CROSSING THE STREET. By Robert D. LaRochelle. Gonzalez, FL, 2012. 230 pages.
We live in an age when moving from one church or denomination to another is rather common, but that was not always true. As Robert LaRochelle shares with us in this deeply personal account of his own decision to leave the Roman Catholic Church for Protestantism, the divide can be deep and wide. The was a time, not so long ago, when Protestant and Catholic lived across the street from each other and dared not cross over to the other side, even to visit. Indeed, both sides often believed that the other was in league with the devil. Things have changed over the years, especially since Vatican II. There are still significant differences, but Protestant and Catholic seem better able to accept each other as part of the same family, even if their family reunions can be awkward at times. In spite of the rapprochement of recent decades, there still remains much misunderstanding and awkwardness.
Crossing the Street is an invitation to Catholic and Protestant to see each other as family, to appreciate the similarities and the differences. It is a personal testimony of decision by a deeply committed Roman Catholic to cross the street to the Protestant side, while seeking to keep the conversation going across the street. It is an invitation to true ecumenical engagement, even while recognizing significant challenges. It is a reminder too that no religious community is monolithic. Not all Catholics or Protestants are exactly alike. Nor does one’s own personal experience as Protestant or Catholic represent the fullness of either tradition. Understanding these realities allows for building relationships across the boundaries imposed by our traditions. Indeed, since Vatican II at least, there has been significant cross-pollination. That said, there remain significant differences, and they are becoming starker as (in the estimation of this reviewer and I believe the author as well) the Catholic Church retrenches into a more conservative place.
In Crossing the Street, Robert LaRochelle tells his own story of growing up a deeply committed Roman Catholic. He achieved his dream of being the Head Altar Boy, a position that often translated into entering the priesthood, but chose to pursue a teaching career, even as he devoted himself to the religious education ministry of the church. Finally, he decided to pursue ordination as a deacon, a position in the Catholic Church that allowed married members of the church to fulfill many pastoral and even sacramental duties (except consecrating the Eucharist). As a deacon, he saw himself as being theologically orthodox, but pastoral in his application of this theology. In time, however, he found himself doubting many of the doctrines and practices he had embraced as a Catholic, and finding himself increasingly closer to Protestant teachings. For instance, he had come to embrace the ordination of women and the right of priests to marry. Over time, he began to find himself out of step with a church that seemed to be getting increasingly conservative and abandoning the values and principles of Vatican II. With that realization, Bob made the decision to leave the church of his birth and after visiting with a number of different denominations chose the United Church of Christ.
It is from this personal story that Bob LaRochelle invites us to cross the street, to learn from and even worship with our brothers and sisters in the “other” tradition. Even as he shares his own story, as one who has lived in both houses, he shares his own understanding of the beliefs and practices of both. The reader is given the opportunity to see these differences and similarities, so that they can understand why the other believes and practices their faith in the way they do. Bob LaRochelle is a “convert” to Protestantism. He left behind some of the beliefs and practices of the Catholic Church – he believes in the ordination of women, gay marriage, rejects papal infallibility, things one would expect of a United Church of Christ pastor. While fully Protestant, he treasures his Catholic upbringing. This is part of his identity.
One thing I’ve discovered in my own encounters with former Catholics is that something indelible has been placed on them, perhaps through baptism, that marks them, even as Protestants, with a Catholic identity. They may reject their former faith in many ways, but it continues to have a hold on them. This would be true of the author of this book, and the book provides him the opportunity to make sense of this reality, even as he advocates for conversation between Catholic and Protestant.
In the course of the conversations LaRochelle proposes, we as the participants will receive gifts from each other – theologically and practically. In these conversations we will also bear witness to the oneness of Christ’s church. On a pragmatic level, living as we do in a world that is experiencing discord and disunity, especially among followers of Christ, this conversation can offer hope to the world. In addition, the conversation becomes increasingly important with the growing reality of intermarriage. How will these marriages exist spiritually and ecclesially? How will children be raised? Does one simply let one parent decide how the children will be raised? As he raises these questions, LaRochelle wants to raise the possibility that there is a core or center that unites Protestant and Catholic, and that this core can be the foundation for conversation and relationship. Recognizing this core doesn’t mean that one downplays one’s own beliefs and practices that differ, but “instead it both affirms what we have in common and places those commonalities as having a higher place than the differences on any hierarchy of values the unique traditions share in common” (p. 190).
As a Protestant who values highly ecumenical and interfaith engagement, I found the book extremely revealing and helpful. It raises important questions for Christians to wrestle with. It expresses some of the concerns that many of us on the Protestant side have with the current direction being taken by the Catholic hierarchy. There is a feeling on the part of many ecumenically inclined Protestants that the Catholic Church is retrenching and moving away from us. LaRochelle has some of those same concerns, which in part led to his leaving the Catholic Church. As one who embraced the reforms of Vatican II, he finds the current trajectory moving away from those values as well. He served his church for years, believing that there was a new day in place, but the evidence, most recently the attempt to stifle Catholic sisters in the United States, is at best discouraging. Still, he holds out hope for keeping a strong relationship in place. I share his desire to maintain the relationship and to build bridges or rebuild them where necessary so that our unity in Christ might be preserved and strengthened and lived out in service to humanity.
Should you read this book? If you value Christian unity and service to humanity through love of neighbor, then yes, cross the street, pick up the book, and read deeply.