In Defense of Ecumenism

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In a recent article in Crisis Magazine, “How the Modernists made ‘Ecumenical’ a Dirty Word,” Joseph Pearce argues that ecumenism has become a synonym for modernism in the Church today. After describing the noble history of the term from the original Greek to the Roman Empire and its early adoption by the Catholic Church, he writes:

This authentic and linguistically rooted definition of ecumenical has nothing to do with the modern understanding of ecumenism, which appears to be the willingness to dilute or delete doctrine in pursuit of a perceived unity among disparate groups of believers, irrespective of what they actually believe.

This is followed by an argument that ecumenism undermines the objective truth taught by the Church, forcing it to conform to the world’s subjective understanding of truth, namely, to secular criteria.

Unfortunately, Mr. Pearce’s description of ecumenism is hard to assess, since he gives no concrete examples. This makes it hard to know what target he is aiming at. However, it bears little to no resemblance to what transpires in responsible ecumenical dialogue, and it is completely at odds with the mind of the Church and the direction set by every Pontiff since Vatican II.

Indeed there are few more ardent proponents of ecumenism than St. John Paul II and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI. If that authority is not sufficient, one can turn to the Catechism of the Catholic Church (820). Why are all recent pontiffs united in making ecumenism a central priority? Quite simply it is because ecumenism is a binding obligation in view of Christ’s prayer that they may all be one as he and the Father are one. St. John Paul II expressed this forcefully in his Encyclical Ut Unum Sint:

A Christian Community which believes in Christ and desires, with Gospel fervour, the salvation of mankind can hardly be closed to the promptings of the Holy Spirit, who leads all Christians towards full and visible unity. Here an imperative of charity is in question, an imperative which admits of no exception. Ecumenism is not only an internal question of the Christian Communities. It is a matter of the love which God has in Jesus Christ for all humanity; to stand in the way of this love is an offence against him and against his plan to gather all people in Christ. (99)

I will certainly grant that the term ecumenism is sometimes bandied about to justify reducing doctrine to the lowest common denominator. Pearce is quite right to deplore this. But this would be a false ecumenism, a misunderstanding of the concept, and an abuse. There is no reason at all to give the authority to set the meaning of language to the least principled users of it. To take that approach would be like saying we could put an end to liturgical abuses if only we stopped offering the sacred liturgy altogether.

In the same way, people sometimes speak of a priest or bishop needing to be ‘pastoral’, meaning that he should ignore doctrine to be more ‘compassionate’. This error does not entail that priests and bishops should stop being genuinely pastoral, rather it means they must have a proper understanding of what the concept entails. Being pastoral is nothing more than exercising the virtue of prudence in the practical affairs of ministry. It entails that one must not only grasp the general principles of the faith and morality, but see how to wisely apply them to particular circumstances leading others to the fullness of Christ’s truth and love.

Pearce’s thesis is that contemporary ecumenism is inextricably bound up with agnosticism and subjectivism. I think this is logically impossible. Authentic participation in the ecumenical movement begins within communities that are in a state of substantive disagreement.

The aim of ecumenical dialogue is to bring about a deeper ecclesial unity among Christians who disagree on matters of doctrine or discipline. Accordingly, ecumenism presupposes that relativism is false, as it begins with communities with substantive differences over what they hold to be the truth of the Christian faith.

Agnosticism, relativism, or an attitude of vive la différence would undermine the entire ecumenical process. If ecumenists were agnostic there would be no substantial disagreement to understand. There would be no aim to a dialogue to bring about agreement if everyone could assert whatever he wanted. Ecumenical dialogue presupposes participants who have a clear understanding of their own faith and a desire to achieve a deeper understanding of where they agree and disagree with their fellow Christians.

For the past few years I have co-chaired a local ecumenical dialogue between the Catholic Archdiocese of Edmonton and the Lutheran Church of Canada (LCC). The LCC has grown out of the relatively conservative Missouri Synod Lutherans. They are fully committed to the Book of Concord and the Augsburg Confession. Like Catholics, they have an all-male priesthood; they confess the real presence in the Eucharist, etc.

Since the LCC has not signed on to the Joint Declaration on Justification, our discussions have taken up openly and honestly our differences on classic topics like justification and original sin. Unsurprisingly, this has not resulted in full agreement. It did, however, lead to a deeper understanding of one another’s positions and helped to discard misunderstandings that seemed to have existed on all sides of these difficult questions. While not an ideal result, this is real progress.

We have also found important common ground on a number of ethical, social, and cultural issues. We read Humanae Vitae together and received a more sympathetic hearing from our LCC partners than we would be likely to get in many Catholic parishes. Indeed, the dialogue seemed to lead them to explore more deeply the rationales for their own Church’s teachings on sexuality and theological anthropology.

Such discussions have also led to new practical forms of collaboration. For example, an LCC member spoke at a subsequent March for Life event. We are also exploring ways to stand together in opposition to our country’s lamentable acceptance of euthanasia. Far from watering down the truths of faith, we are building on areas where we can work together.

In view of the cultural and ethical challenges we face together as Christians, such forms of shared witness are vital. It is all too easy for our fellow citizens to feel that Catholics, or indeed some individual members of the Catholic hierarchy, are the only ones who have a passionate commitment to these issues. Shared witness is a powerful way to uncover this lie.

In trying to act legally and politically, a broad-based coalition of likeminded Christians is a valuable witness to our secular world. Such initiatives are unlikely if the Catholic stance is simply that one needs to convert, with no attention given to the underlying reasons for an individual’s or a church’s theological positions. In the complex situations our fellow Christians find themselves, ecumenical dialogue is not a dangerous luxury; it is the only way forward.

I offer the above critique only out of a sense of obligation, for I have great admiration for Joseph Pearce. After all, he has done more than anyone alive to communicate a profound understanding and enthusiasm for the Catholic literary tradition and I’ve frequently benefited from his theological reflections.

However, some distinction between authentic and false ecumenism is essential. We should not avoid the task of building Christian unity because some of our fellow Christians may misinterpret it to be compromising on matters of doctrine. This is quite simply not what the Church has proposed, and where it occurs we should reject it.

Those who are doing the hard work of developing ecumenical relations among Christian Churches in the hope of bettering our world and fulfilling Christ’s hope for the full unity of his Church deserve better than to be branded as modernists independent of any consideration of their often valuable work.

Their task is necessary, as it is the only way to work through the issues that divide us as Christians. It is the only hope for the Church to come to a point where it may exhibit fully that ecumenical character displayed by its early councils, the loss of which Mr. Pearce rightfully laments.

Photo credit: © L’Osservatore Romano

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