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Is There Scandal in Ecumenical Prayer?

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Feb 03, 2011

In response to last week’s In Depth Analysis (Ecumenism: The Conversion Question), one of our readers suggested, with reference to the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, that praying with non-Catholics causes scandal. As he put it:

Yes Catholics should pray for Christian unity. However, what about the scandalous nature of praying with Protestants, i.e., the blurring of the distinction that they are outside the Church? If the Protestants pray with Catholics fine, but for Catholics to pray with Protestants is scandalous.

This is a legitimate question, though I’m not sure I agree with all the implications of this particular comment. It reminds me of the famous joke about two seminarians, each of whom liked to smoke while praying. One asks his spiritual director whether he can smoke while he prays, and is told no. The other asks if he can pray while he smokes, and is told yes. Perhaps it is better to start from the beginning and get this right—not the smoking, but the ecumenism.

Distinctions about Prayer

First, important distinctions must be made, distinctions concerning both prayer and scandal. With respect to prayer, it is necessary to distinguish prayer from worship. The Second Vatican Council’s Decree on Ecumenism (Unitatis Redintegratio) insists that it is “allowable, indeed desirable that Catholics should join in prayer with their separated brethren” but that “worship in common (communicatio in sacris) is not to be considered as a means to be used indiscriminately for the restoration of Christian unity” since “witness to the unity of the Church very generally forbids common worship to Christians” (#8).

Thus, for example, friends and associates from differing Christian groups who occasionally pray together in recognition of their shared belief in Christ and their mutual need are doing something good; formal ecumenical services which stress points in common while seeking to remove inessential barriers to unity are also good; but for two different Christian groups to engage together in one or the other’s standard rites of formal worship (the Mass, the Sunday service) is almost always wrong. Because this latter practice falsely testifies to a unity that does not exist, it actually undermines the fundamental integrity of the Church, and of the Faith itself.

Moreover, while for individuals it would certainly make a difference whether a Protestant is routinely attending Mass or a Catholic is routinely attending a Protestant service (the Protestant would be justified, the Catholic not), ecumenism is a more formal and corporate process than these individual decisions. At the ecumenical level, it does not matter if the Protestant congregation joins the Catholic congregation at Mass or vice versa. Formal worship together (communicatio in sacris) is generally wrong, except with the right dispositions in certain exceptional circumstances.

Distinctions about Scandal

As for the word “scandal”, some distinctions are necessary here too. There is an objective sense of the word “scandal”, in that it is always scandalous to engage in an immoral action which can be publicly known, as such actions by their very nature lower the moral tone of a community. They can scandalize others either by distressing them or by habituating them to the acceptance of this evil. But there are also subjective elements to scandal which arise not from any objective immorality but from how particular actions are perceived, and what others think they imply.

Thus at some times and in some groups, for Catholics and Protestants to pray together (or even to form deep friendships) has been a source of scandal simply because large numbers on both sides were focused on old wounds arising from their differences in beliefs and religious practices. At other times and in other groups, there has been a fruitful history of friendship, collaboration and occasional prayer in common simply because the old wounds are scarcely felt, if at all, and there is a greater appreciation for the goods the two groups share in common. This has been particularly true where deeply committed Christians are pitted against a common enemy, as under Communism or in the pro-life movement.

One must beware of ascribing the sin of scandal when the circumstances are primarily or exclusively subjective. Indeed, in some cases the denunciation of common prayer or other ecumenical activity might say far more about the lack of a proper Christian spirit in the one who claims to be scandalized than in the ecumenical participants. Who then is giving scandal? At the same time, it is certainly possible that two or more groups, in a misplaced zeal for unity, might bear insufficient witness to the full truth of the Catholic faith and the integrity of the Church herself. This has happened; it will almost certainly happen again.

Giving and Taking

The proper approach to ecumenical activity is necessarily something of a balancing act. Moreover, once we extend the desire for unity beyond Christian groups and attempt to break down barriers between Christians and non-Christians (the word “ecumenical” does not properly apply to this), the case becomes even more difficult. The possibilities for serious scandal through badly-directed enthusiasm increase exponentially. Any common prayer which might be construed as being directed to different gods, or even to the same God conceived radically differently, is fraught with danger. This is what upset many Catholics about Pope John Paul II’s efforts to draw the world’s religions together at Assisi.

But again we must beware of making judgments based on our own perceptions of what is scandalous and what is not. With respect to Catholic parties working toward Christian unity and unity with non-Christians, it is essential to presume the best of intentions and a sincere adherence to the essential character of the Catholic Church, unless specific statements of faith or repeated careless practice objectively undermine that presumption. Some initiatives will, and must by their very nature, be tentative and experimental. As important as it is in the Christian life to avoid giving scandal, it is also important to avoid taking scandal where none is intended. Where the evil in question is largely the product of our own super-heated subjectivity, the taking of scandal can also be a sin.

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Show 4 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: Justin8110 - Feb. 13, 2011 11:01 PM ET USA

    The most disturbing thing about ecumenism and Chrsitian Unity is that it is hardly ever talked about in terms of the Church's traditional viewpoint, namely, that unity already exists in the Catholic Church and that those outside her must come into her to share in that unity. In fact the NAB glossary under "Church" mentions an ecumenical superchurch that will only exist at the end of time with no mention of traditional teaching. This version got an Imprimatur. Something is wrong here.

  • Posted by: samuel.doucette1787 - Feb. 08, 2011 10:09 AM ET USA

    Good commentary, but one of the other posts alluded to condemnation by prior pontiffs of public prayers with Protestants. I have the same question because with the hermeneutic of continuity favored by Pope Benedict, all Vatican II pronouncements should be viewed in light of traditional teachings. I find that Dr Mirus' otherwise excellent commentaries often give the impression that there was little noteworthy magisterial teachings prior to 1965. He needs to address the prior teaching as well.

  • Posted by: koinonia - Feb. 07, 2011 10:54 AM ET USA

    Try praying the Hail Mary or the prayer to St. Joseph while joining in mutual prayer with Protestants. These activities, while permissible in certain private or extenuating circumstances, invariably lead to certain concessions on the part of Catholics that their counterparts do not have to make. We have much more to lose. Public prayers with Protestants by Church leaders have been condemned by previous pontiffs.

  • Posted by: Cornelius - Feb. 04, 2011 1:13 PM ET USA

    Surely Fr. Ford is the Athanasius of our time. Pater Fordus contra mundum!

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