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

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Feb 02, 2016

As a first step to considering more deeply the relationship between the quest for religious unity and evangelization, we need to distinguish their ends. We will see that the quest for greater religious unity has a natural end, whereas the end of evangelization is supernatural. Once we grasp this point, it becomes impossible to substitute the former for the latter. It is precisely this substitution which creates so many difficulties today.

I consider efforts to improve both the Catholic relationship with non-Catholic Christians and the Catholic relationship with non-Christians to be subject to a similar confusion, and so I will refer to both. But it is still necessary to distinguish one from the other in significant ways.

Ecumenism

We know, of course, that “ecumenism” refers only to Christian bodies, which have been separated by what we might call the accidents of history. The purpose of ecumenical activity is to promote understanding and collaboration throughout the entire world among those who believe Jesus Christ is the Son of God and our Savior. In this effort, some differences may actually be eliminated without the need for a more thorough evangelization or catechesis—but this is relatively rare.

Nonetheless, there are good grounds for this effort. Despite many differences, all groups which claim the Christian name still view baptism as the standard means of incorporation into Christ, and therefore into His Church, however that is defined. Moreover, everyone who is properly baptized is, in fact, “baptized Catholic”. There is only one Body of Christ, and unless they deliberately reject the intrinsic connection between Christ and His Body the Church, all baptized Christians are, in fact, joined in some way to the Church.

The fundamental problem is that many Christians do not know what this means, nor do they recognize or take advantage of the full range of salvific gifts which Our Lord offers through His Church. Still, ecumenical activity presumes a fundamental vivification by Christ in all of its participants. Its goal is a clear delineation of commonalities and differences in a mutual Christian exploration, so that mistaken impressions can be eliminated, real differences can be understood, and the questions at the root of these differences can be studied in an attempt to realize the kind of unity among His followers that Our Lord so ardently desires.

These discussions clearly have both natural and supernatural elements. They are, after all, carried on in the light of Christ. But their immediate end is natural (but not “material”, since all human actions have a spiritual dimension). These discussions are not so much aimed at growth in Faith as at the reduction of inadvertent divisions, the scandal of which seriously undermines Christian witness throughout the world.

They are not, in other words, directly aimed at conversion or union with God. The only way the idea of “conversion” can enter ecumenical discussions is to emphasize, as Pope Francis has done repeatedly, that ultimate unity can be achieved only through the ever-deepening conversion of all parties. But we must be frank in acknowledging that ecumenical discussions do not include the task of specifying precisely how each party must convert to be fully open to God’s supernatural gifts. They are engaged rather in a quest for clarification, understanding and greater collaboration among the different human representatives of the Gospel.

The Broader Quest for Religious Unity

This fundamentally natural goal is even more obvious in the broader quest for greater religious (as opposed to Christian) unity. While all such interactions open possibilities for the work of the Holy Spirit, the direct goal is to promote the mutual understanding and trust which lead to peaceful relations and collaboration for the common good. Since many (though not all) religions have similar moral values, this collaboration may also involve mutual witness on moral issues. Moreover, all religions recognize the human person as a spiritual being, which can lead to a joint resistance to secular materialism.

Nonetheless, discussions in this overall quest for religious unity take place on the natural plane, by way of promoting understanding and collaboration among the human groups involved. The supernatural invitation to know God more correctly and more fully through His self-revelation is not at all intrinsic to the process.

Christian Witness

What is clear in both cases is that the quest for religious unity, while representing a perfectly legitimate Christian aim, is neither intrinsically nor directly a mode of Christian witness. It is not in its essence an invitation to conversion in Christ. The quest can dispel misunderstandings and prejudices, but the essential collaborative goals are to be achieved within the bounds of the respective religions involved. When it comes to witnessing to Jesus Christ, the quest for religious unity is a legitimate, important and often fruitful preparation. But in itself, this quest is oriented toward effective witness only in a secondary and derivative way.

I do not mean to suggest that there is no Christian witness at all involved in such efforts. They provide, after all, a welcome opportunity to explain to others, in a non-confrontational atmosphere, the elements of the Catholic Faith—the fullness of Divine Revelation. Such efforts bear fruit primarily in a gradual elimination of prejudice, a reduction of hostility, and a common pursuit of shared goals as the collaborative attitudes of those involved in the discussions trickle down into the larger community. It is obviously a boon for all who witness to Christ if they can do so in an atmosphere of respect rather than recrimination.

But a problem arises when the quest for greater religious unity is seen as a kind of official substitute for evangelization, for this quest is really a separate undertaking with its own legitimate natural ends. Insofar as this quest is related to Christian witness, it can perform only the task of clearing the way. Therefore, these efforts at building mutual understanding and respect are not the end-point of evangelization. They are not in themselves what Our Lord had in mind when He enjoined his followers to “make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age” (Mt 28:19-20).

An Illegitimate Suspension of Evangelization

We can recognize, surely, the legitimacy of taking a step back from direct evangelization, under certain circumstances, in order to get to know a community with different beliefs and customs, seeking to understand what values (good and bad) have played a major role in shaping this community, and gaining a certain facility with different patterns of thought. Within the Christian fold, such efforts can sometimes even take the sting out of historical differences that are no longer significant stumbling blocks to an increased unity of faith.

But the first rule of the relationship between the quest for greater religious unity and evangelization is that while evangelization presupposes a desire for religious unity, the quest for greater religious unity does not presuppose a desire for evangelization. St. Paul explains this in the proper order. “First of all, then,” he wrote to Timothy, “I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all men…that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life, godly and respectful in every way” (1 Tim 2:1-2). Here is the natural quest for greater unity (though supernaturalized through prayer). But Paul immediately explains that “this is good, and it is acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim 2:3-4).

Because the quest for greater religious unity has its own natural ends, it is a grave error to mistake it for a stopping point. Unfortunately, evangelization is dead on arrival whenever this fundamental error is not kept very firmly in mind. St. Paul explains why, in the very next sentence: “For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all, the testimony to which was borne at the proper time” (1 Tim 2:5). And the testimony to which must continue until the end of time.


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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: loumiamo - Feb. 03, 2016 11:45 AM ET USA

    To me the starting point in dealing with Protestants is avoiding the starting point altogether. That's just a waste of time, a Does Not Does Too argument. Better to talk about a debate, a boxing match, btwn 2 evenly matched combatants, both with hours & hours of study, both with a sincere heart, both with dozens of Bible verses to support his argument. The question then is who judges btwn us? We won't let the other be the judge. Who then? Maybe then the HS can nurture a properly planted seed.

  • Posted by: Randal Mandock - Feb. 02, 2016 6:09 PM ET USA

    It seems to me that the starting point, and usually ending point, with all non-Catholic Christians (not counting the Orthodox) is Christ's declaration that one infraction against the moral law convicts us just as surely as if we had broken every moral law. Christ opened the door, made the impossible possible, paid the ultimate price, but not without us. "...so that without us they should not be made perfect" (Heb 11:40). "I am filling up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ" (Col 1:24).