Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ, Dear Friends
The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity is a good opportunity to reflect on ecumenism as a Christian virtue. Classical ethics says that virtue is at the centre. We can sin against her excess and deficiency.
Year 2017 was marked by the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. What is the ecumenical balance of these celebrations? There were many gestures and meetings expressing the search for unity. On the Catholic side, there were also anti-ecumenical voices referring to the necessity of fidelity to the Catholic doctrine. There is a paradox in this because, since the Second Vatican Council, ecumenism has been part of the official teaching of the Catholic Church. Faithfulness to the Catholic doctrine also means an ecumenical attitude. The conciliar “Decree on Ecumenism” begins with the statement that “stepping up efforts to restore unity among all Christians” was one of the central goals of the Council. Demands for an ecumenical attitude were repeated in the teaching of Pope John XXIII, Pope Paul VI, Pope John Paul II, Benedict XVI and Pope Francis. St John Paul II wrote the encyclical “Ut unum sint”, which is a great appeal for a strong search for the unity of the Church. Of course, openness to other Christians does not mean renouncing Catholic identity.
The ecumenical movement has its deepest source in the fervent prayer of Christ in the Upper Room, addressed to the Father: ‘that all may be one’. As emphasised by Saint John Paul II, ecumenism is not something optional. Ecumenism is not a virtue to be the chosen, nor a hobby for enthusiasts. An ecumenical attitude is the imperative of Christian conscience. It is not at all about the fact that each Catholics is obliged to conduct dialogues or to hold meetings with Christians of other religions. It is about elementary openness towards Christians who believe differently, about the ability to listen, understand, talk, meet, give up prejudices or polemical tone, for some kind of empathy and brotherhood. It is about the desire to build the unity of the Church to the extent that it is possible today.
Divisions among Christians are inherited from previous generations. Someone was brought up in the Catholic tradition, someone else in Lutheran or Calvinist, Anglican or Ut unum sint. Before we talk about what makes us different, or analyse what brought the ‘revolution’ to Martin Luther, it is worth thinking about living Protestants and Orthodox today. And let us tell ourselves in our hearts, and then loudly: ‘These are our brothers and sisters’. We are joined by Christ, the Lord and the Saviour, together we recite the “Lord’s Prayer”, we believe in One God in the Holy Trinity. One cannot blame modern Christians for the sin of detachment. Regardless of what they think about us, how they treat or judge us, it is the duty of the Catholic conscience to see brothers and sisters in them and to look for unity with them.
VIRTUE IS AT THE CENTRE.
Virtue is moral efficiency, lasting ability to do good. If we consider ecumenism a virtue, then we can refer to it the statement of classical ethics that virtue lies at the centre. Violence against virtue is both excess (unhealthy overzealousness) and insufficiency (disregard, lack). Consider it to be of little or no importance. When, in the name of love, we succumb to the temptation of easy communication at the price of a hand to theological differences. Such ‘easy’ ecumenism can lead to blurring or relativizing the truths of faith or moral principles. Of course, it is not that we should not cooperate with Christians of other faiths, as part of the so-called practical ecumenism, making the world more human, just, peaceful, and ecological, etc. We have to do it, but – as Pope Benedict XVI pointed out, it cannot be that the criterion of truth becomes just a practice. It’s putting things upside down. ‘Ecumenism is always a search for unity in faith, and not just a unity in action’,’ emphasises the senior pope. The temptation of ‘easy’ ecumenism today is strong in the context of contemporary culture, which in general questions the category of truth: ‘The most important thing is Is it possible to sin by an excessively ecumenical attitude, to be open to believers differently? It seems that, for example, when what differs from us doctrinally, we to be a good person’ – we can hear words that contain some kind of disrespect for the truth. ‘Where the question about the truth disappears, there basically the division of Christianity into various religions loses meaning’, wrote Benedict XVI. Then ecumenism would only boil down to the issue of improving mutual human relations according to political or sociological principles. ‘Authentic ecumenism is the grace of truth’, wrote Saint Pope John Paul II.
For another form of unhealthy ‘excess’ in ecumenism, one can consider such a ‘courageous’ way of meeting other Christian denominations that it causes the disappearance of respect and love for one’s own Church. A Catholic who sees only positive aspects in Luther, and blames only the hopeless popes of the Renaissance, does not contribute to building unity at all. On the contrary, it can harm the cause of the ecumenism. The love of Catholics for other Christians must connect with love for the Catholic Church. Exaggerated criticism of one’s own tradition or history, emphasising only what is dark and sinful in it, usually in isolation from the historical context, is a caricature of ecumenism.
There are also opposite attitudes, that is, denying the sense of ecumenical efforts, dialogues or gestures. They are often a reaction to the naive, ‘easy’ ecumenism. Anti-ecumenical voices are heard lately on our Catholic side. This often goes hand in hand with questioning the teaching of the last Council. In the last year, publications appeared on the Catholic side aimed at showing the ‘real’ Luther. Of course, as a Catholic, I have the right to critically evaluate Luther’s work, to perceive and speak about the wounds inflicted upon the Church by the Reformation, but we must not forget that Luther remains important to our brothers and sisters who are Protestants. He is the figure on the banner. His protest is part of the Protestant identity. And again, I emphasise – it is not about concealing difficult matters in the name of consent. It is about the necessary level of empathy, about the tone of presenting their reasons, which will encourage further conversation. Truth and love must go hand in hand.
So what are the CATHOLIC PRINCIPLES OF ECUMENISM?
The conciliar “Decree on Ecumenism” is at the heart of the question. It is a beautiful catechesis justifying why we Catholics can and should support or be involved in the work of restoring unity. It is worth recalling a few key elements.
First of all, the unity of the Church has its source in God. The most perfect model of unity is the Trinity: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. It is the secret of unity and at the same time the individuality of persons. This principle means that the closer we are to God in the One Trinity, the more He lives in us, the more we are also one, as children of the One God in the Trinity of Persons. The unity of the Church is never the fruit of purely human action. It is a gift from above that we must ask for. Let’s pray with humility, perseverance, with hope and together. There is nothing impossible for God.
Secondly, an ecumenical attitude does not mean renouncing the belief that in the Catholic Church is the category of truth: ‘The most important thing is the successor of Peter and the bishops in communion with him’. In the same sentence, we are talking about the fact that, apart from the visible organism of the Catholic Church, there are numerous elements of sanctification and truth which, as the proper gifts of the Church of Christ, encourage Catholic unity. What are these ‘elements of sanctification and truth’? This is God’s written word, life in grace, faith, hope, love and other interior gifts of the Holy Spirit and visible elements. The Holy Spirit also works among Protestants and Orthodox, which gives hope that they too can find a way to salvation. As Catholics, we remain with other Christians in some form of unity, an imperfect community. This does not absolve us from the obligation to seek a more perfect community.
Ecumenical activity is a work born under the breath of the grace of the Holy Spirit – teaches us the Second Vatican Council. What is more, the same Council, encourages all the faithful of the Catholic Church to diligently take part in ecumenical work to discern the signs of the times. The fact that the Catholic Church has the fullness of revealed truth and means of salvation does not mean that all its members live this fullness. “The face of the Church is not bright enough for the brothers who are separated from us and for the whole world”. Ecumenism for us Catholics always means in fact a deeper commitment to our Church, striving for its renewal, purification, it is always starting from ourselves. There is no real ecumenism without internal change. At the same time, ‘whatever makes the grace of the Holy Spirit in separated brothers, can also serve us to build’. So there is some kind of exchange of gifts, mutual gifts, strengthening in faith, building up with testimony. For this to happen, humility is required on all sides.
The Second Vatican Council warns against disregarding the truth in ecumenism. ‘The method of formulating the Catholic faith should not, by any means, become an obstacle to dialogue with our brothers. The whole and pristine doctrine must be clearly stated. Nothing is as foreign to ecumenism as false irenicism, which damages the purity of Catholic teaching and darkens its proper and certain sense.’ Irenicism (from the Greek eirene means peace) is the direction in which differences in doctrines are eliminated at the expense of resignation from controversial truths. This is not a good way to unity, the Council teaches us. Non-serious ecumenism is very dangerous.
We should help each other to BELIEVE DEEPER. The reluctance for ecumenism, which appears in some Catholic circles, can be caused by the galloping secularization of Protestant communities and churches, the submission of world influences to ethical issues such as the attitude to abortion or homosexuality. We can and we should ask whether this is in some way the effect of the subjectivism of Lutheran theology, the lack of universally acknowledged Church authority. But taking such criticism, one must notice that in the Protestant world, however, there are communities whose evangelising momentum and charismatic animation go hand in hand with conservatism in the sphere of morality. That should give us Catholics something to think about. In a world where there is a struggle for the government of souls between forces that dare to name themselves forces of progress and fullness of revealed truth. The dogmatic Constitution on the Church states that ‘the one Church of Christ, which we profess in the Symbol of Faith as One, Holy, Universal and Apostolic (…) continues in the Catholic Church, ruled by Christianity, we should not be distracted. Faced with the pressure of secularisation, removing God from the world, Christians of all faiths should help each other, support each other, learn from each other, how to effectively oppose the neopagan’s wave that is flooding us all. This was strongly emphasised by Pope Benedict XVI, who is hardly suspected of having liberal tendencies.
In 2011, the pope senior in Erfurt told the evangelicals: ‘We should help each other: to believe deeper and more vividly. (…) Like martyrs from Nazi times, they led each other to each other and caused the first great ecumenical opening, similarly today in the secularised world the faith of experiencing from within is the strongest ecumenical force that leads us towards each other, towards unity with the only Lord.’
With love, friendship and prayers – Fr Marcin
Here some articles on Pope Francis and Ecunemism