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Celebrating Methodist-Catholic Occasional Theology

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Apr 24, 2012

Sometimes we wonder about the fruits of ecumenism. A case in point is the recent release of the joint Catholic-Methodist statement on the connection between the Eucharist and environmental stewardship (see our news story). The extent of the theological agreement of the parties is that the Eucharist has something to do with Creation and the environment. This proved fortuitous for the Methodists and Catholics involved, because their mutual concern for the environment actually gave them something to say together.

Actually, the Catholics and the Methodists have been talking officially together for nearly forty years. The current document is the result of the seventh round of formal discussions, which was initiated in the Fall of 2008. The “mandate” adopted for this seventh round was to assemble an equal number of scholars and theologians from both churches to discuss and produce a consensus document on one specific topic: “The Eucharist and the Stewardship of Creation.” The talks proceeded under the auspices of Bishop William S. Skylstadt for the Catholics and Bishop Timothy W. Whitaker for the Methodists.

I am happy to report that both sides reached the following momentous agreement:

[W]e should offer a joint prophetic witness on a significant challenge facing both our communions regarding the relations of humanity to the rest of the natural world…. The threat of climate destabilization, the destruction of the ozone layer, and the loss of bio-diversity point to a disordered relation between humankind, other living beings, and the rest of the earth.

The temptation is to wake up and smell the brimstone. After all, this statement of concern is certainly true in some way and to some degree. Indeed, it has been true on some level and in some respects ever since the Fall, though of course the human ability to disrupt nature has increased with the advance of technology. But as prophecy, this statement has the distinct disadvantage of representing one of the most popular of all of today’s fashionable ideas—an idea which many people already invest with a sort of spiritual fervor. Doubtless this arises from a deep human yearning for wholeness and peace in all that surrounds us, but the generalized expression of this yearning through environmentalism is far too commonplace to be prophetic.

To their credit, the Methodist and Catholic discussants do recognize that God is the Creator of all, and that somehow the Eucharist plays a role in our reception of God’s gifts and our return of those gifts through Christ to the Father, so that they and we may be sanctified. The document mines Scripture, the liturgy and to some extent the Fathers of the Church for links among Creation, the Eucharist and the ultimate Redemption of all of nature from the effects of sin. Much of this is worthwhile. Unfortunately, the doctrinal and even the anthropological messages are impeded by the elephant in the room, by the enormous fact that there is no agreement here about what (or Who) the Eucharist really is. The most telling quotation comes from the beginning of Part I, on “The Eucharist as the Unity of Creation and Redemption”:

In the Eucharist we experience the unity of the mystery of divine salvation which encompasses creation, redemption, and consummation. The Eucharist has been variously interpreted and celebrated throughout the history of our communions. We have held different and sometimes opposing views of the sacrament. Nevertheless, we judge that this is a moment when we together ought to look at the relationship between the Eucharist and creation with the hope of discerning how to live on an imperiled planet in a manner consistent with our celebration of the Eucharist.

Speaking of “imperiled”, it is an imperiled project indeed which seeks to ground its deliberations on a principle about which the participants so strongly and fundamentally disagree. The result is that the authors are more confident in urging the churches, even in their celebration of the eucharist, to conform to the inspiration of environmentalism, than they are in urging environmentalists to conform to the reality of the Eucharist. Take the following, for example, as a prophetic statement:

We are sent in an "integral and solidary humanism," seeking to contribute to the renewal of society in light of the ecological crisis, but also mindful of the part which Christians have played in the complex unfolding of culture in its relation to the natural world. Conformed to Christ through sharing in the mystery of communion, Christians must not dismiss or caricature varieties of environmentalism, but should seek to understand and learn from them, whenever possible, as a social movement which is a sign of the times. Often their moral aspirations reflect dimensions of the Christian experience which have been diminished and which stand in need of renewal. The history of environmental concern confronts us with authentic intuitions of spiritual meaning expressed in wonder before nature's beauty and mystery, and longing for a more harmonious relation between natural ecology and human ecology.(#31)

I could go through the entire text, cherry picking quotes which highlight the extreme limitations of this sort of ecumenical exercise. Instead, I will select just one more:

We call both Methodists and Catholics to attend more carefully to the production of the sacramental bread and wine both in itself and as a sign of the interconnection of worship, economy and nature. To participate in the Eucharist without discerning these interconnections is the result of indolence and may lead to diminished communion with the Lord. Roman Catholics can affirm the United Methodist document "This Holy Mystery" when it states that "receiving the bread and wine as products of divine creation reminds us of our duties of stewardship of the natural environment in a time when destruction and pollution imperil the earth, and unjust distribution of the planet's resources destroys the hopes and lives of millions." Such remembrance might carry specific implications for our celebration of the Eucharist. It is appropriate that the Church's worship include concern for the economic conditions and environmental impact of the production of the sacramental elements. For instance, the use of locally grown grains and grapes may be of significance in this regard. (#34)

Even by their own lights, this is fiddling with the earth burns. But to quote more would, I suppose, be unfair to the participants, who clearly admitted that they knew how far from the mark they had fallen. In the “Preamble” they state that “as we present this agreed statement, we realize only too well its limitations.” They were prudent to offer the caveat.

The question naturally arises as to whether a seriously deficient result means the process as a whole is worthless. Certainly it is good for different Christian groups to explore areas of agreement and disagreement. This promotes mutual understanding. Not infrequently it reveals differences to be less sharp in some areas than was thought. By slow degrees mutual respect and even greater agreement may be forged. And even if the parties to the discussion do not have the authority to bind the faithful on either side, opportunities to reduce the depth of the divisions are worth pursuing.

If no progress has been made over a long period, there is a strong argument for putting very little time, energy and funds into the program. And since these particular talks occur only twice a year among just thirteen people, we can have no great quarrel on that score. But neither would I make bold to affirm that the world has been anxiously awaiting progress reports. Time enough to report when something significant has been achieved (such as, for example, the very welcome Catholic-Lutheran Joint Declaration on Justification in 2006). If nothing significant has been achieved, why speak?

The USCCB press release answers that question by noting pointedly that the joint statement was released on April 20th, the last business day before...Earth Day. For Earth Day, then, the two sides decided that they should offer “a joint prophetic witness.” And so they proceeded, as they put it, to “interpret the signs of the times” (Mt 16:3), lest the rest of the earth be found clueless.

In other words, this is what we might call occasional theology. It is a set piece to celebrate a public occasion. Moreover, for Christians it is very likely the wrong occasion, for the occasions we celebrate tell us much about where our treasure is (Mt 6:21). Indeed, were I part of the Methodist-Catholic dialogue, I might have noted that Our Lord’s admonition against laying up treasure on earth occurs in Matthew’s gospel only a few chapters before the Master chides us for being unable to interpret the signs of the times. Perhaps there is a connection. But in any case, by its very nature, the joint Methodist-Catholic statement is not prophetic witness. If you have any doubts, consider this fundamental requirement: When prophetic witness really happens, there are no hand shakes or back slaps. When prophets happen by, nobody feels like celebrating.

An appeal from our founder, Dr. Jeffrey Mirus:

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Show 3 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: Jeff Mirus - Apr. 26, 2012 10:32 AM ET USA

    To impossible: I hope the sarcasm is clear. But if anyone else is confused, "happy to report" and "momentous agreement" are intended as sarcasm.

  • Posted by: impossible - Apr. 25, 2012 11:30 PM ET USA

    Jeff, please tell us you were kidding: "I am happy to report that both sides reached the following momentous agreement: [W]e should offer a joint prophetic witness on a significant challenge facing both our communions regarding the relations of humanity to the rest of the natural world…. The threat of climate destabilization, the destruction of the ozone layer, and the loss of bio-diversity point to a disordered relation between humankind, other living beings, and the rest of the earth."

  • Posted by: Universal - Apr. 25, 2012 1:43 PM ET USA

    Frankly, Jeff... If Catholic Culture was tax-exempt in Germany you woudl get all my charitable contributions... I love your sober and non-fundamentalist, but clearly modern-orthodox perspective. Very valuable also for the German / European scene. May God send you much Grace through the Miracle of Easter - and the EUCHARIST :-)

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