A Primer on Authentic Ecumenism

“Above all, it is necessary to recognize the unity that already exists.” ~ John Paul II

There’s a 7-Eleven across the street and down a couple blocks from where I teach—Bethel College in Mishawaka. I often go there for an afternoon caffeine boost. I could walk, but if I’m pressed for time (or it’s winter), I’ll jump in the Honda and make a quick jog over there, fill up my travel mug, and head back to my office.

To an outside observer, unfamiliar with the local terrain, there’d be nothing noteworthy about that: Just another coffee addict stopping in at his local supplier for a fix. However, my java jaunts have real legal ramifications, for the 7-Eleven is on the South Bend side of that street, and my college is on the Mishawaka side. On the surface, and in practical terms, it’s an amorphous, virtually invisible border. But if I got in an accident coming or going? Legal boundaries—possibly even measured in feet and inches—would have real world significance: Is the accident under the jurisdiction of South Bend courts or Mishawaka courts? Which police department would we call? How will one jurisdiction impact insurance and liability claims versus the other?

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That’s one picture of superficial fluidity of boundaries; here’s another.

When I was a kid, my family visited the Four Corners Monument. It’s the spot where four Southwestern states meet up at one single point—Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, and Utah. I remember having a blast with my brother running around the concrete slab that marks out the borders leading up to the common point, announcing as we tore around which state we were occupying at any given moment. The legal divisions between those four states is normally very clear, especially when it counts—like marijuana possession and usage, legal in Colorado, but in Utah, not. Yet at that particular spot in the middle of the Navajo desert? Nobody’s hawking pot, so the legal borders are purely a source of amusement, even joy. While marking out true divisions, the Four Corners Monument serves to draw together rather than divide.

Both these images of fluid boundaries capture different approaches to ecumenism, but I much prefer the second. Before I explain why, let me take a moment to define “ecumenism”—a word that is not commonly invoked these days, nor is it well understood. It’s based on a Greek word that loosely translates as “the whole world,” and, in ecclesiological and theological terms, it refers to anything that touches on matters common to the “whole world” of the church, small “c.” This should be distinguished from interfaith or interreligious matters—those concerns and enterprises involving people of varying major religions (including Christians along with Muslims, Hindus, Jews, and others). While important, interfaith contacts are the equivalent of a United Nations approach to religion, whereas Christian ecumenism is more like a huge family reunion.

And it’s a family get-together that can and should involve all the clan’s disparate branches—reconciled and unreconciled. It includes Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Anglicans, and Protestants of all types. What’s more, it includes high church and low church, liberal and conservative, traditional and Pentecostal—everyone who calls Jesus Lord, believes in the Good News of salvation from sin, and lives today in the hope of heaven tomorrow. There are disagreements, to be sure, but it’s amicable disagreement—a facile disjuncture that allows for rich relationships, and yet respect regarding differences. We come to enjoy each other’s traditions, quirks, and peculiarities; we laugh with and even at each other—in the same way cousins laugh at each other when they get together for the holidays. Better yet, think of Bilbo’s birthday party in The Fellowship of the Ring. There’s competition, grievance, and dispute between various branches of the Hobbit family tree, and these are not rationalized or ignored. Still, at least for that moment, everybody is overlooking their differences and getting along, which fosters mutual good will upon which real unity can be built.

This was the vision of ecumenism promoted at the Second Vatican Council, and it was one of the Council’s aims—“to foster whatever can promote union among all who believe in Christ.” In the Decree on Ecumenism, the Council Fathers went even further and stated that the “restoration of unity among all Christians is one of the principal concerns of the Second Vatican Council.”

Why? Because it was one of the principal concerns—perhaps even the principal concern—of Jesus himself. Quoting John 17, the Council Fathers wrote:

Before offering Himself up as a spotless victim upon the altar, Christ prayed to His Father for all who believe in Him: “that they all may be one; even as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us, so that the world may believe that thou has sent me.”

He commanded us to “love one another” first, and then sent us the Holy Spirit in order to make it possible. “There is one body and one Spirit,” St. Paul wrote the Ephesians, “just as you were called to the one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one Baptism.”

Thus, unity was a priority for Jesus and the early Church, and so it’s naturally a priority for us. And while nothing can disrupt the invisible unity of the Body of Christ, there’s no question that wide and innumerable divisions have effectively dismantled the visible expression (subsistere) of that Body. We have our work cut out for us!

Yet a word of caution is in order: Authentic unity cannot be accomplished at all costs. “This Sacred Council exhorts the faithful to refrain from superficiality and imprudent zeal,” the Council Fathers insisted, “which can hinder real progress toward unity.” St. John Paul II addressed this same idea very tactfully, yet clearly:

Good will is needed in order to realize how various interpretations and ways of practicing the faith can come together and complement each other. There is also the need to determine where genuine divisions start, the point beyond which the faith is compromised.

That brings us back to those anecdotes I related above—the 7-Eleven run and the Monument: Both involve real divisions despite practical permeability, but only the second image—messing around at Four Corners—involves clearly demarcated boundaries. That’s preferred, because the goal of ecumenism—at least from a Catholic perspective—is the real and thorough structural reunion of all Christians, not a mere superficial, subjective one. And overcoming division, no matter how it is accomplished, necessitates both an a priori acknowledgement that divisions exist as well as a thorough grasp of their precise location.

How then are we to carry out the ecumenical enterprise? There’s lots we can say about the record of ecumenical efforts over the centuries, particularly since the halcyon days following the Second Vatican Council, but generally the most successful ecumenical efforts include at least these three dimensions:

  1. Common ground: This involves seeking unity where possible, and understanding when it isn’t. Of special importance are those formal gatherings, usually conducted by those with authority in their respective traditions. The point of these meetings isn’t to water down differences, nor is it to engage in apologetic debate. Instead, ecumenical gatherings bring together representatives of different traditions to foster good will, increase understanding, and contribute to the mitigation of structural division.
  2. Common prayer: Closely related to common ground, and always included in formal dialogue, is shared prayer—what the Catechism, quoting Vatican II, refers to as the “soul of the whole ecumenical movement.” In this regard, it’s important to emphasize that lack of structural unity precludes intercommunion under most circumstances. This is a source of great pain for those interested in ecumenical rapprochement since the Eucharist is the pinnacle of unity that Christ himself instituted for his followers. At the same time, however, that painful sacramental separation motivates us to work all the more diligently toward real reunion.
  3. Common cause: Short of full reunion, here’s the best kind of ecumenism in my book—the most organic and natural, and certainly the most visible in terms of witness. “Cooperation among Christians vividly expresses that bond which already unites them,” the Council Fathers wrote, “and it sets in clearer relief the features of Christ the Servant.” This happens when Christians of all stripes come together to defend the unborn, the death row inmate, and the marginalized of every kind; when we work for peace and an end to all violence and bloodshed and war; when we strive together for justice and reconciliation in every corner of our society and world.

For a glimpse of how ecumenical common cause works in practice, try The Keys of the Kingdom, starring Gregory Peck as Fr. Francis Chisholm, a missionary priest laboring with seemingly meager results in rural China. At one point in the film, a Methodist missionary couple, Dr. Fiske and his wife, Agnes, arrive to minister in the same village, and Fr. Chisholm calls on them. “Tell me, Fr. Chisholm,” Dr. Fiske asks, “do you resent our coming here?”

Fr. Chisholm expresses consternation, and then says: “You know, sometimes I wonder how the Christian faith must appear to the Chinese mind—with all the different sects, all crying at the same time, ‘Come over here. This is the one. This is the true one.’” There’s no denial in this statement that real divisions persist in the church, nor any dismissal of the Catholic Church’s claim to be the true church. Instead, there’s a practical acceptance that, at least in that far-flung corner of the world, Catholics and Protestants can serve God best by showing as much unity as possible. That applies to our own far-flung corners, wherever we find ourselves.

Later, in the film, as Fr. Chisholm is leaving, Dr. Fiske says, “I can’t tell you how happy you’ve made me by your friendliness. And, by the way, I’m not a bad doctor. Let me be of some help to you.” With that statement, Fiske anticipates the teaching of Vatican II:

Through such cooperation, all believers in Christ are able to learn easily how they can understand each other better and esteem each other more, and how the road to the unity of Christians may be made smooth.

Chisholm’s reply to Fiske is equally amicable and the perfect remedy for the sad divisions in the church that he alluded to earlier. He says simply, “We’ll help each other.”

“Right!” is how Dr. Fiske responds. Let that be our response as well.

Gregory Peck with methodists Minister

Editor’s note: This essay first appeared on the author’s blog “God-Haunted Lunatic” and is reprinted with permission. 


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