Ecumenism: A Reassessment
TIME FOR SOME PLAIN-SPOKEN TRUTHS
I have long felt a certain disquietude about writing this article. As a mere foot soldier in the Church militant, I hesitate to question publicly something that is supported so strongly by those who are set over the Church of God. Pope St. John Paul II wrote in his encyclical Ut Unum Sint (1995), “At the Second Vatican Council, the Catholic Church committed herself irrevocably to following the path of the ecumenical venture” (no. 3; emphasis in original). But, as I hope will become clear, a commitment to the ecumenical movement is not, and cannot be, a doctrine of the Church but merely a policy. If we consider the many varying and even conflicting policies proposed or undertaken by numerous pontiffs through history — such as the Crusades, the Inquisition, the excommunication and deposition of Protestant rulers, the suppression and then restoration of the Jesuits, and even ecumenism itself — it is obvious that a Catholic has no obligation to agree with any of these mutable policies. Moreover, in the words of the Code of Canon Law, the laity may “manifest to the sacred Pastors their views on matters which concern the good of the Church [and also] make their views known to others of Christ’s faithful” (can. 212:3).
The visible unity of all Christians is something every Catholic should desire. The Second Vatican Council’s “Decree on Ecumenism,” Unitatis Redintegratio (1964), which gave birth to the Church’s continuing involvement in the ecumenical movement, states that the Church is undertaking merely another way of achieving the old and honorable purpose of “the reconciliation of all Christians in the unity of the one and only Church of Christ” (no. 24). Although the means are different, the intention is something the Church has sought since the Protestant Reformation and, in fact, since the earliest schisms that separated Christians from the unity of the Church. If this is the case, then why do I have misgivings about ecumenism? What possible objection could I have? Why, in fact, do I see ecumenism as a danger and as having actually inflicted damage on the Church? To begin to answer these questions, let us look briefly at the history of the ecumenical movement and the Church’s stance toward it.
There is, as many have noted elsewhere, a fissiparous tendency in Protestantism — which, over the centuries, has splintered into thousands of denominations, sects, and independent congregations — born of differences in doctrine, biblical interpretation, worship practices, and even the personalities of ministers. Although there were efforts at unity on the part of Protestants off and on from nearly the time of their break from the Catholic Church in the 1500s, it was shortly after 1900 that many Protestant denominations began to exhibit more serious signs of such a desire. Without recounting the entire history of the ecumenical movement, we may note that in 1910 the first major ecumenical gathering was held in Edinburgh, Scotland, an event that eventually resulted in the formation of the World Council of Churches. This movement was the result of three primary causes. First, the numerous points of doctrine over which Protestants had differed were coming to lose their importance in the eyes of those who now held leadership in the many Protestant bodies. Second, the desire for unity was, in part, an attempt to present a united front in response to the increasingly obvious fact that Christianity was losing its hold over the public and private lives of so many once-Christian nations. And third, differences in doctrine and practice among Protestant denominations presented serious obstacles to their missionary activity.
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