Monday, May 26, 2014

Ecumenism is the Church's Bad Dream

With the pope's much publicized trip to the Holy Land coming to an end, I thought it appropriate to look at the Common Declaration of Pope Francis and the Patriarch Bartholomew. The meeting between the two prelates was, after all, the putative reason for the trip, as it was meant to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the historic meeting between Pope Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras. Many pundits are really hyping the importance of this meeting and the Common Declaration as a great step forward in the search for Catholic-Orthodox unity. It is epic! It is historic! A giant leap towards full reunion! The full text of the Common Declaration can found here.

In my opinion, however, this declaration is much ado about nothing.

There are two things to be considered: First, issues raised by the text itself, and second, broader obstacles to Catholic-Orthodox unity that remain unresolved. Let us look first at the text of the Declaration, which begins with the Pope unfortunately lending credibility to a historical farce that the Orthodox have been trying to push for centuries - the lie that the See of Constantinople was founded by the Apostle Andrew:

"Our meeting, another encounter of the Bishops of the Churches of Rome and Constantinople founded respectively by the two Brothers the Apostles Peter and Andrew, is a source of profound spiritual joy for us" [Common Declaration, 1].

The assertion that St. Andrew founded the Church of Constantinople is a historical fabrication that the Orthodox began asserting in the fifth century to contest the claims of the papacy, the thinking being that since Andrew was called before Peter by our Lord, a Church founded by Andrew could have a claim to some sort of preeminence. At any rate the West has never accepted this claim. Nor do early Eastern Fathers know anything about it. Eusebius of Caesarea places Andrew's apostolic activity in Scythia and St. Gregory Nazianzus states it was Epirus. Surely if anyone had a motive for trying to bolster the authority of Constantinople it would be Eusebius, the court historian of Constantine, the builder of the New Rome. Yet Eusebius says nothing of St. Andrew founding the Church at Constantinople for the simple reason that this fable had not been invented yet. It was the translation of the relics of Andrew to Constantinople in 357 that probably occasioned the legend that he in fact founded that Church, something the West has never acknowledged. It is greatly to be regretted that Pope Francis gives credence to this historical fiction - this fiction which every serious historian knows to be a fabrication. It would be as silly as Patriarch Bartholomew affirming the Donation of Constantine - something that would be both historically false and damaging to traditional Orthodox claims.

That's just a pet peeve. Let's really dig in to this. The Declaration continues:

"Our fraternal encounter today is a new and necessary step on the journey towards the unity to which only the Holy Spirit can lead us, that of communion in legitimate diversity...While fully aware of not having reached the goal of full communion, today we confirm our commitment to continue walking together towards the unity for which Christ our Lord prayed to the Father so “that all may be one” [ibid., 2]

We all agree and applaud that talking to the Orthodox for the purpose of bringing about unity is a good thing. But what does this unity look like concretely? How do we get there? Are we closer now than we were fifty years ago when Paul VI met Athenagoras? The appeal of the concept of 'unity' is in its vagueness, but let us recall that unity is not a vague thing - it is a very particular ecclesiological concept that brings forth a concrete canonical reality. As in all these ecumenical meetings, the concept of unity is discussed a lot, but what it looks like or how to get there is never discussed. It is as if we are perpetually standing on the shore talking about sailing somewhere but never getting on the ship - or like one of those bad dreams you have where you know you need to get somewhere in a certain time but can't bring yourself to actually get moving. You know you're supposed to be leaving; you can feel it, you are struggling to get you act together, but somehow you never move - never leave.

Modern ecumenism is like the Catholic Church's bad dream. We will see later what underlies this concept.

"This is no mere theoretical exercise, but an exercise in truth and love that demands an ever deeper knowledge of each other’s traditions in order to understand them and to learn from them. Thus we affirm once again that the theological dialogue does not seek a theological lowest common denominator on which to reach a compromise, but is rather about deepening one’s grasp of the whole truth that Christ has given to his Church, a truth that we never cease to understand better as we follow the Holy Spirit’s promptings. Hence, we affirm together that our faithfulness to the Lord demands fraternal encounter and true dialogue. Such a common pursuit does not lead us away from the truth; rather, through an exchange of gifts, through the guidance of the Holy Spirit, it will lead us into all truth (cf. Jn 16:13)." [ibid., 4]

Indeed, this is "no mere theoretical exercise"; in fact, it is neither "theoretical", nor an "exercise." If it were theoretical, we would be seeing concrete proposals of what unity could look like; of course there's nothing that specific in the Declaration. If it were exercise, we would expect some sort of work or labor towards real reconciliation; but we see neither. These are just platitudes. Indeed, in the modern Church such ecumenical meetings can yield little else; having abandoned the concept of full, formal return to Rome whilst simultaneously denying that we are working towards a mere "lowest common denominator", the Catholic Church is in an awkward spot. All that is left is searching for "an ever deeper knowledge of each other's traditions in order to understand and learn from them." This is what unity means in the modern Church - sharing experiences. 

In case you think we are reading too much into these phrases or jumping to conclusions with our definition of ecumenism with "sharing experiences", consider these comments of the late Cardinal Dulles on the methodology of the modern ecumenical movement:

"[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.”

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 (Avery Cardinal Dulles, "Saving Ecumenism from Itself", First Things, Dec., 2007. See also our article, "At the Crossroads of Ecumenism").

In other words, in allowing other non-Catholic Christians to preach to us about their traditions, we approach unity in the context of a mutual enrichment by means of testimony, shifting 'unity' to the subjective plane and making about shared experiences, apparently based on the faulty assumption that understanding will bring us closer together. This is the manner in which Pope Francis and Patriarch Bartholomew understand unity. Sharing experiences.

Of course, sharing experiences will never lead to formal unity, and Francis knows it, as well as Benedict and John Paul II knew it; it is thrown off into the future, as some eschatological reality beyond history. What is left for today then? To work for the good of humanity! Yes, we can find common ground in saving the planet!

"It is our profound conviction that the future of the human family depends also on how we safeguard – both prudently and compassionately, with justice and fairness – the gift of creation that our Creator has entrusted to us. Therefore, we acknowledge in repentance the wrongful mistreatment of our planet, which is tantamount to sin before the eyes of God. We reaffirm our responsibility and obligation to foster a sense of humility and moderation so that all may feel the need to respect creation and to safeguard it with care. Together, we pledge our commitment to raising awareness about the stewardship of creation; we appeal to all people of goodwill to consider ways of living less wastefully and more frugally, manifesting less greed and more generosity for the protection of God’s world and the benefit of His people" [Common Declaration, 6].

Since when did the mistreatment of the planet constitute one of the occasions of the Orthodox schism? This is just sappy, syrupy feel-goody stuff. Totally irrelevant to the divisions within Christianity and unworthy of this historic meeting.

After some pleas for peace in specific regions, the document closes with this comment:

"In an historical context marked by violence, indifference and egoism, many men and women today feel that they have lost their bearings. It is precisely through our common witness to the good news of the Gospel that we may be able to help the people of our time to rediscover the way that leads to truth, justice and peace" [ibid., 9].

"Common witness?" This is wrong on so many levels. There can be no "common witness" between Rome and the Orthodox precisely because we have different understandings of what the "good news of the Gospel" constitutes. The Orthodox reject a very important element of the Gospel - the real primacy entrusted to Peter and his successors by Christ. That is not some extrinsic custom or negotiable point; it is part of the Gospel; Vatican I stated the authority of the Pope to be de fide, which means it cannot be rejected without loss of the faith any more than can be the Trinity or the truths of our Lord's Incarnation. There can be no "common witness to the good news of the Gospel" if an essential element of the Gospel is rejected.

Or can there?

The only way we could have a common witness with the Orthodox if parts of the Gospel are rejected by them is if we only witness in common those points which we share in common - if, in other words, we seek a "common denominator." We may disagree on particulars, but we agree on basic things like the dignity of the human person, sanctity of the family, etc. and therefore we can focus on these broader common denominators - give a joint witness on the commonalities that we do agree upon.

Except Pope Francis specifically says "dialogue does not seek a theological lowest common denominator on which to reach a compromise."...Oh. 

So this Declaration, which some are touting as historic, groundbreaking, "huge", epic, etc. is really more fluff. This sort of thing can never help us towards reunion, and there are several reasons grounded in the broader position of the Catholic Church that make this so.

For one thing, reunion with the Orthodox is impossible and all ecumenical conversations on reunion are farcical until the Vatican formally renounces the 1993 Balamand Agreement. The Balamand Agreement was a declaration of the Joint International Commission for Theological Dialogue which has formed the foundation for the Church's approach to the Orthodox over the past twenty years. Balamand specifically repudiates what it calls the "outdated ecclesiology" of presuming that the Orthodox need to "return" to Rome. The agreement states:

"Pastoral activity in the Catholic Church, Latin as well as Oriental, no longer aims at having the faithful of one Church pass over to the other; that is to say, it no longer aims at proselytizing among the Orthodox. It aims at answering the spiritual needs of its own faithful and it has no desire for expansion at the expense of the Orthodox Church...To pave the way for future relations between the two Churches, passing beyond the out-dated ecclesiology of return to the Catholic Church connected with the problem which is the object of this document, special attention will be given to the preparation of future priests and of all those who, in any way, are involved in an apostolic activity carried on in a place where the other Church traditionally has its roots. Their education should be objectively positive with respect of the other Church" (The Balamand Statement: Uniatism and the Present Search for Full Communion, 22,30).

The concept of reunion understood in terms of return to Rome - a concept that gave the Church such luminaries as Newman and Chesterton and Elizabeth Ann Seton- is repudiated by Balamand. The Balamand document also goes as far as to deny that the Catholic Church is the one true Church:

"[In the past] missionary activity tended to include among its priorities the effort to convert other Christians, individually or in groups, so as "to bring them back" to one's own Church. In order to legitimize this tendency, a source of proselytism, the Catholic Church developed the theological vision according to which she presented herself as the only one to whom salvation was entrusted" [ibid.,10].

Again, let me emphasize, this document forms the backbone of the Catholic Church's understanding of its relation with the Orthodox. And in this document, formal reunion via return to Rome is repudiated. Until the Vatican backs away from these sorts of statements, the sort of meetings that happened this week in the Holy Land can yield nothing substantial. 

Lest we be tempted to think that this is some incidental whim of a non-authoritative committee, let us turn to the weightier opinions of none other than Cardinal Ratzinger, who has written much on the problem of ecumenism and who believes the vision proposed at Balamand is essentially correct.

In the 2003 book God and the World, then Cardinal Ratzinger reveals that the "unity" the modern Church is seeking through the ecumenical movement is radically different from the concept of "returning to Rome" as traditionally understood. In the book, which is in the format of a lengthy interview with journalist Peter Seewald, Seewald poses the question: “The Church prays for Christians to be reunited. But who ought to join up with whom?” Cardinal Ratzinger's reply is revolutionary and flips on its head the traditional understanding of what it means to belong to the Church:

The formula that the great ecumenists have invented is that we go forward together. It’s not a matter of our wanting to achieve certain processes of integration, but we hope that the Lord will awaken people’s faith everywhere in such a way that it overflows from one to the other, and the one Church is there. As Catholics, we are persuaded that the basic shape of this one Church is given us in the Catholic Church, but that she is moving toward the future and will allow herself to be educated and led by the Lord. In that sense we do not picture for ourselves any particular modes of integration, but simply look to march on in faith under the leadership of the Lord – who knows the way.” (God and the World, Ignatius Press, 2003, pp. 452-53)

"We go forward together." Where do we go? Who knows, for "we do not picture for ourselves any particular modes of integration", nor do we even will a formal reunion, because "it's not a matter of our wanting to achieve a certain process of integration." Ratzinger, speaking ten years after Balamand, agrees that formal reintegration is neither fathomable in its mode nor even desirable in the modern Church.

Ratzinger's comment that "the Lord will awaken people’s faith everywhere in such a way that it overflows from one to the other, and the one Church is there" is particularly revolutionary, as it locates the Church not in an objective reality but in an exchange - a relationship. The concept of 'Church' for Ratzinger is more about becoming than being - it is located in the interplay between the various "churches". It is fundamentally a dynamic reality predicated on relationship. 

This novelty is not surprising, given the centrality of change, relation and evolution to Ratzinger's thought (see here). James Larson has also written convincingly on the centrality of the concept of "relationship" in the theology of Joseph Ratzinger.

If Church is found in relationship between various communities, then we have a fundamentally new concept of the Church, something never accounted for in Tradition and which allows for a radical redefinition of what it means to be "in the Church." This is nowhere so evident in Ratzinger's thought as in his comments on Protestantism, which while not referring to the Orthodox problem, help us locate the concept central to the ecumenical movement - a "different mode" of being a church.

We get a lucid summary of Ratzinger's opinion in his 1997 book Salt of the Earth when the Cardinal elaborates on what the Second Vatican Council meant by referring to Protestant groups as "ecclesial communities": 

"The word ‘ecclesial community’ is a term employed by the Second Vatican Council. The Council applied a very simple rule in these matters. A Church in the proper sense, as we understand it, exists where the episcopal office, as the sacramental expression of apostolic succession, is present –which also implies the existence of the Eucharist as a sacrament that is dispensed by the bishop and the priest. If this is not the case, then we are dealing with the emergence of another model, a new way of understanding what a church is, which at Vatican II we designated by the term ‘ecclesiastical community.’ The word was intended to indicate that such communities embody a different mode of being a church. As they themselves insist, it is precisely not the same mode in which the Churches of the great tradition of antiquity are Churches, but is based on a new understanding, according to which a church consists, not in the institution, but in the dynamism of the Word that gathers people into a congregation… (Salt of the Earth, 94-96).

A "different mode of being a church", something based on a "new understanding", located not in a physically identifiable body on this earth, but "in the dynamism of the Word" - the relationship of the people with God. This is the sense in which the concept of "Church" overflows between the various Christian groups, and in the interchange of these groups - what Cardinal Dulles called "an ecumenism of mutual enrichment" - "the one Church is there," to quote Ratzinger. This is the ecumenical thought of the 'Pope of Christian Unity.'

Ratzinger is no fool. He knows that this is a novel concept. Cardinal Dulles recognizes it as well. In the same article quoted above, Dulles paints a sharp contrast between ecumenism pre- and post-Vatican II:

"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. 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" [Dulles, First Things, Dec. 2007].

The meeting between Francis and Bartholomew is an expression of this "new ecclesiology of communion", which proposes no "particular modes of integration" but simply speaks of moving towards an ill-defined unity grounded in mutual understanding which will somehow result in the Church becoming present in the dynamism of the faith-filled exchange between us. 

It is beyond the scope of this article to offer a traditional critique to this thought; hopefully, most readers of this blog will already see the many problems it poses. But the ultimate purpose of this article is to show that, as long as this concept of a "new ecclesiology of communion" spoken of by Dulles and Ratzinger and epitomized by Balamand is not rejected, there will never be a formal reunion - simply because our Church does not want it. Just like the bad dream where you know you have to leave to go somewhere but keep finding yourself bogged down by various details, so the Church speaks of reunion but never actually moves towards it. It has repudiated the only path towards real reunion - return to Rome, which is now only an "outdated ecclesiology." It is also a little unfair that the faithful continue to vainly hope for a formal reintegration when, as we have seen, the leaders of the Church have no plans for any such integration and do not even will it. This is very troubling.

In Redemptor Hominis, St. John Paul II reminds us that the path forward towards unity is uncertain, and that we have a right to express our uncertainties:

"There are people who in the face of the difficulties or because they consider that the first ecumenical endeavours have brought negative results would have liked to turn back. Some even express the opinion that these efforts are harmful to the cause of the Gospel, are leading to a further rupture in the Church, are causing confusion of ideas in questions of faith and morals and are ending up with a specific indifferentism. It is perhaps a good thing that the spokesmen for these opinions should express their fears" (St. John Paul II, Redemptor Hominis, 6).

Consider my fears expressed.


Anonymous said...

thank you for that insightful article...

Jan said...

The Pope shouldn't be too close to schismatics unless the reason is evangelization (instead of plainly for friendship). As Josue chapter 23 verses 12-13 in the bible says becoming close with non-Catholics can hurt the Catholic person. Josue 23:12-13 says "But if you will embrace the errors of these nations that dwell among you, and make marriages with them, and join friendships: [13] Know ye for a certainty that the Lord your God will not destroy them before your face, but they shall be a pit and a snare in your way, and a stumblingblock at your side, and stakes in your eyes, till he take you away and destroy you from off this excellent land, which he hath given you." (Douay-Rheims Translation of the Bible)

Stephen said...

So you would, in your heart, want to foist onto the East the Spirit of Vatican II? Yet what is the Papacy if not the promoter and promulgator of that Spirit?
If you say yes, then you are consistent and true; if however, you say no, then why do you yourself remain Catholic and not Orthodox?

Boniface said...


Of course I do not want the spirit of Vatican II to be foisted on the Orthodox, but a reunion would not necessitate that. They would retain their own administration, their own liturgy, their own customs and the Vatican directives that apply specifically to the Roman rite would not apply to them. Reunion would not necessitate transforming the Orthodox into Catholics.

Regarding why I am not Orthodox - the Catholic Church is the true Church; the Orthodox, while retaining certain elements of truth, very many of them in fact - are nonetheless in schism. There is only one boat. Even if the boat is being run by a crowd of jokers or fools, it is still the only boat.

susan said...

Boniface...a MOST informative and sobering article. I will be thinking on this for many days.

And Jan...a very aptly applied piece of Scripture. It actually sent chills through me.

Unknown said...

Amazing and informative. Though I am left in tears contemplating how far we have fallen from the truth.

I am glad that there are people like you out there who take the time to share this sort of information in a coherent reasoned argument. Personally, it gives me courage in a weird way to know that not everyone is on board with the novelties.

Mick Jagger Gathers No Mosque said...

Dear Brother Boniface. SMASHING!!!!

God Bless you for writing the truth plainly and with the sensus catholicus so lacking in the shadow church of the past one-half century.

I am so sick of the Popes seeking to please those who hate us by asking those who hate us how we can change the Papacy to please those who hate us.

Catch a clue, Hierarchy. The seedbed of iconoclasm and heresy does not want a Papacy that is redefined it wants the Papacy DESTROYED.

Lord have mercy.

Mick Jagger Gathers No Mosque said...

Ecumenism is the Universal Solvent dissolving Catholic Tradition

Anonymous said...

Too many people seem to forget or refuse to accept that the Eastern Orthodox Church IS ALSO CATHOLIC, the Schism of 1054 AD DID CHANGE THIS FACT. Read your history of the Universal Church, and get rid of your prejudices; that is not Christian Like.

Boniface said...

^It is Catholic in the sense that it preserves valid apostolic succession, but it is in schism by virtue of its refusal of submission to the Roman Pontiff.