Evangelization deformed or delayed: A danger of the quest for religious unity

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Jan 27, 2016

Beginning in the mid-20th century, the leaders of the Catholic Church have chosen to place a high priority on forging stronger ties between Catholics and members of other religions. They have sought to emphasize shared beliefs, to increase mutual understanding, and to create a more cohesive spiritual presence in an increasingly secular world. The Second Vatican Council took pains to explain the relationship of the Church to other religions, and every pope since the Council has continued to seek better relations with all men and women of good will, but particularly with those who have most in common with the Church, namely Protestants, the Orthodox, and Jews.

Pope Francis has especially embraced this task as an aspect of the current Jubilee of Mercy. Imitating his predecessors he has met with Orthodox patriarchs, visited the Great Synagogue in Rome, and announced his intention to be on hand for the commemoration of the Protestant Reformation in Sweden later this year. He has given a number of addresses which explain the reasons for the Church’s contemporary emphasis on common elements of faith and reconciliation among believers.

For example, in his January 17th address at the Great Synagogue, Francis emphasized:

In interreligious dialogue it is fundamental that we encounter each other as brothers and sisters before our Creator and that we praise him; and that we respect and appreciate each other, and try to cooperate. And in the Jewish-Christian dialogue there is a unique and particular bond, by virtue of the Jewish roots of Christianity; Jews and Christians must therefore consider themselves brothers, united in the same God and by a rich common spiritual patrimony [cf. Vatican II’s Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions (Nostra Aetate), n. 4], on which to build and to continue building in the future.

He added: “The inseparable bond that unites Christians and Jews is theologically clear. Christians, in order to understand themselves, cannot fail to refer to their Jewish roots, and the Church, while professing salvation through faith in Christ, recognizes the irrevocability of the Old Covenant and God’s unfailing, steadfast love for Israel.”

Similarly, the Pope devoted his January 20th general audience to a catechesis on the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. He explained:

When we Christians speak of sharing in one Baptism, we affirm that we all—Catholics, Protestants and Orthodox—share in the experience of being called out of the merciless and alienating darkness to the encounter with the living God, full of mercy…. Starting anew from Baptism means rediscovering the font of mercy…. The sharing of this grace creates an indissoluble bond between us as Christians, such that, by virtue of Baptism, we can consider ourselves truly brothers and sisters…. The mercy of God, who acts in Baptism, is stronger than our divisions…. We Christians can proclaim to all people the power of the Gospel by committing ourselves to sharing in the corporal and spiritual works of mercy. This is a concrete testimony of unity among us Christians: Protestant, Orthodox and Catholic.

I do not believe it is possible to deny the validity of these statements. But it is certainly possible to over-emphasize them. It is even possible to betray Our Lord, in the name of our incomplete unity, through a habitual refusal to offer the salvific gifts which non-Catholic believers have yet to accept from Him.

A betrayal of the quest

No pope can be blind to this danger. In his address at the Great Synagogue, Francis reminded us: “Naturally, [Nostra Aetate] did not resolve all the theological questions that concern us, but it made reference to them in an encouraging way.” In a homily at Vespers closing the week of Prayer for Christian Unity, the Pope similarly noted:

Beyond the differences which still separate us, we recognize with joy the path to full visible communion between us Christians not only when we come closer to each other, but above all as we convert ourselves to the Lord…. And converting ourselves means letting the Lord live and work in us.

But it seems to me that the Pope has an advantage in these matters which the rest of Catholics lack, and which we can be sure is never far from the minds of Protestants, the Orthodox and Jews. These know, in an oppositional way sometimes overlooked by Catholics, that the Pope stands for the fullness of faith and authority of the Catholic Church. In attending to the Pope’s quest for unity, none of these other believers supposes for a moment that the Pope will eliminate differences by abandoning the Catholic Faith. He will not deny that Christ is God to promote unity with the Jews, nor abandon his ecclesiastical jurisdiction to eliminate divisions with the Orthodox, nor declare the seven sacraments optional to conciliate Protestants.

As long as the Pope remains pope, he is a sign of contradiction, even if at the human level he sometimes wishes he were not. But it is not always so with the rest of us, not even necessarily with priests and bishops. We know that the Church calls constantly (and rightly) for a new evangelization, and we can certainly admit that it is the godless who have the greatest need. But we must still find a way to answer a key question about our bonds with other believers—and this is a question that rankles: Are not the very points which separate us from other believers also part of the Gospel of Jesus Christ?

When does the quest for unity, under the guise of friendship, become a betrayal?

If the upside of the quest for unity is a legitimate recognition of shared goods so that we can more easily promote joint witness and mutual care, then the downside is the reluctance to share those very gifts that call to mind our differences. Making even a generous allowance for prudence and discretion, a quest for unity which will not risk rejection is not a quest for unity in Christ. Our Lord took every care to open hearts with love, to help others understand what He had to offer, and to avoid coercion. In other words, His whole life was a gift subject to rejection.

This must be true for us as well. Complete unity—unity without exceptions and caveats—is inescapably rooted in the fullness of the Gospel as actually embodied in Christ and His Church. Any programmatic exclusion of evangelization from the quest for unity is not only a betrayal of Christ but a betrayal of those whom we have deceitfully called friends. We are enjoined by our very baptism to avoid this danger. But how?


Next in series: The quest for religious unity: The natural must not eclipse the supernatural.

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: rosemariedoyle9560 - Jan. 30, 2016 9:05 PM ET USA

    Thank you for tackling this subject. Although we shouldn't compromise on the tenants of our Catholic faith in favor of unity, we should humbly acknowledge the gifts and insights God has placed in other denominations. For an excellent analysis of why Catholics don't evangelize,I encourage you to read Father Longnecker's thoughts on Catholic evangelism: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/standingonmyhead/2016/01/ten-reasons-why-catholics-dont-evangelize.html

  • Posted by: pholtz7788 - Jan. 30, 2016 1:57 PM ET USA

    Jeffrey, You read my mind. Good job.

  • Posted by: loumiamo - Jan. 29, 2016 8:49 AM ET USA

    Crdl. Turksons take on Eucharist, in the News section-the frequency of meals assoc. with teaching in Scrip-suggests something else re the Eucharist and the sin of pride. We've come to think of conquering pride as swallowing it. So swallowing the Eucharist gives us what we need to accept/swallow ALL Church teaching, & No Excuse for Not accepting/swallowing ALL Church teaching, No justification for Cafeteria Catholicism,for the KJV or Cafeteria Christianity. Sans the Eucharist we r dead.John 6:53.

  • Posted by: koinonia - Jan. 28, 2016 6:45 PM ET USA

    What must it have been like for Pilate to have the Good Lord to himself as he questioned privately? Our Lord had elicited this response with the words: " For this was I born, and for this came I into the world; that I should give testimony to the truth." The candor of Pilate: "What is truth?!" Our contemporary world basks this timeless question. But the answer involves nothing more than it did at that time in history. We are called to "give testimony to the truth." For that we must answer.

  • Posted by: loumiamo - Jan. 28, 2016 1:53 PM ET USA

    "R not the very points that separate us ...also part of the Gospel?" Nail on the head, Doc. Look at the Anglican Ordin.example. They chucked the KJV and embraced the RSV, accepting ALL of the Gospel, not just 66/73rds of it. The recent flack re opening Communion to non-Catholics can never lead to unity if Protestants find a way to reject part of the Gospel. Maybe that's the important trait of the manna that needs remembering, Deut 8:3, every word of God matters, not just bread [Eucharist] alone.

  • Posted by: JDeFauw - Jan. 27, 2016 8:46 PM ET USA

    St. John Paul II, in a homily on ecumenism in 1964 (Vatican II was still in session), said that in the present moment, Catholics, Protestants, and Orthodox "must draw closer to one another". At the same time, he did not want us to lose sight of the long term goal of the reunification of all Christians. He said, "We cannot be united with one another on the basis of any compromise". Would that all Catholics had his clear vision.