“What happened to ecumenism?” (Part II)

After writing rather strongly about the Catholic Church as the sacrament of intimate communion with God and the unity of the human race, last week I began to write about how the modern ecumenical movement (the movement for unity among all who claim the name of Christian) fits into this view. I wrote about the changed practical policy of the Church in the wake of the Second Vatican Council, an change of policy that began to take in subjective factors (lack of blame for separations that took place centuries in the past) as well as the objective distinction between full communion with the one, holy, apostolic, and catholic Church, and imperfect communion.

This opened the door for a real possibility of dialogue. By making these sorts of distinctions the Catholic is able to say, “I am convinced of the truth of the Catholic faith, but I can speak with you without demanding your unconditional surrender or accusing you of ill will, and I can even learn from you, precisely because you have in good faith been trying to lead a true Christian life.”

So now the Pope, without denying the office bestowed upon him by Jesus Christ, will deal with leaders of other Christian Churches and communities as brothers, accepting that they do not recognize the full dignity of his office.

Nevertheless, at the same time and for a variety of reasons many ambiguities have entered in. Very often the objective understanding falls by the wayside, the full truth of the Catholic faith is neglected or even rejected, while overemphasis is placed on the subjective criteria, especially on the blame to be placed on bad Catholics. Even worse, the blame placed on bad Catholics ends up being transferred to the Church.

For example, a balanced assessment might affirm that Pope Leo X by his corruption and arrogance, instead of helping Martin Luther hold on to the unity of the Church, provoked a hardening of his attitude that led to his outright rebellion and rejection of papal authority. Now, however, we often hear among Catholics that actually Martin Luther was right and the Church was wrong. At times ecumenism, for Catholics, seems to become an exercise in apologizing for all the errors not of Catholics, but of the Catholic Church. Then why be Catholic?

St. John Paul II in his Encyclical Letter on Ecumenism, Ut Unum Sint, [‘That they may be one’] wrote: “The Catholic Church thus affirms that during the two thousand years of her history she has been preserved in unity, with all the means with which God wishes to endow his Church, and this despite the often grave crises which have shaken her, the infidelity of some of her ministers, and the faults into which her members daily fall. The Catholic Church knows that, by virtue of the strength which comes to her from the Spirit, the weaknesses, mediocrity, sins and at times the betrayals of some of her children cannot destroy what God has bestowed on her as part of his plan of grace. Moreover, ‘the powers of death shall not prevail against her’ (Mt 16:18). Even so, the Catholic Church does not forget that many among her members cause God’s plan to be discernible only with difficulty.”  (11)

So we need to keep the objective priority of ‘full communion’ before our eyes. The Catholic Church has “all the means with which God wished to endow his Church”, others are in “imperfect communion”. Pope Pius XI was correct to teach that the unity willed by Christ exists in the Catholic Church, but at the same time Pope John Paul II is able to write that the Church, “asks the Lord to increase the unity of all Christians until they reach full communion.” (Ut Unum Sint, 3)

As for the imperfect communion the Second Vatican Council taught that there are “many elements of sanctification and of truth are found outside of its visible structure.” (LG 8) And: “Even very many of the significant elements and endowments which together go to build up and give life to the Church itself, can exist outside the visible boundaries of the Catholic Church: the written word of God; the life of grace; faith, hope and charity, with the other interior gifts of the Holy Spirit, and visible elements too.” (UR 3)

Nevertheless, these are elements, not the fullness. So also, “These elements, as gifts belonging to the Church of Christ, are forces impelling toward catholic unity.” (LG 8) And: “All of these, which come from Christ and lead back to Christ, belong by right to the one Church of Christ.” (UR 3)

The true Catholic stance towards ecumenism, then, does not involve finding some new unity that transcends the existing Christian communities, a sort of federation of churches of which the Catholic Church would merely be a part. Rather the Catholic stances means entering into relationship with our separated brethren, maintaining our own Catholic faith, being willing to listen and learn as well as talk and share, while allowing the Holy Spirit to bring about ‘full communion’ in ways hitherto unimagined.

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Fr. Joseph Levine graduated from Thomas Aquinas College and after a long journey was ordained to the priesthood for the Diocese of Baker, Oregon. He currently serves as pastor of St. Peter Catholic Church in The Dalles on the Columbia River.