The Challenge of Ecumenism and the New Evangelization

Pope John Paul II is convinced that it is essential to the exercise of the Petrine ministry to foster unity as an instrument of evangelization. In Ut Unum Sint (1995), he wrote: “Believers in Christ…cannot remain divided. If they wish truly and effectively to oppose the world’s tendency to reduce to powerlessness the mystery of Redemption, they must profess together the same truth about the Cross.” In this conviction, he follows Pope Paul VI, from whose Evangelii Nuntiandi (1975) he quotes in Ut Unum Sint: “The destiny of evangelization is certainly bound up with the witness of unity given by the Church. We wish to emphasize the sign of unity among all Christians as a way and instrument of evangelization.” On this point, both pontiffs echo the teaching of the Second Vatican Council, which affirmed in Unitatis Redintegratio (1965) that division “openly contradicts the will of Christ, provides a stumbling block to the world, and inflicts damage on the most holy cause of proclaiming the good news to every creature.”

According to Ut Unum Sint, it is essential to locate the Church’s recommitment to ecumenism within this broad context of the revitalization of her entire evangelizing mission. For it states, “the Church seeks nothing for herself but the freedom to proclaim the Gospel?’ In Ut Unum Sint, Pope John Paul II can be understood to affirm that it is impossible to embrace fully the new evangelization without committing oneself to ecumenism—to the goal of the visible unity of all followers of Christ. Noting that “the ecumenical movement in our century…has been characterized by a missionary outlook?’ the Holy Father underscores the significant conjunction of two clauses in Christ’s prayer for unity: “That all may be one…so that the world may believe that you sent me.” God wills unity, thus “unity stands at the heart of Christ’s mission.” At the same time, unity is essential to the effective proclamation of the Gospel: “How can we proclaim the gospel of reconciliation without at the same time being committed to working for reconciliation between Christians?”

A lively commitment to ecumenism is crucial not only to the effectiveness of evangelization but also to its essence. To be sure, division among Christians is an obstacle to evangelization. If we cannot all agree and be seen to agree on the truth about the one savior of mankind, we undermine our capacity to proclaim it convincingly. The greater the visible unity among Christians, the more effective their efforts at evangelizing will be. But—and perhaps even more importantly—commitment to ecumenism touches on the very essence of the message at the heart of the new evangelization. Pope John Paul II makes this point quite clearly in the crucial Paragraph 9 of Ut Unum Sint: “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. …The communion of Christians is none other than the manifestation in them of the grace by which God makes them sharers in his own communion.”

At the core of the message of the new evangelization is the divine desire to share the communion of trinitarian life with creaturely persons. What Christ taught us, and we must in turn proclaim to the world, is that the triune God invites all human persons to participate in the communion of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and to enjoy communion with one another in Them. Creation, incarnation, and redemption—the central mysteries of the Christian faith—find their deepest meaning in this divine invitation. Everything created exists so that the Blessed Trinity could realize this plan of love. Through the incarnation and the paschal mystery, Christ enables creaturely persons to enter into the life of the uncreated Persons. In the elevation of human nature, the creaturely limits to participation in the divine life are overcome; in the restoration of human nature, the obstacles of sin are removed. Tradition speaks of our “adoptive participation” in the life of the Trinity through Christ: The One who is Son by nature makes it possible for us to be sons and daughters by adoption. This work of the Blessed Trinity in us can be said to reverse the order of the processions: Whereas in the inner life of the Trinity, the Father loves the Son and gives rise to the Spirit; in the saving work of the Trinity, the Spirit remakes us in the image of the Son so that we may be embraced in the love of the Father.

If we are not committed to ecumenism, we have failed to grasp the heart of the message—communion and love—that we must proclaim to one another and to the world in the new evangelization. Pope John Paul urges us to recognize, if we understand the central truth at the heart of the new evangelization and want to be effective in communicating it to the world, that we must be committed as well to working for the full, visible unity of Christians.

Ut Unum Sint also touches on the ways in which our embrace of the new evangelization shapes our understanding and pursuit of ecumenism. In other words, Ut Unum Sint not only teaches us about the inherently ecumenical character of the new evangelization but also poses an evangelical challenge to the kind of ecumenism we pursue.

A central aspect to Pope John Paul’s conception and practice of the new evangelization is that to be effective, it must proclaim the full truth about Christ without compromise. It must, in a sense, be nonapologetic and nonaccommodating, but not so that it will not take people’s questions and concrete circumstances into account. However, its thrust will be to present the entirety of the Gospel with the presumption to its entire truth and intelligibility. The need to embrace and communicate the entire truth of the Gospel for effective evangelization is echoed at various points in Ut Unum Sint, such as in Paragraph 18: “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. …A being together which betrayed the truth would thus be opposed to the nature of God who offers his communion and to the need for truth found in the depths of every human heart.”

At the dawn of the new millennium, the truth at the heart of the new evangelization challenges us to imagine with hope a future in which our differences no longer divide us. However, it will not be one in which, under the pressures of doctrinal minimalism, we will have accepted a pluralism of positions that cannot be harmonized. On the contrary, embracing an authentic catholicity, the entire “content of revealed truth” would be affirmed as it was before our differences divided us but in a way that encompasses a range of differences that no longer divide us. Ut Unum Sint invites us to do just this: “What is needed is a calm, clear-sighted and truthful vision of things, a vision enlivened by divine mercy and capable of freeing people’s minds and inspiring in everyone a renewed willingness, precisely with a view to proclaiming the gospel to men and women of every people and nation.”

The encyclical urges us to receive the results that the dialogues have produced to date. They have achieved a good deal—clearing away negative perceptions, drawing our attention to convergences never before recognized, and acknowledging the elements of authentic Christian faith in other Christian communities. Ut Unum Sint states, “Elements of sanctification and truth present in the other Christian communities…constitute the objective basis of the communion, albeit imperfect, which exists between them and the Catholic Church.”

The pope also said in the encyclical that “unity bestowed by the Holy Spirit does not merely consist in the gathering of people as a collection of individuals…”

“It is not a matter of adding together all the riches scattered throughout the various Christian communities in order to arrive at a Church which God has in mind for the future…” he said. “In the Pentecost event, God has already manifested the Church in her eschatological reality…. This reality is something already given. …Ecumenism is directed precisely to making the partial communion existing between Christians grow towards full communion in truth and charity?’

Suppose that we were to make the eschatological reality of the Church—the full communion in truth and charity for which we long—operative in actual experiments in the new evangelization. Suppose that Lutherans and Catholics or Anglicans and Catholics attempted joint efforts in evangelization. What forms might such evangelization take—not just in terms of strategy but in proclaiming the Gospel? Rather than thinking about how to resolve our doctrinal differences, let us ask ourselves what Gospel we would preach if we applied a maximalist rather than a minimalist standard to the full content of revealed truth.

The evangelical challenge to renewed ecumenical commitment is that we would understand our goal to be the affirmation of the entire content of revealed truth encompassing a wide range of formulations. Under this understanding, dogmas are intended to permit as Many—not as few—expressions as are compatible with the truth in matters of faith and morals, “precisely with a view to proclaiming the gospel to men and women of every people and nation.”


  • Very Reverend J. Augustine DiNoia

    Very Reverend J. Augustine DiNoia, O.P., S.T.M., is the executive director of the Secretariat for Doctrine and Pastoral Practices at the National Conference of Catholic Bishops.

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