Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Does ecumenism have a future?

Avery Cardinal Dulles, in "Saving Ecumenism from Itself" (First Things, December 2007), writes:
For some years now, I have felt that the method of convergence, which seeks to harmonize the doctrines of each ecclesial tradition on the basis of shared sources and methods, has nearly exhausted its potential. It has served well in the past and may still be useful, especially among groups that have hitherto been isolated from the conversation. But to 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.”

There are not many examples of the kind of ecumenical encounter I am envisaging, but one comes to my mind. In January 2006, the theology department at Durham University hosted at Ushaw College, a neighboring Catholic seminary, an international conference of Catholics in conversation with Orthodox, Anglicans, and Methodists. Conducting an experiment in what the conference called “receptive ecumenism,” the speakers were asked to discuss what they could find in their own traditions that might be acceptable to the Catholic Church without detriment to its identity. The Catholic participants, including Cardinal Kasper, were asked to evaluate the suggestions and judge their practical feasibility. The discussion, I am told, was informal and did not lead to any set of agreed conclusions.

Unlike some recent models of dialogue, ecumenism of this style leaves the participants free to draw on their own normative sources and does not constrain them to bracket or minimize what is specific to themselves. Far from being embarrassed by their own distinctive doctrines and practices, each partner should feel privileged to be able to contribute something positive that the ­others still lack.

This does not mean, of course, that the churches should be uncritical of themselves or others. Where they express, or hear others expressing, singular beliefs, they should carefully examine the grounds for such views. But that is different from abdicating or suppressing their special convictions as a matter of ­principle.

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. We would not want any of these distinctive endowments of other ecclesial families to be muted or shunted aside for the sake of having shared premises or an agreed method.

Conversely, Catholics would not hesitate to go into the dialogue with the full panoply of beliefs, sustained by our own methods of certifying the truth of revelation. We are not ashamed of our reliance on tradition, the liturgy, the sense of the faithful, and our confidence in the judgment of the Magisterium.

* * * * * * *

John Paul II in Ut Unum Sint expressed a desire to work with leaders and theologians of other churches in seeking ways for the Petrine office to be exercised such that it could be beneficial to them as well as to Catholics. These other churches and communities will have to consider the ways in which they could receive the primatial ministry of the bishop of Rome. A dialogue on this subject is already underway. For some communities, perhaps, the papacy will be the final piece by which to complete the jigsaw puzzle of Christian unity.

Each party will engage in ecumenical dialogue with its own presuppositions and convictions. As a Roman Catholic, I would make use of the methods by which my church derives its distinctive doctrines. I would also expect that any reunion to which Catholics can be a party would have to include as part of the settlement the Catholic dogmas, perhaps reinterpreted in ways that we do not now foresee. Other churches and ecclesial communities will have their own expectations. But all must be open to possible conversion. We must rely on the Holy Spirit to lead us, as Vatican II recommended, “without obstructing the ways of divine Providence and without prejudging the future inspiration of the Holy Spirit.”

* * * * * * *

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.

True progress in ecumenism requires obedience to the Holy Spirit. Vatican II rightly identified spiritual ecumenism as the soul of the ecumenical movement. It defined spiritual ecumenism as a change of heart and holiness of life, together with public and private prayer for the unity of Christians. We must pray to God to overcome our deafness and open our ears to what the Spirit is saying to the churches, including our own. No mutual rapprochement can be of any value unless it is also a closer approach to Christ the Lord of the Church. We must ask for the grace to say only what the Spirit bids us say and to hear all that he is telling us through the other.
Then we may hope that, by accommodating what other communities are trying to tell us, we may be enriched with new and precious gifts. By accepting the full riches of Christ we lose nothing except our errors and defects. What we gain is the greatest gift of all: a deeper share in the truth of Christ, who said of himself, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.”
Cardinal Dulles says some unsettling things here that are bound to provoke controversy and form a sort of counter-point to our recent post on "The rehabilitation of Romano Amerio" (Musings, November 19, 2007). I invite your analysis and commentary.

It was reported in mid-October that Cardinal Dulles was suffering some kind of neurological disorder that severely impaired his speech. Recently I heard his name mentioned during the General Intercessions at a week day Mass, though I am not aware of any more recent details. Perhaps someone can fill us in. In any case, we solicit your prayers for Cardinal Dulles.

[Avery Cardinal Dulles, S.J., holds the Laurence J. McGinley Chair in Religion and Society at Fordham University. This First Things essay is adapted from a lecture delivered at the National Council of Churches’ Faith and Order Conference at Oberlin, Ohio.]

[Hat tip to J.K.]

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