and supported the First Amendment from John Carroll, the first bishop, to the present, without a single exception. 13 As the years passed and the Roman Catholic Church in America found itself prospering and growing, its leaders became more and more enthusiastic about separation and liberty. By the second half of the nineteenth century a strong and influential group of American-Irish bishops were beginning to extol the glories of the American system, to present it as an ideal solution, and to predict that it would become the norm for the rest of the world.

But it must be remembered that at the same time the official doctrine proclaimed by the Popes was exactly the opposite. The nineteenth century Roman Church was part of the reactionary attempt to preserve absolute monarchies, to stem the tide of nationalism and liberalism.

In 1832 Pope Gregory XVI wrote in the encyclical Mirari Vos:

From this poisonous spring of indifferentism flows the false and absurd, or rather the mad principle that we must secure and guarantee to each one liberty of conscience; this is one of the most contagious of errors: it smoothes the way for that absolute and unbridled freedom of thought, which, to the ruin of Church and State, is now spreading everywhere . . . 14

And in 1864 Pope Pius IX published the encyclical letter Quanta Cura with the more famous, or infamous, Syllabus of Errors as an appendix. Among the many ideas it condemned was the naturalism that sees human society and its government without reference to religion and seeks to promote the secularization of society, the separation of Church and State, freedom of the press, equality of all religions before the law, and total freedom of conscience.

In 1895 Pope Leo XIII, while recognizing that the American pattern of separation and religious freedom did allow the Church to live and act without hindrance, warned that it would be erroneous to draw the conclusion that the American situation represented “the most desirable status of the Church, or that it would be universally lawful or expedient for State and Church to be, as in America, dissevered and divorced.” 15

Much more evidence could be summoned to show that while the {363} American Catholic hierarchy was praising separation of Church and State and religious liberty, three popes in succession were either condemning these ideas or were tolerating them out of practical considerations for the Church in the United States. With the condemnation of Americanism by Pope Leo XIII (1899, Testem Benevolentiae), and of Modernism by Pope Pius X (1907, Lamentabili; Pascendi Dominici Gregis) the American voices became more subdued and limited to the praising of the practical advantages of the American solution for the particular situation of pluralism prevailing in the United States.

But the question was far from settled. In 1953 we find Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani, from the Holy Office, voicing strong opposition to the views of an American Jesuit, John Courtney Murray, who advocated the theory that religious freedom is not just a matter of toleration or accommodation to adverse circumstances but rather the ideal solution to the question of the relationship between Church and State. 16 In 1962 the same Ottaviani prevented the same John Courtney Murray from attending the first session of the Second Vatican Council as a theological expert. But the following year Murray was in Rome and, with the strong backing of all the American bishops at the Council, he became the main force and principal author of the Council’s Declaration of Religious Freedom, promulgated on December 7, 1965. The second paragraph states:

This Vatican Synod declares that the human person has a right to religious freedom. This freedom means that all men are to be immune from coercion on the part of individuals or of social groups and of any human power, in such a wise that in matters religious no one is to be forced to act in a manner contrary to his own beliefs. Nor is anyone to be restrained from acting in accordance with his own beliefs whether privately or publicly, whether alone or in association with others. 17

To you, the spiritual heirs of the Anabaptist struggle for freedom, this statement may appear to be long overdue and too late in coming. But I submit it to you in all humility, as one following in the steps that others took 450 years ago. And I submit it as a significant theological development only in order to ask: would the Roman Catholic Church have arrived at this recognition of the validity and necessity of full religious freedom without the American historical experience? And would the American experience have been possible without the influence and the strong presence of the Free Churches?

And the issue of freedom is not yet completely settled. The Vatican II Declaration only deals with the relationship of the Church to the State and to other religious bodies and with the freedom of the individual conscience from political coercion. There remains the whole thorny area of freedom within the Church, the demand of the fullest {364} kind of respect for the individual conscience by Church authority and Church laws towards its members. To mention only a few items, I have reference to such things as clerical celibacy, obligation of attendance at Sunday Mass, excommunication and denial of the sacraments to Catholics who are divorced and remarried, territorial boundaries for local parish membership, and others. Some informal and tentative steps are being proposed and unofficially tried. The problem of maintaining a good balance between the need for discipline within the community and the demand of the Christian’s freedom of conscience is a delicate and critical one. It seems to me that the first step should be the willingness to renounce any and all forms of coercion in dealing with one another as members of the Christian community, whether one is an ordained priest or a lay person, a bishop or pope. The only proper method for Christians to exercise leadership in the community and to influence one another should be the force of persuasion and the power of the example of one’s faithful life. I know that this is an ideal not easily attained, but I would ask that at least it be accepted as an ideal and that we begin to move towards it.


The free adult commitment of faith, the voluntary church as a community of believers, the priesthood of the faithful, the separation of church and State, and religious liberty are some of the areas where the traditions of the Free Church have come alive in the doctrine and in the practice of the Roman Catholic Church. There are others. The process of reform and renewal begun by Vatican II and subsequent developments have introduced at a conscious and explicit level most of the basic concerns of the Free Church tradition. Ultimately, however, council documents and theological discussions must take on flesh in the local community and in the life of Christian men and women. Father Daniel O’Hanlon, S.J., one of the pioneers in the ecumenical dialogue, writes

If bishops, parish priests and their congregations, theologians and seminarians will enter into an ongoing exchange with Christians of the Free Church tradition, sharing together in prayer and worship as far as possible, in dialogue, and in pastoral tasks for each other and for the world, they will find a continuing source of the stimulation they genuinely need. 18

I know this to be true; I have experienced it in my own life, even here with you. I am truly grateful and I hope that I will continue to have an opportunity to learn about the meaning of my own faith and my religious tradition, and, above all, of our common Christian inheritance and vocation, through a better and deeper understanding of your faith experience and of your Christian traditions.

May I leave you with a question? Is there anything that I can give you in return? Is there anything in the Roman Catholic Christian tradition that you might be able to accept, to appropriate, to make your own for your own enrichment, for our mutual joy, and for the sake of God’s Kingdom in the world?


  1. See Roland H. Bainton, Studies on the Reformation (Boston: Beacon Press, 1963), p. 119.
  2. New Catholic Encyclopedia (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1967), Vol. I, p. 460.
  3. See Walter M. Abbott, ed., The Documents of Vatican II (Angelus Book, New York: Guild Press, 1966), p. 32.
  4. Quoted in Daniel J. O’Hanlon, “What Can Catholics Learn From the Free Churches?”, Concilium, Vol. 14, 1966, p. 97.
  5. Quoted in William Klassen, “The Anabaptist Dissent: Swiss Origins and Issues,” Radical Reformation Reader, Concern Pamphlet No. 18, p. 50.
  6. Harold S. Bender, “The Mennonite Conception of the Church and Its Relation to Community Building,” Concern Pamphlet No. 18, p. 24.
  7. Richard P. McBrien, Do We Need the Church? (New York: Harper and Row, 1969). p. 109.
  8. Ibid, p. 151.
  9. Ibid, p. 172.
  10. O’Hanlon, op.cit., p. 100.
  11. Paragraph 34. Abbott, ed., Documents of Vatican II, p. 60.
  12. Paragraph 10. Ibid., p. 27.
  13. See John Tracy Ellis, American Catholicism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1955), p. 155.
  14. Denzinger (1946), #1613, p. 447.
  15. Longiqua Oceani—Quoted in Richard J. Regan, S. J., American Pluralism and the Catholic Conscience, (New York: The Macmillan Co., 1963), p. 52.
  16. See, Regan, Ibid., p. 62.
  17. Abbott, ed., Documents of Vatican II, p. 678.
  18. O’Hanlon, op.cit., p. 103.
The Rev. Sergio Negro, M.A., Th.D. is the Pastor of St. Paul’s Parish and is Diocesan Director of the Newman Apostolate. Both serve the community of California State University, Fresno.

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