A source of perplexity for many Catholics is their Church’s continuing commitment to ecumenism. The reason is obvious. The commitment sometimes seems to come with a degree of troubling ambiguity, even at the highest level, and even under the papacy of Benedict XVI. A case in point has been Cardinal Kasper’s puzzling recent statement in Osservatore Romano on the strange ecclesial identity of Brother Roger – supposedly both Calvinist and Catholic – after Brother Roger’s reception of communion at the funeral of Pope John Paul II, from the hands of the then Cardinal Ratzinger.
Yet among those Catholics perplexed about ecumenism, there has been an important division. So-called Traditionalism bluntly rejects ecumenism as a bad business; and does so in the name of the continuing validity of Pius XI’s Mortalium Animos of 1928. Accordingly Traditionalism condemns Vatican II’s Decree on Ecumenism of 1964, Unitatis Redintegratio, and later documents as modernist departures from past Catholic teaching as well as practice.
Whereas so-called Conservatism shares Pope Benedict’s continuing espousal of the Council and its ecumenical commitment – a commitment that, it is regretfully admitted, may have led to excesses, but is in essence sound. Sound, indeed, because it seems the Conciliar magisterium has taught the pursuit of Christian unity to be divinely mandated. And how can a divine mandate be ignored, or the magisterium disregarded?
But the problem facing Conservatism is obvious: how can a hermeneutic of continuity reconcile Mortalium Animos and Unitatis Redintegratio? How can what is now supposed to be a divine mandate, to pursue ecumenism, have been rejected and condemned, in 1928, by Christ’s then reigning Vicar, and in the most blunt and forthright terms?
The unity of the Church and the unity of Christians
The CDF’s note on the Church of 2007, with its official commentary, is clear. Vatican II’s teaching that the one Church of Christ subsists in the Catholic Church was always meant, and is still to be understood, in terms consistent with tradition. The one Church of Christ subsists in no other subject than the Catholic Church, and this subsistence is a mode of identity: subsistit in implies est. The CDF insists on the plenam identitatem, full or complete identity, of the one Church of Christ with the Catholic Church governed by Peter and his successors. Otherwise the one Church of Christ would be divided, subsisting in a number of distinct Christian communities – which division of her unity is impossible. As the CDF commentary on the note insists:
Contrary to many unfounded interpretations, therefore, the change from “est” to “subsistit” does not signify that the Catholic Church has ceased to regard herself as the one true Church of Christ.
Of course it is now openly admitted that, through some or all of the sacraments, elements of the Church exist and operate beyond her visible boundaries, leaving baptized members of non-Catholic communities in partial or imperfect communion with the one true Church. There are even admitted to be local churches outside the Catholic Church, in schism from her, with their own bishops and valid eucharists. But then, given that subsistit in implies est, these churches are in schism too from the one Church that Christ founded, and within the bounds of which He willed all Christians to be reunited.
Actually, there really is nothing new about the admission of the existence of these detached churches. What else was Pius IX’s famous issuance, to the Eastern Orthodox diocesans, of an invitation to attend Vatican I along with Catholic bishops, but such an admission? Or Rome’s proclamation, at the start of the reunion Council of Florence, that this was a council de unione occidentalis et orientalis ecclesiae – to facilitate a reunion of a western with an eastern church under the see of Rome (decree of the papal Legate to the Council, 8 January 1438)? Hence, the CDF note rightly refers to the use of the term ‘church’ for the Eastern Orthodox in schism from Rome as ‘traditional’.
The as yet unfulfilled divine mandate that all Christians be one must then be understood as this: as a mandate that all Christians not yet fully her members should be united in full membership of the one Church of Christ that subsists uniquely in the Catholic Church. And this mandate is taught clearly and uniformly by Mortalium Animos and by Unitatis Redintegratio alike. Notice what Unitatis Redintegratio insists in paragraph 3:
Nevertheless, our separated brethren, whether considered as individuals or as communities and churches, are not blessed with that unity which Jesus Christ wished to bestow on all those who through Him were born again into one body, and with Him quickened to newness of life – that unity which the Holy Scriptures and the ancient Tradition of the Church proclaim. For it is only through Christ’s Catholic Church, which is “the all-embracing means of salvation,” that they can beneﬁt fully from the means of salvation.
Yet Unitatis Redintegratio teaches that besides and consistently with the conversion and return to her one by one, individually, of non-Catholics there is another possible way to this unity within the one Catholic Church – a way which is that of ecumenism. What way is that?
Mortalium Animos and the rejection of ecumenism
In rejecting ecumenism as a path to unity, Pius XI usefully tells us what it is that he refuses. Ecumenism is treated in Mortalium Animos as the idea that representatives of distinct Christian communities should meet as equals, and dialogue to a reunion. Through shared reflection and better mutual understanding unity is reached at the corporate or communal level, not by way of individual ‘return’ or individual conversions from one community to the other, but by way of a final agreement to unite to which those separated communities are parties. Notice why, according to Pius XI, this method of aiming at Christian unity was to be rejected (Mortalium Animos sections 7-8):
But, all the same, although many non-Catholics may be found who loudly preach fraternal communion in Christ Jesus, yet you will find none at all to whom it ever occurs to submit to and obey the Vicar of Jesus Christ either in His capacity as a teacher or as a governor. Meanwhile they affirm that they would willingly treat with the Church of Rome, but on equal terms, that is as equals with an equal: but even if they could so act, it does not seem open to doubt that any pact into which they might enter would not compel them to turn from those opinions which are still the reason why they err and stray from the one fold of Christ.
8. This being so, it is clear that the Apostolic See cannot on any terms take part in their assemblies, nor is it anyway lawful for Catholics either to support or to work for such enterprises; for if they do so they will be giving countenance to a false Christianity, quite alien to the one Church of Christ.
But what is it to meet ‘on equal terms’? In one sense, meeting on equal terms is just what dialogue is about. Though each side may be convinced of its rightness and even of its own superiority, neither side insists on any recognition of this at the outset from the other party. Rather each presents its own beliefs and self-conception as just one set among those to be entertained and explored. Each side may of course hope that its own conception, being in its view true, will eventually convince the other party. But the dialogue is not publicly and commonly predicated at its outset on any particular such outcome.
At this level, there is nothing in this dialogic equality that is inconsistent with Catholic faith. That would be to confuse a purely dialogic or procedural equality with the admission of an actual or dogmatic equality between the Catholic Church and other churches and communities; it is the latter admission only that would be inconsistent with the Catholic doctrine of the Church enunciated above. Nor, I think, does Pius XI confuse the two forms of equality. Rather his claim is that ecumenical dialogue with its procedural equality just would not lead to a non-Catholic party ever acknowledging the Catholic Church’s claims. The tendency of such a dialogue on the basis of a procedural equality would, unless it was suspended by the Catholic party first, always lead to some agreement compromising heretically in the direction of a supposed dogmatic equality:
… it does not seem open to doubt that any pact into which they might enter would not compel them to turn from those opinions which are still the reason why they err and stray from the one fold of Christ.
Mortalium Animos – one policy replacing another
But surely Pope Pius’s prediction here, even supposing it true to some extent, is not plausibly a truth of Christian or Catholic doctrine; that is, its truth is not a plausible matter of revelation. Rather it is a psychological or social prediction – and one that might in some cases actually prove false. It might prove false, for example, in a case where the obstacles to acknowledging papal authority were mainly emotional, and the product of some form of alienation – such as the cultural memory of rather brutal assertions of papal authority in the past. In such a case the last way to end Christian division and to secure admission of Catholic claims would be the blunt reassertion of papal authority. An unthreatening dialogue, on the terms of procedural equality, might be the only way to go. As the emotional temperature lowered, so even-handed discussion of each other’s teachings might lead to eventual acknowledgment of legitimate Catholic claims, now better and properly understood by all parties, supposing these are as well-founded in Christian practice and history as Catholics suppose them to be. It might be thought, for example, that the obstacles to Catholic-Orthodox unity are substantially of just this nature – at least as much emotional as doctrinal. In which case, with Orthodoxy, the experiment of ecumenical dialogue, rather than mere reliance on calls to individual conversion, might indeed be recommended, perhaps even as the only sensible option.
We have here, in Pius XI’s rejection of ecumenical dialogue, not a direct doctrinal condemnation – but rather a bleak and pessimistic view of the likely outcome of such dialogue, and, based on that view, a clear policy-directive against participation in ecumenism.
It is good that Pius did not make a doctrinal condemnation of ecumenism. For otherwise he would have been condemning the procedure of the Council of Florence of 1438, which is a clearly acknowledged Ecumenical Council of the Church, and which was directed at ending the schism of the eastern or Greek churches from Rome. This Council did not imperiously summon the Greek bishops to convert individually to Catholicism, but called them to discuss and debate with their Latin brothers, thereby to reunite through agreement. At that Council great efforts were made to maintain a procedural or dialogic equality between the Pope and his Latin bishops and the Greek Patriarch and bishops – as Joseph Gill’s The Council of Florence tells us. On their arrival, the Greek Patriarch and bishops, for example, were relieved of the then strict duty of kissing the Pope’s foot as acknowledgement of his (in the Roman view) superior spiritual jurisdiction – though the Pope needed some persuading to concede on this essential point. And at the first session the Greek representatives were so sat in relation to the Latin – at opposite north and south sides of a church – as to avoid any clear implication of a juridical superiority of the Pope and his party. And both sides proceeded to discuss as dialogic equals, hoping to arrive at a common understanding. And so they did, in decrees summing Christian teaching still binding on Catholics, that were only subsequently rejected by the Orthodox base.
In Unitatis Redintegratio we have not an opposite doctrine to that of Mortalium Animos, but an opposite policy – a readoption in more scattered and informal form, and for reunion with separated Christians communities generally, of the method of dialogue employed on the level of a full Council with the East at Florence. And 1964’s reversal of the policy of 1928, which was itself a reversal of the policy of 1438 – each being policy decisions which as circumstances change it is surely perfectly legitimate for the Church to make – reflects a view of what will or will not work that is no more a matter of Christian revelation than were Pius XI’s bleak predictions. In 1964 the clear working assumption is that the divine mandate to unity is not plausibly to be met just through aiming at individual conversions. We must trust to divine assistance to enable us also to attain the mandated unity another way – through ecumenical dialogue between whole separated Christian communities.
What of someone who still nursed the hope or expectation, not shared by the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council, that, realistically, unity might still be attained most effectively and surely just by summoning individuals to convert? Such a hope or expectation is nowhere condemned, so far as I can see, as itself contrary to Catholic doctrine. How could such a mere prediction about what method towards unity might or might not prove effective, no matter how far-fetched, be so condemned? But of course if contrary to the opinion of the Council Fathers it became clear that in a given context seeking individual conversions really was the only way to attain Christian unity, or even to approach its attainment – if in that context for various reasons dialogue at the communal level would never ever work – then the continuing duty to pursue unity through ecumenism would, to say the least, become much less obvious. And herein lies an important lesson.
Ecumenism in the West
I write as a Catholic in England, designated by Pope Paul VI as ‘ecumenical territory’ for the centre-piece project of ecumenical rapprochement with the post-Reformation West – the hoped for reconciliation of Canterbury to Rome. And here, it is now becoming clear, forty years of ecumenism have not advanced the prospects of such a reunion one inch. True, and this is a definite and substantial good which must not be ignored, the dialogue has led to greater emotional warmth, perhaps greater than that with much of the East. Individual converts to Catholicism no longer feel cut off from their former non-Catholic friends and family. But unlike with Orthodoxy, the differences between Canterbury and Rome were never substantially emotional. They have long involved, for a substantial body of Anglicans at least, profound doctrinal differences – differences which have only deepened during the last forty years of ecumenical dialogue, as with other parts of mainline Protestantism much of the Anglican intellectual establishment has abandoned any clear conception of a definitive divine revelation transmitted through Scripture and Tradition (or even just through Scripture), as also any adherence to the natural moral law, in regard to marriage and the family especially.
But this should not be a surprise. Ecumenical dialogue is not a new ‘modernist’ doctrine, but in general form an old policy, pursued intermittently in the past, and mainly with the separated East – and one that has only ever stood any chance of securing unity under very specific conditions: where there is already substantial doctrinal agreement, and substantially shared sacramental and spiritual life, which substantial commonality is obscured mainly by the baggage of a mutual alienation at the level of culture and emotion. As an ex-Anglican I can say that whatever may have been true of some very specific forms of Anglo-Catholicism, or of some Rome-sympathetic scholars such as Owen and Henry Chadwick – and even in the case of these two I have my doubts – there was never any such commonality between the bulk of English Anglicans and Rome.
There is only one divine mandate and one divinely imposed duty in this area: to unity in the one Church that is governed by Peter. How one is to pursue this end and seek to fulfill this duty, whether mainly by way of attempting corporate reunions through ecumenical dialogue or else by prioritizing individual conversions, is not a matter of revelation, but of policy. And policy must always respect and be adapted to the facts. Contrary to Traditionalist assumptions, there is no direct divine mandate to eschew ecumenism and pursue unity through calls to individual conversion alone. Florence did not work; but its attempt at dialogic reunion with Constantinople was not un-Catholic or un-Christian. Nor, on the other hand, should others assume, ‘in the name of the Council’, that the Church is mandated always and everywhere to pursue ecumenical dialogue. For in certain contexts such dialogue may be a waste of time – or even do genuine damage. It may even reduce unity, by loss and damage to the local Catholic community involved.
The costs of ecumenism by main force
The tendency within the leadership of post-conciliar English Catholicism has been to treat the commitment to ecumenism with Canterbury, not as some provisional and debatable ecclesial policy, but as if it were some direct mandate of the divine will. To express doubt or scepticism about this commitment is be regarded in some quarters as displaying a quasi-Lefebvrist disregard for the teaching of the magisterium – to prove oneself no better than a Hans Kung, but of the right.
And in the meantime almost every element that has historically separated English Catholics from the bulk of Anglicans, in school catechesis and doctrinal instruction, in liturgy and in spiritual devotions, has been systematically weakened and undermined from within. A grand process of de-Catholicization has been attempted – to make it come to be true, as it clearly was not true before, that there really is a substantial unity of belief and practice between Catholic and Anglican. In very many parishes the sacrament of penance has been downplayed, the status and dignity of the priesthood diminished, liturgy in its style and outward form substantially Protestantized, the reality of Purgatory ignored, the cult of Mary and the saints reduced and sidelined, the plain teaching of the natural law unasserted.
Seminarians training for the priesthood were carefully educated into the ‘new ways of the Council’, as interpreted in England. Any interest in Catholic tradition deemed ‘excessive’ – and it would not take much to count as ‘excessive’ – and the seminarian would be dismissed as unsuitable. Meanwhile their ecclesiastical superiors lamented the supposed cost to vocations of Rome’s insistence on celibacy and some, even from among the bishops, called openly for married priests (‘like our Anglican brothers and sisters’). The obsession with building ecumenical bridges with Anglicanism and adopting Anglican ecclesial models – what we might call Roman Anglicanism – has gone right to the top of English Catholicism, and was by no means ended by the Church of England’s ordination of women. It has not been unknown for a Catholic bishop to tolerate his local Anglican ‘brother’ being prayed for as a bishop along with the Pope and his own self in the Eucharistic Prayer. (It is not hard to guess at the implications of all this for the real beliefs of some senior English Catholics on questions to do with Anglican and with female orders.) When Dominus Iesus was issued, dislike of the declaration was evident at high levels within the bishops’ conference.
What has been the ecumenical outcome? Still no closer to actual reunion – but instead the greatest meltdown in Catholic membership and practice in England since the Reformation. Add to that the whole fairly brutal post-Conciliar assault on traditional Catholic liturgy and devotion did great damage (irony of ironies) to spiritual affinity with Orthodoxy, the one group of Christians that ecumenical dialogue might eventually reunite to Rome. For there was a profound commonality between the traditional rites of Rome and Constantinople, with their shared emphasis on sacrifice, sanctuary and sacramental priesthood, their shared ad orientem worship, and their common emphasis on the overt display of reverence for the Virgin Mary and the saints. Many Orthodox find what passes for liturgy and devotion in a typical modern Catholic parish unattractive and unworthy of a Divine Liturgy. (If any in the current English Catholic liturgical establishment is under the illusion that Pope Benedict’s restoration of the 1962 Missal is somehow unecumenical, they would be quickly disabused by the Orthodox bishop who was joyfully in attendance with me at a recent Missa Cantata in the Old Rite at the London Oratory, and whose welcome for Summorum Pontificum was frank and open.)
The meltdown in English Catholicism and its immediate character is no secret. The fact of the meltdown is increasingly widely admitted, right now by a shining example among the English bishops themselves – see the outstanding Bishop O’Donoghue of Lancaster’s just issued Fit for Mission? Church which eloquently and vividly portrays and analyses the English church’s present and profound unfitness. But one of the causes of the meltdown is not yet so openly and publicly acknowledged in official circles. It undoubtedly lies in the relentless prioritization, in the name of the Council, of ecumenism with Anglicanism. And on this point a previously much discountenanced and disregarded group within the English Catholic church deserves a big apology. For in fact where Anglicanism and Protestantism generally have been concerned, the Traditionalist critique of the fruits of the Council’s endorsement of ecumenism has, on the whole, been fully justified. Even if Traditionalist theology has often been crudely unhistorical – such as treating Mortalium Animos not as a contingent and reversible policy directive, but as some sort of timeless doctrinal definition – Traditionalism’s perception of the unrealism and damage involved in much current ecumenical practice, sometimes in England approaching local betrayal of the Faith, has been spot on.
The Catholic Church’s present commitment to ecumenical dialogue with Protestantism has proved, at least as far as securing actual Christian unity is concerned, a policy failure. It has certainly produced deeply valuable forms of local cooperation; but usually, as on life issues, between specific Protestant and Catholic groups who share firm Christian convictions on moral issues, and who share them as part of a common detachment from any theological liberalism – and who precisely for that reason are under no illusions about each other’s very differing beliefs on other questions, and fully acknowledge and respect the profoundly different theological and ecclesial identity of each.
There have of course been plenty of agreed doctrinal statements along the way. But these agreements establish far less than the basis for a reunion. The ARCIC statements, for example, only tell us that some not very typical Anglicans, bishops and theologians mostly selected precisely for their relative sympathy with Rome, might, in a benign mood, agree under some interpretation to many parts of Catholic doctrine. But they tell us nothing about Anglican bishops or theologians or clergy in general. What of Bishop Bruno of Los Angeles, or of Archbishop Jensen of Sydney, or what of the vicar down the road, who would now find the 39 Articles too demanding in its detail, let alone The Catechism of the Catholic Church? The much celebrated Lutheran-Catholic joint statement on Justification tells us, in effect, that Trent and Luther teach alike a shared anti-Pelagian doctrine. But what competent historian would not already suppose that anyway? It’s hardly news that theologically the sixteenth century was one vast Augustine-fest. To compose a joint document that effectively expresses just this common anti-Pelagian ground can be an achievement at the emotional level only. The question has always been how an anti-Pelagian view of grace and justification is to be developed – such as with or without a positive theology of works and merit? And on this fundamental issue, nothing has really changed. Consider Penance, Purgatory, indulgences, and Masses for the dead, to all of which the Catholic Church remains dogmatically committed – Lutheranism is still not one step closer to accepting these. Those who read the German press and web will well remember the sarcasm coming from leading Protestants in Germany when a plenary indulgence was offered to those attending the Cologne World Youth Day; the condescension and disdain for the superstitions of the untutored Catholics, mixed with a degree of pious outrage at ‘this blow to ecumenism’ after all the ‘good’ of the Joint Statement, would have done Adolf von Harnack proud.
These theological agreements with Protestantism are, at their best, something of a mirage. The agreements bind no individual Protestant to adhere to them; neither do they evidence any substantial unity in doctrine between the Catholic Church and either Anglicanism or other forms of Protestantism – not even a unity inclusive at least of the broad mass of Protestants at the more senior clerical or official levels. And at their worst the agreements even do damage. For they can be used as yet more excuse to water down Catholic identity still further – ‘lest important ecumenical progress be endangered’.
Meanwhile in at least one part of the Catholic Church – in England – the integrity of Catholic faith and practice has been deeply damaged at its base: by the attempt to ram through on the ground, through brute ecclesial reconstruction and main force, a procedural route to Christian unity that has, from time to time, been attempted for the East, and which may yet provide further successes there – but which, beyond some increasingly marginalized remaining islands of conservative Anglo-Catholicism, lacks any real basis in the very different and more alien world of the post-Reformation West. There is no direct divine mandate committing the Church always and everywhere to aim at securing Christian unity through the particular path of ecumenical dialogue. And no faithful Catholic should feel it is somehow disloyal, or unorthodox, to say so.