For Honest Ecumenism

For Honest Ecumenism April 11, 2014

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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  • NicholasBeriah Cotta

    While criticizing an article that is so well article-ated (is there a word for this?) makes me feel embarassed about my pride, I do want to make one point.
    From a style standpoint, the line “Now let me clearly…” signals a change in the story – that you are going to follow the lead of the quote from Benedict above and demarcate what you believe about the Catholic church in stark and simple terms.
    I think, even from a Catholic point of view, and even though “subsists” in your statement is a kind of caveat, that it is important to note our first and foremost definition of Church is that it is entered literally through baptism *AND* that baptisms in the name of the trinity are completely valid no matter who performs them. I know you know this; I just think that we should be very clear that the Catholic view is that the church is a word that encompasses more than what is *commonly* thought of as the Catholic Church .
    Of course, let me speak clearly when I say, “You are Catholics first and heretics second.” I could also put it this way, “You are in our Church already, and furthermore, we really insist that you become more involved in parish activities.”

    • “You are in our Church already, and furthermore, we really insist that you become more involved in parish activities.”

      Ha! Great line!

      Yes, your points are correct. Fyi, the “subsists in” formulation comes from the Second Vatican Council.

      • NicholasBeriah Cotta

        Yeah, my comment sucked after this morning I read that the Church literally said the word church is literally for the Catholic church (Dominus Iesus-2007).

        Luckily, I read this this morning and it even explains “subsist” –
        That source of initial embarassment was well founded of course, but I insist that how we understand the sacrament of baptism is fundamental to how we think of “Church” and Neuhaus at least apparently thought so as well.

        • “Church” is a word we use for different realities: Church militant, Church triumphant; visible Church, invisible Church; etc. There is clearly a sense in which the non-Catholic baptized are joined to the Body of Christ, albeit in imperfect communion. But it is equally true that the Church founded by Jesus Christ is the same as the Church now called the Roman Catholic Church.

    • johnnysc

      The Catechism of the Catholic Church makes pretty clear what the Church is…..One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic. “You are the light that gives light to the world. A city that is built on a hill cannot be hidden.” Mt 5:14

  • $102828240

    Wonderful and inspiring post. Thank you Pascal-Emmanuel. You are now officially my favorite Patheos blogger.

  • Mike

    This was excellent thanks!

    EDIT: also appreciated your mentioning the problem of national churches and loyalty.

  • UnknownTheFirst

    It’s not really good fun, to mention your (i.e. the Church’s) failings without any apology to the people it harmed. Henry VIII was a monster, but Thomas More was a cold, unfeeling torturer. As soon as the Church stops celebrating that monster by naming parishes after him*, we can talk about the Catholic martyrs (who didn’t deserve torture either). *or showing horribly inaccurate historical dramas about him to CYO classes…

    For that matter, it is painful for me as you seem to equate the terrible treatment of children in Catholic schools as being ON THE SAME LEVEL as milquetoast Anglican prelates. Knowing some of these (including a Dean) your description of them as country club members is ugly and inaccurate.

    (And do you really get hostility from “secular materialists”? Why? I’ve never run into anything stronger than bemusement, except on the Internet.)

    • Did you read my post?

      I do, in fact, repent of the sins of my Church. And I don’t equate anything with anything.

      And I never described Anglican prelates as country club members, I said that the Anglican Church was DESIGNED as a country club, which obviously doesn’t prevent there being holy and good men (I read Rowan Williams and N.T. Wright with interest).

      And the idea that religious believers don’t meet with hostility from secular materialists is ridiculously solipsistic.

      But it’s okay. I repent from your poor reading comprehension.

      • UnknownTheFirst

        It was what seemed like your jocular tone that jarred me, after the rather casual contempt directed towards Anglicans. Yes, you “repented”, but that should mean asking forgiveness to the victims, which I didn’t see. Being a victim of the “terrible schools”, and one of them was more than terrible, it just hurt.

        My post was so angry that my question about your personal experience (and I was asking about YOU, not all religious believers, because you were talking about your experience with secular materialists) must have seemed more of the same. I’m sorry. I really did want to know where you ran into this. I’ve only run into that kind of hostility on the Internet (my previous post being maybe a textbook case of Internet hostility… I’m sorry, I don’t talk that way in person).

        • To me, repenting implies asking for forgiveness, but I can see how it might not be obvious.

          Thanks for your kindness. We seem to have misunderstood each other (as so often happens). Thanks for your comment.

  • Antiphon411

    Oops! Looks like it’s time to re-read Pius XI’s encyclical Mortalium animos.

    “…that denominations can use different words to mean the same thing…”

    Really? How do they say “extra ecclesiam nulla salus”?

    “The joint Catholic-Lutheran statement on justification is, I believe, one of the most important documents of the past 500 years.”

    Hmm…I still think Leo X’s Exsurge Domine is the Church’s best statement on Catholic-Lutheran relations.

    “…I will never be a Traditionalist and cherish the ‘opening of the doors and windows’ of Vatican II…”

    Unfortunately most of the doors that the Council Fathers opened were marked “EXIT”. As for opening the windows, maybe that’s the somewhere or other whence the smoke of satan entered the Temple of God.

    “I believe that the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church is guilty, a thousand times guilty; guilty of all of it.”

    No, the Spotless Bride of Christ is incapable of fault. One might say certain churchmen and sons and daughters of the Church have done wrong. This would be unremarkable, since the human personnel of the Church is made up of sinners.

    I cannot say that I would even concede the justness of your list–it rather smacks of the histrionics of JPII–but let us give you the benefit of the doubt. The sins of the heretical and schismatic sects are worse. Not only have they been guilty of historical wrongdoing–as have Catholics–but they have also rejected the fulness of the Faith preserved and taught by the very Church Christ Himself founded. Not even a Pope Alexander VI did that!

    “…if we must move forward, we have to talk about all these things in a charitable, and also honest way.”

    Charity would require that we be honest with those who have separated themselves from Christ’s Church. We should endeavor to explain the Truth to them and show them where their own understanding is deficient. We should be motivated by a desire for their salvation not a concern for their feelings. Among Our Lord’s sayings, “I’m okay; you’re okay” has no place.

    • I also write for people like you. I will pray for you.

      • Antiphon411

        And I comment for people like you and your readers.
        Thank you for your prayers. I shall also pray for you. It is hard to find the narrow gate during these days of diabolical disorientation.

    • Ryan Godfrey

      I appreciate your comments. As a revert from Protestantism to the Catholic Church of my baptism, I am especially weary of the desire to blur lines and create the impression that we are all really the same thing with some, albeit important, differences that in the end won’t really matter that much.

      • Antiphon411

        “…I am especially weary of the desire to blur lines…”

        Weary, indeed. Be wary as well!

        I like your avatar. It would imply perhaps a more traditional orientation?

        • Ryan Godfrey

          Indeed, as Traditionalist as I can be. I consider the weekly Sunday Latin Mass in my parish to be a rare blessing in this “ecumenical age.” As someone who has experienced much of what Protestants have to offer, I don’t get why Catholics like Pascal are so excited about the Church becoming more Protestant. “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.” I also don’t get why he thinks ecumenism has been successful. It hasn’t. No Protestants who are truly Protestant acknowledge the Joint Lutheran declaration as anything meaningful.

          • Antiphon411

            We, too, have the weekly Sunday TLM (…for now…). It is a h(e)aven.

            I think that many in the three-cheers-for-ecumenism crowd have drunk too deeply of the “Mere Christianity” Kool-Aid and not deeply enough of the “extra ecclesiam nulla salus” wine.

            Good to hear another traditionally-oriented Catholic voice at Patheos. I hope to hear more from you. I usually hang out at Taki’s Magazine, but give up political stuff for Lent. I wound up here and like it.

  • Frank McManus

    I like this post. Sure, I could pick a few nits, but why bother? There’s something else wonderful here, just beneath the surface, that I wish had a name, but I don’t think it does. It’s about inhabiting that place where you can hold your convictions firmly while simultaneously admitting your sins, and the sins of the Church — AND keep on being open to the truth and holiness of the other, that is, the non-Catholics. I’m not sure if this is a virtue, or an intellectual stance, or metaphysical reality, or a gift of the holy spirit, but I’m convinced it’s important and often misunderstood. People can misunderstand by thinking you’re wrong about this or that particular, or they can be wrong by thinking you’re indulging in mere “I’m okay, you’re okay” thinking. Both attitudes are ignoring the deeper reality.

    That deeper reality has to do with paradox and irony and therefore humor. For some reason I’m linking it with the attitude of many saints who take such peculiar attitudes toward sin: on one hand they certainly don’t minimize the gravity of sin in the least, yet they often combine that with a smiling confidence in God’s victory over sin. The smile is important; it means it goes beyond mere conviction. They KNOW God has conquered every sin; we need only accept it.

    I think you’re doing something rather similar here. Whether you’re right or wrong about anything, you have a smiling confidence in God’s reality; it’s a reality you know personally (surely!), and it gives you the ability both to state your views and to admit your failings. And even if you become testy now and again, I think I know that isn’t the end of the matter for you.

    Much more could be said about this mysterious phenomenon, but I guess that’s enough for the moment. But perhaps I can add that the value of ecumenism is its acceptance of this reality, and its failure is its rejection of this reality.

    It might be worth exploring how your attitude is different from that of, especially, traditionalists who don’t like your attitude because of the supposed evils of Vatican II or whatever. On the surface, one can make the usual arguments pro and con, but deep down, there’s something else going on.

  • Seb

    Nice post. Lets pray for Christian unity , Jesus bless you all. We are brothers and sisters

  • Coop

    What a horrible thing to say about the Anglican Church. It left me with the impression that you really have no idea what you’re talking about.

  • Mike

    Check out this post about married Anglican clergy and what it portends for the denomination:

    Bc the Church is tied to the state, when the state redefined marriage it created an impossible situation for the Church which will have to be resolved soon. I think the same thing happened in Denmark when that country re-defined marriage.

  • Damien Schiff

    Your criticism of Anglicanism smacks too much of the low mass catholic. Was Louis XIV at bottom any less depraved than Henry? What matters is that they both had a good aesthetic, and therefore are much more likely to be saved than the self-satisfied middle class liturgists who parade rather hideously about our churches today.

  • Well, I came back to see what you’d done lately and to see whether you are still worth reading.

    You are not.

    Your slander of the Anglican church in particular isn’t an expression of doctrinal or practical disagreement but rather mere insult (Christianity without the Gospel? Really?). This is not ecumenism, and it isn’t taken as”good fun” (because it isn’t), and your apology is most emphatically not accepted because I’m not at all convinced you meant it. I do realize that you wrote a more recent post acknowledging that you go too far, but without a formal retraction, no amount of apology will be sufficient.

    EDIT: Well, I lost my temper.
    Everything I was angry about still stands–that is, I still affirm the entire last paragraph–and I am still very angry and hurt, but I should not have descended to an ad hominem attack.