Volume > Issue > Overcoming the Evils of Ecclesial Division

Overcoming the Evils of Ecclesial Division


By Casey Chalk | January-February 2020
Casey Chalk is a senior writer for Crisis and a contributor to The American Conservative.

In my 20 years of engaging in religious debates — originating in naïve attempts as a high-school evangelical to attack classmates’ Catholicism — I’ve witnessed an all-too-common tendency toward what I call “ecumenical ignorance.” Most Protestants who criticize Catholicism (including my former self) haven’t read much, if any, magisterial teaching. Most Orthodox who criticize Catholicism for being too dependent on Scholasticism lack familiarity with St. Thomas. And most Catholics who criticize perceived inadequacies in Protestantism or Orthodoxy haven’t read Luther or Calvin, or Schmemann or Ware. The robust friendship of 20th-century Swiss theologians Karl Barth and Hans Urs von Balthasar — one that allowed them to engage in fruitful conversation while remaining faithful to their respective faith traditions — offers a different approach to ecumenical dialogue.

Barth was a theologian deeply steeped in the Calvinist tradition, but he possessed what seemed an unprecedented willingness to engage with and receive comments from Catholic theologians. While serving as a professor of dogmatics at the University of Münster, Barth devoted serious study to the Catholic tradition, including Anselm and Aquinas. Indeed, some of his co-religionists accused Barth of prompting his readers to convert to Catholicism. In his later years, he was invited to be an observer at the Second Vatican Council.

Several times in his life, Barth presented his teaching to Catholic theologians who offered poignant critiques of his work. He invited Jesuit theologian Erich Przywara to listen to a seminar on Aquinas; Przywara challenged Barth’s understanding of the analogy of being and pushed him to present a viable alternative to the rich theology of the Catholic tradition. Later, Catholic scholar Gottlieb Söhngen criticized Barth’s attempts to resolve the dilemma posed by Przywara, which Söhngen claimed pitted faith against being, by making the analogous relationship between God and humans extrinsic to human being (i.e., that humans have no inherent, created capacity to receive God’s revelation). Barth humbly conceded Söhngen’s point, writing, “We certainly must not neglect to take heed to this warning and comply with it.”

Among Barth’s Catholic interlocutors, none engaged as seriously with Barth as Hans Urs von Balthasar. This is most saliently evidenced by Balthasar’s book The Theology of Karl Barth (1951), which many describe as one of the most important theological works of the 20th century. Whatever the problems with Balthasar’s own theology (e.g., his lean toward universalism), his communication with and interpretation of Barth’s theology offers several key lessons for ecumenical dialogue between Catholics and those of other Christian traditions.

True ecumenism requires recognition of the evils of ecclesial division, rather than explaining away splits as a historical necessity because, Barth writes, “according to the New Testament, the Church of Jesus Christ is one even in this respect.”

Barth recognizes that the unity of the Church is both visible and invisible. Jesus taught that not everyone who professes faith in Him actually knows Him (cf. Mt. 13:24-30). The Apostle John also seems to speak of a visible ecclesial reality when he writes, “They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us” (1 Jn. 2:19a). Yet, even more than this, Jesus prays prior to His Passion that the Church “may all be one; even as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that thou hast sent me” (Jn. 17:21). Visible ecclesial unity, rather than something “nice to have,” is a veritable witness to the world that Jesus truly is the Christ of God.

If Christ calls Christians to visible unity, then it is difficult to view the plurality of ecclesial communities as a good “willed by God” rather than an evil permitted by Him. Barth explains:

Nor should we try to explain the multiplicity of churches as…the normal unfolding of the riches of the grace given to mankind in Jesus Christ…. We should not try to explain the multiplicity of churches at all. We should treat it the way we treat our own sin and those of others: as sin. We should see it as part of our guilt.

Moreover, if Christian unity is a “motive of credibility” for the Gospel, then Christian disunity must be something for which we should all feel a sense of shame. More than this, Balthasar observes, division impoverishes each Christian communion because each one lacks a full sense of itself. He writes:

Every split in the Church is not only, as Augustine used to note, an occasion for further dogmatic research; it is also for the Church, unconditionally, an impoverishment. A schism in the Church represents not merely a loss in the number of members alone but also a diminution in the breadth and fullness of the truth, because a portion of the truth has been hauled away from the Church’s rightful ownership.

This is not to imply that the doctrines of certain Christian communions are not false or inadequate — for Balthasar to argue such would be to undermine his own Catholic faith. But it does mean that each communion is lacking the full body of fellow Christians, which would enrich it and enable it to thrive fully as a complete, united “body of Christ.” One need only attend a religious service of another denomination, one palpably vibrant in its devotion to Christ, to sense that one’s own communion would benefit from the presence of such persons and their perspectives — perhaps the next Scott Hahn or David Anders is among them.

Ecumenism also demands a sincere willingness first to listen to and appreciate the other side. This works against “sound-bite” theology and simplistic caricatures. It eschews an aggressive, antagonistic apologetic approach that aims at subjugating one’s conversation partners. As Balthasar observes, “It was precisely because writers were in the habit during the time of the Reformation of theologizing with a hammer that the split in the Church became irreparable.” It only takes one or two bad conversations with a member of another ecclesial community to foster the kind of bad blood that will linger for years, undermining the efforts of others who are truly eager to dialogue about the faith.

A characteristic of Christ that is visible across the Gospels is His propensity first to listen to and appreciate those who approached Him. In the story of the rich young ruler, Jesus is said to have “loved” His conversation partner (cf. Mk. 10:21). In His encounter with the woman at the well, He patiently listened to her inadequate Samaritan theologizing (cf. Jn. 4:4-26). Thus, it is essentially Christian to listen quietly to the other party. “In a dialogue, a willingness to hear out the other is more important than talking,” notes Balthasar. “Such eagerness to listen is in fact a dimension of our very faith and thus of our obedience and our prayer, all of which form an indissoluble unity.” Indeed, our own spiritual lives are most fruitful when we stop speaking to God and position ourselves to hear Him. Surely the same would be true in ecumenical exchanges.

Listening first also has significant theological benefits. When we are attentive to others’ beliefs, we become more capable of perceiving the good therein. “The Catholic Church can see herself as the embodiment of wholeness and totality only when she has done all in her power actively to incorporate the riches of all partial points of view,” says Balthasar. “Aquinas too did this with extraordinary subtlety with every form of Christian and pagan wisdom.” Indeed, Aquinas’s Summa Theologiae is a case study in the borrowing from and application of a wide variety of intellectual and theological traditions: Christian, Jewish, Muslim, pagan, Aristotelian, and Platonic. As one of my theology professors said of Aquinas, “He is always trying to salvage as much as he can.”

Ecumenism, finally, requires humility, because it is God’s grace, rather than man’s own initiative, that will achieve any good. Says Balthasar, “Of course, this whole project must begin with the admission that unity can only be the grace of the Church’s Founder; this is no human product.” Indeed, grace is especially required because all Christians, regardless of tradition, have failed in the ecumenical project and must acknowledge as much.

When Christians show arrogance toward their interlocutors, especially in the public square, they communicate a pride that is inimical to evangelization. Ironically, and amusingly, Barth writes of this kind of hubris: “This feeling of being done with Catholicism once and for all is much too Catholic.”

Humility also helps us “get outside” our own paradigm, both to evaluate it critically and approximate an objective, emotionally detached evaluation of other paradigms. Barth explains: “If a person is absolutely sure that he will be vindicated when confronting the other, he can afford to let himself be subject to the give and take of questioning without ever growing less sure of his own position.” Yet such “absolute surety” undermines any ecumenical dialogue before it begins because it demonstrates an unwillingness to be transparent about our own intellectual vulnerability. Such openness is fundamental to our faith. “What could be more Christian,” Balthasar argues, “than to hear out what one’s fellow Christian has to say?”

None of these considerations, however, can conceal the real, seemingly insurmountable differences within Christianity. Barth and Balthasar are cognizant of this reality. “In such an honest encounter, any apparently well-meaning attempt to overlook differences, any hasty effort to buddy up to one’s partner, any merely psychological empathy, will only compound the rift by bandaging the wound without healing it,” argues Balthasar. Indeed, even with all of Barth’s conciliatory gestures toward Rome, he still writes of the Catholic Church that “we can not recognize our own faith and therefore the true Church of Jesus Christ” in her “profession of faith”; therefore, “we must reject [her] with heavy heart, as a false church.” Such strong words evince the truly daunting task of any ecumenical effort.

Yet these divergences did not intimidate Barth and Balthasar, two admittedly controversial thinkers within their own traditions, from the ecumenical project. As Balthasar argues, “Only the most basic and important reasons…could allow a Christian to feel (only a subjective!) justification for giving up the priceless legacy of Christ and refusing his most urgent command to stay united to each other.” When I was an ardent Calvinist seminarian, I believed every Protestant had to grapple with why, exactly, he remained a Protestant rather than returning to Rome. This kind of eyes-open estimation is essential to being serious not only about Christ but His Church. Perhaps this is why Barth, despite his strongly articulated reservations about Rome, writes the following:

It was not lightly but with a heavy heart, that [Protestants] felt obligated to surrender [their] external unity with the Church of the Pope. If this obligation seems to have passed…then perhaps it is time to wonder whether the restoration of external unity might not be worth the surrender of some small, inconsequential differences that may still otherwise divide us from Rome and that are of little advantage to us anyway.

Per Jesus’ prayer in John 17, we should likewise pray, with Barth, that our “inconsequential differences” be cast aside so that all Christians, regardless of confession, might recover more visible forms of unity. The probity of our witness, our Savior has told us, depends on such efforts.


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