Blog Template Theology of the Body: Why Jeffrey Steenson Became a Catholic

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Why Jeffrey Steenson Became a Catholic

Jeffrey Steenson, former Episcopalian bishop of the Rio Grande, was received with a great deal of joy into the Catholic Chrch in September 2007. Steenson shared his thoughts on his conversion at this summer's Anglican Use Conference. Here is an attempted synopsis, as assembled from my notes-

At the outset, Steenson explained his conversion in this way: when we listen to our conscience, we can hear God speaking. This theme of conscience pervaded throughout Steenson's address.

Steenson explained his conversion according to the categories of causality.

The material cause of Steenson’s conversion was a set of convictions: first, that the Catholic Church is not just one option among many, nor even the best deal for a catholically minded Christian; rather, it is itself the fullness of Christ's blessing of the world by the Church. As Lumen Gentium VIII puts it, God's grace flows from the Catholic Church into the lives of communities, families, and individuals; it is not evenly distributed among various sects from the outset. In other words, it became clear that "catholic" Anglicanism is not sui generis.

Secondly, it became clear that to be Catholic is not to enjoy a conglomeration of antique parts of the Christian tradition, but rather, to be in communion with one- the one installed by Jesus to reflect properly and accurately the Church's ultimate communion with her one Lord.

Finally, it had become clear that an Episcopalian could no longer presume to say 'the Church teaches' while remaining personally in a community that prioritizes personal and provisional answers- and, occasionally, a sense of agreement discerned in community- over the priority of the truth itself. Anglicanism has repeatedly cut itself off from the Catholic tradition which had preserved Christ's truth in continuity with the apostles.

On this note, Steenson added that "communion with Peter is an illuminating experience," meaning (as we have said before) that obedience often proceeds understanding; to say that one must understand and intellectually assent fully and perfectly to the Catholic Church before submitting to her is to ignore such early patristic injunctions as that of Irenaeus of Lyons: it is a matter of necessity that every Church should agree with this Church, on account of her pre- eminent authority; that is, by the faithful every- where, inasmuch as the apostolical tradition has been preserved continuously by those faithful men who exist everywhere.

The formal cause of Steenson’s conversion was the realization that his conscience was being compromised by remaining in Episcopalianism; but at this point, as though there was no need to state the obvious, Steenson simply went on to re- emphasize the finding of the moral authority that he had always sought as an Episcopalian. As various ARCIC statements have expressed, authority and even primacy are necessary for real communion; and yet there is no primatial oversight in Episcopalianism. Thus, given that primacy is necessary, why would anyone settle for less than the real thing? Why not Peter for the most critical concerns of the human life?

Finally, Steenson described the efficient cause of his conversion as the growing awareness that the Anglican identity which he had embraced was itself dependent on ancient memories which invested the tradition with its meaning and worth from the outside; Anglicanism, which is not sui generis, originated in the Catholic Church, and Anglicanism belongs to Rome, historically and derivately. In other words, Anglicanism is intrinsically oriented towards its proper place in the Catholic Church; as stated in Lumen Gentium, the elements of grace enjoyed by every Christian community properly belong to the Catholic Church, and they impel towards unity with her. For Steenson, the final push for his conversion came with the recognition that the voluntary associations of the Anglican/ECUSA/etc. bishops, who were steering their communion towards so- called “prophetic actions and local options” which smacked of sin, had clearly lost even their interior dynamic towards Catholic unity. In short, this growing awareness awakened for Steenson a need to be properly secured in the tradition from which he- as an Anglican- had come in the first place. At this point, Steenson asked that if even the maximal Anglican measures could not preserve a semblance of the unity which Christ requires of His Church, such that external measures and outside sources were needed to preserve unity… why not Rome?

Steenson concluded with some touching thoughts on the failures of the branch theory of the Church and the movements of the Holy Spirit in the world following the death of John Paul II. He called on his friends in ECUSA to listen to their consciences, and to consider why the Anglican conscience is perpetually conflicted. He called on Episcopalians to recall the joy of living with an integrated conscience, and to live accordingly within Christ’s Catholic Church. And, he urged us all to remember that in the midst of Anglican wrangling, conference-attending, reconciliation-attempting, dialogue engaging, etc., the Church really does not need to be re-invented; it’s already been done.