24 January 2019, The Tablet

Are we on the brink of a new ecumenical spring?

'The "dialogue of life and love" has produced extraordinary results.'

Are we on the brink of a new ecumenical spring?

Pope Francis greets Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby during a private audience at the Vatican Oct. 27, 2017.
CNS/L'Osservatore Romano

It is not uncommon to read optimistic appraisals of how the cause of Christian unity is progressing. There are in fact undeniable signs of continuing progress in relations between the divided churches as set out, for example, in the study document From Conflict to Communion, describing the substantial advance of relations between Catholics and Lutherans in fifty years of dialogue. 

But not all is plain sailing. To the careful observer there are also signs of frustration and even retrenchment. To not a few, the traditional ways of doing ecumenism seem no longer capable of meeting new challenges coming from developments both within the Catholic Church and within the other Churches, our ecumenical partners.

On the one hand, the "dialogue of life and love" has produced extraordinary results in the century that has seen the emergence of the "ecumenical movement", the foundation of the World Council of Churches and the Catholic Church's commitment to the search for Christian unity formally and irrevocably assumed by the Second Vatican Council. Practically the whole of Christianity is in a process of advancing beyond the controversies and competition of the past, towards greater understanding, trust and solidarity. Pockets of mutual rejection and contention remain, but most of the world's Christians have come to recognise one another as brothers and sisters in Christ, united in a common baptism, and giving a common witness in serving the needs of suffering humanity.  

On the other hand, after sixty years of steady achievements, the "dialogue of truth" aimed at overcoming the controversies that divided the churches in the first place, often seems to plod along without inspiring new excitement or expectations. Rightly, the churches continue to commit important human and financial resources to theological dialogue, because every serious ecumenical advance  involves overcoming remaining substantial doctrinal differences. This dialogue continues in the 14 bilateral theological dialogues with other Christian bodies in which the Pontifical Council for promoting Christian Unity is involved, and in numerous other regional or multilateral meetings, conferences and studies. Add to this the many theological dialogues between the other Churches themselves, as well as international meetings organised by the World Council of Churches and the Global Christian Forum and other ecumenical associations.

The year that just passed, 2018, has brought new challenges and new promise to the  ecumenical quest and to the Catholic involvement in promoting Christian unity. So, what happened in 2018 to make the ecumenical task more difficult? First, the Orthodox world is undergoing an upheaval that will test its cohesion for many years to come. The establishment by the Ecumenical Patriarchate of an independent Orthodox Church in the Ukraine has exacerbated long-standing tensions between Constantinople and the Patriarchate of Moscow, with serious consequences for the international Catholic-Orthodox dialogue commission. Beyond any political considerations involved, the fundamental point in question is whether the Ecumenical Patriarchate by itself has the authority to do what it has done. The Russian Church has roundly rejected that claim, even accusing Patriarch Batholomew of wanting to be a Pope over all of Orthodoxy. The Russian claim is that there is no universal primacy over the whole church, only independent local churches gathered in a communion of faith, grace and brotherhood. In Metropolitan Hilarion's words: "There is no other authority over a Local Orthodox Church other than the authority of God himself, the authority of the Lord Jesus Christ." One may conclude that the achievements of the International Catholic-Orthodox Theological Commission in recent decades on the role of primacy in the universal Church, as formulated in the Ravenna document (2007) and the Chieti document (2013) are far from received and accepted. Whether and how the Dialogue Commission can effectively and usefully continue its work in the present situation is now an impelling question. The challenge will be on the agenda of the meeting of the Coordinating Committee due to be held towards the end of the current year.

Another crucial test of ecumenical resolve in 2018 affected relations with the Protestant world.  There was much discussion around the German Bishops' guidelines for admitting a Protestant married to a Catholic to Eucharistic Communion in some cases. The discussion is useful and can be a teaching moment regarding the important theological and pastoral principles involved. Normally the sacraments should only be administered to those in full communion with the celebrating Church, but the Church can also recognise that certain situations constitute  a call on her to offer the means of holiness and salvation to other baptised Christians, not her own members. The recent discussion was not about whether it is possible to admit a Protestant to Catholic Communion in some circumstances. There are already clear guidelines for that possibility (Decree on Ecumenism (8 and 15), Decree on the Eastern Catholic Churches (26-30), The Ecumenical Directory (nos. 102 – 132) and the Code of Canon Law (c. 844). In the Catholic view there is always an element of "inconsistency" in intercommunion because it happens in spite of the sinfulness of division among Christians. In this sense it remains  an exception and not the rule. Hence, the all-important requirement of a specific process of pastoral discernment in each case. The issue raised by the German Bishops was whether interchurch couples represent a particular situation in which intercommunion should be made more extensive. Should such couples be able to express the unity they already have in baptism and in the sacrament of marriage also at the altar?

Nearly 40 years ago, the particular need felt by such couples was well described in a letter from the English Association of Interchurch Families to the Secretary General of the Synod of Bishops in preparation for the 1980 Synod on the Family: "Couples in mixed marriages feel their serious spiritual need at different stages of their married life. For some it comes very early on, as they set out to forge the unity of husband and wife in Christ. For some it comes when they receive the gift and the responsibility of children, and are called jointly to be the first teachers of the Christian faith to them. For some it comes with particular intensity when their children come to the point of receiving their own First Communion. Indeed at this point it is sometimes the children themselves  who express their own deep need for both their parents , who together brought them to this point in their developing experience of life in Christ, to be with them at the altar when they receive Communion for the first time. However this need is first felt, it tends to grow and intensify, and to become a constant reality in the lives of parents and family…. Our Association therefore asks for an explicit statement from the Roman Catholic authorities that the serious spiritual need of interchurch couples and families constitutes a situation different from that of an individual's separation from the ministry of his (her) own Church, but nevertheless laying a claim on the pastoral responsibility of bishops".

The German bishops tried to respond to that pastoral need by encouraging a more generous application of the existing norms. Perhaps they were being mindful of what the saintly John Paul II wrote in Ut Unum Sint (no. 46) and repeated in Ecclesia de Eucharistia (also no. 46):  "It is a source of joy to note that Catholic ministers are able, in certain particular cases, to administer the sacraments of the Eucharist, Penance and Anointing of the Sick to Christians who are not in full communion with the Catholic Church but who greatly desire to receive these sacraments, freely request them and manifest the faith which the Catholic Church professes with regard to these sacraments." Doubts about the substance of the Guidelines seemed to centre on the proposal to extend that possibility to a whole class of people rather than to individuals.  Tying two of the necessary conditions for allowing intercommunion – namely 'Catholic faith' in the sacrament and a situation of "grave need" –  to a category of people in the particular situation of interchurch marriages was perceived by some as a step too far. The debate which followed has been marked by polarisation between those "for" and those "against", often on the basis of pre-assumed attitudes that easily lose sight of the complex theological principles involved. Unfortunately, in the eyes of many ecumenical partners too the debate gave the impression of a new "closure" on the part of the Catholic Church.  So, 2018 has seen new hurdles laid on the path of the search for Christian unity, both with the Orthodox and with the Protestant worlds.

But 2018 also saw numerous calls by Pope Francis to move ahead in spite of continuing difficulties. In June he visited the World Council of Churches in Geneva to mark the seventieth anniversary of the founding of that indispensable ecumenical institution.  His message was one of hope. His call was to follow in the footsteps of the pioneers of the ecumenical movement who “looked courageously to the future, believing in unity”. Pope Francis indicated a twofold path to that future: a “new evangelical outreach”, “an increased missionary impulse” that “will mark the flowering of a new ecumenical spring”; and secondly, “working together”, asking ourselves: “What can we do together? If a particular form of service is possible, why not plan and carry it out together, and thus start to experience a more intense fraternity in the exercise of concrete charity?”

For centuries the divided Christian Churches used their differences to affirm their identity over against one another.  Consequently, the very idea of working together was practically unthinkable. Is it time to assume a different approach to “difference”?  Perhaps it is time to accept that the only realistic future of ecumenism is along the path indicated by the late Prof. Placido Sgroi in a thought provoking essay : “The question lies, one more time, in the way the differences between the Churches are judged.” (“Verso un ecumenismo narrativo” in Quaderni di Studi Ecumenici, vol. 37, 2018.) Are these differences irreconcilable or do they complement one another? Sgroi is giving voice to something very similar to the “receptive ecumenism” advocated in particular by Prof. Paul Murray and actually employed by ARCIC III in its recent document, “Walking Together on the Way”. 

What is being promoted is a new mindset in which legitimate differences of doctrinal formulation and liturgical and canonical tradition and practice are acknowledged and esteemed, and therefore seen not as a denial of what we are but as gifts that complement us, something which Vatican II already called for (cf. Unitiatis Redintegratio, 4,8). In Geneva at the World Council of Churches, Pope Francis reiterated that “our differences must not be excuses. Even now we can walk in the Spirit: we can pray, evangelise and serve together. This is possible and it is pleasing to God! Walking, praying and working together: this is the great path that we are called to follow today.”  And again, in his most recent reference to relations with other Christians at Vespers in the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls to mark the opening of the 2019 Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, he carried this idea a step further. He issued a pressing invitation to evaluate positively what distinguishes other Christian communities: “It is a grave sin to belittle or despise the gifts that the Lord has given our brothers and sisters, and to think that God somehow holds them in less esteem. When we entertain such thoughts, we allow the very grace we have received to become a source of pride, injustice and division...   we must acknowledge the value of the grace granted to other Christian communities” (18 Jan 2019). Pope Francis draws from this a serious ecumenical challenge:  “As a result, we will want to partake of the gifts of others. A Christian people renewed and enriched by this exchange of gifts will be a people capable of journeying firmly and confidently on the path that leads to unity.”  Are we at a turning point in the ecumenical quest?   

Brian Farrell, LC, is an Irish Catholic bishop and currently Secretary of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity.

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