For Honest Ecumenism

When I was growing up, with the exception of some family and some priests, the people I knew who were serious about their religion were not Catholic, and the Catholics I knew were nominal Catholics. It was through arguing with non-Catholics that I discovered that people could love each other, yet disagree on fundamental points, yet talk respectfully and joyfully about the Most Important Things.

One thing I like about deeply religious (non-fundamentalist) people is that disagreeing with them is, perhaps paradoxically, often easier and friendlier. To the secular materialist, the idea that someone could tell him that he is Wrong about the Fundamental Things is the greatest possible insult there is; anything but their supposed neutralism is oppressive, and (inconsistently) to tell them that they are Wrong is the worst insult. But I have no problem hearing from an Evangelical sister that I’m Wrong–because I think she is, too! And, of course, disagreeing with fellow Christians is made easier by the fact that we do agree on the most important thing of all.

I view the ecumenical dialogue of the 20th century as one of the most important developments in all of world and religious history. The time when Christians of different stripes dialogued with steel is not that far removed. To me, the ecumenism of the 20th century had many blessings:

  • It got rid of hostility, myth, and fear-mongering; no, Catholics do not worship Mary; no, Protestants do not hate Rome;
  • It accomplished a in-retrospect-obvious but fundamental hermeneutical breakthrough: that denominations can use different words to mean the same thing (and, sometimes, the same words to say different things); and in this way, we have finally discovered–again, in-retrospect-obvious but we were blinded to it–that we agree on so, so much more than we disagree on;
  • It has been very good at differentiating between true doctrinal problems and what an Orthodox friend of mine called “beard problems”: differences that are really cultural/historical in nature but are all too easy to mistake for fundamental differences;

And the ecumenical movement has achieved some real breakthroughs. The joint Catholic-Lutheran statement on justification is, I believe, one of the most important documents of the past 500 years. Other significant (and astonishing in the light of the history of previous centuries) breakthroughs include the Orthodox recognition of the primacy of the Petrine See–and the Catholic declaration that the “procession” of the Spirit from the Father to the Son is different from the “procession” from the Son to the Father.

And most importantly, ecumenism (along with pluralism and, perhaps, the rising challenge of secularism) has created a true détente, in the French meaning of the word, a relaxation, a détente of the hearts. We now, at least in the main and as much as can be expected of lowly sinners, really behave like brothers and sisters to one another. We don’t agree on everything, but we are still a family united by love.

All these tremendous accomplishments are really, really wonderful blessings and must be in no way diminished. The ecumenical movement is one of many reasons why I will never be a Traditionalist and cherish the “opening of the doors and windows” of Vatican II. But, perhaps precisely because it has been so successful, it seems to me that 20th century ecumenism is now a foundation to build upon, rather than an endpoint.

To use C.S. Lewis’ famous analogy, ecumenism is like a meeting hall, and it is wonderful that we have this meeting hall, and that we can talk in a civilized way there, and even more importantly love each other there, but the meeting hall is not the point. Jesus wants us to be one–which does not preclude from taking the best of several rooms that open into the meeting hall, or rearranging the furniture in the meeting hall where we do end up.

It is wonderful–really, truly–that we have come to realize how much we truly agree on, and what a treasure that is. But, at the end of the day, we also disagree on some things. Nevermind talk of “love in truth”, it is about respect and friendship. Any true dialogue must be based on respect, and a dialogue where one of us pretends to be something he’s not is a lie.

Or, as my friend and Christian brother Alan Jacobs put it, defending Pope Benedict after he (mildly) critiqued the ecumenical movement:

Benedict was stressing a point that he has been making for a very long time: that the whole ecumenical movement of the twentieth century — which was originally focused on creating better understanding among various Christian groups but later morphed into “interreligious dialogue” — has never made much progress, and has never made much progress because it has assumed that the way you have to talk about people you disagree with is by talking largely, or wholly, about points of agreement. “Can we agree that Jesus is the only Son of God? Ummmm, okay . . . Well, can we agree that Jesus is important? Can we agree that there is a God? Wow . . . um, let’s see: Can we agree to support the U.N. Millennium Development Goals? Moved, seconded, passed!

Benedict, having watched all this going on for many fruitless decades, wonders if we shouldn’t try holding the stick at the other end: what if we try talking about where we don’t agree, and see where that leads us? This violates every tenet — or perhaps the only tenet — of the ecumenical movement, so it’s not going to gain any traction among the professional ecumenists, but still, it’s an interesting and hopeful gesture.

As you see, Alan is, if anything, harder on the ecumenical movement than I am. But I think that, overall, the point is correct. There are things that we do disagree on, and these things are also important. And precisely because we do agree on so much–including, at least, for me, the importance of capital-T Truth–and because now, thanks to the ecumenical movement, we can be expected to (insofar as sinners are able) talk to each other in a civilized and even charitable manner.

Let me put it as clearly as I can: I believe that Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God, founded a Church which is His Body; that this Church “subsists in” the Roman Catholic Church; that He has given to this Church the apostolic teaching authority and has prevented her from error on matters of faith; that where opinions directly contradict what has been definitively taught by the Church they are in error; and that He wants all of his children to be part of His Body. Those are things I believe and will continue to believe. And they are pretty important.

I can be even more pointed: I believe that “Sola Scriptura” is a self-contradictory, self-evidently absurd hermeneutic in blinding contradiction with the Biblical logic of a living, covenantal God who is active in history and works through men; that an ecclesiology of a confederation of national churches structurally renders to Cesar what is God’s; that the Calvinistic hostility to the cult of saints, the liturgy, ecclesiastical art and beauty, monasticism, the most holy treasure of the Eucharist and the central Biblical theme of human free will is the intellectual and theological equivalent of the steppe barbarian who goes around a Roman city smashing statues and burning books because they are beautiful and civilized (as, indeed, many Radical Reformers did) and then, once sitting on the emperor’s throne, wonders why taxes owed no longer reach the Treasury’s coffers; that Anglicanism is designed as a Voltairian caricature of what Christianity without the Gospel looks like, built out of my stolen property by one of the most transparently Devil-possessed figures of history as a country club staffed by petty functionaries where the pleasing aroma of petits fours hardly masks the stench of the blood and guts of holy Catholic martyrs, an “ecclesiological” formula which can only produce what it has produced, namely a doctrinal blob whose only ironclad precept seems to be “don’t rock the boat”.

I believe these things. I also believe that I am a sinner responsible for all the sins of the world and that I am not better than anybody. I believe that there are many saints outside the visible Catholic Church, and I believe that there is much we can learn from non-Catholics, and that often (so often!) they teach us what it truly is to be Christian. I believe that the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church is guilty, a thousand times guilty; guilty of all of it; guilty of the excesses of the Inquisition, of the Crusades, of Caesaropapism, of putting Galileo under house arrest, of not enough Canossas, of anti-Semitism, of cowardice, of worldliness, of power-hungriness, of legalism, of clericalism, of forgetting herself and the promises of her baptism, of rigidity, of formalism, of spectacular incompetence, of tribalism, of burying her treasure, of poor catechesis, of maintaining terrible schools and worse of thinking that they are good schools, of lack of mercy and lack of charity, of not protecting her children, of tolerating what ought not to be tolerated and not tolerating what ought to be, of piss-poor liturgy, of pseudo-Pelagianism, of “pray, pay and obey,” of Romanism and Gallicanism and Anglicanism, of homophobia, of sexism, of racism, of war, of liberalism, of oppression, of progressivism, of traditionalism, of intellectualism, of overconfidence and underconfidence, of solipsism, of complacency, of tepidity, of necessary evils, of corrupt Popes, and corrupt bishops, and corrupt priests, and corrupt laity, myself very much included, of burning Joan of Arc and celebrating Marcial Maciel, of meanness and pettiness, of–Lord have mercy–of self-satisfaction, and, worst of all, guilty of pride, including pride in herself, and pride in her own Truth, perhaps the worst sin, the sin of the perversion of the good, the sin that Our Lord did not commit even though He alone can boast of being the Truth, of seeing it as a cudgel to beat the infidel with or worse an irrelevancy and not the Good News that sets us all free. I am a member of a Church that has been made steward of the greatest treasure known to man and who spits on it every day, and I spit as good as anybody, and I too yell “Crucify Him!” of my Lord and God.

Phew. That felt good.

Now, this might be a little too polemical. But I hope you’ll see the point as taken. But the real point is this: I believe all these things but I also believe we can be friends and even brothers and have arguments in good faith. If you’re a fellow Christian, you shouldn’t have to be offended that I believe these things, because you probably believe the reverse, and that’s fine. I like that you have serious faith commitments. And we are on a pilgrimage together, to Calvary, or perhaps to Emmaus.

I often take digs at Protestantism on Twitter, but I hope everybody realizes that it’s all in good fun, and I think that’s the way it’s been taken. And if not I apologize. I’m Catholic. I don’t know how not to be Catholic. If we’re honest with ourselves, we have to realize: we are brothers and sinners, called to love one another; there is much on which we agree; there are also some things on which we disagree; if we must move forward, we have to talk about all these things in a charitable, and also honest way.

At least I think so. I may be wrong.

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