Distinguishing Between Authentic and Heretical Ecumenism

Pope Francis’s visit with the Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew in Jerusalem on May 25 elicited the familiar curiosity and hope that accompanies such gestures shared between persons of different faith traditions, in this case persons of the highest leadership and authority in their respective Churches, coming together in at least some degree of commonality and fellowship. But the question remains, will this change anything? And, by extension, do any of our gestures of ecumenism have the power to heal divisions that have plagued Christianity for the last thousand years? To answer this question we need to get in touch with the problem, and to truly examine not only the methods but also, primarily, the goals of ecumenism. When we do so we find that modern attempts at ecumenism are not only often largely ineffective and even counter-productive, they are commonly also quite literally heretical.

Hilaire Belloc astutely recognized two things about all heresies: Firstly, that they do not consists of wholesale denials, but rather make specific omissions or errors while leaving the larger idea intact, though greatly changed. Secondly, that the effect of these heresies is by no means limited to intellectual or religious life; they change the very character of those individuals who adhere to them and the cultures in which they have taken root. Heresies do not just disrupt orderly systems of thought, they truly disrupt the cultures which depend on those systems of thought. As Belloc pointed out, heresies will always at least irritate, but will often completely destroy, the social character and way of life of the communities which suffer from them.

Ecumenism is the process of bringing together, a movement towards unity “with” (from the Latin “cum”) one another. Though not eliminating legitimate diversity, true unity requires more than just good intentions, it requires a real coming together in belief and practice. A good example came from Pope Benedict XVI, in his Apostolic Constitution Anglicanorum Coetibus, stating that Anglican Ordinariates would, among other things, agree that “The Catechism of the Catholic Church is the authoritative expression of the Catholic faith professed by members of the Ordinariate.” Benedict went on to describe the differences which Ordinariates would not only be allowed, but even encouraged, to retain; but only with the proper understanding as individual members of a larger whole which stands objectively over its parts as their authority and unifying principle. According to Benedict:

Without excluding liturgical celebrations according to the Roman Rite, the Ordinariate has the faculty to celebrate the Holy Eucharist and the other Sacraments, the Liturgy of the Hours and other liturgical celebrations according to the liturgical books proper to the Anglican tradition, which have been approved by the Holy See, so as to maintain the liturgical, spiritual, and pastoral traditions of the Anglican Communion within the Catholic Church, as a precious gift nourishing the faith of the members of the Ordinariate and as a treasure to be shared.

This constitution rightly expresses not only the possibility, but also the benefits, of authentic cultural expressions done within the bonds, and requirements, of Catholic unity. Essentials must be maintained to ensure authenticity, but non-essentials are fair game for adaptation and inculturation to meet the needs, and sometimes even the preferences, of particular peoples, times, and places. The ability to incorporate natural diversity, without corruption, into one organic body is the sign of an authentic, living Church. “Corruption,” stated Newman, “on the contrary, is the breaking up of life, preparatory to its termination.” When ecumenists advocate the acceptance of corrupting principles they do not increase the life of Christianity, they initiate its cultural demise.

At their May 25 meeting, Pope Francis and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew expressed their desire for legitimate unity, jointly stating “Our fraternal encounter today is a new and necessary step on the journey towards the unity to which only the Holy Spirit can lead us, that of communion in legitimate diversity.” But neither the Pope nor the Patriarch is under the impression that this unity would come easily, and neither desires a unity that is less than authentic. The two leaders showed an understanding of the true demands of ecumenism by stating “we affirm once again that the theological dialogue does not seek a theological lowest common denominator on which to reach a compromise, but is rather about deepening one’s grasp of the whole truth.”

However, this sort of proper ecumenical understanding shown by our Popes has become muddled and replaced for many with the modern desire for pluralism rather than unity. Thus, many brands of so called ecumenism have become heretical in that they have retained the overall theme of “togetherness” but they have neglected its requisite uncompromising specificity. Twenty-first century attempts at so called ecumenism are more often social arrangements which perpetuate a sort of “I’m OK, you’re OK” mentality. This misunderstanding of ecumenism not only precludes its success, it also leads the larger culture into greater and greater lethargy regarding the challenge of conversion in any sense. A culture that misappropriates the ecumenical spirit will necessarily devolve into a loose amalgamation of individuals; devoid of any cohesion or objectivity at all, let alone in any religious sense. This will lead not only to a decline in social morality, but a disintegration of society itself. Individuals, said Belloc, may be able to function without a specific creed, but entire societies cannot. A society that attempts to do so, as in many ways our own has, experiences an identity crisis: not knowing what it is or how it is supposed to function. It becomes counter-productive; robbed of its duty and ability to create a climate of interconnected growth (remember the words culture and cultivate have the same root), it becomes itself the means of resistance to community, producing instead a landscape of self-assured individualism.

While the term “ecumenical,” in the truest sense of the word, ought to suggest a characteristic of honest questioning, argument, and defense, it often suggests just the opposite: a climate which shuns any serious questions and most vehemently opposes attempts at debate. A person who makes a heartfelt appeal to conversion using personal testimony and well-reasoned evidence at an interfaith gathering would most likely be seen as “un-ecumenical,” while a poster-child for ecumenism might be someone who is content to leave opposing traditions to their own private beliefs, favoring instead a sort of lukewarm consensus of “agreeing to disagree.” The former, however, is the true ecumenist, while the latter is a heretic in ecumenical clothing. Non-theological ecumenism becomes purely social and cosmetic. This brand of inter-faith dialogue is becoming ever more manifest in the inclusive and individual character of our society, which prefers a multitude of voices affirming themselves to a multitude of voices affirming the sovereign truth of God.

The modern ecumenical heresy, as Belloc predicted, affects not only the religious sphere of society, but all of society itself; at minimum irritating it, said Belloc, but also putting it in danger of destruction. If religion is the glue that holds society together, then society is threatened not just by the removal of religion from the social forum, but also, and perhaps more dangerously, the progressive weakening of religious claims and norms resulting from “lowest-common denominator” ecumenical attempts.

Ecumenical movements, if they are going to be worth our time and effort, and indeed worth bearing the name of Christian, ought to be directed towards Christ’s intention of a united Church, for which he prayed to his Father, saying “I pray not only for them, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, so that they may all be one, as you, Father, are in me and I in you, that they also may be in us” (John 17:20-21). Yves Congar, one of the leading fathers of the Nouvelle Theologie movement that dedicated itself to authentically applying the teachings of Vatican II in the modern world, spoke of the fullness of this desired unity in Ecumenism and the Future of the Church. “Characteristic also of ecumenism,” said Congar, “is a search for plenitude.” What’s more, said, Congar, is this full unity is something already present to us as a gift from Christ himself. According to Congar, “Unity is not something yet to be achieved, but rather to be recognized; and once recognized, there can be no question but of meeting there. Fundamentally, union can only be a reunion within the Church” (p. 30, 44).

When we settle for diversity and simple coexistence, we are not only failing in our Christian mission to bridge the gaps which divide us, we are in fact widening them. The Vatican II Decree on Ecumenism, Unitatis Redintegratio warned against this tendency and its consequences, stating “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.” When we try to modify our beliefs in order to make them more agreeable to the masses, we lose our beliefs first, and then the masses. In an attempt to show respect for each other’s differences we often end up glorifying them; suggesting that it is our differences which make us who we are. Differences become seen as a good thing– why? Because by celebrating differences we protect the hegemony of modern relativism that pervades our society: anything goes, except of course saying that some things do not go.

Perpetuators of this accepting and affirming form of “feelgoodism,” while most often sincerely trying to do the work of the Lord, run the serious risk of undermining the Gospel in disastrous ways. Some consider being accepting of any brand of Christianity and any possible practices that Christians may engage in, for example homosexuality, may feel that they are behaving in an ecumenical way. It seems that social resistance awaits whenever the Church stands firm publically in support of its moral laws. Left-wing activists, often using Christianity as their justification, claim that to love others means simply to accept and include them wherever, and however, they stand. Their misunderstanding lies in their neglect of objective moral criteria, and of the seriousness of God’s law.

With this in mind it is clear that refusing to refashion non-negotiable norms for the purpose of greater inclusivity is an act of authentic love because it recognizes the true good of others (as opposed to a self-created and self-justifying delusional form of the good). To support and enable a fellow Christian in such a lifestyle would truly be an act of hatred for we would be encouraging them to continue in a path destined for harm, even of the eternal type. To practice a brand of false ecumenism accepting of immorality would seem to fall into the category addressed by Jesus in his warning “Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone hung around his neck and to be downed in the depths of the sea” (Mt 18:6). As representatives of the Gospel, we are obligated to represent it in its authentic entirety, not in whatever way we find most attractive or conducive to easily had pseudo-peace. Bishop James Conley points out that the sort of multiculturalism that accepts immorality works against the Gospel and the true ecumenical spirit, and in doing so truly works for the enemy. According to Conley:

Sexual and social libertines have little interest in discrediting Christianity. They’re far more interested in refashioning it—in claiming Christ, and his vicar, as their supporters. The secularist social agenda is more palatable to impressionable young people if it complements, rather than competes with, the residual Christianity of their families. The enemy has no interest in eradicating Christianity if he can sublimate it to his own purposes. The greatest trick of the devil isn’t convincing the world he doesn’t exist—it’s convincing the world that Jesus Christ is the champion of his causes.

When we are willing to accept the status quo of our differences, we are automatically saying that those differences are inconsequential. If they are important, which history and theology consistently remind us, we should be willing to fight for them. If we believe that Jesus wants us all in the same boat (or perhaps more accurately ark), we not only show un-Christian indifference to those individuals who are found to be outside of it, but we also offend Christ himself by conceding some of his children to the flood waters. Modern attempts at reconciliation will be far more effective when they try to do what the word reconciliation literally suggests: to bring us “eye to eye again,” looking outward towards our calling rather than inwards towards our own preferences.

(Photo credit: John Mindala)


Dusty Gates currently serves as the Director of Adult Education at the Spiritual Life Center for the Catholic Diocese of Wichita, KS, and as an adjunct Professor of Theology at Newman University in Wichita, KS, where he resides with his wife and three children.

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