When I was training to be an Anglican minister I remember going to my first “Ecumenical Evensong”. It was in a village church in England in February. The weather wasn’t the only thing damp and cold. The Methodists sat on one side of the church and the Anglicans on the other. For the most part the Baptists and Catholics didn’t show up. The Methodists and the Anglicans looked at one another suspiciously and the whole thing only warmed up a bit once the service was over and everybody had a nice cuppa tea. It would have warmed up even more if we had all trotted down to the village pub, but Methodists in England are traditionally teetotal so I guess not.
My experiences since then have also been more of a bore and a chore than wonderful moments of fellowship with our brothers and sisters in the Lord, and I’m not the only one who feels that way. Not only do many Christians find ecumenism a bore and a chore, but the more doctrinaire among us think it is not only a waste of time but actually counter to the mission of the church. “Protestants should convert as soon as possible!” they cry, and quote Pope Eugenius IV about there being no salvation outside the Catholic Church, while ignoring the development of that doctrine and the reality of the situation. Sometimes they sound a bit like a Catholic form of ISIS: “Convert or pay the tax or get outta here or face the sword!”…I’m exaggerating to make my point.
So if you’re like me and you’re not an immediate ecumenical enthusiast, yet wonder what to do, here are ten things to remember about ecumenism.
1. Ecumenism isn’t easy – Remember, you don’t have to like your neighbor to love him. You may find some stuff about your fellow Christians (especially if you’re a convert) annoying or nauseating. Remember they might feel that way about you too. Ecumenism is part of the second great commandment to love your neighbor, and have you ever thought that one of the reasons it’s a commandment is because it’s not easy? That we might all be one is Jesus’ prayer and therefore church unity must also be a gospel mandate. The unity of Christ’s church isn’t optional. The goal of ecumenism is church unity, and we move forward to that goal by faith, not by sight. Sure, we want everyone to become Catholics and final unity does mean full communion with the successor of Peter but just how that happens is not always clear. One way is for non-Catholics to convert. But there are other ways, and ecumenism is the difficult path of trying to find out what those ways might be.
2. Validly Baptized Persons Who Have Faith In Jesus Christ are our brothers and sisters Yup. That’s in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. p.818: “All who have been justified by faith in Baptism are incorporated into Christ; they therefore have a right to be called Christians, and with good reason are accepted as brothers in the Lord by the children of the Catholic Church.” So what do you do in your family when there is a rift? Do you cut off your brothers and sisters, slam the door and scream, “I’m never going to talk to you again?” I’m sorry if you do, but that’s not really grown up is it? No. The model is that of the story of the prodigal son. We reach out and always watch and wait for them to come home. Is the Catholic goal of ecumenism that they all come “home to Rome”? Yes and no. That they all come into full communion–yes. How that happens is an open question. The Anglican Ordinariate is an interesting new way that many separated brethren are finding their way home without necessarily joining the local RCIA class.
3. Those born into non-Catholic ecclesial communities are not held responsible for their heresy and apostasy if they were taught it sincerely – That’s the first part of CCC p. 818: “…one cannot charge with the sin of the separation those who at present are born into these communities [that resulted from such separation] and in them are brought up in the faith of Christ, and the Catholic Church accepts them with respect and affection as brothers”. That makes sense. You can’t blame a cradle Baptist for having anti-Catholic elements to his religion if he was taught those things by the teachers he trusted. What did Fulton Sheen say? “There are not many Americans who hate the Catholic Church, but there are very many who hate what they think the Catholic Church is.” It’s our job to present the Catholic faith to them in a pleasant , understandable and approachable way. Ecumenical discussions help us to do just that. We can explain away misconceptions, clarify misunderstandings and talk frankly about the history of disagreement between us. We don’t blame those born into non-Catholic communities with schism. It wasn’t their decision.
4. Honey is More Attractive Than Vinegar – “A spoonful of honey attracts more flies than barrels of vinegar” That was St Francis de Sales who had a great record for converting Calvinists. He wouldn’t have called it “ecumenical discussions” but his open hearted and open minded discussions and explanations were a kind of ecumenical activity, and that sheds light on the relationship between ecumenism and evangelization. Ecumenism, like apologetics, is a part of evangelization. Let’s face it, if we believe that it is best for all Christians to become Catholics, and if we really believe that souls might be lost if they do not come into the fullness of the Catholic Church, then we want to attract as many as possible don’t we? Does anybody think that aggressive negative actions and attitudes towards separated brethren help with that task? Would you like to think about becoming a Baptist if the only Baptist you knew was in your face shouting, “You know you’re going to hell because you worship the Great Whore of Babylon and besides you know your Pope is the Antichrist right???!!!!” I don’t think so. Therefore anger or condemnation and quotes from this pope or that council who were flexing muscles and speaking anathemas doesn’t do much good. If all you’ve got is barrels of vinegar then do us all a favor and keep the barrels sealed tightly okay? Church of Nice? Maybe, but isn’t that actually better than Church of Nasty?
5. We should be able to learn from non Catholic Christians – Here’s a tough one. The Catechism also recognized that there is goodness and truth within the non-Catholic Christian communities. “Furthermore, many elements of sanctification and of truth” are found outside the visible confines of the Catholic Church: “the written Word of God; the life of grace; faith, hope, and charity, with the other interior gifts of the Holy Spirit, as well as visible elements. Christ’s Spirit uses these Churches and ecclesial communities as means of salvation, whose power derives from the fullness of grace and truth that Christ has entrusted to the Catholic Church. All these blessings come from Christ and lead to him, and are in themselves calls to “Catholic unity.” I know some Catholics who simply deny that this is true. It is impossible for them to admit that “elements of sanctification and of truth” can be found within non-Catholic communities. Not only do such folks get themselves into deep water as Catholics authority-wise (What, you know better than the pope who signed off on the CCC?) but they are denying common sense and the evidence of observation. Get to know some non-Catholic Christians and you’ll realize immediately that they have much that is beautiful, good and true in their religion. Sure, it may not be the fullness of the Catholic faith, but do you have the guts, the brain and the heart to actually learn anything from them at all? If you cannot learn anything from them then why would you expect them to want to learn anything from you? What I like about this CCC quote is the observation that what good the separated brethren have comes “from the fullness of grace and truth that Christ has entrusted to the Catholic Church.” In other words, when we acknowledge what is good in their tradition and learn from them we are really tapping into something which is part of the Catholic patrimony to start with. Continue Reading