We’re currently in the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, which takes place January 18–25. It’s unsurprising, therefore, to see Pope Francis, like his forbears, calling on Christians to pray for the restoration of unity in Christendom. “In the face of those who no longer see the full, visible unity of the Church as an achievable goal,” he said to a delegation of Finnish Lutherans visiting Rome this past Friday, “we are invited not to give up our ecumenical efforts, faithful to that which the Lord Jesus asked of the Father, ‘that they may be one.’”

Note the implication in the first clause there: There are “those who no longer see the full, visible unity of the Church as an achievable goal.” However encouraging the pope’s words are, they include an acknowledgement that not all is well when it comes to the ecumenical project. In the above linked article, Cardinal Kurt Koch (head of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity) explains that part of the problem is a fundamental disagreement over what the purpose of ecumenism even is. The Catholic News Agency quotes him as follows: “‘The main problem that we have today in the ecumenical dialogue with all the Protestant’ communities . . . is the lack of ‘a common vision of the goal of the ecumenical movement. We have two different views. The Catholic view, (which) is also the Orthodox view, (is) that we will re-find the unity in faith in the sacraments and in ministries.’” Conversely, Cardinal Koch says, “the vision that I find today in the Protestant churches and ecclesial communities (is that) of the mutual recognition of all ecclesial communities as churches.”

It’s hard to argue with the cardinal’s assessment. Some, indeed, many of the most prominent voices in mainline Protestantism seem to have approached ecumenical dialogue this way in recent years. They want merely for everyone to recognize everyone else as faithful Christians. “We’ll keep our church; you keep yours. And we’ll all just get along together, recognizing each other’s churches as acceptable alternatives.” There is a danger that real doctrinal differences may be underplayed or ignored in such an ecumenical framework, all in the effort to achieve “mutual recognition,” as the cardinal says, of each other as equal manifestations of the Church.

But this is to seriously weaken the vision of Christian unity evoked in Christ’s prayer in John 17. When Christ prayed that all Christians would be one, he didn’t have in mind a unity in which doctrinal differences remain—Protestants believing one thing and Catholics another, and yet the two somehow assumed to be in fellowship with one another. Instead, he prayed that all would be sanctified in the truth—truth which is found, he says, only in the Father’s word. We must agree on this truth, then, in order for our unity to be real. The goal of ecumenism cannot be unity in spite of differences; it must instead be to come to a point where doctrinal differences no longer exist, where doctrinal agreement has been achieved, and structural unity can therefore be enacted as a result.

Regrettably, too few Protestants have pursued this latter type of ecumenism. But some have. A recent example was seen in November, when delegates of the International Lutheran Council (ILC) met with Cardinal Koch and Monsignore Matthias Türk in Rome to discuss the possibility of opening up an international dialogue. At that meeting, one of the things agreed on by all participants was the belief that unity in doctrine was paramount; it is telling that ILC representatives praised PCPCU representatives for making it clear that “that both unity and truth are a priority for them.” The same ideals important to Catholics in ecumenical relations are true then also for the ILC—namely, the belief that true unity must be unity in the truth. Doctrinal agreement—on the sacraments and ministry, as Cardinal Koch noted in The Catholic News Agency article above—is essential to achieving true unity.

The goal of ecumenism will only be reached when those on either side can look at the other and confess with the words of Adam that this at last is “bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh.” No differences will then remain, and we can truly become one body—a visible unity which will mirror the invisible unity which already exists in the Body of Christ. The purpose of ecumenism must always be to seek an end to the divorce that has, at least in our world, rendered the bride of Christ. And that is a reunification that is possible only when doctrinal unity has first been achieved.

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