On January 17, 2015, the Archdiocese of Vancouver sponsored a Symposium on Christian Unity, titled Have We Answered the Call?, at St. Francis Xavier Church, in honour of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. Fr. Thomas Rosica, CSB, of Salt + Light Catholic Media Foundation, gave the keynote address titled The Decree on Ecumenism: 50 Years Later. In part 2 of his address, Fr. Rosica focuses on identifying problems and raising important questions regarding the ecumenical movement in the Catholic Church.
Is the ecumenical movement in crisis?
So much has been achieved in joint efforts for Christian unity over the past 50 years. Separated Christians no longer consider one another as strangers, competitors or even enemies, but as brothers and sisters. We have largely removed the former lack of understanding, misunderstanding, prejudice, and indifference; we pray together, together we give witness to our common faith; in many fields we work together. We have experienced that “what unites us is much greater than what divides us.” Such a change was unthinkable at the turn of the twentieth century and those who wish to go back to those times seriously risk being forsaken not only by a good, warm, friendly spirit but also by the Holy Spirit.
Yet after the first rather euphoric phase of the ecumenical movement that followed the Second Vatican Council, the last decades have seen us experiencing signs of tiredness, disillusionment and stagnation. Some go so far as to speak even of a crisis, and many Christians no longer understand the differences on which the churches are arguing with each other. Others hold that ecumenism is outmoded and that interreligious dialogue is now the agenda du jour. Let us be very clear about such discussions: there is a difference but not a competition between the two dialogues, for ultimately to be effective, interreligious dialogue presupposes that Christians can speak one and the same language. The necessity of interreligious dialogue makes ecumenical dialogue even more urgent.
In light of the current situation in the world and in the Church, and because of the scandalous divisions that still exist among Christians, it is all the more necessary to raise a number of questions regarding our efforts for Christian unity: What did the Council really say about Church unity? Where are we today on the ecumenical journey? Why the current ecumenical crisis? How do we overcome the current problems? What are these problems? Let me try to answer some of the questions and raise new ones.
1) The decisive element of the Second Vatican Council’s ecumenical approach is the fact that the Council no longer identifies the Church of Jesus Christ simply with the Roman Catholic Church, as had Pope Pius XII as late as in the Encyclical Mystici corporis (1943).
2) In its Dogmatic Constitution on the Church Lumen Gentium, the Council replaced “est” (the Catholic Church “is” Jesus Christ’s Church) with “subsistit”: the Church of Jesus Christ subsists in the Catholic Church, which means that the Church of Jesus Christ is made concretely real in the Catholic Church; in her she is historically and concretely present and can be met. This does not exclude that also outside the visible structure of the Catholic Church there are not only individual Christians but also elements of the Church, and with them an “ecclesial reality”. We cannot think that beyond the boundaries of the Catholic community there is a huge, ecclesial vacuum!
3) The Council speaks of “elementa ecclesiae” outside the Catholic Church, which, as gifts belonging to the Church of Christ, are forces impelling towards Catholic unity. The concept “elementa” or “vestigia” comes from Calvin. Obviously, the Council – unlike Calvin – understands the elementa not as sad remains but as dynamic reality, and it says expressly that the Spirit of God uses these elementa as means of salvation for non-Catholic Christians. Both the Council and the ecumenical decree acknowledge explicitly that the Holy Spirit is at work in the other churches in which they even discover examples of holiness leading to martyrdom.
4) The Council is fully aware of the sinfulness of the members of its own Church, and of sinful structures existing in the Church itself; and it knows about the need of reforming the shape of the Church. The Constitution on the Church Lumen Gentium and the Decree on Ecumenism state expressly that the Church is a pilgrim Church, an ecclesia “semper purificanda”, which must constantly take the way of penance and renewal. Ecumenism is not possible without conversion and renewal. Ecumenism therefore is no one-way street, but a reciprocal learning process, or – as stated in St. John Paul II’s masterful ecumenical Encyclical Ut unum sint – an exchange of gifts.
5) Recent decisions and directions by our sister Churches in the areas of moral theology, ethics, life and death issues, ordained ministries, questions regarding the family, marriage, sexuality and human life are essential issues that must not be ignored out of fear of jeopardizing our ecumenical consensus. In the business of authentic ecumenism, communication must be frank and robust, respectful and charitable. Catholic participants are expected to hold fast to the Church’s teachings, presenting doctrines clearly and avoiding all forms of reductionism or facile agreement. When we are in dialogue with other Christian churches, must treat each other as partners and presuppose that each partner desires unity, even when we speak about contentious or divisive issues. We must avoid giving the impression of a“divide et impera” attitude to Christians of other churches and communions.
6) For many in my generation and older, the Second Vatican Council’s ecumenical thrust and movement was a powerful hopeful, energizing new experience. In the meantime we have several new generations of Catholics who were not yet born at the time of the Council nor did they experience its dynamic impulse in the decades following the Council, so they do not really understand what, how and why things have changed. They do not understand our theological problems and they are not interested in them! For many, the ecumenical questions have lost their fascination, momentum, passion and dynamism. This is very often connected with a lack of catechetical, homiletic and proper theological instruction. Many do not know what Catholic or Protestant doctrine is all about and what the differences are. Often they have only a superficial and sound bite knowledge through the media and Social Media. In this situation we are faced with a double task and challenge. Firstly, we have to promote ecumenical education and the reception of ecumenical results. The results of ecumenical progress have not yet penetrated into the hearts and into the flesh of our Catholic community and of other churches as well. Ecumenical theology is not present as an inner dimension in theological programs and ministerial formation.
7) The crisis of the ecumenical movement is paradoxically the result of its success. Ecumenism for many became obvious. But the closer we come to one another, the more painful is the perception that we are not yet in full communion. We are very impatient. We are hurt by what still separates us and hinders us from joining around the table of the Lord; we are increasingly dissatisfied with the ecumenical status quo; in this atmosphere, ecumenical frustration and sometimes even opposition develops. Paradoxically it is ecumenical progress that is also the cause for the ecumenical malaise!
8) As we move closer to Jesus Christ, in him we move nearer to one another. Therefore, it is not a question of Church political debates and compromises, nor of some kind of superficial union, but of a reciprocal spiritual exchange and a mutual enrichment. Ecumenism is a spiritual journey, in which the question is not about a way backwards but about a way forwards. Such unity is ultimately a gift of God’s Spirit and of his guidance. The oikoumene is neither a mere academic nor only a diplomatic matter; its soul is spiritual ecumenism. The practice of prayer is an indispensable means of sustaining the activities of common witness and dialogue as we progress along the path to Christian unity. All are invited to enter into the prayer of Jesus, who before his passion asked the Father that his disciples might be one, so that the world may believe (Jn 17:21).
9) During his pontificate, Pope-emeritus Benedict XVI emphasized that the proclamation of Jesus Christ is not about gaining “as many members as possible for our community, and still less in order to gain power. … We speak of him [Christ] because we feel the duty to transmit that joy which has been given to us.”
Benedict also expressed his concern over a growing interest among governments to sponsor programs intended to promote interreligious and intercultural dialogue. Speaking in “Rotunda” Hall of the Pope John Paul II Cultural Center of Washington, D.C. on April 17, 2008, Benedict said: “These are praiseworthy initiatives. At the same time, religious freedom, interreligious dialogue and faith-based education aim at something more than a consensus regarding ways to implement practical strategies for advancing peace. The broader purpose of dialogue is to discover the truth. What is the origin and destiny of mankind? What are good and evil? What awaits us at the end of our earthly existence? Only by addressing these deeper questions can we build a solid basis for the peace and security of the human family, for wherever and whenever men and women are enlightened by the splendor of truth, they naturally set out on the path of peace.”
10) Massive problems of poverty in today’s world cry out to us as Christians. There are too many women and men who suffer from severe malnutrition, growing unemployment, the rising numbers of unemployed youth, and from increasing social exclusion. These can give rise to criminal activity and even the recruitment of terrorists as we are witnessing at present. We cannot remain indifferent or deaf to the cries of our brothers and sisters who ask of us not only material assistance – needed in so many circumstances – but above all, our help to defend their inherent dignity as human persons, so that they can find the spiritual energy to become once again protagonists in their own lives. As Christians we are called together to eliminate that globalization of indifference which today seems to reign supreme, while building a new civilization of love and solidarity.
11) A second piercing cry comes to us from the victims of the conflicts in so many parts of our world. Nations are scarred by an inhumane, brutal war and senseless terrorism. The cry of the victims of conflict urges us to move with haste along the path of reconciliation and communion especially between Catholics and Orthodox. Pope Francis has written: “Christians of the East and West must give common witness so that, strengthened by the Spirit of the risen Christ, they may disseminate the message of salvation to the entire world.” Both Francis and Patriarch Bartholomew are not only motivated by the cause of ecumenism but also by forming a united front against the persecution of Christianity in the Middle East where the number of Catholics and Orthodox have dwindled over the past couple decades.
12) A third cry which challenges us is that of young people who tragically live without hope, overcome by mistrust and resignation. Many of the young, influenced by the prevailing culture, seek happiness solely in possessing material things and in satisfying their fleeting emotions. It is precisely the young who today implore us to make progress towards full communion. Not for naught did St. John XXIII refer to the Taizé community as “that little springtime” where tens of thousands of young people go on pilgrimage not because they ignore the differences which still separate us, but because they are able to see beyond them; they are able to embrace what is essential and what already unites us.
(CNS photo/Catholic Press Photo)
(CNS photo/Paul Haring)