"You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd." ~Flannery O'Connor

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Getting perspective on ecumenism

Is all the negativity about ecumenism I've been sensing of late just myopic on my part? The Internet, whose discussion forums breed even more logomachy than they allow, can darken the vision and mood of almost anybody who spends much time on it. I see the temptation to succumb to that as an invitation to spiritual combat—or, if you prefer, to a form of ascesis that must occasion a deepening of prayer. Indeed, when it comes to ecumenism, the Internet negativity one senses can be surreal in a way that I've only encountered regularly before in reading transcripts of full-blown exorcisms.

Last week I noted the endorsement, by two of the most ecumenically-minded and intelligent bloggers I know, of the following remark: "Catholic-Protestant ecumenism is like a very odd dinner party where everyone sits around saying polite and edifying things while waiting for the other guest to die." Again: the men who said they found that remark dead-on are two of the most earnestly and intelligently ecumenical bloggers I know. And my experience with Catholic-Orthodox ecumenism this week hasn't done much to discredit that remark.

Owen White the Ochlophobist, e.g., says the following in the course of a long post that includes a thoughtful response to me: "I would love to see the RCC end, and the Pope of Rome and any who might follow him convert to Orthodoxy..." Of course he is hardly alone in that sentiment. And I do not take its expression by him as an intended insult; this, after all, is from a man who not only knows where I stand, but who has indicated before, sincerely and more than once, that he likes and respects me. I like and respect Owen too; yet even if it were true, I would not see fit to say to him, or indeed to any member of an Orthodox church, "I would love to see Orthodoxy end." Moreover, it isn't even true. Given how I see Orthodoxy from my Catholic standpoint, I don't want it to end. I want it to retain its form of liturgy, its spirituality, its dogmas, its patriarchates and synods. I just don't think those things are incompatible with what I believe, and neither does the Pope. Perhaps that means I'm not negative enough to be accounted as much more than deluded. The Internet can bring such judgments on those who are sincere about ecumenism without compromising what they profess as the truth.

I don't think it's just the cyberworld, though. Even Avery Cardinal Dulles, once a champion of Kasper-style ecumenism, has delivered a sobering assessment of contemporary ecumenism, in the form of piece in the current First Things entitled Saving Ecumenism from Itself. The reassessments are probably in order. Thus he says:

For some years now, I have felt that the method of convergence, which seeks to harmonize the doctrines of each ecclesial tradition on the basis of shared sources and methods, has nearly exhausted its potential. It has served well in the past and may still be useful, especially among groups that have hitherto been isolated from the conversation. But to surmount the remaining barriers we need a different method, one that invites a deeper conversion on the part of the churches themselves.

Fair enough. And some might think the method of "convergence" is what I've been trying, quixotically, to follow. But I no longer believe it possible to convince non-Catholic Christians en masse, by argument, that their distinctive affirmations and practices can be harmonized with Catholicism. I will continue to produce the arguments, of course. So far, my efforts seem to have influenced a few individuals here and there for the good. But no matter how sound the arguments may be, something more spiritual is required if ecumenism is to continue as a viable project for the Church.

Cardinal Dulles describes it thus: "I have therefore been urging an ecumenism of mutual enrichment by means of testimony. This proposal corresponds closely, I believe, with John Paul II’s idea of seeking the fullness of truth by means of an “exchange of gifts.” What he says more specifically about that method is encouraging to me, but that is only a point about myself. The larger and more important point is that Dulles no more than the Pope is willing to "give up," as so many online religious controversialists urge. And that's vitally important as a form of obedience to the Lord.

Ever the catholic, affable Catholic, Dulles goes on (emphasis added):

John Paul II in Ut Unum Sint expressed a desire to work with leaders and theologians of other churches in seeking ways for the Petrine office to be exercised such that it could be beneficial to them as well as to Catholics. These other churches and communities will have to consider the ways in which they could receive the primatial ministry of the bishop of Rome. A dialogue on this subject is already underway. For some communities, perhaps, the papacy will be the final piece by which to complete the jigsaw puzzle of Christian unity.

Each party will engage in ecumenical dialogue with its own presuppositions and convictions. As a Roman Catholic, I would make use of the methods by which my church derives its distinctive doctrines. I would also expect that any reunion to which Catholics can be a party would have to include as part of the settlement the Catholic dogmas, perhaps reinterpreted in ways that we do not now foresee. Other churches and ecclesial communities will have their own expectations. But all must be open to possible conversion. We must rely on the Holy Spirit to lead us, as Vatican II recommended, “without obstructing the ways of divine Providence and without prejudging the future inspiration of the Holy Spirit.”

That is quite an extraordinary reaffirmation of the hopefulness and optimism of Vatican II, which seems largely to have been lost by the grizzled veterans of ecumenism. Of course the "reinterpretation" of which Dulles speaks cannot be the sort of "development" that logically entails negation of anything previously taught with the Church's full authority. Indeed, Dulles himself is a master of the method of explaining changes in Church teaching in such a way as to show that development never entails negation of that level of teaching. I've learned a lot from him and have followed the method myself. It is not only an indispensable task of apologetics, of "defense" of the Faith, but also a prerequisite of honest ecumenism, at least for Catholics. But it still leaves open the possibility that doctrines taught with the Church's full authority, via either the ordinary or the extraordinary magisterium, are going to be used by the Spirit to mediate insights into the faith-once-delivered that we do not now generally enjoy. If that happens—and history suggests it does happen—then the prospects for ecumenism will be all the richer.

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