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The Oberlin conference on The Nature of the Unity We Seek, which met fifty years ago, in September 1957, marked an important stage in the ecumenical movement. For the first time, the churches in North America in large numbers committed themselves to the quest for Christian unity. The composition of the conference was diverse, including delegates from several Orthodox churches and the Protestant Episcopal Church, as well as Lutherans, Reformed, Methodists, Baptists, Disciples of Christ, Adventists, and others.

The delegates heard thoughtful addresses by a brilliant array of theologians from North America, Europe, and Asia, including a sermon by the secretary-general of the World Council of Churches, Willem A. Visser ‘t Hooft. After some days of discussion, the delegates came up with a “Message to the Churches,” which recommended steps toward a greater visible manifestation of the unity of the Church.

Although I had to leave the United States in June 1957 for a three-year sojourn in Europe, I can recall the interest that the scheduled Oberlin Conference aroused in the Catholic Church even before I left. My own professor and mentor in ecumenism, Fr. Gustave Weigel, S.J., took part in the conference as one of the two Catholic observers. The other was my good friend the Paulist editor of Catholic World, John B. Sheerin.

At the time, H.P. Van Dusen judged that the Oberlin Conference “cast virtually no light on the theme which the gathering was summoned to examine,” which remains theologically defensible. But, in my estimation, the conference achieved all that could reasonably have been expected of it. Large multilateral conferences of this type, gathering for the first time, cannot be expected to come up with profound new consensus statements. The delegates were effectively exposed to the complexities of the problem in the areas of faith, liturgy, and the Christian life. They became conscious of the length of the road ahead but at the same time were eager to bring their respective churches, with God’s help, as far as they could along that road.

The ecumenical movement, which had been going on for a generation in Europe, was formally launched in the United States. Oberlin stands near the beginning of a half century of thriving ecumenical activity. The impetus toward unity was strengthened, four years later, by the General Assembly of the World Council of Churches at New Delhi and then, in 1963, by the Fourth World Conference on Faith and Order at Montreal. The full and official entry of the Catholic Church into the ecumenical movement came with the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965).

In those early days, Catholic ecumenists, like their Orthodox colleagues, were conscious that their participation in the ecumenical movement was in some ways problematic because of the claims of their own Church to possess all the means of salvation entrusted by the Lord to his Church. The Central Committee of the World Council of Churches in its Toronto statement of 1950 indicated that such claims to exclusivity were not an obstacle to membership in the World Council of Churches, provided that the churches in question were at least able to recognize “vestiges” or “elements” of the true Church in communities other than their own.

Without concealing or minimizing the specific claims of the Catholic Church, the Second Vatican Council found ways of showing how that Church could and should pursue ecumenism. Four important insights, all expressed by Vatican II, undergirded the commitment of Catholics to this new apostolate.

First of all, the scandal of Christian division posed difficulties for the Catholic Church’s own missionary work. It was a stumbling block that impeded what the council called “the most holy cause of proclaiming the gospel to every creature.” Non-Christians often reacted to missionary efforts with the feeling that, before asking them to convert, the missionaries ought to agree among themselves about what Christianity is. Why should the past quarrels among European or American Christians, some asked, be visited upon young churches from other parts of the world? Did it make any sense for an African, for example, to join the Swedish Lutheran Church or to become a Southern Baptist?

In the second place, the Catholic Church recognized that the divisions among Christians impoverished her catholicity. She lacked the natural and cultural endowments that other Christians could have contributed if they were united with her. Catholicity required that all the riches of the nations should be gathered into the one Church and harvested for the glory of God.

Third, the fullness of Christianity in Catholicism did not imply that all other churches were devoid of truth and grace. For all their differences, they shared considerable commonalities in faith, worship, and ministerial order. The council taught, in fact, that non-Catholic churches and communions were “by no means deprived of significance and importance for the mystery of salvation” because the Holy Spirit could use them as instruments of grace. Vatican II, therefore, represents a sharp turn away from the purely negative evaluation of non-Catholic Christianity that was characteristic of the previous three centuries.

And fourth, the Catholic Church, insofar as she was made up of human members and administered by them, was always in need of purification and reform. Through ecumenical contacts, other Christian communities could help her to correct what was amiss, to supply what was lacking, and to update what was obsolete.

Regarding the ecclesial status of non-Catholic Christians, Pius XII had taught as late as 1943 that they could not be true members of the Church because the Body of Christ was identical with the Catholic Church. Such Christians could not belong to the body except by virtue of some implicit desire, which would give them a relation that fell short of true incorporation. From a different point of view, Vatican II taught that every valid baptism incorporates the recipient into the crucified and glorified Christ, and that all baptized Christians were to some extent in communion with the Catholic Church. Their status, therefore, was quite different from that of non-Christians, although these, too, could be related by desire or orientation to the People of God.

Relying on the new ecclesiology of communion, Catholic ecumenists now perceived their task as a movement from lesser to greater degrees of communion. All who believed in Christ and were baptized in his name already possessed a certain imperfect communion, which could be recognized, celebrated, and deepened. The ecumenical movement aspired to the full restoration of the impaired communion among separated churches and communities. Paul VI felt authorized to declare that the communion between the Catholic and Orthodox churches was “almost ­complete.”

Following the example set by John XXIII, the next few popes cultivated cordial relationships with prominent leaders of other churches. Paul VI enjoyed relations of deep affection and respect with Patriarch Athenagoras I of Constantinople and Archbishop Michael Ramsey of Canterbury. John Paul II continued this tradition and in his encyclical Ut Unum Sint (1995) reaffirmed the Catholic Church’s commitment to ecumenism as a permanent priority. Benedict XVI in his inaugural homily as pope, on April 24, 2005, renewed this commitment. His meetings with Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople and with Archbishop Rowan Williams of Canterbury have been major landmarks in his pontificate.

The principal instrument of ecumenism over the past half century has been a series of theological conversations between separated churches. Proceeding on the basis of what they held in common, the partners tried to show that their shared patrimony contained the seeds of much closer agreement than had yet been recognized. Rereading their confessional documents in light of Scripture and early creeds as shared authorities, they produced remarkable convergence statements on traditionally divisive subjects such as justification, Mariology, Scripture and tradition, the Eucharist, and the ordained ministry. The achievements of the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission (ARCIC), the Groupe des Dombes, and the World Commission on Faith and Order in its Lima paper on baptism, Eucharist, and ministry deserve our admiration. I personally stand by the ecumenical ­statements that I have signed, including those of the Lutheran-Catholic Dialogue and of Evangelicals and Catholics Together.

And yet, valuable though it was, the convergence method was not without limitations. Each new round of dialogue raised expectations for the future. The next dialogue, at the price of failure, was under pressure to come up with new agreements. The process would at some point reach a stage at which it had delivered about as much as it could. It would eventually run up against hard differences that resisted elimination by this method of convergence.

When the dialogues attempted to go beyond convergence and achieve full reconciliation on divisive issues, they sometimes overreached themselves. Although not all would agree, I think the much vaunted Lutheran-Catholic Joint Declaration on Justification by Faith, signed in 1999, exaggerated the agreements. After stating quite correctly that the Lutheran and Catholic dialogues of previous decades had come to a basic consensus on the doctrine of justification by grace through faith, the Joint Declaration goes on to assert, more dubiously, that the remaining disagreements could now be written off as “differences of language, theological elaboration, and emphasis,” and therefore as not warranting condemnation from either side. It even described these differences as “acceptable.”

In my judgment, some of the unresolved differences are more correctly classified as matters of doctrine. Is the justified person always and inevitably a sinner worthy of condemnation in the sight of God? Are human beings able, with the help of grace, to dispose themselves to receive sanctifying grace? Can they merit an increase of grace and heavenly glory with the help of the grace they already have? Do sinners, after receiving forgiveness, still have an obligation to make satisfaction for their misdeeds? On questions such as these, Lutherans and Catholics seem to give incompatible answers. Nothing in the Joint Declaration persuades me that such differences are mere matters of theological speculation or linguistic formulation.

Bilateral conversations have been particularly useful for churches with a firm and ample doctrinal tradition, such as the Orthodox, the Lutheran, the Anglican, and the Catholic. They have dispelled past prejudices, identified real but unsuspected agreements, and enabled the parties to say more together than they previously deemed possible. But to the extent that churches rely on different normative sources or different exegetical methods, the dialogues have been less ­fruitful.

Many of the twentieth-century dialogues have opted to take Scripture, interpreted by the historical-critical method, as their primary norm. This method has worked reasonably well for mainline Protestant churches and for the Catholic Church since Vatican II. But many Christians do not rely on the critical approach to Scripture as normative. Catholics themselves, without rejecting the historical-critical method, profess many doctrines that enjoy little support from Scripture, interpreted in this manner. They draw on allegorical or spiritual exegesis, authenticated by the sense of the faithful and long-standing theological tradition. As a consequence, certain Catholic doctrines, such as papal primacy, the Immaculate Conception, the Assumption, and purgatory, have been banished to the sidelines. Unable to cope with doctrines such as these, the dialogues have treated them as an ecumenical embarrassment.

Dialogues conducted according to the dominant methods of the past century have tended to be reductive, and many doctrinally conservative Christians, strongly wedded to their beliefs, have abstained from ecumenical involvements for fear of doctrinal compromise. Indeed, since the 1980s, some of the churches heavily committed to ecumenical dialogue have shown anxiety about maintaining their own identity. Some observers speak of a reconfessionalization in the ecumenical landscape.

The negative criticisms of the Joint Declaration from both the Protestant and the Catholic sides are illustrative of this new tendency. Without wanting a return to the polemics of the past, some critics fear that a vague spirit of civility is being allowed to replace the theological candor and rigor of earlier centuries.

This reaction against immoderate irenicism may be found in some recent official teaching of the Catholic Church. A new concern for orthodoxy, as Walter Kasper has noted, lies behind the “Letter on Some Aspects of the Church Considered as Communio” issued by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in 1992. The same is true of the declaration Dominus Iesus issued by the same congregation in 2000 and of the “Note on the Expression ‘Sister Churches’” issued at the same time.

Dominus Iesus, in particular, goes further in the direction of Catholic exclusivity than does Vatican II, as the council has generally been understood. Reacting against ecclesial relativism, it vigorously denies that the Church exists today in a fragmented form, in which no one body could claim identity with the Church of Christ. This declaration contains no suggestion that the Body of Christ is broader than the Catholic Church or that one may be incorporated in the former without being a member of the latter. Instead it asserts that in holding that the Church of Christ “subsists” in the Roman Catholic communion, the council intended to say that the Church of Christ, his Body and Bride, is identical with the Catholic Church, outside of which there are only elements or fragments of the true Church.

The teaching of Dominus Iesus is repeated in substance in the “Responses to Some Questions Regarding Certain Aspects of the Doctrine of the Church” made public by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith on July 10, 2007. One minor difference is that where Dominus Iesus had asserted that the Church of Christ is “present and operative” in all churches that have preserved the apostolic succession and a valid Eucharist, the Responses state that the same may be true of ecclesial communities that have not preserved these structural elements.

Some would regard the recent trend toward reconfessionalization as a defeat for ecumenism. This judgment would be true if it meant a retreat of the confessions into their own shells and a refusal to encounter others. But reconfessionalization need not mean what Cardinal Kasper calls “an apprehensive, self-absorbed, defensive attitude.” It may be an opening to a new kind of dialogue, in which the partners are eager to express their own distinctive heritage so that they may be able to share it with others.

John Paul II consistently opposed styles of ecumenism that seemed to aim at settling for a least common denominator. In an address to the Roman Curia on June 28, 1980, he laid down the principle that “the unity of Christians cannot be sought in a ‘compromise’ between the various theological positions, but only in a common meeting in the most ample and mature fullness of Christian truth.” In his encyclical Ut Unum Sint he proposed a better alternative. After stating that “the unity willed by God can be attained only by the adherence of all to the content of revealed truth in its entirety,” he went on to say that dialogue is not merely an exchange of ideas but also, in some way, “an exchange of gifts.” Later, in the same encyclical, he wrote: “Communion is made fruitful by the exchange of gifts between the churches insofar as they complement each other.” In these words he called for a new chapter in the history of ecumenism.

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.

One of the doctrines most distinctive to the Catholic Church is surely the primacy of the pope as the successor of Peter—a primacy that the First Vatican Council set forth in clear, uncompromising language. Because Catholics cherish this doctrine, we should not be content to keep it to ourselves. The successor of Peter, we believe, is intended by Christ to be the visible head of all Christians. Without accepting his ministry, Christians will never attain the kind of universal concord that God wills the Church to have as a sign and sacrament of unity. They will inevitably fall into conflict with one another regarding doctrine, discipline, and ways of worship. No church can simply institute for itself an office that has authority to pronounce finally on disputed doctrines. If it exists at all, this office must have been instituted by Christ and must enjoy the assistance of the Holy Spirit. The Petrine office is a precious gift that the Lord has given us not only for our own consolation but as something to be held in trust for the entire ­ oikoumene.

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.”

How then can Christian unity be envisaged? That is the question asked at Oberlin five decades ago. The first condition, I believe, is that the various Christian communities be ready to speak and listen to one another. Some will perhaps receive the grace to accept what they hear credibly attested as an insight from other communities. The witnesses and their hearers need not insist on rigorous proof, because very little of our faith can be demonstrated by deductive methods. Testimony operates by a different logic. We speak of what has been ­graciously manifested to us and what we have found to be of value for our relationship with God. If others accept what we proclaim, it is because our words evoke an echo in them and carry the hallmark of truth.

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.”

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

Photo by persymona licensed via Pixabay License. Image cropped. 

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