The Four Stages of the Catholic Ecumenical Movement

About fifteen years ago I wrote an article entitled History of Catholic Ecumenism, which was really a history of Catholic Ecumenism from Pope Leo XIII (late 19th century) until Vatican II. Though most Catholics assume that ecumenism in the Church didn’t start until after the Council, my article showed that there were in fact ecumenical efforts being undertaken before Vatican II, albeit in a somewhat minor fashion.

After Vatican II, of course, we saw an explosion of ecumenical work within the Catholic Church. At every level — from the Pope to the lowliest layman — efforts were made to bridge the gap between Catholics and our “separated brethren.” Much of this work was forgettable and had little impact, but some ecumenical endeavors have borne much fruit. I’m thinking especially of the pro-life movement, which, though not born of a desire for ecumenism, nevertheless has advanced the cause of Christian unity greatly over the years.

Over the past few years, however, there has been a shift in ecumenical work. Instead of simply discussing what unites us, many Catholics and non-Catholics are getting down to more concrete work. We can see this in the ongoing talks between the Catholic and Orthodox Churches, as well as the recent move by Pope Benedict to smooth the entrance of Anglicans into the Catholic fold.

As an overview of the history of Catholic ecumenism, I have identified four stages in the Church’s ecumenical work, which can be likened to learning to drive a car (stick with me, the analogy works, I think).

Stage 1: No privileges

Before a child reaches the proper age, he is not allowed to drive a car. What parents would allow their 10-year-old behind the wheel? This is appropriate, since the child does not have either the physical or mental preparation needed to properly handle the car.

After the Reformation, this was the status of Catholic ecumenism. The Church was engaged in a battle for its very soul, and was not prepared to engage in ecumenical dialogue (nor were most non-Catholics interested in the discussion either). Thus, up until the late 19th century, Church leaders wisely banned Catholics from engaging in ecumenical work.

Stage 2: Learner’s permit

At some point a child is ready to learn to drive. But a wise parent doesn’t just throw him behind the wheel and say, “let ‘er rip!” First a potential driver is given a permit which gives him the right to drive, but with severe limitations, and usually only with the presence of an experienced driver in the car.

After Leo XIII, we can see that the Church entered the “learner’s permit” era of ecumenical relations. In this stage, some ecumenical dialogue was permitted, but under very strict conditions. In these first instances of contact between Catholics and non-Catholics, Catholic leaders were prudently assessing the situation and determining what exactly ecumenism would entail. But no one was ready yet to dive into full dialogue.

Stage 3: Getting the license

Eventually a child receives his license and he is now allowed to drive. What do most kids do in response? They drive just to drive. They don’t care where they are going. They don’t have a destination. They just want to drive. And this is not all bad: one only gets better at driving by actually driving. This is how one learns — from both his positive experiences and his mistakes. But obviously someone should not stay in this stage forever.

Vatican II was like the granting of a driver’s license to the Church for ecumenism. Now almost all conditions were lifted, and everyone started engaging in ecumenism for ecumenism’s sake. There often seemed to be little direction in the dialogue, but everyone enjoyed the ride. Like the new driver, this was useful in many ways: we could truly talk to one another and learn where we were united, and where we were divided. But one cannot stay in this era forever. You won’t get anywhere.

Stage 4: Directed towards a destination

After the enthusiasm for being behind the wheel wears off, the driver begins to see the importance of the destination over just driving. The typical person sees driving as the means to an end: to get to a specific location.

Pope Benedict, I believe, has instituted this phase in Catholic Ecumenism with his recent outreach to the Anglicans. No longer are we just to engage in ecumenism for ecumenism’s sake, but instead we are to engage in it with an eye to our destination: full communion as one Church. How exactly we get there is anyone’s guess (and only the Holy Spirit really knows), but it is impossible to get anywhere if you don’t know where you are going. Pope Benedict has advanced the ecumenical movement significantly by giving a clear indication of what the Catholic Church perceives is the eventual goal of ecumenism.

Let us pray for all involved in ecumenical efforts that one day soon we might arrive at our proper destination, in which all followers of Christ are in communion with one another in one visible Church.

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