Playfully invoking the 1896 papal bull declaring Anglican orders “absolutely null and utterly void,” the English Catholic writer William Oddie has declared the third round of the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission’s talks will be “utterly futile, an absolute and total waste of time.” Just as, he suggests, Anglicans go through the motions of episcopal consecration and apostolic succession, without really believing in them or in the Eucharistic sacrifice they are meant to serve, so do Anglicans make a pretense of ecumenical dialogue with Roman Catholics.
Oddie, a convert from Anglicanism, addresses the Catholic Herald’s “straightfaced announcement” of a third round of dialogue for the commission, this time on the subject of “fundamental questions regarding the Church as communion local and universal, and how in communion the local and universal Church comes to discern right ethical teaching.” His impression is that ARCIC III and related coverage constitute a kind of emperor-has-no-clothes farce, in which everyone sees the insincerity of the Anglicans but is afraid to call attention to it.
The Anglican participants, he argues, inasmuch as they do not represent a coherent ecclesial doctrine, can really only represent themselves—not their communion. He presents good evidence of Anglican hypocrisy: When asked why he voted to approve an ARCIC document he had not read and probably did not believe, one Anglican minister responded, “The important thing is unity. The RCs are frightfully keen on doctrine. You have to encourage them: so I voted for their document.”
Oddie concludes, “[T]he whole operation will at great expense achieve nothing. Can anybody explain to me why we carry on with ARCIC? Is there any real intention, as 30 years ago there undoubtedly was, of actually achieving something? Is it a continuing self-delusion on the part of those participating? Or is ARCIC III just a P.R. exercise, designed to avert attention from the fact that we have now, inevitably but finally, come to the bitter end of the ecumenical road?”
Well, yes, perhaps someone can explain. This is not a new problem in ecumenism. Recall the ill-fated agreement of the Council of Florence in 1439, in which, once again, the Catholics were "keen" on doctrine as a vindication of the magisterium, and most Orthodox felt the need to agree for the sake of agreeing, even though they didn't really agree. It is not unusual for representatives of different communions to enter into ecumenical conversations not merely to seek the truth in love, but to assuage anxieties related to their own doubts or embarrassments.
But Christians ought not accept these artifices as the occasion for final judgment on dialogue. After all, so far as the world can tell, faith and charity are just as futile as ecumenism. Trust is always betrayed by man, and those who trust in God still die—often less pleasantly than those who withheld their trust. Charity fails under laws analogous to those of thermodynamics: Love always conceals self-interest; it is never appreciated for what it is; and it is never returned equally to the lover.
So why do we bother? Because we do love, and love is its own maturity, needing no further justification than what is already given by God. Moreover, we hope, and hope makes up for deficiency of faith and the apparent futility of love.
Ecumenism falls under the same rubric. We seek unity not because it is in our power to achieve it, but because we are commanded to do so by the one who loved us, and because he has made our love for each other the measure of the love we return to him. In Ut unum sint, the late Pope John Paul II wrote that “Ecumenical dialogue is of essential importance.” Yes, of course, the dialogue is enhanced by greater reciprocity and sincerity, but there is something to be learned about one’s brother’s faith even when he is manifestly frivolous in his theological commitments.
Doctrinal dialogues like ARCIC constitute only one facet of ecumenism, but their apparent futility for achieving union doesn't damn them any more than it damns other facets, such as prayers for unity, shared good works, or common appreciation for martyrs. Though such dialogues are at least partially self-serving, and parties may talk past each other to the point where they seem solipsistic, to abolish them would be a failure—not necessarily a failure to achieve unity, which was perhaps never in their power, but a failure to accept the yoke that comes with faith and love.
Fr. David G. Poecking is pastor of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton church in Carnegie, Pennsylvania, and a priest of the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh. His previous article for “On the Square” was The Skeleton of Genuine Reconciliation.
William Oddie’s And Now, ARCIC III: Isn’t It Time to Bring This Ecumenical Farce to an End?.
Pope Leo XIII’s statement on Anglican orders, Apostolicae Curae. See the statement by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, signed by then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, that its conclusion was to be held “definitively,” Doctrinal Commentary on the Concluding Formula of the Professio Fide.
The Anglican Archbishops’ response, Saepius Officio.
John Paul II’s Ut unum sint.
Richard John Neuhaus’s An Irrevocable Commitment.
Avery Dulles’ Saving Ecumenism From Itself.