Toward the New Ecumenism

The Old Ecumenism has failed. What we need today is a New Ecumenism, dedicated to unity via full communion with the Catholic Church.

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Next year marks seventeen centuries since the first ecumenical council. The anniversary is an appropriate occasion for the Church to again commit herself to the project of Christian unity. If the end of the last century saw the birth of the New Evangelization, let the beginning of this century see the birth of the New Ecumenism.

Some orthodox Catholics might balk at this proposal—not unfairly, given the dismal results of the Old Ecumenism, which often seems to accept or even advance the utter fragmentation of Christianity (I use the present tense because this effort has aged but not quite perished). At best, the Old Ecumenism cultivates mutual understanding among Catholics, Protestants, and Orthodox; at worst, it affirms the legitimacy of communities beset by varying degrees of error. In any event, it does nothing to resolve the underlying crisis.

However, such indifference does not accord with authentic ecumenism. Despite predictable shortcomings and a frustrating naivete typical of its era, Unitatis Redintegratio teaches that ecumenism is meant to “promote Christian unity.” Of course, Christian unity is necessarily Catholic unity, as the very name “Catholic” implies. Thus, the fathers declared that “Christ the Lord founded one Church and one Church only” and that He 

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entrusted all the blessings of the New Covenant to the apostolic college alone, of which Peter is the head, in order to establish the one Body of Christ on earth to which all should be fully incorporated who belong in any way to the people of God.

Hence the primary elements of the New Ecumenism (i.e., the true ecumenism): first, Christ established one holy Church upon the apostles and their successors cum Petro et sub Petro; second, Christian unity therefore entails full communion with this Church; third, it follows that every Catholic has an obligation to draw men into the Church by those means consonant with justice and charity. So stated, we see that “ecumenism” is really just an endeavor to magnify the unity, sanctity, catholicity, and apostolicity of the Church.

But what does the New Ecumenism look like, practically speaking? How does it differ from the Old Ecumenism on the ground? Here we must think boldly, creatively—as Pope Francis recommends.

To start with, the New Ecumenism must be driven by the bishops of the world, as opposed to the laity or the Roman See. For each bishop is himself the visible principle of unity for his particular church, charged with maintaining apostolic doctrine and worship, and he must concern himself with anyone who wears the label “Christian.” Additionally, Protestantism is a highly variegated phenomenon that requires concrete and immediate treatment that cannot regularly be expected from the Roman See. (Note that we chiefly contemplate a Protestant-facing ecumenism, not only because Catholics and Protestants are greatly intermingled as compared to Catholics and Orthodox, but also for more subtle theological reasons that cannot be elucidated here.) The New Ecumenism must be driven by the bishops of the world, as opposed to the laity or the Roman See.Tweet This

Moreover, the New Ecumenism must think in terms of communities, not individuals. Bishops must actively engage Protestant ministers in their dioceses with the express goal of bringing entire congregations into full communion. To this end, the Holy See must supply or streamline canonical procedures for incorporating Protestant congregations as parishes and admitting Protestant ministers (including those with wives) to the sacred orders of the diaconate and the presbyterate.    

Relatedly, bishops must cultivate theological experts well-versed in Protestant doctrine: men and women of evident sanctity and eminent learning, capable of managing constructive dialogue intended to remove obstacles in the path to Catholic unity. These experts should hold conferences, discourses, and respectful disputations with Protestant ministers, anticipating that such encounters will tend shortly toward Catholic communion. Further, bishops must frequently celebrate Holy Mass for the sake of unity, inviting important Protestants to these celebrations, so that they might be exposed to the saving mysteries and illuminated by pure teaching.

Finally, the Holy See must collaborate with bishops in the production of alternative liturgical books suited to the modes of worship customarily employed by formerly Protestant communities. Obviously, a dispensation of this sort would require a good deal of prudence and not a few guardrails. Yet one can imagine a “low church” evangelical service modified only to include the Eucharistic prayer. No doubt, this prospect is distasteful to many Catholics—especially those nourished by the traditional Roman Rite—but it is arguably a concession demanded by current realities. 

The upcoming commemoration of Nicaea offers an outstanding opportunity to begin remedying the fractures that have grievously weakened our divine religion. Christian unity must be—can only be—Catholic unity. May all Catholics, especially those endowed with the noble rank of bishop, embrace the New Ecumenism, so that the words of St. Paul might soon be realized without caveat or qualification: 

There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call—one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. (Ephesians 5:4-6)  

Author

  • Philip Primeau

    Philip Primeau’s work has appeared in Catholic World Report, Aleteia, Catholic Exchange, and Homiletic & Pastoral Review, among other places. His devotional poetry is found at gladsomelight.substack.com. He may be contacted at primeau.philip1 -at- gmail -dot-com.

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