The Ecumenical Imperative: Intrinsic to the Church
In late November, Pope Francis told the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity that ecumenism—the quest for unity among Christians—must be an ever-present concern for the Church. Acknowledging problems created by new divisions over moral and doctrinal issues, the Pope emphasized the importance of “spiritual” ecumenism—common prayer and cooperation in good works—as well as the ecumenism of blood, that is, recognizing all martyrs for the Faith.
In fact, the Pope himself devoted significant time in November to ecumenical initiatives. He addressed Evangelical Protestants on November 6th and he met with the Ecumenical Patriarch (the Orthodox Archbishop of Constantinople), Bartholomew I, in Turkey at the end of the month. (They had already met in the Holy Land and issued a joint declaration six months earlier.) On the return flight from Turkey, Francis offered the press a number of insights into the urgency and possibilities of the quest for Christian unity today.
In 1964, the Second Vatican Council’s Decree on Ecumenism (Unitatis Redintegratio) firmly established the ecumenical project as a necessary expression of the common baptism of all Christians and of Christ’s desire that his followers would be one (Jn 17:21). It is a short document, easily read with considerable profit. (However, for my even briefer summary, see Vatican II on Ecumenism: Principles and Vatican II on Ecumenism: Practice.) Pope John Paul II followed up in greater detail with his 1995 encyclical That They May Be One (Ut Unum Sint).
An Imperative of Fidelity
I presume everyone knows that formal rifts in the Body of Christ have now persisted for a very long time—nearly a thousand years for Orthodoxy and nearly five hundred for Protestantism. I also presume that many contemporary readers are aware of the lack of respect for truth which too often pervaded Catholic efforts at ecumenism during the first generation after its importance was stressed by the Council. At that time, ecumenism was often used as an excuse to abandon authentic Catholicism—but, after all, everything was used that way by nominal Catholics who were too influenced by the larger secular culture.
Still, given the long history of the divisions, and in the wake of some faulty efforts which further undermined Christian unity by almost literally throwing the Baby out with the bath water, why has this become such an important goal in our time, and why should we hope for (and even expect) significant ecumenical progress now?
The first point to be made is that even the Church, with all her Divine guarantees, does not in her historical actions excel in emphasizing all aspects of the Gospel in every time and place. The human culture in which the Church finds herself at any given moment either assists or hinders her in recognizing the importance of one Christian concern or another. Changing cultures and attitudes open the way to significant ecclesiastical progress in one area even while there may be slippage in another. Moreover, the Church herself gradually comes to understand Divine Revelation more perfectly over time. All in all, she may be prepared to undertake in one time and place a particular way of fulfilling God’s will which was either impossible or not yet fully recognized in another.
By the twentieth century, in any case, the long decline of Christianity in the West had made two things so evident that they could no longer be ignored. First, all Christian bodies began to see that they faced far greater dangers from secularism than they did from one another. Second, all Christian bodies—and certainly the Church herself—became acutely aware that divisions among Christians had historically provided one of the strongest motives for abandoning faith altogether. In other words, a new historical moment had arrived which at once reinforced the need for unity and, if only distantly, at last brought its realization into view.
Enemies of Enemies are Friends
Of course, Christ’s own prayer for unity and St. Paul’s constant emphasis on the unity of the Body of Christ (e.g., Eph 4:4-5 and Gal 3:27-28) constitute a sufficient imperative to work to overcome divisions. There is here, as with all other aspects of Christianity, a requirement to be faithful whether one is successful or not. But clearly the simple recognition of a common enemy has raised new possibilities. In recent years, then, there have been joint statements on key theological divisions (such as with the Lutherans). In addition, the continued secular erosion of some Christian bodies has awakened many to the benefits of union with Rome (as realized, for example, by the Anglican Ordinariate).
Clearly the passage of time often causes old arguments to fade. In the aftermath of the Protestant Revolt, Catholics felt a strong need to emphasize “works” and “merit” against the deficiencies of Protestantism’s sola fidei and sola gratia. In time, however, there developed a sort of paradox. Many Protestants lived as if their actions really did make a difference to their salvation, and many Catholics found a need to recover an emphasis on God’s redeeming love, in order to understand better how even works and merit depend on the fact that God loved us first, while we were yet sinners.
In a similar way, through the long absence of the political pressures under which East and West had originally split, many on both sides have seen merit in exploring an understanding of Papal primacy which, without imposing constant administrative dominance, could serve and even guarantee the unity of the Church—as it did in the beginning. Again, time heals many wounds, and sometimes cultural shifts assist us in seeing aspects of Revelation which we might have previously tended to ignore. Generations after a seemingly irreparable division, people on both sides may be growing farther apart—but they also may be growing closer together.
Ultimately, of course, the Catholic party ought to remain completely serene in the service of Christian unity. The other parties, after all, have no Magisterium. According to their human lights, they may fear to lose something essential. But, since Catholics already possess the Church’s fundamental principle of unity, they are able to recognize that such fears are not from God, and so should not be raised against His prayer for unity. It is, after all, our very fidelity in unity which requires us to heed the words of St. Paul:
I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all lowliness and meekness, with patience, forbearing one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of us all, who is above all and through all and in all. [Eph 4:1-6]
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