Prospects for Unity in the Twenty-First Century
by Richard John Neuhaus
“Christian Unity and the Divisions We Must Sustain” is a provocative title, and I think there are some divisions we must sustain. But I’ll also qualify a possible misunderstanding of that title. Let me start with a quote of Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger from 1988: “If one were to agree completely on regarding all the different confessions among Christians simply as human traditions, then one would have cut oneself completely loose from the question of Truth, and theology and theological dialogue would merely be a matter of diplomacy, of politics.” Then, this great sentence: “Our quarreling ancestors”—and he’s speaking particularly of the Protestant-Catholic divide—“were, in reality, much closer to one another when, in all their disputes, they still knew that they could only be servants of one Truth, which must be acknowledged as being as great and as pure as it has been intended for us by God.”
That’s profound, that even in their disputes, even as they were going for the jugular, indeed, even as, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in the West, there were wars of religion of a most bloody sort, as difficult as it is for the worldly mind to grasp this, there was a deep unity because they knew what was at stake—namely, all the Truth that God intended for us.
Maximal Christianity & Truth
So there are divisions that, in an odd kind of way, do not violate our God-given unity. Certainly, there are arguments and contentions that must be prosecuted persistently, though not belligerently—winsomely, persuasively, lovingly always—but persistently and without compromise. For that great Truth that God intends for his people is at stake.
And yet, at least from the Catholic understanding, there ought not to be a division sustained at the altar. It is Christ’s intent that at the point that the Catholic Church understands to be, as the Second Vatican Council says, the source and summit of the church’s life—namely, the Holy Eucharist—there ought to be a visible unity that bears witness precisely to the fact that God in Jesus Christ is reconciling the world to himself. We are to be, in the language of Catholic ecclesiology, the sacramental sign, the effective sign of that reconciling work of God in Jesus Christ. That’s our Lord’s will; that’s the dominical fact of the matter.
Therefore, the actualization of our unity as a full eucharistic communion is uncompromisable. It’s worth noting that in the Second Vatican Council—which, as has been endlessly remarked, was not a doctrinal or dogmatic council but a pastoral council—there were no anathemas issued. But there is one anathema implicit at least. It is in the third article of the decree on ecumenism, which speaks about the divisions among Christians, the “damnable” divisions among Christians, say the council fathers. “Damnable” because they contradict the church’s purpose in the divine dispensation as the sacrament of the unity of all Christians as a sign of the promised unity of mankind. God is in Christ reconciling the world to himself.
Full communion in the Catholic understanding involves agreement in doctrine, in ministry, and in liturgy. That’s usually the triumvirate, keeping in mind that doctrine includes moral doctrine. But we are all agreed, in all our ecclesiologies, however construed, that the Christian community of faith is a community of sinners. Sinners forgiven, to be sure, and sinners by the grace of God on the way to further sanctification and responding to the universal call to holiness, but still sinners.
So we are still far from this goal of full communion, from this unity, which is part of the very gospel of Jesus Christ. Not simply a consequence of the gospel, certainly not a human construction of those who have been converted to it, but a constituent part of the gospel.
Thomas Oden speaks of the “new ecumenism.” It is breaking out in many different places and in many different ways—Touchstone, the Institute on Religion & Democracy (IRD), ReGeneration Quarterly—and it is to be encouraged and nurtured. It is a movement of the Holy Spirit. John Cardinal O’Connor once said, “I get up every day and pray that I’ll go to bed that night without having discouraged any impulse of the Holy Spirit.” Isn’t that a beautiful thing to be able to say?—a beautiful prayer. I even mentioned it one time to the Holy Father: “Cardinal O’Connor told me that he gets up every morning and prays that he’ll go to bed that night without having discouraged any impulse of the Holy Spirit.” The pope looked at me and said, “Oh, he told you that, did he?” I said, “Yes, isn’t that nice?” The Holy Father said, “I told him that.” Whoever’s line it is, it’s a great one.
So this new ecumenism and all of its manifestations is an impulse of the Holy Spirit to be encouraged and nurtured. And yet, it has not, I think, matured in its self-understanding unless it appreciates the degree to which it is not enough simply to reassert within dying and decadent and often-sidelined communities a more vibrant gospel witness. It is not enough merely to oppose the diabolical courses and twistings and turnings of Christian truth, which are all too manifest in all too many Christian communions. It is not enough, if it is to call itself ecumenism, to stop short of the goal of full communion, of ecclesial reconciliation.
Mere Christianity: One could probably say that C. S. Lewis is the single most effective apologist for the Christian faith in the last 150, perhaps 200, years. But mere Christianity is not enough. Christianity is never “mere.” Christianity is never a minimal but is always a call to the maximal. Christianity is never directed toward that which we can hold in common and celebrate with one another by the avoidance of those things that really matter. It is always a call to a deeper reconciliation in the fullness of the truth that, as Cardinal Ratzinger says, God intends for all of us.
Contributions of the “Old Ecumenism”
In that sense, I think it is worthwhile for us in our fully justified and fully understandable critique of the so-called old ecumenism—the World Council of Churches, the National Council of Churches, Faith and Order, and all that—to appreciate the degree to which, in its origin, that ecumenical movement, going back to 1910 and the Edinburgh World Missionary Conference, was in fact Spirit-driven. This is so even though the movement was limited in its ecclesial vision, not including the Orthodox to any significant degree and not including the Roman Catholic Church at all. It was nevertheless a biblically and spiritually sound endeavor to try to overcome the scandal of Christian division, with specific reference to world missions. What it became later was a betrayal of what it was constituted to be.
With Faith and Order, it is well to remember that even into the 1980s—in 1982, for example, with the document “Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry”—there were ecumenical achievements of solid theological work by Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and diverse Protestant groups. Some of the achievements of that old ecumenism, such as “Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry,” will be of continuing importance for decades and, if our Lord tarries, centuries and millennia to come.
What happened to that old movement that was simply called “the ecumenical movement” from 1910 and was anchored in the history of the World Council of Churches? One of the great things that happened, with all kinds of unexpected implications, was that, in the Second Vatican Council, as it is said, the Catholic Church joined the ecumenical movement. That’s the way it’s often put in the textbooks.
But it quickly became evident that the Catholic Church could not simply join the ecumenical movement, could not become a member of the World Council of Churches. There were some efforts to move in that direction for a while, but on both sides it soon became evident that that could not happen. What would you do with a 900-pound gorilla in the living room? Sheer numbers and institutional strength would mean that the ecumenical dynamic would not be something that the Catholic Church would join; rather, the ecumenical movement would, in fact, become the Catholic Church. And that was not welcomed in many quarters. Also, the claims the Catholic Church makes are not symmetrical, are not in balance with, the ecclesiological claims made by any other community aside from the Orthodox.
So there were legitimate impulses of the Holy Spirit, I am suggesting, within that old ecumenical movement, and we should not think, as interesting as it is to have gatherings like this and IRD and ReGeneration and so on, that these are a substitute for the old movement or that they are going to displace it. Among other reasons why that seems very unlikely is the fact that social forces and the ordinary or, if you will, secondary means through which God works in history, including sociological and institutional means, require that you carry the major institutions that can embody a movement from generation to generation. And that requires the relentless kind of work that Thomas Oden and many others are pursuing within the mainline, old-line, and sideline churches.
It is easy, indeed, tempting, to be dismissive of the United Methodist Church, the Presbyterian Church USA, and the ever-entertaining Episcopal Church. It is easy to look at these groups in their endless spiraling downward, their demoralization, their dispirited and dysfunctional fragmentation, and say, well, this is not the future of the Christian movement. But it is also good to remember that at least one-third of all the Christians in America belong to these churches.
It is constantly a surprise. If you looked at, say, the bureaucratic national or regional levels of the United Methodist Church, you might tend to say, “Here clearly is an entire communion in total and shameless apostasy from the gospel.” But then you go to Scranton, Pennsylvania, or Middleville, Ohio, or somewhere and find there a First Methodist Church, or even a United Church of Christ, vibrantly alive with the gospel of Jesus Christ, vibrantly engaged in the great task of contending for the culture of life versus the culture of death.
Millions of our brothers and sisters, and their children, and their children’s children, as it was with their forebears, will likely have their primary understanding of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ formed by and expressed through these old-line, mainline, and sideline denominations. We must not give up on them. That, too, is part of the impulse of the Holy Spirit that is the quest for Christian unity.
The Catholic Claim
The Catholic claim in all of this is, of course, an awkward one. Catholics cannot pretend not to believe that the great gift of truth that God intends for his Church is, in fact, less than it is. So what does the Catholic Church claim? That, as the much-misunderstood and much-debated document Dominus Iesus (“Jesus the Lord”) said, “There can properly speaking be only one church of Jesus Christ because there is only one Christ.” There is only one head; therefore, there can be only one body, in the full theological and ecclesiological understanding of the Church.
And what does the Catholic Church say about itself? The Second Vatican Council very deliberately and after much debate said that the church of Jesus Christ subsists in the Catholic Church in a singular way, in a way that is not true of others, except, as we shall see, with respect to the Orthodox. It did not say, “The church of Jesus Christ is the Catholic Church” or, obversely, that “the Catholic Church is the church of Jesus Christ” but that the church of Jesus Christ subsists in the Catholic Church. Do you want to know where the church of Jesus Christ, as Christ intended it, apostolically ordered, and so understood from the beginning, from the first and second and third centuries, from the very constituting self-defining moments—do you want to know where that is to be found? It is to be found in the Catholic Church.
To put it differently, what does the Catholic Church claim? That it is the church of Jesus Christ most fully and rightly ordered through time. So says the great constitution on the church, Lumen Gentium (“Light to the Nations”). It follows that if one believes what the Catholic Church says of itself to be true, then he is obliged to enter into and remain in communion with the Catholic Church.
The Catholic Church readily recognizes that the fullness of the saving and sanctifying grace of God is not limited to the Catholic Church. All of those, says the Second Vatican Council, who are baptized and believe in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior are truly but imperfectly in communion with the Catholic Church. Many of our non-Catholic friends don’t appreciate that formulation. They say, “You are converting us by definition. Thanks but no thanks. If I want to be converted, I’ll make the decision.” I understand that response, but there is a flipside to it. For if all who are baptized and believe in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior are truly but imperfectly in communion with the Catholic Church, then all Catholics are truly but imperfectly in communion with all of their other brothers and sisters in Christ. So it cuts both ways.
The Ecumenical Task
The ecumenical problem, the sense of ecumenical urgency, is not, from the Catholic perspective, that we are not one in Christ and therefore have to create or bring about a unity in Christ. No, the reason there is an ecumenical urgency, an imperative—which is nothing less than a matter of obedience or disobedience to our Lord Jesus Christ—is that we are one in Christ, but we live as though we were not. We are brothers and sisters in Christ: That is the given fact, the pure gift, the sola gratia, if you will. It is for us to live that out, individually and within our communities. That’s the ecumenical task.
There are approximately two billion Christians in the world, of whom somewhat over one billion are Roman Catholic. Another 150–170 million are in what we call the classical Reformation traditions—Lutheran, Anglican, Calvinist. Depending on how you count, there are about 300 million Orthodox. And then there is that big, maddeningly diverse world called Evangelical-Pentecostalist Protestantism, not only in this country but also in Latin America and Africa and throughout the world.
What would it mean if all of us, all two billion, were in full communion with one another? What would it mean, what would it even look like? It is hard to say, but the Catholic Church believes it would mean at least this: We would all be part of the apostolic community intended by Christ—clearly testified to by the New Testament and insisted upon by the patristic era—headed by bishops who are in succession to the apostolic churches and who are in communion with the bishop of Rome, the successor of Peter, who is Peter among us.
But what would that mean for jurisdiction, for magisterial authority, for the election of bishops, and so forth?—you can run down a long list. We don’t know what it would mean or exactly what it would look like. But that is what we must contend for, it seems to me.
There is a sense in which the baseline of the continuing apostolic story through the Catholic Church as the Church of Jesus Christ most fully and rightly ordered through time keeps everybody in conversation. Everybody relates to that in one way or another, negatively or positively. Almost the entirety of the Christian story, in all of its parts, is in a dialectical, confrontational, or conversational connection of some sort with that baseline, and most Christians recognize that. Cardinal Willebrand, a former president of the Pontifical Council on Christian Unity, once said that the word return is not in our ecumenical vocabulary. It cannot simply be a matter of return.
A Mutual Road
Granted, many coming into the Catholic Church are called converts, but I have some ambivalence about that word. When I was received, my sponsor, Avery Dulles (now Cardinal Dulles), said, “Richard, what you have to get used to is that from here on in, you’re going to be called a convert priest. You could live to be 135 years old, and they’ll still introduce you as a convert priest.” And, of course, that’s true of Avery Dulles himself, who was received some 50 years ago and is still regularly called the convert cardinal.
But at the word convert I bristle a little. When my Evangelical Protestant friends ask, “When did you become a Christian? When were you converted? When were you born again?”, I always say, “Oh, I know precisely when. It was on Trinity Sunday in June of 1936.” “You must have been only just born.” “That’s right, I was only two weeks old, and that’s when all those things happened through the grace of God and the regenerating power of the sacrament of baptism.” And that is when I was converted. In becoming a Catholic, I was not converted again, except in the sense that everyday we are to be converted and called to conversion. I became more fully who I already was by virtue of my baptism all those many years ago.
“The word return is not in our ecumenical vocabulary.” For many, of course, it is a question of return. In the United States an astonishing number of adults come through the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults (RCIA), into the Catholic Church each year—about 180,000 in each of the last seven years. About half of them were baptized before in some other Christian communion, and about half had never been baptized. For many of them, it is a matter of returning, of coming home, even as, some might say, the prodigal son returned.
But that’s not, I think, how the council and the magisterium of the Church invite us to think about the prospect of Christian unity and our obligation to work toward it. It is rather a road of mutual repentance, of mutual forgiveness, of openness to the fact that we will all be changed by our reunion—though the great truth that God intends for his Church cannot be changed, of course.
But the way in which that truth is expressed, articulated, lived, the way in which it is structured—many things can be changed, but it all begins with repentance. That is why Pope John Paul II has again and again—somebody has counted up 147 different public occasions—asked for forgiveness from other communities.
The Catholic has the obligation to take the initiative on this. Not because the Catholic Church is composed of greater sinners than any other communion, but precisely because if it believes, as it does believe, that it is the Church of Jesus Christ most fully and rightly ordered through time, then it has the obligation to take the lead in acting as the Church. Acting as the Church begins with realizing that we are all sinners, radically dependent upon the grace of God. In other words, it begins with repentance.
A cardinal friend in Rome once said, “You know, this pope, he has no shame. That’s what people don’t understand.” I asked what he meant, and he replied, “You can’t shame him. No matter how often he reaches out, no matter how often he asks for forgiveness, no matter how often he makes gestures of reconciliation, and no matter how often he’s rejected and spit upon and treated shamelessly, he comes right back; he just keeps on coming. There’s no stopping him.” And so it has to be with us from all of our communions. We do not have an obligation, or even a right, to defend our divisions like little ecclesiastical pieces of property that have to be protected and defended and preserved at all costs. No, we have only the call to follow Jesus, to discern as best we can the fullness of the truth that God intended in Christ for his Church, and to live in obedience to that truth.
The Vision of Ut Unum Sint
That’s the vision of Ut Unum Sint (“That They May All Be One”), the 1995 encyclical, written, as many in the West have complained, primarily to the Orthodox. And that’s true; in that encyclical, as in many other ecumenical documents, it is clear that the Orthodox have priority in the Catholic ecumenical agenda. And that has to be the case because, if the healing between East and West cannot be attended to, then the other healings are going to be that much more difficult, the other wounds fester that much more poisonously.
But Ut Unum Sint also deals with the divisions of the West coming out of the Reformation. And it’s very sober in this regard. During my thirty years as a Lutheran pastor and theologian, I was deeply engaged in the Lutheran-Roman Catholic dialogues, and I edited an ecumenical journal called Una Sancta in the 1960s and 1970s. Many among those evangelical Catholics—as we Lutherans at that time called ourselves—believed it was both the original intent and the destiny of the Lutheran Reformation to be a reforming movement, not apart from, but within and for, the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church. Those of us with that conviction among Lutherans, as well as those of analogous convictions among Anglicans, could believe for a time, in the 1970s and 1980s, that we could see on the horizon, perhaps no bigger than a man’s hand, a real prospect of ecclesial reconciliation, of healing the breach of the sixteenth century between Rome and the Reformation.
I believed that; I hoped for that; desperately I prayed for that. I do not believe that is the case today. Some of you know my story in becoming a Catholic—how reluctantly, how slowly, how hesitantly it happened. How, when it finally happened, for all the joy it occasioned, it was not untouched by the sadness of knowing that what I had hoped for the communion of my birth and nurturing and formation, for Lutheranism, was not to be. I could no longer convince others or myself of the vision of Lutheranism for which I had so long contended.
Ut Unum Sint is likewise very sober about the relationship with the communions of the West when it comes to the possibility of ecclesial reconciliation. In this encyclical, the Holy Father lists five questions that have barely begun to be addressed in theological dialogues between the Roman Catholic Church and other ecclesial communions of the West. “Scripture and Tradition” is listed number one. I’m glad to say that Evangelicals and Catholics Together is publishing a statement [“Your Word Is Truth,” in the August/September 2002 issue of First Things], which I think makes a real contribution to this concern. Listed second is the question of the Eucharist, concerning the Real Presence and the sacrificial character of the Mass. Third comes ordination as a sacrament, and particularly the threefold ministry of deacon, presbyter, and bishop. Fourth is the magisterium and the role of Peter in the church, and how the Petrine ministry can be recognized as a gift for all Christians—not something that belongs only to the Catholic Church but to all Christians, to all who are truly but imperfectly in communion with one another. And finally, the Holy Father lists the question of Mary and the iconic character of the saints in the life of the church.
These things that the Holy Father lists as being major obstacles to unity in the West constitute an enormous agenda for all of us, for the rest of our lives, and for the next generation. The Holy Father spoke in Ut Unum Sint about the second millennium as being the millennium of Christian divisions. But as the second millennium was the millennium of Christian divisions, he said, so the third millennium must be the millennium of Christian unity. Clearly, that is a hope we all ought to share. I once asked the Holy Father, “When you became pope in October of 1978, what, most of all, did you hope as pope to be able to do?” And without skipping a beat, he said, “Advance Christian unity.”
Christian unity. The greatest disappointment of these 23 years, for the Holy Father and for many others, has been what must be judged the failures of his initiatives, especially with respect to the East, with respect to his hope that the Church would once again be able to breathe with both lungs, East and West. It is a deep sadness. God willing, what appears so far to be the rejection on the part of most of the Orthodox Church to the pope’s initiatives is not the last word. Hope remains very much alive for this great cause of Christian unity.
Christ & the Church, Unity in Truth
E. M. Forster once said that there are two kinds of people in the world: the people who say there are two kinds of people in the world and the people who don’t say that. I would advance, nonetheless, that there are two kinds of Christians: those whom I would call ecclesiological Christians, and those for whom being a Christian is primarily, if not exclusively, a matter of individual decision. There are those for whom the act of faith in Christ and the act of faith in the Church is one act of faith. And those for whom the act of faith in Christ is the act of faith, and the act of faith in the Church, if there is one, is secondary, or tertiary, or somewhere down the line.
I believe that apostolic New Testament Christianity understands the unity of the act of faith in the same way as the object of faith, God in Jesus Christ, is united inseparably with his Body, the Church. In reflecting on the prayer of our Lord Jesus in John 17: “That they may be one,” there are some who say, “Yes, but really that’s only talking about the unity between the believer and God. For doesn’t our Lord say, ‘That they may be one as we are one’?” Well, of course he says that. As though there were a separation! For it is not really possible to separate the unity we are to have as the followers of Christ from the unity we have through Christ with the Father in the power of the Spirit.
In time, in space, in the created stuff of history, God has invested himself in Jesus Christ in the Incarnation and in the Church as the historical working-out of the firstfruits of the victory of Christ, as St. Paul has said. This both signals, sacramentally, and bears the cosmic hope of redemption for all mankind in the vision of St. Paul in Romans 8.
Thus, the question that engages us in seeking Christian unity is not simply a consequence of our devotion to Jesus Christ, or a result, or additive, or auxiliary activity for people who happen to be interested in that kind of thing. It is constitutive of our being in Christ and, therefore, in his Church. We each have to reflect and pray about these things if we believe that “ut unum sint” is nothing less than the will of Christ. The search for Christian unity, obedience to the will of Christ, the integrity and authenticity of our discipleship, and maybe our soul’s salvation is dependent upon how we respond to that prayer of our Lord’s. The ultimate is at stake in these penultimate efforts of ours.
Yet we all have different vocations in the search for Christian unity, and certainly it is the Catholic position that everybody must act according to his conscience as that conscience is formed and disciplined by the truth. We must continue to contend for the truth, for that is the only unity that is acceptable to God. The only unity that we can seek is unity in the truth—Christ and the Church, the body and the head, one head, one body.
Whether this millennium is to be, as John Paul II hopes, the millennium of Christian unity after the millennium of Christian division, I don’t know. And, of course, he doesn’t know. Nobody knows. Only God knows.
So, with respect to the question of Christian unity, as with respect to much else, I remind myself everyday, and sometimes several times a day, of that marvelous line from T. S. Eliot’s The Four Quartets: “For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.” Some people read that and say, “Oh, well, that means shrugging our shoulders in resignation.” But I don’t think that’s what Eliot meant. I think he meant it as a joyful expression of immeasurable gratitude: The rest is not our business; the rest is God’s business.
Richard John Neuhaus† was editor-in-chief of First Things and the author of many books, including Death on a Friday Afternoon, and As I Lay Dying (Basic Books). This article is transcribed from the address he gave at the Touchstone conference, “Christian Unity & the Divisions We Must Sustain,” in November 2001 at Saint Mary of the Lake Seminary, Mundelein, Illinois.
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