‘Ecumenical Catechism’: A Jungle Book of an Idea

“Look for the bare necessities. The simple bare necessities. Forget about your worries and your strife…”

If you’re forty-five years of age or older, the catchy little tune that accompanies these playful lyrics is undoubtedly already playing in your head while the image of a dancing Baloo is flashing through your mind’s eye. As for you younger folk – the above quote is taken from the lyrics to a hit song, “The Bare Necessities,” that comes from the soundtrack to the 1967 animated Disney classic, “The Jungle Book.” It was sung by one of the movie’s leading characters, Baloo – a lovably lazy bear – and it’s definitely on the childhood Top 10 list for my generation.

That oldie-but-goodie hadn’t played in my own head for a very long time; that is, until around 6:15 this morning when I read a Catholic News Service story saying that Cardinal Walter Kasper, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, had suggested “an ecumenical catechism that would be written in consultation with our [Anglican, Lutheran, Methodist, etc.] partners.”

An “ecumenical catechism” such as this would be intended to meet what Cardinal Kasper dubbed “the need for an ecumenism of basics that identifies, reinforces and deepens the common foundation.”

“Look for the bare necessities. The simple bare necessities. Forget about your worries and your strife…”

In an address delivered at the opening to a three-day ecumenical symposium at the Vatican on February 8th, Cardinal Kasper told representatives of the various ecclesial communities present, “We have affirmed our common foundation in Jesus Christ and the Holy Trinity as expressed in our common creed and in the doctrine of the first ecumenical councils,” and he underscored the importance of “keeping alive the memory of our achievements.”

Not to rain on the Cardinal’s parade here, but isn’t faith in Jesus Christ and the doctrine of the Holy Trinity — along with Baptism, of course — the rock-bottom requirement for those who dare to claim the noble name of “Christian?” In other words, isn’t this really just the price of admission for a seat at the ecumenical table, for crying out loud?

At any rate, if this is the sort of “achievement” that one might expect to find enshrined in an “ecumenical catechism,” the notion that such a publication might one day be issued by “the competent Catholic authority,” as Cardinal Kasper envisions, strikes me as fanciful as best.

With all due respect, coming as this suggestion does on the heels of his recently published memoir-style book (of which John Allen of NCR reported, “Vatican sources say the primary reason the book came out under Kasper’s name was to short-circuit the normal lengthy review process for official Vatican texts,”) I’m beginning to sense a near Clintonesque concern for legacy as the Cardinal’s retirement date draws near.

How else can one explain a Prince of the Church suggesting such an idea as an “ecumenical catechism?” It really is downright embarrassing.

The Second Vatican Council’s Decree on Ecumenism, Unitatis Redintegratio, offers some sober words of caution that seem to be going unnoticed:

It is, of course, essential that the doctrine should be clearly presented in its entirety. Nothing is so foreign to the spirit of ecumenism as a false irenicism, in which the purity of Catholic doctrine suffers loss and its genuine and certain meaning is clouded (UR 11).

Pope Pius XII offered much the same warning more than a decade earlier in the Encyclical, Humani Generis:

Another danger is perceived which is all the more serious because it is more concealed beneath the mask of virtue. There are many who, deploring disagreement among men and intellectual confusion, through an imprudent zeal for souls, are urged by a great and ardent desire to do away with the barrier that divides good and honest men; these advocate an ‘eirenism’ according to which, by setting aside the questions which divide men, they aim not only at joining forces to repel the attacks of atheism, but also at reconciling things opposed to one another in the field of dogma (Humane Generis 11).

Codifying a whittled-down version of the faith in a so-called “ecumenical catechism” – in this case, beneath the mask of “achievement”– is exactly the sort of danger of which Pius XII warned, and the potential pitfalls are substantial.

It seems to me that a little worry and strife should accompany separation from Holy Mother Church, no? Yet needless to say, such frivolity as an “ecumenical catechism” would be a great disservice to those non-Catholics, who finding the differences ignored therein, might be lulled into a false sense of unity that will breed complacency. There’s no telling how many souls might otherwise continue to labor in true ecumenical dialogue with the Church only to one day embrace “a complete profession of faith, complete incorporation in the system of salvation such as Christ willed it to be, and finally complete ingrafting in Eucharistic communion” (UR 22).

A danger also exists for those who are already part of the Church’s visible structure in that some will no doubt be tempted to treat an “ecumenical catechism” as a meal ticket to the express lane at the Catholic Café; an “official” manifesto for a faith of bare necessities.

I can almost see the sign in front of the Frank Lloyd Wright style church now: “Welcome to the Catholic Community of Baloo.”

Cardinal Kasper, no doubt meaning well, expressed concern for the future of the ecumenical movement should the members of ecclesial communities fail to hold firmly to the shared basics of Christian faith (presumably the content of his proposed “catechism”) at which point the dialogue cannot move forward.

Fair enough, but I have a better idea:

How about providing both marginal Catholics and members of ecclesial communities alike with a copy of the Catechism of the Catholic Church and a highlighter, inviting each to mark the tenets they already accept. That way, not only will they know what we hold in common; but just as importantly, they will know how far they’ve still to travel.

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  • dlapointe34

    Amen Mr. Verrecchio!!! I’ve always struggled with how to be ecumenical without compromising the fullness of the Truth. Only focusing on what we have in common and claiming a kind of “unity” is, as you said, a false sense of unity. Certainly not the unity that Christ prayed for.

    Also, when we talk about what we do have in common, how much really is “in common”? For example, the Catholic Church teaches that baptism is regenerative, it washes away original sin and forgives all sins in adults. If another Christian denomination does not believe that baptism actually forgives sin, then is baptism really “in common” as we think? I don’t know that answer, but I do struggle with it.

  • noelfitz

    I read here “Cardinal Walter Kasper, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, had suggested “an ecumenical catechism””. This idea is condemned by Mr Verrecchio.

    I am pleased that Louie Verrecchio writes with all due respect and considers that Cardinal Kasper no doubt means well. But Mr Verrecchio seems to claim, as he has a better idea, that he would be the superior senior member of the hierarchy. Who would you prefer to believe Louie Verrecchio or Walter Kasper?

    In America do you have the expression “you don’t teach your grandmother to suck eggs”?

    Seriously CE is for loyal Catholics and I would prefer to follow Walter Kasper than Louie Verrecchio.

  • Dear Mr. Fitz,

    “Loyal Catholic,” does not mean “mindless lemming.”

    As a devotee of CE, surely you’ve noticed that simply because one is a member of the sacred hierarchy this doesn’t automatically mean their every idea is worthy of “following.” If common sense and experience has taught us anything in the last several decades it’s that a truly “loyal Catholic” is required to measure the ideas of others, yes even of individual members of the hierarchy on occasion, against the teachings of the Church before we simply tag along.

    Cardinal Kasper is the same man who told us that “the Church believes that Judaism, i.e. the faithful response of the Jewish people to God’s irrevocable covenant, is salvific for them.” But since St Paul clearly taught otherwise saying, “if justification were through the law, then Christ died to no purpose,” that poses a bit of problem, doesn’t it? Who do you follow in this case, Noel? This shouldn’t be a tough decision, my friend.

    Card. Kasper’s “ecumenical catechism” idea is ill advised, not because I say so, but because it flies in the face of the Second Vatican Council’s teaching and the warnings of Pope Pius XII. Who should loyal Catholics “follow?” This isn’t a tough decision either, at least not for me.

    Go ahead and naively “follow” Card. Kasper and applaud his foolish idea if you wish. I prefer to put more stock in the Ecumenical Council and the wisdom of the Holy Father.

    BTW – don’t hold your breath waiting for this so-called “ecumenical catechism” to be issued by the “competent Catholic authority;” it’s not going to happen. Why? Because, thank God, the authority of which the Cardinal spoke truly is competent.

  • fatherjo

    I think the Catholic Church sees Protestant ecclesial communities in deep trouble and is tossing them a life raft. It seems to be a very Christian thing to do, an inspiration of the Holy Spirit.

  • noelfitz

    Hi Mr Verrecchio,

    Thank you so much for taking the time to reply to me. I really appreciate it.

    Your views are clearly and strongly expressed.

    Perhaps as an Irish cradle Catholic I differ for many in CE, who seem to be American converts from Protestantism. It is of the nature of Protestants to protest, and on changing religion one maintains one’s background. We cradle Catholics have a loyalty, affection and commitment to the Church which encourages us to mutual support, perhaps leading to tribalism at times when we hang together against a perceived opponent and defend each other. I suppose Irish and American Catholics have the same loyalties

    You raise the question of justification by faith. Here we are back to the Reformation.

    First of all I would support Cardinal Kasper as God is faithful to his covenants.

    Can a woman forget her nursing child, or show no compassion for the child of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you (NRSV, Is 49:15).

    It is always worthwhile to consider Paul.

    Then what advantage has the Jew? Or what is the value of circumcision? 2 Much, in every way. For in the first place the Jews were entrusted with the oracles of God (NRSV, Ro 3:1,2).

    My point is this: the law, which came four hundred thirty years later, does not annul a covenant previously ratified by God, so as to nullify the promise. (NRSV, Ga 3:17).

    However my main point is that you have taken the time to discuss a serious issue with me and for this I am appreciative.

  • Since when, fatherjo, is confirming another in their error a “Christian thing to do?” It is not. A true “life” raft would do more than just leave the drowning man floating in dangerous waters, it would bring him into the safety of the barque.

    Maybe you could post a response answering the question: Why has Holy Mother Church has always encouraged us to present Catholic doctrine clearly and in its entirety to those separated from us?

    Yes, Protestant ecclesial communities are in trouble, but the Christian answer is not to give them what they need in order to be the best Protestants they can be; but rather what they need in order to reach “complete incorporation in the system of salvation such as Christ willed it to be.” (UR 22)

    This, after all, is the purpose of ecumenism.

    Lastly – let’s be clear so no one is confused – this “ecumenical catechism” nonsense is NOT an initiative of the “Catholic Church” at all. It is the soon-to-be-forgotten idea of a soon-to-be-retired cleric.

  • Hello Noel,

    Thanks for your comments as well. They are appreciated.

    “It is always worthwhile to consider Paul.”

    Well… I’m glad you find Saint Paul worthy of consideration!

    My point is simply this, when a cleric or anyone else forwards an idea that runs counter to the wisdom given to us by Holy Mother Church, follow that person at your own peril.

  • Noel, I observe that Louie asked you several very pointed questions and you did not answer a single one.

  • fatherjo

    Louie, the Church teaches that there are elements of truth in every religion worthy of the name. The Church has called these “seeds of the Gospel”, that will lead to the fullness of truth, if properly nurtured. I think the Church is afraid that even these seeds will die in the present secularistic climate we live in. An ecumenical catechism could identify such seeds of unity, and help protect and nourish them. I work in an area with lots of non-Catholic Christians. I meet them especially at weddings and funerals, and even have the opportunity to preach the Word to them at those times. An ecumenical catechism would be of great help on such occasions.

  • fatherjo,

    I appreciate the reply, but you didn’t answer my question. There is a reason that Pius XII and Vatican II very pointedly directed us to present the FULLNESS of truth, not simply the points we all agree upon. Why is it difficult for you to explain what that reason is? It shouldn’t be, and the fact that you are reluctant to answer raises a red flag.

    OK, so you have opportunities to preach the Word to non-Catholics. Why on earth would you preach anything other than the fullness of truth? The risk is what… that they may not like you? I don’t mean to be provocative, but do you really think you are helping them by singing from the same song sheet as their protestant minister? They can get that whenever they want. Those people deserve bread, not stones, Father.

    And yes, I am aware that the Church teaches that the seeds of truth present in other faith traditions may lead to the fullness of the truth, but how is heaping seeds on seeds going help. It isn’t.

  • fatherjo

    Louie, funerals and weddings are not times to get adversarial or polemical. For example, at weddings, the Church wants us to preach about marriage. I would rather leave them wanting more, than running the risk of aggravating and alienating people unnecessarily. While I fully respect and appreciate Pope Pius XII, we have had good Holy Fathers since him, not least of whom was Pope John Paul II, who wrote the encyclical Ut Unum Sint on the subject of ecumenism.

  • Thanks again, Father, for your comments. I am familiar with Ut Unum Sint. Please explain for the benefit of whomever may be reading this how a truncated “catechism” fits in with the following:

    “The unity willed by God can be attained only by the adherence of all to the content of revealed faith in its entirety. In matters of faith, compromise is in contradiction with God who is Truth. In the Body of Christ, ‘the way, and the truth, and the life’ (Jn 14:6), who could consider legitimate a reconciliation brought about at the expense of the truth?” – Ut Unum Sint 18

  • fatherjo

    I don’t think the proposed ecumenical catechism is about compromise but about emphasizing truths we share in common which we can build upon and which will lead to greater unity. The truths we share as Christians are not inconsiderable and certainly not few.

  • Louie, I think you and Fr. Jo are talking past one another. I think I understand and agree with you, AND, I think I understand and agree with him. So let me give this a shot, gentlemen

    Before I became Catholic and even while I was becoming Catholic, I was working in Evangelical ministry to cults. This involved a lot of discussions within the interdenominational groups I was associated with — such as EMNR (Evangelical Ministries to New Religions) and the Atlanta Christian Apologetics Project — about where the border of Christianity was. During the time that I was becoming Catholic, these discussions became even more interesting, as you might imagine. Here’s what I noticed: I could be going at it tooth and nail with a Protestant about sola scriptura, but let a Jehovah’s Witness or Mormon cross our path and all of a sudden the Protestant and I would be shoulder to shoulder, trying to minister the truth about Jesus to that person.

    I think Fr. Jo wants to identify that border with maybe more precision than he currently feels he has and I do think it matters. However, I see your point that calling something that lays that out a “catechism” is rife with danger for the reasons you outline.

    The apologetics groups I was part of spent a lot of time hashing out doctrine they could agree on, putting it in writing, defending it through reason and scripture, and presenting it to those whose understanding of Christ was deformed by cult teaching — all in all, not a mean endeavor. But we didn’t call it a “catechism” either.

    And let me explain why it was pointedly NOT a catechism — because it did not really represent what any of us would want to present to the members of our own communions as the content of our faith — it was neither Catholic, nor Baptist, nor Lutheran, nor Methodist, nor fish, nor fowl. Yet it did serve the purpose of reminding us of BOTH what it was that united us AND what is was that separated us from non/pseudo-Christians.

  • Thanks again, Father, and thank you, Mary, for weighing in.

    The Council says in UR 9, “We must get to know the outlook of our separated brethren;” through “study” and “dialogue;” a dialogue that addresses the “theological problems” (i.e. the differences, not just the shared basics). It also underscores the need for prudence.

    There many more prudent ways to learn what others believe than issuing a “catechism” through “the competent Catholic authority.” Besides, the entire idea is about helping ecclesial communities cling to the basics; it was never proposed as a tool for helping us talk to Protestants without appearing adversarial.

    Unlike the “joint statements” of faith the Church has issued in the past, a “catechism” (as you alluded, Mary) is by definition a summary of doctrine; it’s not a starting point. It is, therefore, no way to build upon shared truth as a way forward.

    The reason we are talking past one another, Father, is simple: I’ve given many references that indicate that my view is the Church’s view as articulated over decades in multiple authoritative documents – i.e. it is not just my personal opinion that says we MUST present the fullness of truth (of which a truncated catechism is clearly the antithesis).

    If there really is support for this ecumenical catechism idea in Ut Unum Sint or anywhere else as you implied, Father, I’d be grateful if you would point it out to us.

  • fatherjo

    For those who believe, no explanation is necessary. For those who do not believe, no explanation is possible.

  • For those who believe, no explanation is necessary. For those who do not believe, no explanation is possible.

    And for those in either category, no hard feelings I hope. : )

    Thanks for taking the time to engage me, Father. I do appreciate it.

  • As they say, there is noting new under the sun. Apparently, the idea of a common “catechism” on the basics over which we have agreement isn’t exactly original:



  • dlapointe34

    Louie, after reading through the rest of the dialog here, I am still firmly planted on your side, as I stated in my first post. However, I would still be interested in your thoughts about my second paragraph above. My concern is that, even for issues that we appear to have “in common” with our separated brethren, how much is really “in common” Thanks again!

  • Hi dlapointe34,

    Thanks so much for your comments. “Separated brethren” is a very diverse group! Some have more clearly articulated doctrines than others, but when it comes to the details like in the case that you mention, I suppose “common” is a relative word. You’re right to be concerned.

    To codify in a “catechism” the agreed upon basics, e.g. “baptism is necessary,” while ignoring underlying differences, does no one any favors. I can see people who are already inclined to universalism and a “can’t we all just get along” mentality falling back on the idea of belief “in common” and ignoring important details. You raise a very good point.

    This is why we are urged to get to truly know what the other believes through study and dialogue, all the while presenting the fullness of truth. What the Church teaches makes so much sense, doesn’t it? Christ is Truth. He is also the Light of the world. If we simply present the fullness of truth in charity, the important differences will be illuminated and cannot be ignored.

    Thanks again for your comments, dlapointe34. I appreciate it very much.