Ecumenism, Rightly Understood

In Tyler Blanski’s recent Crisis article titled “Did the Synod Endorse ‘Lifestyle Ecumenism’?,” he claims that “ecumenists are pluralists when it comes to truth.” In other words, they are relativists, searching for unity without truth. Essentially, Blanski claims that this is “what ecumenism [as such] really is.” The question here isn’t whether ecumenism is sometimes practiced in this way (of course it is), but whether the Church in its magisterial documents endorses that view of ecumenical practice and all that it entails. I will briefly argue here that it most definitely does not.

Credo unam ecclesiam
“Christ calls all His disciples to unity” (John 17:20-23), St. John Paul II writes in the introduction of his1995 Encyclical Letter, Ut unum sint, (hereafter Uus). In the Gospel of John, we read that Jesus Himself prayed to His Father, at the hour of His passion, “that all of them may be one” (17:21). What is the nature of this unity? The Church, which is Christ’s body, is neither a collection of individuals, nor a sociological subject–for example, a voluntary association of like-minded individuals created by human agreement–and hence the unity of Christ’s disciples is not that of a mere gathering of people.

Rather, the Church is the reborn (i.e., new) humanity in Christ, who is the New Adam, the religious root of the human race, profoundly described by the Apostle Paul as the “Body of Christ” (in Ephesians and Colossians), with her Head and individual members. The Church is then the religious bond of unity of the reborn human race. As the former Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, puts it, “For the believer … the Church is … a truly new subject called into being by the Word and in the Holy Spirit; and precisely for that reason, the Church herself overcomes the seemingly insurmountable confines of human subjectivity by putting man in contact with the ground of reality which is prior to him.” The ground of reality that is prior to man is Trinitarian communion, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and the “faithful are one because, in the Spirit, they are in communion with the Son and, in him, share in his communion with the Father” (Uus §9).

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Furthermore, the Church’s unity is not simply a goal or ideal to be sought, or a mere spiritual or invisible unity, contrasted with the diversity of the churches as a necessary mark, here and now, of the visible church. Rather, the Church’s unity is a gift of God—manifested in the visible, historical, temporal, institutional, in short, bodily church—belonging to the Church herself, and, says John Paul, “this gift needs to be received and developed ever more profoundly” (Novo millennio ineunte, Apostolic Letter, January 2001, §48).

This unity is concretely embodied, and thus, as Ratzinger then put it, “The Church of Christ is not something intangible, hidden under the variety of human constructions.” Rather, the Church’s unity has a recognizable delineation, truly existing as a bodily Church: “She is one in [the confession of] faith, one in the celebration of the sacraments, one in apostolic succession, and one in ecclesial governance” (Lumen Gentium §14). This unity is a present reality, here and now, bestowed by the Holy Spirit on Christ’s body, and Christ cannot be divided. “There is one body and one Spirit,” St. Paul states in his Letter to the Ephesians, “just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all” (Eph 4:4-7).

Moreover, as the Dogmatic Constitution Lumen Gentium and the Decree Unitatis Redintegratio, as well as the more recent Uus (1995) and Dominus Iesus (2000), fundamentally affirm, the one Church of Christ subsists fully in the Catholic Church. The Second Vatican Ecumenical Council teaches the historical continuity between the Church founded by Christ and the Catholic Church. The Church of Jesus Christ exists bodily. Christ himself has willed the Church’s existence; and the Holy Spirit has continually renewed her since Pentecost, ecclesia semper purificanda, preserving her in her essential identity, which belongs to the concreteness of the Incarnation.

The Church is one, absolutely singular, subsisting in the Catholic Church, existing as a single subject in the reality of history. This means that the Catholic Church is (to borrow a phrase from the late Fr. Richard John Neuhaus) the most fully and rightly ordered expression of the Body of Christ in time; in her, and in no other, the fullness of the means of salvation is present (Unitatis Redintegratio, §3; Dominus Iesus, §16-17).

Thus, against the background of the Catholic Church’s teaching that she is not merely “one part of a divided whole,” we can easily understand why the Church rejects “ecclesiological relativism,” which is the view that claims that the Church “subsists” intangibly under a variety of human constructions. On this view, according to Ratzinger, “then no Church could claim to possess definitively binding teaching authority, and in this way institutional relativism will lead to doctrinal relativism.” “If belief in ‘the body’ of the Church is taken away,” he adds, “the Church’s concrete claims regarding the content of faith disappear along with her bodiliness.”

Of course we don’t have before us yet the full teaching of the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council. The Catholic Church in a singularly unique way is the most fully and rightly ordered expression of the Church of Jesus Christ in time and space.

Yet, there is more. This Ecumenical Council also teaches that “many elements of sanctification and truth” (see Lumen Gentium, § 8, 15; Unitatis Redintegratio, §2) can be found outside the visible boundaries of the Church. Thus, this teaching provides a theological foundation for the Catholic Church’s commitment to ecumenical dialogue.

Moreover, these elements of sanctification and truth do not exist in an “ecclesial vacuum” (Uus §13), because there is ecclesial reality, however fragmented, outside the visible boundaries of the Church. Still, these elements are not “static elements passively present in those Churches and Communities,” as John Paul notes (Uus §49), or “autonomous and free-floating,” in the words of Dominican priest and theologian, Aidan Nichols. Indeed, “they derive their efficacy from the very fullness of grace and truth entrusted to the Catholic Church.” Adds Nichols, “and coming from that source, carry a built-in gravitational pull back—or on!—towards the Church’s unity.”

Ecumenical Dialogue
The Roman Catholic Church, according to John Paul, holds that “full [visible] communion of course [would] have to come about through the acceptance of the whole truth into which the Holy Spirit guides Christ’s disciples,” says John Paul (Uus, §36). Thus the Church’s vision of visible unity “takes account of all the demands of revealed truth” (Uus, §79). Thus, she seeks to avoid all forms of reductionism or facile agreement, false irenicism, indifference to the Church’s teaching, and common-denominator ecumenicity. John Paul II correctly writes, “Love for the truth is the deepest dimension of any authentic quest for full communion between Christians” (Uus, §36). In other words, he adds, “The unity willed by God can be attained only by the adherence of all to the content of revealed faith in its entirety. In matters of faith, compromise is in contradiction with God who is Truth. In the Body of Christ, ‘the way, and the truth, and the life’ (John 14:6), who would consider legitimate a reconciliation brought about at the expense of the truth? … A ‘being together’ which betrayed the truth would thus be opposed both to the nature of God who offers his communion and to the need for truth found in the depths of every human heart” (Uus §18). In short, “Authentic ecumenism is a gift at the service of truth” (Uus §38).

There remains to say something, albeit briefly, about the nature and purpose of dialogue as expressed in Uus §21-40. Most important, an interior conversion of the heart, indeed, repentance, is required as a precondition for engaging in ecumenical dialogue. Why this summons to conversion? “Christian unity is possible,” says John Paul, “provided that we are humbly conscious of having sinned against unity and are convinced of our need for conversion” (Uus §34; see also §82). In this light, we can understand why an examination of conscience is required for authentic dialogue; confessing our sins, repentance, putting ourselves, by God’s grace, in that “interior space where Christ, the source of the Church’s unity, can effectively act, with all the power of his Spirit, the Paraclete” (Uus §35).

The journey of ecumenical dialogue is thus an ongoing “dialogue of conversion,” on both sides, trusting in the reconciling power of the truth which is Christ to overcome the obstacles to unity. The ground motive of this dialogue for reconciliation is “common prayer with our brothers and sisters who seek unity in Christ and in His Church” (Uus §24). “Prayer is the ‘soul’ of the ecumenical renewal and of the yearning for unity,” adds John Paul II. In short, it is the basis and support for everything the [Second Vatican Ecumenical] Council defines as ‘dialogue’” (Uus §28). Indeed, prayer is the heart of spiritual ecumenism.

Sometimes dialogue is made more difficult, indeed, impossible, when our words, judgments, and actions manifest a failure to deal with each other with understanding, truthfully and fairly. “When undertaking dialogue, each side must presuppose in the other a desire for reconciliation, for unity in truth” (Uus §29). Furthermore, dialogue must be deepened in order to engage the other person in a relationship of mutual trust and acceptance as a fellow Christian, responsive to him in Christian love. A necessary sign of this engagement is that we have passed from “antagonism and conflict to a situation where each party recognizes the other as a partner” (Uus §41). “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Gal 5:14), and in St. Paul’s words, “especially those who are of the household of faith” (Gal 6:10).

Clearly, the Church regards non-Catholic Christians as belonging, however imperfectly, to the household of faith, and hence she speaks of them as “separated brethren.” Notwithstanding their separation, they are still brethren, brothers and sisters in the Lord Jesus Christ. Thus: we must speak the truth in love (Eph 4:15). “With non-Catholic Christians,” the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith adds, “Catholics must enter into a respectful dialogue of charity and truth, a dialogue which is not only an exchange of ideas, but also of gifts, in order that the fullness of the means of salvation can be offered to one’s partners in dialogue. In this way, they are led to an ever deeper conversion in Christ” (“Doctrinal Note on Some Aspects of Evangelization,” December 3, 2007, Section IV). In short, the ecumenism of conversion embodies the conviction that “dialogue is not simply an exchange of ideas. In some way it is always an ‘exchange of gifts,’ ” indeed, a “dialogue of love” (Uus §28, 47, respectively). This is receptive ecumenism at its best.

Receptive Ecumenism and Truth
Since Vatican II the Church has endorsed the practice of receptive ecumenism: ecumenism is an exchange of gifts such that it is possible for different confessional traditions—Catholics and Protestants and Orthodox—to learn from each other. Receptive ecumenism is based on the distinction between truth and its historically conditioned formulations, between form and content, propositions and sentences, which was invoked by John XXIII in his opening address at Vatican II, Gaudet Mater Ecclesia.

The pope made this distinction between truth and its formulations in a famous statement at the beginning of Vatican II: “The deposit or the truths of faith, contained in our sacred teaching, are one thing, while the mode in which they are enunciated, keeping the same meaning and the same judgment [eodem sensu eademque sententia], is another.” The subordinate clause in this passage is part of a larger passage from Vatican I, Dei Filius (Denzinger 3020), and this passage is itself from the Commonitorium primum 23 of the fifth century monk, Vincent of Lérins (died c. 445): “Therefore, let there be growth and abundant progress in understanding, knowledge, and wisdom, in each and all, in individuals and in the whole Church, at all times and in the progress of ages, but only with the proper limits, i.e., within the same dogma, the same meaning, the same judgment.” So, we can say with justification that John XXIII framed the question regarding the nature of doctrinal continuity in light of the Lérinian thesis, which was received by Vatican I, namely, that doctrine must progress according to the same meaning and the same judgment (eodem sensu eademque sententia), allowing for legitimate pluralism and authentic diversity at the level of formulation within a fundamental unity of truth.

This distinction between truth and its formulations has ecumenical implications because it encourages an ecumenism of convergence, namely, since the “element which determines communion in truth is the meaning of truth,” and hence “expression of truth can take different forms” (UUS §19), theological disagreements over what appear as incompatible assertions may be understood as differences of language, theological elaboration, and emphasis, in short, as two different ways of expressing the truth, the same judgment about the same reality, rather than as disagreements about judgments regarding the truth. As Unitatis Redintegratio puts it: “It is hardly surprising if sometimes one tradition has come nearer than the other to an apt appreciation of certain aspects of the revealed mystery or has expressed them in a clearer manner. As a result, these various theological formulations are often to be considered as complementary rather than conflicting. Communion is made fruitful by the exchange of gifts between the Churches [and ecclesial communities] insofar as they complement each other” (Unitatis Redintegratio, §57).

Yes, of course not all theological disagreements can be treated in light of the distinction between truth and its formulations; some are matters of fundamental difference in judgments regarding the truth of dogmas. Here’s where substantial differences are found over the truth of dogmas and hence the real hard work of ecumenism begins. In this respect, Blanski is right, “truth is a means to unity.” Let me conclude with this important statement from the Dutch Reformed master of dogmatic and ecumenical theology, G.C. Berkouwer, who expresses eloquently the dynamic of ecumenical dialogue. “Our thoughts about the future of the Church must come out of tensions in the present, tensions that must creatively produce watchfulness, prayer, faith, and commitment, love for truth and unity, love for unity and truth.”

Editor’s note: Pictured above is Pope Benedict with Patriarch Bartholomew in Istanbul in 2006. (Photo credit: Pool Photographer/Kai Pfaffenbach)


  • Eduardo Echeverria

    Eduardo Echeverria is Professor of Philosophy and Systematic Theology at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit. He earned his doctorate in philosophy from the Free University in Amsterdam and his S.T.L. from the University of St. Thomas Aquinas (Angelicum) in Rome. He is the author of several books, including Dialogue of Love: Confessions of an Evangelical Catholic Ecumenist (Wipf & Stock, 2010).

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