Cardinal Avery Dulles has an interesting article in the latest issue of First Things in which he discusses the ecumenical movement fifty years after the Oberlin Conference of 1957, where the Catholic Church first entered into the ecumenical dialogue with other Christian bodies. He has many pertinent and fascinating things to say about ecumenism, but ultimately I think his conclusion that he draws from his observations is way off.
First, he mentions what everybody interested in ecumenism already knows: that it is scandalous that so many different Christian communities exist. While affirming the truth that the Church of Christ "subsists" in the Catholic Church, he makes sure (like a good ecumenist) to mention that there nevertheless exists means of grace and sanctity in other Christian bodies. It seems that anytime anybody says the Catholic Church is the Church, they always feel obligated to "balance" it by pointing out the fact that there exists elements of grace and truth in other denominations. But I digress.
Interesting is his take on why many of our traditional doctrines have been downplayed in the ecumenical movement. He says it is because the Church, since Vatican II, has attempted to use a Protestant method of exegesis in explication of its doctrine. In our anxiousness to show Protestants how like them we are, we started emphasizing the scriptural roots of our faith over the traditional or theological roots. It is not bad to know the scriptural roots; that is a good thing. But what about the doctrines that are not stated explicitly in scripture? Cardinal Dulles says that in dialogue with "Bible only" denominations, these uniquely Catholic doctrines tended to fall into the background. He says (my highlights):
Many of the twentieth-century dialogues have opted to take Scripture, interpreted by the historical-critical method, as their primary norm. This method has worked reasonably well for mainline Protestant churches and for the Catholic Church since Vatican II. But many Christians do not rely on the critical approach to Scripture as normative. Catholics themselves, without rejecting the historical-critical method, profess many doctrines that enjoy little support from Scripture, interpreted in this manner. They draw on allegorical or spiritual exegesis, authenticated by the sense of the faithful and long-standing theological tradition. As a consequence, certain Catholic doctrines, such as papal primacy, the Immaculate Conception, the Assumption, and purgatory, have been banished to the sidelines. Unable to cope with doctrines such as these, the dialogues have treated them as an ecumenical embarrassment.
It is interesting that Cardinal Dulles identifies this kind of "scripture-only" emphasis as the historical-critical method, that same nefarious method that was so soundly denounced by Pius IX and St. Pius X. But since Vatican II, Cardinal Dulles says that it has "worked reasonably well." But nevertheless, this method has led to our most cherished doctrines being "banished" as an "ecumenical embarrassment." Is that working reasonably well?
Cardinal Dulles says that traditional ecumenism, until now, has revolved around a "convergence" method. This simply means finding out that we all really believe the same thing about something and the perceived differences are only matters of semantics and terminology. He cites the Catholic-Lutheran Joint Declaration on Justification as an example. By ecumenical convergence, denominations come together with the Church on every issue that they can possibly agree upon: pro-Life issues, the inerrancy of Scripture, the immorality of certain acts, etc.
However, the Cardinal rightly points out that this can only take you so far. Inevitably, you are going to run out of things that can be agreed upon and will be left with only the differences, stark and immovable. Clearly, mere "convergence" cannot deal with these obstacles. A new method is needed at this point. Now, to any Traditionalist Catholic, the idea that we attempt to convert the other party immediately comes to mind. We have exhausted every means of convergence, now comes the time to proclaim why our interpretation of Revelation is proper and what is lacking in the doctrines of the other communities. This is the place we are at with the ecumenical movement today, a kind of ecumenical crossroads. But does the Cardinal propose that we now attempt to convert the other party? Not at all. He proposes "deeper conversation" and a sharing of experiences:
[T]o surmount the remaining barriers we need a different method, one that invites a deeper conversion on the part of the churches themselves. I have therefore been urging an ecumenism of mutual enrichment by means of testimony. This proposal corresponds closely, I believe, with John Paul II’s idea of seeking the fullness of truth by means of an “exchange of gifts.”
In other words, we are going to transfer the ecumenical dialogue onto a completely subjective plane. Instead of discussing or debating the merits of certain dogmas, we are just going to talk about what they mean to us and how they make us feel. Don't laugh! That's really what he means. Listen to this:
With this mentality, Catholics would want to hear from the churches of the Reformation the reasons they have for speaking as they do of Christ alone, Scripture alone, grace alone, and faith alone, while Catholics tend to speak of Christ and the Church, Scripture and tradition, grace and cooperation, faith and works. We would want to learn from them how to make better use of the laity as sharers in the priesthood of the whole People of God. We would want to hear from evangelicals about their experience of conversion and from Pentecostals about perceiving the free action of the Holy Spirit in their lives. The Orthodox would have much to tell about liturgical piety, holy tradition, sacred images, and synodical styles of polity.
In other words, we are going to ask them to preach to us! That is what is boils down to. We are going to ask them to help us "learn from them" and teach us "about their experience." Grr..Nowhere does the Cardinal say they ought to convert. In fact, he only toys with the idea of conversion very tenatively, but makes sure to mention that he does not share the "negative" or "polemical" view of Protestantism that characterised the pre-Vatican II Church. The Cardinal is fully cognizant of his break with tradition here. Listen to his words and note how they exemplify a rupture with Catholic Tradition. Pay close attention to his language and to the comparison he draws between then and now:
Vatican II, therefore, represents a sharp turn away from the purely negative evaluation of non-Catholic Christianity that was characteristic of the previous three centuries...Regarding the ecclesial status of non-Catholic Christians, Pius XII had taught as late as 1943 that they could not be true members of the Church because the Body of Christ was identical with the Catholic Church [what does he mean by saying "as late as 1943?" This seems to imply that this teaching is no longer true]. Such Christians could not belong to the body except by virtue of some implicit desire, which would give them a relation that fell short of true incorporation. From a different point of view, Vatican II taught that every valid baptism incorporates the recipient into the crucified and glorified Christ, and that all baptized Christians were to some extent in communion with the Catholic Church...Relying on the new ecclesiology of communion, Catholic ecumenists now perceived their task as a movement from lesser to greater degrees of communion. All who believed in Christ and were baptized in his name already possessed a certain imperfect communion, which could be recognized, celebrated, and deepened.
So, while the three previous centuries, in which the Church had a "purely negative evaluation" of Protestantism, we are now going to suddenly adopt a "new ecclesiology of communion" in which the divisions in Christianity that the Cardinal just finished saying were scandalous are to be "celebrated." So, what used to be viewed as a definite negative (division in Christendom) as now going to be celebrated as a positive good and a source of mutual enrichment (*barf*).
The end goal of any ecumenism ought to be reconciling non-Catholics into full communion with the Church, to make Catholics out of them. Does Cardinal Dulles think his proposal of "sharing experiences" will actually work in the end? That is the most amusing thing. He does not even think his proposed program will work. He says:
The process of growth through mutual attestation will probably never reach its final consummation within historical time, but it can bring palpable results. It can lead the churches to emerge progressively from their present isolation into something more like a harmonious chorus. Enriched by the gifts of others, they can hope to raise their voices together in a single hymn to the glory of the triune God. The result to be sought is unity in diversity.
It's a beautiful image, but unfortunately it is not the scriptural one. Our unity is not to be a unity found in diversity (what kind of double-talk is that anyway?), but a unity based on the unity of the Father with the Son, in which we are "neither confounding the Persons, nor dividing the substance." The saddest thing about this is that the Cardinal proposes this new method precisely because he sees the shortcomings of the standard "convergence" method. But he proposes his "growth through mutual attestation" because he fears a return to polemical (i.e., dogmatically based) ecumenical debate that characterized Protestant/Catholic relations in the post-Tridentine period. For him, it is good enough that we come to accept and understand each other, making a "harmonious chorus." This is a far cry from the one sheepfold spoken of by Christ.
And they were scattered, because there was no shepherd: and they became meat to all the beasts of the field, when they were scattered. (Ezekiel 34:5)
But is this an acceptable vision of Christian unity? Let's give St. Athanasius of Alexandria and Pope Pius IX the last words:
Whoever wishes to be saved must, above all, keep the catholic faith. For unless a person keeps this faith whole and entire, he will undoubtedly be lost forever...This is the catholic faith. Everyone must believe it, firmly and steadfastly; otherwise He cannot be saved. Amen.
The following proposition is condemned in # 17 of the Syllabus of Errors: "Good hope at least is to be entertained of the eternal salvation of all those who are not at all in the true Church of Christ."