What Quakers and Catholics Might Learn from One Another


When I was eight years old living in Atlantic City, New Jersey, Grandmother took me to a large, undecorated room with no chairs but filled with long benches for my first Quaker meeting. With very little instruction except to sit quietly and think about God—not sure what or who that was—I found the silence unbearable. I wiggled and squirmed until Grandmother poked me and told me to be still. Then just before the worship ended, it hit me that none of the grownups had said anything for almost an entire hour! They usually never stopped talking, and here we were in a big room altogether, kids and grownups, not saying anything. I sensed a stillness that was more than silence settling over us. Kids and grownups were all living in a quiet space that left me inwardly energized. Amazing! It became the cornerstone of my Quaker faith.

In 1978, when I was 47, driving home from a Catholic charismatic prayer meeting, I sensed the inner voice of love saying, “I want you to become a Catholic.” I protested I was already a Quaker and didn’t believe in the Virgin Mary, the Pope, and other Catholic core beliefs, but the voice persisted and eventually I was baptized a Roman Catholic. Father Bedoin, my Norbertine mentor, said I might continue in Quaker meeting (at Middletown in Delaware County, Pennsylvania) on Sundays with the family and go to Mass on Saturday: a pattern I’ve roughly followed ever since.

I was raised in a Hicksite Quaker family in Atlantic City and absorbed Quaker concerns for peace and justice at Quaker schools: Westtown, George School, and Haverford College, and later I became a pacifist at an American Friends Service Committee summer workcamp in rural Mexico. That led to working for several years with David Richie in Philadelphia Weekend Workcamps and participating in public demonstrations against racism, poverty, weapons of mass destruction, and most of the wars we’ve been in over the last 50 years. In short, I appreciate the liberal Quaker public witness and our form of worship.

As I look back, what drew me to Catholicism was first of all the inner voice of love, mentioned above. It wasn’t about theology or liking the liturgy but about following that inner voice which has taken me to places I never thought I’d go, including marrying Betty, becoming a pacifist after leaving the Army, and becoming an elementary public school teacher. I’ve had serious contact with other forms of religion: American Indian, Judaism, Buddhism, and Islamic Sufism, but since Quakerism and Catholicism are my two spiritual homes, I’ll share reflections on what I think each might learn from the other.

What Catholics Might Learn from Quakerism

There are three things at least: first, to be led in our public lives by the teachings of Jesus, especially the Sermon on the Mount. No one, Catholics included, is against utilizing the Sermon and Paul’s capsule formulation in 1 Corinthians 13 in private and interpersonal life. It’s the public expression of love (being patient and kind for Paul, and for Jesus, loving enemies) that Catholics might learn from Quakers. They might educate their young to seriously consider becoming peacemakers rather than war supporters or war makers. They might follow their own teaching on peace provided by popes such as John XXIII and Francis, as well as the 1983 U.S. Bishop’s letter which challenged the Just War theory in a nuclear age and favored nonviolence as practiced by Mohandas Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., and Dorothy Day.

Catholics might also learn from Quakers more democratic ways of coming to decisions that affect the whole church. Catholics might adapt certain Quaker decision-making procedures, consensus and clearness committees for example, as a way to reform the entrenched bureaucracy (the Curia and clergy-dominated local dioceses and parishes). Since many Catholics, including Pope Francis, recognize the need to involve the laity (including women) more in the decision-making process, Quaker experience might be useful in pushing this along.

Finally Catholics, who have a long history of valuing quiet prayer in monasteries and elsewhere, might enjoy—and enjoyment is part of worship—the Quaker worship where silence leads to stillness, and stillness often to spontaneous vocal ministry that builds up the whole body. Quaker prophetic ministry might enliven the liturgy of the Mass which is still central to Catholic worship.

What Quakers Might Learn From Catholicism

Despite the autocratic elements in Catholicism, almost all Catholics, conservative, traditional, and progressive (“Vatican II Catholics” as we often call ourselves), experience the church as a mother, i.e., a nurturing presence who welcomes us whatever our sins or shortcomings may be. Quakers I’ve been around don’t dwell much on shortcomings and pretty much reject sin as a useful concept. When I’m in a Catholic church, I feel I can bring my whole self to God. I can grieve or even cry for things I’ve done wrong and for the sins I see around me in the world. If Quakerism is my righteous, prophetic spiritual father, Catholicism is my spiritual mother who loves me despite my personal shortcomings and times of emotional and spiritual confusion. Having Mary as a significant feminine figure in the Catholic tradition, as Carl Jung pointed out, softens Christianity’s often strident, masculine tone. While Jesus is clearly the center of Catholic worship—the Eucharist and the forgiveness of sins are about Jesus, not Mary—I do value the feminine presence of the Divine in Mary. Forgiveness, always from Jesus and not Mary, is built into the ethos of Catholicism. That’s something Quakers might learn from Catholicism: to allow for a wider range of emotional expression in private life and in the meeting for worship. We rely on too much head at times, too little heart.

Second, Quakers might learn from Catholicism and other Christian faith communities to appreciate the essentials of biblical wisdom and Christian history and tradition. To dismiss these two resources because of one’s experience with heavy-handed, Bible-only believers or a repressive church experience in childhood seems not only to cut us off from other Christians, but to limit our spiritual growth as part of the ongoing Judeo-Christian revelation—a revelation which George Fox and early Friends revived in their time. One reason I believe I was open to the Spirit-led Charismatic Movement in the Catholic Church was my inability to connect the lively worship experience of early Friends with my experience in meeting. Quakers might learn from Catholics’ respect for the Bible and their tradition to respect our own Christ-centered or at least Jesus-influenced tradition. We should have no fear that the Quaker Jesus, the Prince of Peace, will speak to us as an angry evangelist. In fact, our Quaker understanding of Jesus is one of the gifts we have to offer the rest of Christianity.

Mentioning Jesus brings us to the third thing Quakers might learn from Catholicism, which is that worship is not only a time of personal meditation and reflection but also a communal sacred event. Many Quakers, but perhaps not enough, experience Quaker worship as I did when a child as a gathered meeting, a sacred event when we were visited by the Power Greater than Ourselves who can do more than we can ask or imagine. The communion that others may see as an outer event—the Eucharist or Last Supper—is for most Christians a moment of mercy when Jesus is present to the entire worshiping body. It’s a time when Catholics not only learn about God (the “Sacrament of the Word”) through Scripture readings, sermons, and prayers, but also receive God’s Spirit transformed in bread and wine into our bodies and souls (the Eucharist or Lord’s Supper). I don’t want to stress the difference here between Quaker and Catholic worship because I know many Christian services have become lifeless and oppressive for many believers. I do think, however, Quakers might come to meeting not just for reflection and meditation but as a time for reflection and worship: a meeting for worship to welcome and honor God, and put ourselves in the presence of the loving God who wants to share God’s love with each one of us and the whole meeting.

John Pitts Corry

John Pitts Corry is a long time member of Middletown Meeting in Lima, Pa., and feels like a member of Albuquerque (N.M.) Meeting during the nine months of each year when he and his wife, Betty, live in Albuquerque. He is also a member of John XXIII Catholic Community in Albuquerque and has a long association with the Norbertines in Paoli, Pa., and Albuquerque.

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