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From the July/August, 2006 issue of Touchstone


New Roads from Rome by Kenneth D. Whitehead

New Roads from Rome

The Surprising & Unpredictable Pilgrimage of the New Ecumenism

by Kenneth D. Whitehead

We live in an age of ecumenism our ancestors of just a few generations ago could not have imagined. We are actively encouraged by our churches to respect and maintain good relations with other Christians, work cooperatively with them on common tasks in society at large, and, on appropriate occasions, even pray with them.

Visits back and forth by the leaders of various Churches and communions are the order of the day. Joint statements and agreements by church leaders are similarly quite frequent. Christian reunion may not have been achieved as yet, but this has seemingly not been on account of any lack of positive words and expressions of good will on all sides.

The atmosphere was once very different. Catholics considered Christians outside the visible boundaries of the Catholic Church “separated brethren,” and were forbidden to participate in their worship. Protestants were thought to be gravely mistaken in their religious commitments, if not actually perverse. Separation from them was regarded as a more or less fixed and permanent feature of the Christian scene—unless and until by some miracle they might come to see the light and be reconciled with the true Church of Christ.

Such feelings were widely reciprocated by many non-Catholic Christians—to the point where some did not even consider Catholics to be Christians. Catholics were considered proper subjects for evangelism. Though the polemical anti-Catholic language of the past was rarely employed, a new language was often used, in which the Catholic Church was narrow, reactionary, and authoritarian, and its most distinctive features outdated and obscurantist.

The quest for Christian unity was at a standstill. Christ’s prayer “that they may all be one” (John 17:20–21) was steadily disregarded on all sides and, indeed, was virtually forgotten.

A Scandal

In 1958, the new Pope John XXIII was scandalized by this rejection of our Lord’s express intention for his people. His service as a papal diplomat in Orthodox territories had convinced him that the time had come to seek a remedy for Christian disunity. He quite pointedly made the search for Christian unity one of his main reasons for convoking the Second Vatican Council in 1962. (The other two were the renewal and more effective dissemination of the church’s faith and the adaptation or updating [aggiornamento] of the church’s discipline and practices to better meet the needs of the present day.)

As a result of the council’s decisions, as exemplified in such documents as its Decree on Ecumenism, Unitatis Redintegratio (“Restoration of Unity”), the Catholic Church moved into a new era of full-scale ecumenism. Where ecumenism was concerned, it is no exaggeration to say that the church fundamentally changed the stance that she had been consistently maintaining for the previous several centuries towards those professing Christians outside her visible boundaries.

Especially following the solemn definitions of the First Vatican Council in 1870 on the primacy and infallibility of the pope, the Catholic Church’s stance towards these Christians was quite simple: They needed to return to the fullness of Christ’s truth and grace present in the Catholic Church. In 1894, for example, Pope Leo XIII declared in his Praeclara Gratulationis “the yearning desire of Our heart . . . that the day is not far distant, when the Eastern Churches, so illustrious in their ancient faith and glorious past, will return to the fold they have abandoned.”

Pope Pius XI articulated this seemingly decided and settled position of the Catholic Church on ecumenism in his encyclical on Religious Unity, Mortalium Animos, issued in 1928. This encyclical represented the Catholic Church’s answer to the organized modern ecumenical movement, which had begun under Protestant auspices around 1910 and had succeeded in drawing an impressive number of bodies into its ranks, including many Orthodox. There had been some discussion of whether the Catholic Church, too, might take part.

To this question Pope Pius XI responded with a resounding: No! “The disciples of Christ must be united principally by the bond of one faith,” he declared. “Shall we suffer what would indeed be iniquitous, the truth, and truth divinely revealed, to be made a subject for compromise?”

Describing Christian ecumenists, however sincere, as “pan-Christians,” Pius XI saw the ecumenical movement as merely a “federation” of Churches, or an “assembly” of those calling themselves Christians, while not being in agreement with each other on what constituted Christianity. He concluded that “it should be clear why the Apostolic See has never allowed its subjects to take part in the[se] assemblies of non-Catholics: for the union of Christians can only be promoted by promoting the return to the one true Church of Christ of those who are separated from it, for in the past they have unhappily left it.”

Even John XXIII’s first encyclical, Ad Petri Cathedram, issued in 1959, although speaking more lovingly of separated Christians than had been the custom, asked non-Catholic Christians: “May we, in fond anticipation, address you as sons and brethren? May we hope with a father’s love for your return?”

The only problem was that few, if any, of the non-Catholic Christians the pope was addressing seemed disposed to undertake anything resembling the “return” he envisaged. For most of them, the idea of a return was almost meaningless, since they did not regard themselves as in any way having “left” or “abandoned” or become “separated from” the Catholic Church to begin with.

Simple Return

At the time of the council, Pius XI’s idea of a return by non-Catholic Christians in a body to the Catholic Church was not only not a very active prospect, almost nobody even talked about it. Moreover, most Catholics could not see how the Catholic Church, considering what she claims to be, could be involved in any ecumenical movement that did not involve the simple return of erring separated brethren to the true fold of Christ.

For if it is true that the Catholic Church alone teaches Christ’s truths in their most complete and developed form, at the same time as she offers the most complete sacramental means for our sanctification and salvation, to enter into dialogue with other Christian bodies, which, by definition, did not possess these same truths and means of grace in their fullness, almost inevitably appeared to weaken and even compromise the church’s own firm teaching, witness, and example.

Such was and is the logic that has not ceased to prompt questions, even today, about how the Catholic Church could possibly become a “partner” in the ecumenical “dialogue,” without prior reference to the truth or falsity of her claims, or those of her dialogue partners. Pope Pius XI did have a point. Truth can surely not just be prescinded from when matters of faith are at stake. In the meantime, though, the unity for which Christ prayed surely could not simply be set aside or disregarded as of no particular importance, either.

John XXIII was determined to try to change whatever might be standing in the way of Christian reunion that could be changed and to remove any obstacles to Christian unity that could be removed. As it happened, the fathers of the Second Vatican Council eventually turned out to be in substantial agreement with him about this.

His general practice was to leave the organization and outcomes of the council to the good offices of the Holy Spirit, but where the quest for Christian unity was concerned, he left nothing to chance. Even before the council, he established a Secretariat for Christian Unity, which proved basically responsible not only for developing Unitatis Redintegratio, but also the declarations on Religious Liberty, Dignitatis Humanae, and on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions, Nostra Aetate.

A New Impetus

The leaders of most of the other Christian bodies agreed with the pope and the council. They quite happily sent observers to follow developments at the council, and after it, engaged with no little alacrity in the new ecumenical dialogue called for and promoted by the council. The fact that the Catholic Church was now suddenly willing to engage in such dialogue gave new impetus to the ecumenical movement.

It was not a foregone conclusion, however, that the council would necessarily follow John XXIII’s lead on the new ecumenism. Initially, when debate began in 1962, many of the bishops had serious reservations that getting into the ecumenical movement could weaken faith and even promote religious indifferentism. Debate about this was serious and prolonged.

But attitudes had been changing, it turned out, and many of them saw that the Catholic Church did need to look with new eyes at the Christians outside her visible boundaries. How to do this, given established positions and attitudes, was the question.

What the council decided to do was to look at the whole question in a different way—to step around some of the past obstacles and try to leave some past quarrels behind. The church’s attitude and policies towards Christians outside her visible boundaries were not established church teachings in which the integrity of the church’s Magisterium was engaged. They could be changed. A new approach was possible.

In laying out this new approach, the council fathers made use of the basic idea they had already adopted in the council’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium, issued in 1964. While Christians separated from the Catholic Church lacked the fullness of the faith and of the means of salvation in Christ, in their various Churches and communions, there were nevertheless also to be found among them “many elements of sanctification and truth.”

Separated Christians were thus not simply “in error,” as they had so largely been regarded as being, but possessed at least some elements of Christian truth and of the sacramental means of grace. Simple experience confirmed, for example, that some Bible Christians believed in Jesus more fervently than many Catholics, and that most Christians possessed at least some of the sacramental means of sanctification and salvation, if only baptism. For the council fathers, therefore, the question became one of trying to look at the non-Catholic glass not as half empty, but as one-quarter, one-half, or perhaps in some cases even three-quarters full.

Seeking the Sheep

This new approach thus entailed that the Catholic Church herself, like the Good Shepherd in the parable, had to go out henceforth in search of the lost sheep (cf. Matt. 18:12). This was the basic idea that was to inform the council’s Decree on Ecumenism. The whole question and its possible ramifications were vigorously and thoroughly debated during the council. All the doubts and questions about how the church could so drastically revise what had been her negative position on ecumenism up to then were thoroughly aired.

In the end, though, the final vote on the draft of the Decree on Ecumenism, which took place on November 21, 1964, registered 2,137 votes in favor and only 11 opposed. This certainly amounted to moral unanimity. Pope Paul VI (John XXIII had died in 1963) promulgated this Decree on Ecumenism, Unitatis Redintegratio, the same day—one year before the end of the council.

What kind of document is the Decree on Ecumenism? One of the distinguished Protestant observers at the council, the Swiss theologian Oscar Cullmann—who was not always favorable to the council’s work and indeed was quite critical of it at several points—described the decree as “more than the opening of a door; new ground has been broken. No Catholic document has ever spoken of non-Catholic Christians in this way.”

The very first sentence in the Introduction to the text declares that “the restoration of unity among Christians is one of the principal concerns of the Second Vatican Council.” The second sentence is no less definite in stating that “Christ the Lord founded one Church and one Church only.” Yet the text immediately points to the fact of division among Christians and mentions “the many Christian communions” all presenting themselves “as true inheritors of Jesus Christ.”

“Such division,” the text goes on to say, “openly contradicts the will of Christ, scandalizes the world, and damages that most holy cause, the preaching of the Gospel to every creature.” The document makes clear that the ecumenism it is speaking of is an affair between and among Christians, whom it defines as all those “who invoke the Triune God and confess Jesus as Lord and Savior.”

No doubt because of the misgivings of many council fathers that an uncritical, unprincipled, or overly enthusiastic type of ecumenism could lead to religious indifferentism and the downgrading of essential truths of the faith, the text very quickly proceeds to make clear that the Catholic Church, while fervently desiring the unity of all Christians, has nevertheless in no way relinquished her traditional claim to be “the one Church and the one Church only” founded by Jesus Christ.

After a brief, Scripture-based account of the foundation of the Church upon Peter and the other apostles—including references to the three famous Petrine passages in Matthew 16, Luke 22, and John 21—the text proceeds in various ways to underline the essential oneness of Christ’s Church, referring to her as “God’s only flock,” and as the “one and only Church of God.”

It goes on to reiterate the council’s belief that Christians and Christian communities outside the visible communion of the Catholic Church do not enjoy the “fullness” of the truths and of the sacramental means of salvation that the Catholic Church alone fully enjoys. Indeed, the “differences that exist . . . whether in doctrine or sometimes in discipline—or concerning the structure of the Church—do indeed create many obstacles, sometimes serious ones, to full ecclesiastical communion.”

Brotherly Blame

Still, the tone of the document remains positive, and affirms that “all who have been justified by faith in baptism” are held to have been “incorporated into Christ,” and therefore his Church, in some measure.

Moreover, in an extremely important psychological concession—important if there ever is to be any real ecumenical progress in the practical order—the text plainly states that “one cannot charge with the sin of separation those who at present are born into [separate] communities and in them are brought up in the faith of Christ. . . . The Catholic Church accepts them with respect and affection as brothers.” Referring to the sources of the original divisions, the text goes on to say that “often enough, men on both sides were to blame.”

The text elaborates on Lumen Gentium in listing some of the ecclesial “elements and endowments which . . . can exist outside the visible boundaries of the Catholic Church: the written Word of God; the life of grace; faith, hope, and charity, with the other interior gifts of the Holy Spirit; as well as visible elements”—all of which “come from Christ and lead back to him, [and] belong by right to the Church of Christ.”

Nevertheless, the text goes on to say that, whatever truths and means of grace separated Christians might possess, “our separated brethren, whether considered as individuals, or as communities and Churches, are not blessed with that unity which Jesus Christ wished to bestow on all those to whom he has given new birth into one body.”

Because it is Christ who desires Christian unity, it is Christ who prayed that “they may all be one” (John 17:20), the council thought that the Catholic Church had a special responsibility to help create the conditions that might again make Christian unity possible. To do this, the text of the decree identifies several actions to which it holds that Christians on all sides of the question should be dedicated:

• Every effort should be made “to avoid expressions, judgments, and actions which do not represent the condition of our separated brethren with truth and fairness.”

• Dialogue should be carried on “between competent experts from different Churches and communities . . . [in which] each explains the teaching of his communion in greater depth and brings out clearly its distinctive features.”

• All Christians should cooperate more diligently in carrying out works “for the common good of humanity which are demanded by the Christian conscience.”

• All Christians should more often “come together for common prayer where this is permitted.”

• All Christians should “examine their own faithfulness to Christ’s will for the Church and, wherever necessary, undertake with vigor the task of renewal and reform.”

These, then, are the ecumenical principles that the Catholic Church has attempted to follow since the Second Vatican Council. That they in no way compromise any church teaching should be evident. Nor is the Catholic Church in any way diminished by adopting and attempting to pursue them, in response to a prayer of Jesus Christ, even when her attempts to do so turn out to be unsuccessful or perhaps are actually rebuffed.

Dominant Partner

That pursuit of these principles has not yet resulted in any notable examples of actual Christian reunion, however, should not surprise us. Christian unity is ultimately something that only God can bring about, as the council fully appreciated; all any Christians can do, to risk a tautology, is what they can and should do: namely, refrain from blame, engage in sincere dialogue, cooperate in common works, “pray always and not lose heart” (Luke 18:1).

These surely are the ecumenical principles every Christian body should follow. From a strictly human standpoint, no reunion is likely to come about until separated Christians come to see each other differently than they have over the centuries.

Once the council adopted the new ecumenism as the church’s official policy towards Christians outside her visible boundaries, it was probably inevitable that she, owing not merely to her sheer size and numbers, but also to her new and formidable determination, directed from the Holy See, to seek unity with all Christians, would very soon become perhaps the dominant party in the whole ecumenical movement.

This, in fact, happened very quickly. Since the council, theological commissions, under that name or some variant name such as “colloquium,” “conversation,” or “dialogue,” were set up, notably by the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, but also by many national bishops’ conferences.

Today such commissions carry on consultations and dialogue between Catholics and: Anglicans, the Assyrian Church of the East, Baptists, Disciples of Christ, Evangelicals, Lutherans, Orthodox in both the Greek and Slavic traditions, Pentecostals, and Reformed. There have similarly been operating commissions (recently combined into one) with some of the Ancient Churches of the East: the Armenian, Coptic, Eritrean, Ethiopian, Syro-Malankaran or “Jacobite,” and Malankaran Churches (sometimes called “Orthodox,” though they are not in communion with Constantinople).

Some of these theological commissions have made greater progress than others. In some cases, major and indeed unprecedented agreed-upon statements have been produced, such as the 1999 Joint Declaration on Justification concluded between the Catholic Church and the Lutheran World Federation, in which both parties agreed that “by grace alone, in faith in Christ’s saving work, and not because of any merit on our part, we are accepted by God and receive the Holy Spirit, who renews our hearts while equipping and calling us to good works.” Both now agree that each party’s understanding of the doctrine merits no condemnation by the other, as unhappily occurred during the Reformation.

The Catholic Church and the Ancient Churches of the East have come to notable agreed-upon statements on Christology. These have led some to believe that actual reunion with these small but vital communions, some of which go back to the beginning of Christianity, could come about sooner than most people imagine, perhaps even very soon.

Dialogue with the Anglican Communion initially seemed quite promising—Pope Paul VI, perhaps naïvely, seems to have believed that reunion with the Anglican Communion was not only possible but perhaps even imminent in his day. Such hopes have been dashed. Even during Paul VI’s own pontificate, churches of the Anglican Communion first ordained women, creating another barrier to unity, then followed this by the even more divisive ordination of women bishops and continuing theological division within the communion itself.

Nor have prospects been improved since by the Episcopal Church’s ordination of a homosexual bishop in an openly “gay” relationship and the approval of a “blessing” of homosexual unions by the Anglican Church in Canada.

Catholic-Orthodox Unity

Dialogue with the Orthodox, which, after an earlier very favorable start, was unfortunately broken off for five full years after the year 2000 over such issues as “Uniatism” (the term by which the Orthodox often refer to the Eastern Catholic Churches in communion with the See of Rome). It was resumed only in 2005, following an appeal by Pope John Paul II. The Orthodox today, in spite of many doubts and even some expressed hostility towards contemporary ecumenical dialogue, nevertheless often seem to believe, like the fathers of Vatican II, that ecumenism must be pursued in response to Christ’s prayer, no matter how little we might think it should be necessary or helpful.

Achieving Catholic-Orthodox unity was never just a question of the pope’s coming to an agreement with the ecumenical patriarch, after all, as many may have imagined back in 1964, when Pope Paul VI and Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras I issued their Common Declaration officially lifting the joint excommunications of the year 1054. The ecumenical patriarch is not the head of a single communion, as the pope is, but the primus inter pares, or “first among equals,” of the heads of some fourteen different national Orthodox Churches in communion with each other, but each with its own patriarch or metropolitan.

According to Orthodox doctrine, these auto-cephalous (self-governing) Churches in communion with each other constitute the true model of the one Church of Christ. The Catholic teaching is that these national or independent Churches, which indeed should enjoy autonomy along with their doctrinal and sacramental communion with each other, should nevertheless also be in communion with and under the successor of the head apostle, Peter, the bishop of Rome, the pope.

In the Catholic view, the Orthodox model of the true Church fails to reflect the apostolic Church completely in that it lacks, precisely, any successor to Peter. The original apostles formed a college headed by Peter. Their successors, the bishops of the Church, need to be united with the successor of Peter.

The question of the primacy of the successor of Peter over the whole Church remains, in fact, the outstanding major and unresolved ecumenical issue today. In spite of all the various surprising and even heartening ecumenical agreements that have been concluded, there have been no agreed-upon statements produced anywhere on the primacy of Peter, the one subject that nearly everybody agrees remains the greatest single obstacle to Christian reunion. (Apparently, the Catholic-Orthodox dialogue renewed in 2005 will now attempt to deal with the issue).

There have actually been Anglican, Lutheran, and Orthodox voices agreeing both that a center of Christian unity is necessary and that the bishop of Rome is the most likely candidate to serve as that center. Unhappily, however, the terms upon which each of these communions might apparently accept such a Roman primacy presently fall far short of the Roman “primacy of jurisdiction” solemnly defined by the First Vatican Council, which it is hard to see how the Catholic Church could ever renounce.

Thus, in spite of the hopes and wishes of the fathers of Vatican II, there has been no breakthrough, no significant Christian reunion forty years after the Second Vatican Council ended. Nevertheless, when we ask the question whether Vatican II’s decision to adopt a policy of active ecumenical involvement was a providential turn or a historic mistake, I believe we have to opt for the former and reject the latter.

One Way of Finding

No doubt the continuing lack of any actual Christian reunification anywhere continues to disappoint. Yet even though the course adopted at Vatican II was surely the correct one, the expectations of a quick or early success were exaggerated, especially considering the long and deep-seated separations. How much progress can we expect, after all, even after forty years, in overcoming separations which have now lasted for nearly 500 years, 1,000 years, and even 1,500 years? Nobody knows how the ecumenical adventure will ultimately turn out—whether there will be any significant Christian reunion and, if so, what it will consist of.

Still, it is hard not to think that the very real movement generated over the past forty years by the council’s decision to seek reunion, not to speak of so much genuine good will, is very much preferable to the stalemate and stagnation—and the danger of self-righteousness on all sides—which prevailed before. Although Christians of all ecclesial persuasions have surely been obliged all along to make the ecumenical effort, nobody should imagine that reunion can or will be brought about merely as a result of human intentions and efforts (as most of the separations originally were).

It was none other than Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger who, nearly twenty years ago, warned us in his book, Church, Ecumenism & Politics, of the necessity of recognizing “the limits of what one might term the ‘ecumenism of negotiation’ and not to expect of it any more than it can provide: rapprochements in important human fields, but not unity itself.”

[M]any disappointments could have been avoided if this had been clear from the start. But after the successes of the early period just after the Council, many have understood ecumenism as a diplomatic task in political categories; [and] just as one expects of good negotiators that after some time they will come to a joint agreement that is acceptable to everyone, so people thought they could expect this of the Church authorities in matters of ecumenism. But this was to expect too much of the ecumenical movement.

More recently, in one of his latest books, Pilgrim Fellowship of Faith: The Church as Communion, the man who became Pope Benedict XVI reminded us even more pertinently that:

We had in fact overrated our own capacities if we believed that theological dialogues could, within a fairly brief time span, restore the unity of belief. We had lost our way if we got it into our heads that this goal must be reachable within deadlines we laid down. For a little while we were confusing theology with politics, confusing dialogues about belief with diplomacy. We wanted to do ourselves what only God can do. That is why we have to be prepared to keep on seeking, in the knowledge that the seeking itself is one way of finding: that being on a journey and traveling on, without stopping to take rest, is the only appropriate attitude for the person who is on a pilgrimage toward eternity.

The Dogmatic Constitution Lumen Gentium can be found at www.vatican.va/archive/hist_councils/ii_vatican_council/documents/vat-ii_const_19641121_lumen-gentium_en.html; the Decree on Ecumenism, Unitatis Redintegratio, at www.vatican.va/archive/hist_councils/ii_vatican_council/documents/vat-ii_decree_19641121_unitatis-redintegratio_en.html; and the July/August 2003 issue of Touchstone on Christian unity at http://touchstonemag.com/archives/issue.php?id=58.

With Charity for All

The Catholic “tradition” of passively waiting for the “return” of erring and separated brethren, as articulated by Popes Leo XIII and Pius XI, was actually recent, as viewed from the perspective of the long history of the Church. St. Augustine, for example, had, in the fourth century, a time of Christian division, articulated the idea of the charity that Christians ought to have towards all Christians, including those not in unity with them. Writing in his Discourse on the Psalms, he said:

We entreat you, brothers, as earnestly as we are able, to have charity, not only for one another, but also for those who are outside the Church . . . [who] are separated insofar as they are joined with us in professing faith in Christ, our head, but are yet divided from the unity of his body. My friends, we must grieve over these as over our brothers. Whether they like it or not, they are our brothers; and they will only cease to be so when they no longer say Our Father.

— Kenneth D. Whitehead

Kenneth D. Whitehead is the 2004 recipient of the Blessed Frederic Ozanam Award for Catholic Social Action of the Society of Catholic Social Scientists (SCSS). He writes frequently on Catholic social and moral issues.

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