Friday, August 22, 2008

Revisiting Pope Benedict on Ecumenism & Ecclesiology

The following is a highly illuminating passage from an out-of-print book by Joseph Ratzinger, Theological Highlights of Vatican II (New York: Paulist Press Deus Books, 1966), taken from Sec. 3 of a chapter on The Question of Ecumenism:
To get to the heart of the ecumenical problem, I will begin with the comments of Professor Edmund Schlink of Heidelberg to the press on October 23, 1963. Speaking in Rome, he presented his views on the status of the ecumenical problem as reflected in the texts of the Council. . . .

Professor Schlink started with the premise that the “Roman Church” (he preferred not to say “Roman Catholic”) identified itself in an exclusive manner with the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church. Whenever Rome recognized a bond between individual non-Catholic Christians and the Church, this implied that these Christians considered themselves united with the Roman Church. Schlink, however, insisted that these Christians saw themselves as receiving grace and salvation as members of their own Churches and not as members of the Roman Church. Not only did the Catholic position misinterpret the self-awareness of the non-Catholic Christians; it was also out of line with the New Testament. Finally it followed with unavoidable logic from this position that non-Roman Christians were required to “leave their Churches and be incorporated into the Roman Church.” These observations led Professor Schlink to ask: “What is the meaning then of Roman Catholic ecumenism? What is the meaning of the new way of addressing non-Roman Christians as ‘separated brethren’ instead of as ‘heretics’ and ‘schismatics’ as in the past? What is the meaning of the praise given to the ‘spiritual fruits’ to be found in non-Roman Churches, and what is meant by ‘accepting the witness of their devotion . . . and their theological insights’? Is not all this an effort aimed at absorption? Is not this kind of ecumenism, as some Protestant Christians suspect, merely a continuation of the Counter-Reformation with other, more accommodating methods?”

To this Professor Schlink opposed a completely different concept of the ecumenical movement. Such a movement, in his view, should lead to community among the separated Churches ant not to their absorption by one of the Churches. It is important to note that Professor Schlink deliberately formulated the latter part of his discussion in the form of questions and not of assertions. Therefore, these questions obviously constitute an invitation addressed to Catholic theologians to engage in discussion. In the same spirit of positive effort toward mutual understanding, I will try here to respond to this invitation.

It is difficult to answer both briefly and suitably. In any case the answer cannot pretend to be more than an attempt. A starting point is provided by Professor Schlink’s view that the ecumenical movement is not supposed to be an effort of absorption of the separated Churches (as in the view of the Catholic Church). This view evidently reflects the conviction that none of the “existing Churches” is the Church of Jesus Christ but rather that they are various concretizations of the one Church which does not exist as such. None therefore can claim to be the Church. It is certain, however, that a Catholic cannot share Schlink’s conviction. Ever since the days of primitive Catholicism which reaches back to the time of the New Testament, it has been considered essential to believe that the Church really exists, although with shortcomings, and that this has been reflected concretely in the visible Church which celebrates the liturgy. The Catholic is convinced that the visible existence of the Church is not merely an organizational cover for the real Church hidden behind it, but on the contrary that, for all its humanity and insufficiency, the visible Church is the actual dwelling place of God among men, that it is the Church itself. To that extent Professor Schlink’s contention that there exists an identification of the Catholic Church with the Church of Jesus Christ is valid.

Catholic theology, too, recognizes a plurality of Churches. It has, however, a different meaning from the plurality of Professor Schlink. What Catholics mean is that a multiplicity of Churches exists within the framework of the one and visible Church of God, each of which represents the totality of the Church. In close communion with one another they help build up, within the framework of a unity born of vigorous multiplicity, the one Church of God. There exists a Church of God in Athens, in Corinth, in Rome. It exists likewise in Trier, Mainz and Cologne. Each local community assembled with its bishop around the table of the Lord listening to the Word of the Lord, partakes of the essence of the Church and may therefore be called a “Church.” To be a Church, however, it must not exist in isolation but must be in communion with the other Churches which, together with it, make up the one Church.

This consideration permits the following additional comments:

(a) The New Testament recognizes a plurality of Churches only in the above-mentioned sense. By this plurality the New Testament (whose historical setting is admittedly quite different from ours) does not mean separated denominational communities, but rather the many worshiping communities which all are nonetheless one. This unity does not arise from some common aspiration, but rather from the concreteness of the joint sharing in the Word and body of Jesus Christ.

(b) Catholic theology has always accepted the possibility of the plurality of Churches. It should however immediately be added:

(c) This plurality of Churches has in fact increasingly receded in favor of a centralized system; in this process the local Church of Rome has, so to speak, absorbed all the other local Churches. In this way unity was curtailed in favor of uniformity. This state of affairs which the Council has attempted to correct, was a cause for the separation among the Churches. Yet it also provided a positive ecumenical point of departure for the Catholic Church. The ecumenical movement grew out of a situation unknown to the New Testament and for which the New Testament can therefore offer no guidelines. The plurality of Churches, which should have had a legitimate existence within the Church, had receded increasingly into the background. This explains why this plurality, for which there was not room within the Church, was developed outside of it in the form of autonomous separate Churches. The Council’s recognition of this is tantamount to its seeing that uniformity and unity are not identical. Above all, it means that a real multiplicity of Churches must be made alive again within the framework of Catholic unity.

These considerations may open the way to answer the question raised by Professor Schlink. Does Catholic ecumenism not ultimately amount to the absorption of the other Churches? Is it not therefore the Counter-Reformation in a different form? As long as unity was identified with uniformity, the Catholic goal could not help but appear to non-Catholic Christians as complete absorption into the present form of the Church. However, the recognition of a plurality of Churches within the Church implies two lines of change.

(a) The Catholic has to recognize that his own Church is not yet prepared to accept the phenomenon of multiplicity in unity; he must orient himself toward this reality. He must also recognize the need for a thorough Catholic renewal, something not to be accomplished in a day. This requires a process of opening up, which takes time. Meantime the Catholic Church has no right to absorb the other Churches. The Church has not yet prepared for them a place of their own, but his they are legitimately entitled to.

(b) A basic unity – of Churches that remain Churches, yet become one Church – must replace the idea of conversion, even though conversion retains its meaningfulness for those in conscience motivated to seek it.

To remove all misunderstanding, I must add that the above idea still differs from the ecumenical movement as seen by Professor Schlink, despite all the areas of agreement. His notion of the ecumenical movement stems from a different view of the Churches’ visibility and unity. As he sees it, all separated Churches are equally legitimate manifestations of the Church. None of them constitutes the Church. For Catholics, however, there is the Church, which they identify with the historic continuity of the Catholic Church. Therefore, the Catholic cannot demand that all the other Churches are disbanded and their members be individually incorporated into Catholicism. However, he can hope that the hour will come when “the Churches” that exist outside “the Church” will enter into its unity. But they must remain in existence as Churches, with only those modifications which such a unity necessarily requires.

Accordingly, two observations can be made:

(a) It is true that the Catholic Church cannot simply adopt Professor Schlink’s view, based on the idea that all existing Churches have practically equal rights. This is tantamount to asking that the Catholic Church convert to Protestantism, since this view corresponds to the Protestant concept of the Church. This makes as little sense as the opposite.

(b) Although the Catholic Church considers itself as the Church of Christ, it nonetheless recognizes its historic deficiency. It recognizes the fact that the plurality of “Churches,” which should exist within it, exists today outside it, and perhaps could only exist outside.
[Hat tip to Prof. E.E.]

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