Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Ecumenism is not a dirty word.

Ecumenism, simply put, is the process by which Catholic and other Christian churches proceed in dialogue and prayer with each other, with the common goal of achieving the greatest degree of Christian unity possible.

Ecumenism sometimes gets a bad rap. Admittedly, this is directly resulting from some misguided applications of it, which serve little more than to say "I'm okay, you're okay, we're all okay. We all believe in God and love each other and that's all that matters."

Well, that's not quite the approach outlined by the Church. While fully desiring complete unity with her separated brethren in the Christian faith and rejoicing over the areas of doctrine which are held in common, the Church recognizes the importance of not glossing over the important differences that do exist. It's a difficult process, and more complicated by the fact that each partner in dialogue has a different set of doctrines, but it is essential that the effort continue.

Here are a few snippets from Vatican II's Unitatis Redintegratio, showing the principles and guidelines desired by the Church:

The restoration of unity among all Christians is one of the principal concerns of the Second Vatican Council. Christ the Lord founded one Church and one Church only. However, many Christian communions present themselves to men as the true inheritors of Jesus Christ; all indeed profess to be followers of the Lord but differ in mind and go their different ways, as if Christ Himself were divided. Such division openly contradicts the will of Christ, scandalizes the world, and damages the holy cause of preaching the Gospel to every creature. (art. 1)

Even in the beginnings of this one and only Church of God there arose certain rifts, which the Apostle strongly condemned. But in subsequent centuries much more serious dissensions made their appearance and quite large communities came to be separated from full communion with the Catholic Church-for which, often enough, men of both sides were to blame. The children who are born into these Communities and who grow up believing in Christ cannot be accused of the sin involved in the separation, and the Catholic Church embraces upon them as brothers, with respect and affection. For men who believe in Christ and have been truly baptized are in communion with the Catholic Church even though this communion is imperfect. The differences that exist in varying degrees between them and the Catholic Church-whether in doctrine and sometimes in discipline, or concerning the structure of the Church-do indeed create many obstacles, sometimes serious ones, to full ecclesiastical communion. The ecumenical movement is striving to overcome these obstacles. But even in spite of them it remains true that all who have been justified by faith in Baptism are members of Christ's body, and have a right to be called Christian, and so are correctly accepted as brothers by the children of the Catholic Church. (art. 3)

Catholics, in their ecumenical work, must assuredly be concerned for their separated brethren, praying for them, keeping them informed about the Church, making the first approaches toward them. But their primary duty is to make a careful and honest appraisal of whatever needs to be done or renewed in the Catholic household itself, in order that its life may bear witness more clearly and faithfully to the teachings and institutions which have come to it from Christ through the Apostles. (art. 4)

The way and method in which the Catholic faith is expressed should never become an obstacle to dialogue with our brethren. It is, of course, essential that the doctrine should be clearly presented in its entirety. 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. (art. 11)

Now that we have briefly set out the conditions for ecumenical action and the principles by which it is to be directed, we look with confidence to the future. This Sacred Council exhorts the faithful to refrain from superficiality and imprudent zeal, which can hinder real progress toward unity. Their ecumenical action must be fully and sincerely Catholic, that is to say, faithful to the truth which we have received from the apostles and Fathers of the Church, in harmony with the faith which the Catholic Church has always professed, and at the same time directed toward that fullness to which Our Lord wills His Body to grow in the course of time. (art. 24)

For the full text of this degree, go here.

Addendum: It's been 40 years since the council, and admittedly ecumenical activity has been a mixed bag. Undoubtedly some of this is due to misguided efforts which fell prey to the "false irenicism" that the Council very much wished to avoid. Other obstacles include the doctrinal movements of some ecclesial communities to positions farther from Catholic teaching. Whenever a church adopts a policy allowing the ordination of women, for example, they have distanced themselves further from the Church's understanding of the very nature of the sacrament of Holy Orders, and introduced a new obstacle to ecumenical activity.

Yet there have been some successes as well. A notable example is the 1997 Lutheran-Catholic Joint Declaration on Justification which agreed that both communities see justification as "by God's grace through faith in Christ." While there still are slight nuances of different understandings on how we obtain God's grace, this declaration clearly made a giant leap forward in understanding and good will between the two communities. And it most certainly clarified for any skeptics that the Catholic Church does not teach that one can "buy" their way into heaven.

We can hope and pray that in the years to come, Vatican II's call for ecumenical dialogue will prompt more success stories like this one. May we all be one in Christ!

Extra credit: If this topic interests you, I'd reccommend checking out this article from First Things which details further the exact agreements of the joint declaration, and the nuanced areas in which there isn't yet full unity.


At 9/19/2005 2:57 PM, Anonymous ylw said...

Hi Poopsies,

What's "false irenicism"?

At 9/19/2005 4:14 PM, Blogger Daniel said...

The dictionary defines "irenic" as "promoting peace; conciliatory."

So a "false irenicism" could be said to include any effort which, while intending peace, is ultimately too pacifist. Avoiding doctrinal differences altogether would be an example of this. The intention might be to promote peace, but it would never lead to any sort of mutual understanding or resolution.

At 9/20/2005 11:00 AM, Anonymous ylw said...

Got it.
Thanks Sweetheart!


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