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Sunday, August 21, 2005

Pope Benedict and ecumenism

For non-Catholics, perhaps the most interesting part of World Youth Day was Pope Benedict's address to an ecumenical meeting on Friday, in which he laid out more fully than anywhere else so far his plans for furthering Christian unity. It's not that much of a plan, really. Indeed, if I read him correctly, he doesn't put a lot of stock in schemes and programs and agendas. He affirms that we mustn't pursue ecumenism at the expense of truth, which is to be expected (and quite right, of course). And he reaffirms that the unity of the Church subsists in communion with Rome, "without the possibility of ever being lost." Again, however dubious we non-Catholics may find this, it was only to be expected.

Then comes the interesting part:

We cannot “bring about” unity by our powers alone. We can only obtain unity as a gift of the Holy Spirit. Consequently, spiritual ecumenism – prayer, conversion and the sanctification of life – constitute the heart of the ecumenical movement (cf. Unitatis Redintegratio, 8; Ut Unum Sint, 15ff., 21, etc.). It could be said that the best form of ecumenism consists in living in accordance with the Gospel. I see good reason for optimism in the fact that today a kind of “network” of spiritual links is developing between Catholics and Christians from the different Churches and ecclesial Communities: each individual commits himself to prayer, to the examination of his own life, to the purification of memory, to the openness of charity.
Of course a number of issues remain for those of us who belong to separated "ecclesial communities." What about the means of grace of which we are deprived? What about the struggle of living in ecclesial communities whose orthodoxy we cannot trust (even on those matters believed in common by the Reformers and the sixteenth-century Papacy)? In a sense, Benedict's recommendations sound alarmingly "pietistic." Is it really just a matter of individual piety?

That of course is not what he's saying. The individual piety for which he calls must be placed at the service of (and be nourished by) both the "ecclesial communities" to which we belong and the universal Church toward which we yearn (whether or not that Church already subsists in any existing body). What I think he is saying is what a number of my Catholic friends (including at least two priests) have been saying to me in different ways for years. The search for unity can easily become a matter of programs and theories. At the heart of our quest for unity is a quest for union with the living Christ. And for most of us, as lay Christians with little or no power to bring about grand schemes of union, it is only as our own spiritual life deepens that we can contribute to the unity of the Church.

And, as I suggested in last week's post, there are means of grace that are at our disposal as Protestants that might not be available (or not as readily available) in communion with Rome. "Spiritual ecumenism" surely involves using those means of grace to the utmost and making them available to Christians of other traditions. If, as Pope Benedict affirms, each tradition has gifts to offer, then perhaps the best thing we Catholic-minded Protestants can do is to develop those gifts within our own traditions and offer them to the universal Church.

Of course I have no way of knowing what the Pope would say to someone like me, who has come within a hairsbreadth of conversion to Catholicism and still struggles with the possibility that this is what God is calling me to do. Perhaps he would say that for someone who has felt that tug, "spiritual ecumenism" needs to include a trip through RCIA. But I think I can claim some support from the Pope's words for the views I expressed in my previous post. The conversion for which the Pope calls is clearly not, at least not primarily, a conversion from Protestantism to Catholicism. It is, as any evangelical would insist, a conversion to Christ. And the Pope is quite stunningly sanguine that this will bring about unity among Christians. He is furthermore encouraging the development of the gifts peculiar to our respective traditions. And as I argued in "The Case for Protestantism," this may not practically be possible in the context of an individual "conversion to Catholicism."

Pontificator has written a very kind and thought-provoking response to my previous post. He recognizes that indeed conversion to Catholicism involves a "radical humility," but he considers this to be necessary given the fundamental flaws in the "DNA" of Protestantism. My argument, though, was precisely that all Christian bodies have Catholicity in their DNA. By virtue of baptism, by virtue of our submission to Holy Scripture, by virtue of our claim to be members of Christ's Body, we (that is, all Christian churches) have a Catholic DNA that supersedes all the sins and heresies of which we are guilty. Our identity as members of the Body is more fundamental than our identity as divided Christians. That is the affirmation that makes ecumenism possible.

Pontificator raises two other issues that deserve separate treatment. One of them is the objective validity of Protestant sacraments. I've held forth on this in the comments section of Pontifications, but I should probably write about it here as well. The other is justification by faith. I don't have any disagreement with what Pontificator writes, and I think that my brief comments may have misled him as to exactly what I was criticizing. I will lay out my views in more detail in a subsequent post.


Anonymous said...

But isn't the catholic church where Christ's body literally is? The Real Presence? B16 writes that The Eucharist, consumed by us, is really more Jesus consuming us deeper into His own mystical body. Is it not the church which is headed and founded by Christ with us as members? Why wouldn't you want that?

Contarini said...


For starters, the Catholic Church itself doesn't claim that the Real Presence is only found in communion with Rome. Granted, you don't think we Protestants have it. But that's one of the Catholic claims I don't accept. I believe that I _have_ received Jesus sacramentally. And my unwillingness to deny that is one of the biggest things keeping me Protestant.