Where is Ecumenism?

Two flawed interpretations of the ecumenical enterprise are disturbingly widespread among Catholics today. One is “progressive,” the other “traditionalist.” Both are wrong.

The progressive version goes like this. Fifty years ago, in the time of Pope John XXIII and Vatican Council II, ecumenism was going great guns. Indeed, the speedy reunion of separated Christians was a real possibility. But soon after the council things stalled, and under Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI a reaction set in. Due to foot-dragging by Rome, the ecumenical movement is now at an impasse.

The traditionalist story is hugely different. Starting with Vatican II and continuing since then, it holds, Catholic ecumenism has been a mistake. There’s been no significant progress, there’s been no reunion, and the practical result of it has been mainly to encourage the relativistic notion that one religion is as good as another. Better we admit our mistakes, cut our losses, and concentrate on encouraging people to convert.

Neither in theology nor in matters of fact is either the progressive or the traditionalist account correct. It’s the great merit of Kenneth D. Whitehead’s helpful new book, The New Ecumenism (Alba House, 2009), to show in concrete detail why that’s so.

Writing from the perspective of an eminently orthodox Catholic, Whitehead argues that the formal commitment of the Catholic Church to the ecumenical movement which began some four decades ago conforms to Christ’s will for Christian unity as well as to the Church’s own solemn teaching. Individual conversions to Catholicism are much to be desired and should be encouraged. But the “new ecumenism” of ecumenical dialogue in a search for common ground isn’t merely permissible but necessary.

Nor is it reasonable to put the blame for slow progress on the Vatican. Take the Catholic relationship with the Anglican Communion. Generally speaking, the gulf between Rome and Canterbury hasn’t been widened by the Vatican’s words and deeds but by the Anglicans’ well publicized inability to put their house in anything approximating even a semblance of order.

The Orthodox? Recall that Orthodoxy isn’t one body but a grouping of autocephalous — independent — national churches, each with its own historically-conditioned relationship to the Church of Rome. Among these bodies, the prickly nationalism of the largest, the Russian Orthodox Church, remains an especially serious huge obstacle to entente with Catholics.

To be sure, in some cases Rome hypothetically might gain an appearance of unity by abandoning one or another dogma or authoritative teaching. Progressive voices in Catholicism sometimes urge that. But this kind of political compromise would be, Whitehead notes, a dishonest way of handling substantive differences about doctrinal truth. It contains the seeds of its own collapse.

As matters stand, Rome has gone pretty far. In 1995 John Paul II reached out to the Orthodox in the encyclical Ut Unum Sint (That They May Be One), inviting suggestions on how to exercise papal primacy of jurisdiction in a way they would find more congenial. If there have been significant responses to date, it’s a well-kept secret.

Yes, half a century ago there were expectations that unity would be quick and easy. “We wanted to do ourselves what only God can do,” Pope Benedict says. Now we know better. When and if unity comes, it will be in God’s good time.

Meanwhile, the Pope says, “we have to be prepared to keep on seeking, in the knowledge that the seeking itself is one way of finding….[It is] the only appropriate attitude for the person who is on a pilgrimage toward eternity.”

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Russell Shaw is a freelance writer from Washington, DC. He is the author of more than twenty books and previously served as secretary for public affairs of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops/United States Catholic Conference.

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