(US bishops listen to a speaker during their annual general assembly in November 2015. CNS photo/Bob Roller)
It’s the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, a celebratory yet solemn week when Christians recall what unites them and reflect on the challenges still preventing full, sacramental unity. Over the past few years I’ve had the chance to meet a number of Christians of various traditions who work in the field of ecumenism at the institutional and local levels. I’m always deeply impressed and inspired by their resolve, pastoral and theological sensitivity and joy, frankly, despite the slow, uphill battle they are fighting.
Ecumenical dialogue over the past fifty years has brought us a long way. First, the problem of division among Christians was named for what it was: a “scandal” and “contradiction” to Christ according to Vatican Council II, and from there the dialogue was propelled forward. Then methodologies for effective dialogue and occasions for encounter and listening were created. There have been bumps along the road and, as I mentioned, serious challenges remain. But no one can deny that over the years a spirit of mutual respect and charity has come to define ecumenical dialogue between the churches.
Now, contrast that spirit with the one we sometimes find in the Catholic Church among those who disagree on any number of theological or pastoral issues. Notable absences: mutual respect and charity. How can that be?
For hundreds of years Protestants and Catholics adopted an “us against them” attitude that defined, in part, their ecclesial identities. Today that attitude is impossible to maintain theologically, not least because it’s simply anti-Christian. But it has not gone away. Instead it’s been redirected at fellow Catholics. A quick search on the internet will unearth a number of Catholic commentators who define their “catholicity” by the apparent “unorthodoxy” of other Catholics. Hmmm.
Recently I read Ross Douthat’s “A Crisis of Conservative Catholicism” in which he admirably sketches a portrait of the conservative branch of the American church as it stands two-and-a-half years into the pontificate of Pope Francis. The published lecture was quick to draw responses from Michael Sean Winters and Fr. Thomas Reese, SJ both of the National Catholic Reporter (unsurprisingly, as Douthat explicitly called out the NCR in his lecture), revealing a clear divide in American Catholic understanding.
Let me be clear.This is not a critique of Douthat, Winters or Reese for a lack of charity or respect in their discourse. In fact, I applaud Douthat for his sincere attempt to critically examine the conservative narrative, and likewise Winters and Reese for their rich and respectful critiques of Douthat.
I mention this recent public discussion because permeating Douthat’s analysis—sincere as it may be—is the Reformation-old “us against them” attitude which has been reincarnated in the Catholic Church in the US over the past fifty years (and to a lesser but significant degree in Canada). This kind of suspicion or outright mistrust between decidedly conservative and liberal Catholics would not fly in any serious ecumenical dialogue today. But it’s allowed more and more to run rampant in the Catholic Church.
It took a church council, Vatican II—the highest expression of authority in the Catholic Church—to kick start participation in the ecumenical movement, which eventually transformed the old attitudes of mistrust. Can the current internal crisis be addressed and the Catholic Church once again set down a path toward unity? It will require new methodologies for effective dialogue and occasions for encounter and listening. Another council may not be necessary, but like Vatican II, it seems to me that the responsibility for this task is squarely in the hands of the bishops.
So, perhaps during this week of prayer for Christian unity, Catholics (including Catholic bishops) can also reflect on the meaning of unity within the Catholic Church itself and pray that the Holy Spirit removes mistrust and inspires charity. Though the ecumenical movement has not achieved its goal of full unity among Christians, the maturation of the dialogue over the past fifty years and the mutual respect and charity with which it is practiced today are noteworthy achievements from which Catholics can learn a great deal.
“We must never forget that we are pilgrims journeying alongside one another. This means that we must have sincere trust in our fellow pilgrims, putting aside all suspicion or mistrust, and turn our gaze to what we are all seeking: the radiant peace of God’s face.”
Pope Francis on Ecumenical Dialogue (Evangelii Gaudium, 244)
On Further Reflection
In the complex world of the 21st century there are more questions than answers. The challenge for the Church is to find new and effective ways of bringing the Gospel message into the conversation. For her part, the Church can act as a much needed voice for dialogue, reason and charity. On Further Reflection invites readers to go beyond the headlines to see the deeper realities affecting the church and society. Sebastian Gomes is a producer and host at Salt+Light TV.