USCC Watch: Neo-ecumenism — Ex Unibus Plurum?

On New Year’s weekend, 1,800 college students and campus ministers gathered in St. Louis for a conference called Celebrate! A Gathering at the Crossroads, sponsored by the Council for Ecumenical Student Christian Ministry, of which the Dayton, Ohio-based National Catholic Student Coalition (NCSC) is a member. Conference publicity stated its purpose was to “celebrate our diversity” — of race, ethnicity and gender.

Catholics were the second largest group (343), following the United Methodists (449). Other mainline Protestant churches represented were the Lutheran Student Movement, ELCA (311); the Presbyterian Church USA (240); Episcopalians (176). There were 110 representatives of other church bodies, including the American Baptist, Disciples of Christ, Moravian, United Church of Christ, and unaffiliated.

Bishop Peter Rosazza, auxiliary bishop of Hartford, attended the conference as the moderator of the NCSC. St. Louis Archbishop Justin Rigali celebrated a Mass for the Catholic participants, but did not attend other conference sessions. The St. Louis Archdiocese ecumenical officer, the Rev. Vincent Heier, did attend, however.

The keynote speaker was Edwina Gateley, author of A Warm Moist Salty God — Women Journeying Towards Wisdom, and a self-styled theologian and poet. She garnered headlines in the Catholic press at last year’s Call to Action conference in Chicago where she “concelebrated” a “Mass.” Ms. Gateley is an extremely charismatic speaker who reportedly commands fees of $2,000 for her performances. In her book she unabashedly re-writes history and remodels Scripture. For example, God is actually Virgin, Mother, and Crone, not Father, Son, and Spirit. She says,

Five thousand years ago . . . Revelation was not closed. People worshipped God as they experienced God’s presence in nature, in their daily lives. . . . This was the time when there was peace on Earth and society lived in harmony. . . . God was female — a concept alien to a people raised on a Father god. God was perceived as feminine, the one who gave birth to humanity, because as a woman, she was capable of giving birth. . . . There was a trinitarian symbol for God of three connecting circles . . . the holy symbol of these people who lived five thousand years and more ago, in a society which worshipped God as feminine. . . . Because this neolithic society honored the power and mystery of childbirth, there was peace and nurturing, not violence and devastation.

. . . .there was an historical shift to a new reality. God became warrior, male, king. Yahweh who rules over all peoples. . . . The serpent, the symbol of God as Mother, had to be repressed or co-opted, in order to destroy all remnants of a time when humanity behaved differently, when there was a partnership society, with men and women working and living as equals, the serpent had to be annihilated. . . .

The myth was so reconstituted that the serpent, All Wisdom, became the serpent, All Evil. Women have never recovered.

Ms. Gateley goes on and on with this seductive “makey-up,” rehabilitating “wikke,” accusing the “Holy Roman Catholic Church” of making people “schizophrenes,” with guilt loaded on by the “age-old conspiracy” of the “all-male, father, white god” imposed by the oppressive patriarchy and by suppressing warm, moist, salty “Sophia.” And she utterly charms her audiences.

This conference, sad to say, is not atypical of what too often passes for officially sponsored ecumenical activities by the churches involved. But there are other disturbing examples of “ecumenical” initiatives — notably, the January 9 statement sponsored by the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice (formerly Religious Coalition for Abortion Rights) urging Catholic bishops “to join Cardinal [Bernard] Law’s moratorium” on pro-life protests at “family planning clinics,” following the shootings at two Brookline abortion clinics December 31. RCRC’s open letter to Catholic bishops was signed by six church leaders, including the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, Edmond Browning, and also General Secretary of the United Methodist Church, President of the United Church of Christ, Director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, Director of the Washington Office of the Presbyterian Church USA, and President of the Unitarian Universalist Association.

But are such activities really “ecumenical”? The purpose of ecumenism, according to the Second Vatican Council’s Decree on Ecumenism (Unitatis redintegratio), is to “promote Christian unity,” and the result of ecumenical initiatives and activities “will be that, little by little . . . all Christians will be gathered, in a common celebration of the Eucharist, into the unity of the one and only Church. . . . This unity, we believe, subsists in the Catholic Church as something she can never lose.” The Council fathers continue that “in ecumenical work, Catholics [have the] primary duty to make a careful and honest appraisal of whatever needs to be renewed and done in the Catholic household itself, in order that its life may bear witness more clearly and faithfully to the teachings and institutions which have been handed down from Christ through the apostles” (UR n4).

The objective of the ecumenical initiative envisioned by the Council, then, was twofold: 1) to improve historically rocky relations with the “separated brethren” so that Christians might work co-operatively for common social and religious goals (UR 8, 12) (It’s worth remembering that the Kennedy presidential campaign, during which the question of whether a Catholic could wholeheartedly serve the interests of the United States had been seriously raised, would still have been fresh in the minds of the Council fathers.); and 2) to evangelize — to “bear witness clearly and faithfully” to the fullness of faith subsisting in the Catholic Church. “For it is through Christ’s Catholic Church alone, which is the universal help towards salvation, that the fullness of the means of salvation can be obtained” (UR 3).

Disunity caused by theological error and deepened by sinful attitudes could only be healed by a profound commitment to truth: “Nothing is so foreign to the spirit of ecumenism as a false irenicism which harms the purity of Catholic doctrine and obscures its genuine and certain meaning” (UR 11). Divisions among Christians who, though separated from the Catholic Church are still “joined to her by baptism” (UR 4), must be overcome before the true unity proper to Christ’s Church could be achieved. “There can be no ecumenism worthy of the name without interior conversion” from attitudes of selfishness and arrogance, without forgiving of and asking pardon for “sins against unity” (UR 7).

Among the most serious difficulties encountered in applying the Council’s exhortations towards achieving authentic Christian unity is that much of what has passed for ecumenism since the Council has actually been seeking the lowest-common-denominator — to bulldoze out of existence troublesome doctrines — rather than to penetrate to the bedrock of common Christian belief; to label as “divisive issues” essential teachings which may divide Christians — like abortion or ordination of women, or the theology of the Eucharist. The lowest common denominator is usually based not on a firm ground of core Christian truths, but on a slippery slough of personal feelings. Too many ecumenical activities have aimed almost exclusively at flattening impediments to communication — even when the impediments involve essential matters of faith. “Meaningful dialogue” becomes meaningless if the process of dialogue itself becomes the goal — if the good feelings of the dialoguing parties becomes more important than the truth they supposedly explore. Too often professionally “facilitated” consensus-building substitutes for genuine renewal of personal commitment to truth and deepening of faith (a truth, the Council teaches, is embodied in, subsists in, the Catholic Church) which is the goal of true ecumenism. Even more destructive are ecumenical activities such as the two examples cited above which directly contradict Christian truth.

Viewed from the perspective of the three tumultuous decades since 1964 when the Decree on Ecumenism was issued, the Council fathers’ optimism seems quaint, naive. Still, even if too many ecumenical efforts — even those which have had official sanction — would have been deplored by the Council fathers as disappointingly, even disastrously, mired in the Zeitgeist, the genuine ecumenism which the Council intended does exist. In fact, despite and perhaps because of the present hostility towards any authentically Christian belief, more believing Christians may now be achieving “the only ecumenism worthy of the name” — almost forced into alliances, as outnumbered troops surrounded by an axis of hostile forces might find themselves occupying the same ground, defending it together.

At the “Celebrate Diversity” conference, for example, a few Methodist, Presbyterian and Catholic people met in the hallways for prayer, conversation, and mutual support — with an energy of spirit as invigorating and unifying as ever the Council fathers might have envisioned. None, as it happens, were official representatives of their churches. They were united not only by shared Christian beliefs, but also by a common hope — that Christ’s truth might once again unify their deeply divided churches. Other signs of fruitful ecumenical activities abound within the pro-life movement, and were visible, also, at the UN population conference in Cairo last September. Such Christians share a common core of Christian beliefs about God, His only begotten Son, and the intrinsic value of human life, and a commitment to defend these truths. They are also profoundly aware of the vital importance of standing as one, united in prayer, armed with the Word of God and guided by the Holy Spirit “into the way of peace.” More Christians now understand the responsibility of all believers for bringing faith in Jesus Christ “and him crucified” to a world thirsting for the peace and joy that only true faith can bring. Solid ground for hope, here.

But the great and growing encumbrances to establishing peace and unity among Christians and within the churches must be squarely faced. Consider that while the “Celebrate Diversity” conference was in progress in St. Louis, Pope John Paul II, delivered his Urbi et Orbi message for the World Day of Peace in Rome. His message focussed on the need for women “to become teachers of peace,” because, he said, it is to women that God “entrusts the human being in a special way.” Almost at the very moment the Holy Father was speaking, hundreds of youth — including Catholics — were being led by appealing and talented women into ever-deepening circles of confusion, disunity and error. Chilling, isn’t it?


  • Helen Hull Hitchcock

    Helen Hull Hitchcock is founding director of Women for Faith & Family and editor of its quarterly journal, Voices. She is also editor of the Adoremus Bulletin, a monthly publication of Adoremus - Society for the Renewal of the Sacred Liturgy, of which she is a co-founder. She is married to James Hitchcock, professor of history at St. Louis University. The Hitchcocks have four daughters and six grandchildren, and live in St. Louis.

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