The changing nature of ecumenism

The Tablet reports that Cardinal-elect Kurt Koch, the recently-appointed President of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, has made a bold start in his analysis of the current character of ecumenism. As yet there is no full text of Bishop Koch’s speech to the Council’s plenary session, but what is quoted is incisive stuff.

In a nutshell he sees most of the Protestant denominations as pursuing ecumenism according to a relativistic and pluralistic agenda, rather than one that seeks unity. Many Protestant groups have been settling for inter-communion rather communion, shared recognition rather than unity. In other words, rather than seeking re-union they seek to maintain their own independent existence while recognising the independent existence of other denominations, and in so doing recognising each other’s ministry and sacraments to the point where they can receive the sacraments in each other’s churches. Bishop Koch calls this “ecclesiological pluralism” which works towards a sort of “recognised diversity”.

There is no doubt much that is positive in this development, in the very least insofar as it breaks down hostility between various denominations. However, while it can be reconciled with a Protestant view of the nature of the Church and it is impossible to accommodate it to a Catholic one. For the Catholic Church (and the Orthodox too) there must be agreement in faith before there can be sharing in sacraments. Moreover such a sharing in sacraments and doctrine would in effect establish that the churches would not be essentially different from each other but rather constituent parts of the one, holy, Catholic and apostolic Church. Catholic ecumenism seeks unity not recognised diversity.

The Church acknowledges that there is truth to be found in other Christian denominations and that God can and does work through them, but the Second Vatican Council made it clear that those divine elements of truth in other Christian groupings are “forces impelling [them] towards Catholic unity” (Lumen Gentium 8). God works through other denominations in order to bring them back to unity with the Church Christ founded. The Council Fathers put it beautifully in their document specifically related to ecumenism, Unitatis Redintegratio (4):

When the obstacles to perfect ecclesiastical communion have been gradually overcome, all Christians will at last, in a common celebration of the Eucharist, be gathered into the one and only Church in that unity which Christ bestowed on His Church from the beginning. We believe that this unity subsists in the Catholic Church as something she can never lose, and we hope that it will continue to increase until the end of time.

The ecumenical endeavour of the Church is geared towards removing those obstacles and so advance unity. The most obvious obstacles are those of doctrine and sacramental practice. Yet there are also more personal ones, such as hardness of heart, resentment and hostility born of past events, and a spirit of suspicion and mistrust. Doctrine will not change, though our insights into it can and will. But our hearts can change, and according to Pope John Paul II they must change if there is to be progress in true ecumenism:

Christians cannot underestimate the burden of long-standing misgivings inherited from the past, and of mutual misunderstandings and prejudices. Complacency, indifference and insufficient knowledge of one another often make this situation worse. Consequently, the commitment to ecumenism must be based upon the conversion of hearts and upon prayer, which will also lead to the necessary purification of past memories. With the grace of the Holy Spirit, the Lord’s disciples, inspired by love, by the power of the truth and by a sincere desire for mutual forgiveness and reconciliation, are called to re-examine together their painful past and the hurt which that past regrettably continues to provoke even today. (Ut Unum Sint, 2).

This is only a quick and shallow reflection. Obviously I have not even touched on what Pope Benedict has to say on ecumenism. Nevertheless it might serve to prompt us to think carefully about what the Church is doing as it welcomes more Anglicans into full communion with the Church by means of the Ordinariate structure. Surely the Church sees that these Anglicans have realised that ecumenism ends in full communion with the Church and wishes to facilitate their entry into communion rather than allow unnecessary obstacles to stand in their way. One wonders if those Catholics and Anglicans who oppose, often with sharp words, this move might not need that conversion of heart that Pope John Paul II wrote of. It is a Catholics Christian duty to welcome our brothers and sisters into the bosom of the Church.

Another prompt to this reflection on Bishop Koch’s insights is that tonight the Anglican Benedictine community of Elmore Abbey, recently moved to Salisbury, are joining with us tonight to celebrate our titular feast of St Edmund (more on which tomorrow). The monks of Elmore (whose heyday was at their former home of Nashdom) have always been closely associated with that movement in Anglicanism that seeks reunion with the Church under the Pope. We might pray that our monastic community’s sharing of Christian hospitality with them might be a powerful instrument in guiding them into full communion with us. Let us pray for a new Pentecost to re-establish one Church before the eyes of the world, that it might believe.

2 thoughts on “The changing nature of ecumenism

  1. Sadly, we live in pluristic society where every ‘truth’ is deemed equal but, as His Holiness suggested during his visit to the UK, this approach actually results in a loss of respect for any truth, as they can all be relegated to the same bin.

    We should indeed strive towards concord, rather than tolerance

    P B


    1. Yes, you are spot on. The modern ecumenical approach implies that one denomination is as valid as any other. Whereas the Council made it clear that anything true in the other denominations is given that they might move towards the fullness of truth in the Church. Sadly tolerance too often degenerates into indifference.

      Pax et bonum.


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