What is the Point of Ecumenism?

He ain’t heavy…

Here’s what I wrote at the end of my recent post about women bishops in the Anglican church:

Does this mean ecumenism with Anglicans is over? Not at all. Ecumenical discussions continue. It’s just that now everyone should be much clearer about the identity of our ecumenical partners.

My thoughts evoked this comment:

What is the point of those discussions, Fr.? Ecumenism is supposed to be about establishing unity. This will never be possible with the C of E. So why waste the time and effort having “ecumenical discussions” with people who don’t want unity with us in the first place? Life is too short when Christ has already given us a mission to achieve.

OK. I hear you, and to tell the truth I’ve felt the same about ecumenism: fuhgeddaboudit.

However, that is not the Catholic way. One of the things that has been most impressive about Pope St John Paul II, Benedict and Francis has been their willingness to reach out to fellow Christians in a totally non judgmental and unconditional way. John Paul reached out to the Orthodox and the Protestants. Benedict reached out to the Orthodox and the Anglicans. Francis has already reached out to Anglicans, Protestants and others.

At the same time formal “ecumenical discussions” continue.

“What is the point?” we may well ask.

I’ve been thinking it through a fair bit, and there is more to it than the rather simplistic idea that we may all be one sometime soon in a visible way. Does anyone really think that we’re going to come up with a formula through which suddenly all Anglicans and Catholics are in the same church again? Do we imagine that on one magic day all Methodists will one up at their local Catholic parishes to receive instruction which leads to their membership in the Catholic Church at which point they will close down the Methodist church and sell all the buildings and hand the money over to their local Catholic diocese?


On the other hand, ecumenism isn’t always a formal, institutional thing. It is best when it is one on one or in small group. It requires an open ness to separated brethren–a willingness to welcome and discuss–all that often leads to individual conversions. I’m a case in point. One of the reasons I’m a Catholic today is because a number of individual Catholics actually seemed to like me, be interested in me and were willing to talk theology with me and welcome me into their world. They were not “convert hunting” but they really welcomed me in the most warm and friendly manner as a brother in Christ. That was ecumenism and evangelization in action.

Formal talks by theologians on both sides are only part of the whole picture. They are a piece in the puzzle.

So if we are not expecting corporate, visible unity anytime soon, what is the point of ecumenism?

First of all, we have to remember that the Catholic Church attempts to do the right thing–not because we believe it will succeed or because we think it is practical or because we think it is a plan for success. We do the right thing because its the right thing. It is right to reach out to our separated brethren as it was right for the Father to watch and wait for the prodigal to return home. It is right to love them even if they spit in our eye because it is right to love them even if they spit in our eye.

The second thing is that Catholics take the long view. We don’t know what the future holds, but we know that if we do the right thing for its own sake, then eventually it bears the right fruit. Continue Reading