Deal breakers in the quest for religious unity and evangelization

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Mar 11, 2016

In my series on the relationship between the quest for religious unity and evangelization, I touched only lightly on two particular issues which very much affect how we ought to approach both activities. The first issue is the balance on our part between openness and risk; the second is the balance on the other party’s part between cultural conformity and commitment to God. These two issues color—or ought to color—all efforts to promote religious unity and all efforts to evangelize.

The Dangers of Outreach

One of the more peculiar aspects of the rise of ecumenism and the broader quest for mutual religious understanding following the Second Vatican Council was the suddenness with which the Church went from discouraging to encouraging spiritual interaction with those of other faiths. There had been a very clear perception of the dangers of friendly spiritual involvement with non-Catholics at least since the Protestant Revolt in the sixteenth century; an emphasis on these risks was a constant feature of the Catholic culture shaped by the Counter-Reformation, and it was still very much a part of my own boyhood (I was born in 1948).

The fear, of course, was that a friendly exposure to other religions (particularly the various forms of Protestantism, which were omnipresent in many Western nations) could pose a danger to ill-prepared lay persons, who might be led away from the Church. This was, after all, a Church which tended to leave significant study of the Faith to the “professionals” (the clergy). There can be no doubt that the overwhelming majority of lay people were grossly unprepared for any sort of spiritual exchange with non-Catholics. In fairness, however, we should also note that the strictest rules of that era applied to participation in the formal worship of other religious groups, and to the question of mixed marriage—two matters which, though we may no longer be aware of it, have not lost (and will never lose) their importance.

Still, there was a strong Catholic cultural caution against the dangers of being seduced through the exploration of religious issues which one was incompetent to address. This concern may have been excessive in, say, 1950, but in the 1960s the opposite emphasis on openness and unity certainly contributed to the wreckage that the previous policy had, in its own primitive way, largely avoided. The Second Vatican Council unveiled a more complete understanding of the relationship of the Church to other religions, and of Catholics to other Christians, at precisely the moment when the larger secular culture had begun to view all of these divisions as both foolish and damaging. And over the next few decades, Church leaders evinced no more concern about spiritual danger in this area than they did in any other.

As I mentioned above, the shift in attitude was very sudden. It was also somewhat euphoric, and it was often driven hardest by those who considered the main problem to be how wrong the Church was about so many things. Looking back, who can honestly question now that this sudden and ill-prepared shift urged upon the Catholic faithful—even when rooted in perfectly valid principles—was one of several factors leading to the crisis of Faith and the decline of the Church in the second half of the century?

Care and Preparation

The great point of all this is simple: Precisely because a close and positive spiritual interaction with those who hold erroneous beliefs is in fact dangerous, a proper preparation is essential. But a proper preparation is exactly what most people, even today, simply do not have. One deficiency of the way the quest for religious unity and ecumenism unfolded in practice in the last thirty-five years of the twentieth century was the colossal carelessness about proper instruction, about authentic Catholic renewal, and about the immense gifts Catholics had received—gifts that must be shared but never lost.

This discussion reminds me of something I learned when studying Catholic reform in the Renaissance period, before the Protestant Revolt, particularly in fifteenth-century Italy. A young Christian humanist, Marsiglio Ficino, excitedly asked the Archbishop of Florence whether he could study all of the newly-rediscovered pagan works of the Greeks and Romans. The Archbishop (Saint Antoninus) replied: “Yes, but first you must read the writings of St. Thomas against the errors of the gentiles.”

In a recent comment on Pope Francis’ historic meeting with Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill, in considering the impact of that meeting on Catholics in Ukraine, I wrote “it is often the case that Catholics struggling to uphold their Faith feel ignored when major attention is given to ecumenical efforts, which so often seem to minimize the importance of the contested truths which Catholics are bound to hold dear.” A hasty process can put those who are ill-prepared in danger and weaken the resolve (if that were possible) even of the elect (cf. Mt 24:24).

More broadly, in the absence of widespread sound catechesis within the Church herself, an emphasis on religious unity and ecumenism will inevitably contribute to both error and bewilderment. I do not mean to suggest that the Church should not pursue one good while she is weak with respect to another. Following that axiom, nothing would ever be accomplished. But a recognition of risk is necessary, and counter measures should be part of the overall approach. Responsible Catholic leaders must not ignore the critical balance between openness and risk.

The Dangers of Cultural Conformity

In the fourth installment of this series (The essential posture of evangelization: We are all adopted), I briefly mentioned a key principle:

Successful work [for religious unity / ecumenism] presupposes the willingness of all parties to give up the false attractions of the world, and to look seriously at those elements of the true and the good which the world deliberately obscures…. Little good can come from engaging those who are hiding from God under cultural canards.

We encounter this problem each and every day in the contemporary West. Huge numbers of people, ably represented in both politics and the media, continually seek to change their “spirituality” (and ours!) to accommodate the prevailing secular culture. Only a relative few take their own religious faith seriously enough to believe it is the standard by which our culture must be judged. The cultural mainstream today represents the essence of secularism—a worldly accommodation of all transcendent values to the dominant prejudices of the particular age in which we live.

The obvious danger posed by secularism is that it is not possible for a Catholic (or, indeed, any other legitimately religious person) to reach any sort of “religious unity” with secularists as long as they remain secularists, regardless of their nominal religious adherence. Nor is it possible to have fruitful ecumenical discussions with nominal Christians who are, in fact, merely secularists with a self-congratulatory or vaguely comforting spiritual veneer. This applies even within the Church herself.

I do not say that those who find themselves locked into a secular outlook may not be drawn to something better. What I assert is that neither the quest for religious unity nor the work of evangelization can bear fruit among those who refuse to admit the claims of principles and causes which transcend the spirit of the age.

A Critical Discernment

The existence of a proper disposition must be clearly discerned by those who engage in the quest for religious unity (a quest which can be completed only through evangelization). The Catholic who is at heart a secularist, no matter how attached he or she claims to be to the Faith, is automatically disqualified for the rigors of both ecumenism and evangelization. And a “target group” for such efforts admits no possibility for success if it is composed of persons for whom worldly accommodation is the rule of life.

Heaven knows that we ought to make common cause with all of our neighbors in those matters in which their goals are right and just. This too can be an occasion of collaboration and even friendship, but it hardly rises to the level of the quest for religious unity generally, and still less to ecumenism among Christians. Not even a preparation for the Gospel is possible among those who deny or refuse their own capacity for transcendence. And when an association cannot escape this denial or refusal, great care ought to be taken to avoid giving the appearance of collaboration with those whose god is made in their own image.

A recognition that this minimal commitment to transcendence is all but lacking in our dominant culture provides both a spur and a restraint. We have the strongest possible motive for promoting collaboration, mutual understanding and unity among those few who really do care about God—lest the scandal of division render Christian witness ineffective. But a willingness to appear comfortably engaged with secularists gives the lie to the whole project. Accordingly, it undermines the faith of onlookers—and may deceive even the elect (if, again, that were possible).

All human action is to be guided by love. But it is a grave error for Catholics, and especially those in ecclesiastical office, to forego this essential discernment of whether a potential exercise in unity can bear good fruit. If it cannot, the exercise will nearly always be used by the secularist side to weaken, stop, or roll back the influence of the religious side. And the religious side, trapped by its own lack of discernment, will accept its neutralization as a requirement of its devotion to a common cause—a cause which, in this case, does not really exist.

But perhaps this is too vague. I hope that this sort of false engagement is at least relatively rare in initiatives formally and precisely directed toward religious unity and ecumenism, but it is not at all rare in a million instances which partake of a similar irenic spirit. I refer to those who, lacking a proper discernment, continually strive to increase their reach by supporting secularist initiatives whenever (accidentally, as it were) Catholic teaching makes this theoretically possible. I think, for example, of churchmen who are quick to publicly endorse the positions and initiatives of secularist politicians whenever they happen (again, virtually by accident) actually to have some good end in view—even when that good end is undermined by everything they believe about the prerogatives of God and the nature, liberty and ultimate good of the human person.

Such a positive engagement may be justified as a sort of prelude to the legitimate quest for unity. But too often it appears to be a discouraging sycophancy, a kind of Churchly fawning upon the powerful. Moreover, such affirmations and endorsements are almost invariably used against authentic Catholicism in one way or another—often by dividing the Catholic community, and particularly by claiming Catholic support as a way to confuse and combat those who remain both informed and courageous enough to resist the secularist evils which the powerful in our broken culture so often represent. The predictable result is a further marginalization of those who care most about inculcating a fully Catholic vision of human life.

These are the habitual results of a profound failure to discern a very real lack of openness to the transcendent which, when properly recognized, argues strongly against the wisdom of any posture of unity.

Conclusion

Two failures, then, are so far removed from an authentic quest for religious unity as to undermine its purposes altogether. The first is the failure to prepare properly for the task, both intellectually and spiritually. And the second is like unto this: The failure to discern when the other party lacks the proper disposition for spiritual progress—when it might be necessary, after all, to shake the dust off one’s feet in a testimony against them (Mk 6:11; Lk 9:5). Both failures have at times done serious damage not only to participants in the process but to the Church as a whole.

Once again, a serious recognition of the great gifts we Catholics have received is essential. It is the whole purpose of both the quest for religious unity and evangelization to share these gifts. It is a betrayal of that purpose to engage others in ways which hide these gifts or permit them to be trampled like pearls before swine. The proper response to others is never to make a pretense of unity where only an uninformed or accidental agreement is possible.

The proper end of both religious unity and evangelization is not an innocuous acceptance of the Church by our larger culture, but the initiation of all men and women of good will into the Catholic Church. Only a constant awareness of the Divine gifts we have been entrusted to bear can provide the light required for these delicate and dangerous tasks.


Previous in series: Effective evangelization: Initiation into the Church

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: Randal Mandock - Mar. 15, 2016 7:32 PM ET USA

    The proper discernment of your interlocutor's disposition for spiritual progress is a species of wisdom. I rarely find the proper spiritual disposition in those who wish to discuss religion with me. Often the problem is their lack of adequate preparation. Other times it is hostility to the popular notion of what the Catholic Church is. Still other times it is apathy, a fear of commitment to the "myth" of religion (as expounded by the secular culture), fear of peer pressure, or simple ignorance.

  • Posted by: BANICA7269 - Mar. 12, 2016 11:04 AM ET USA

    Good article. Met several clergy who are committed to ecumenism and timid about CATHOLIC truth.

  • Posted by: martin.kurlich4399 - Mar. 12, 2016 1:24 AM ET USA

    If the Catholic Church truly believes it is the one true Church of Christ, then “ecumenism” should simply be another name for “evangelization.” The *ultimate* goal of ecumenism should be the conversion to Catholicism of the non-Catholics we evangelize.

  • Posted by: Dennis Olden - Mar. 11, 2016 6:39 PM ET USA

    Greatly appreciate this cogent piece.