First Things - Religion and Public Life First Things on your tablet & mobile
Login forgot password? | register Close

In 1870, during a plenary session of the First Vatican Council, the Croatian bishop Josip Strossmayer complained that the introduction to what would become the Dogmatic Constitution on the Catholic Faith contained an unnecessary and false claim that modern unbelief could be traced to Protestantism. On the contrary, argued Strossmayer, the roots of unbelief stretched back to medieval Catholic culture. Voltaire had come from Catholic France, and many Protestants were able defenders of Christian truth. At this point, the bishops assembled in St. Peter’s Basilica began to shout Strossmayer down. Cardinal Filippo de Angelis, presiding at the session, rang his bell and proclaimed, “This is not the place to praise Protestants.” Strossmayer tried to continue, but his words were lost in the tumult, and eventually he gave up in protest.

Some ninety-four years later, in the same St. Peter’s Basilica, George Lindbeck sat as a designated Lutheran observer at the Second Vatican Council. It was the third session of the council, and the Decree on Ecumenism, which would transform Catholicism’s terms of engagement with non-Catholic Christians, was being discussed. The French bishop Léon Elchinger commented that the right understanding of faith and justification had at times been better preserved among Protestants than among Catholics, and that Catholics needed to learn from Protestants. No uproar ensued. Lindbeck found that, as he listened, he had begun to cry. He had never expected to hear such words from a Catholic bishop in such a solemn setting. Words that had been unspeakable in that building less than a century before were now welcome.

Time has not stood still, and the high emotions of mid-twentieth-century ecumenism have given way to predictable gestures and general indifference. Last year, the Vatican joined in the commemoration of the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. A Vatican stamp was issued, depicting Martin Luther and Philip Melanchthon at the foot of the cross. On October 31, 2016, the pope himself attended a prayer service in Sweden sponsored by the Lutheran World Federation to launch its year of commemorative activities. A few observers complained about false ecumenism. An equally small number proclaimed that a breakthrough in Protestant-­Catholic unity must be just around the corner. Most, however, took no particular interest, and rightly so. It was ecclesiastical business as usual in Sweden: prelates being nice to each other, gestures of goodwill that had no consequences. Fifty years ago, ecumenism could make grown men cry. Now it is mundane.

Many reasons can be given for the dampening of the ecumenical excitement of two generations ago. The mainstream Protestantism that had been a driving force of the ecumenical movement has declined precipitously in recent decades. Traditional church-dividing issues—infant baptism, the presence of the body and blood of Christ in the Eucharist—can seem arcane not just to the laity, but even to a church leadership that is far less theologically attuned than it was in the recent past. Church unity can seem irrelevant to church life, and ecumenical texts are often written by committees—a recipe for boring prose.

And so the ecumenical process has slowed to a halt. Since the Catholic-Lutheran Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification was signed in 1999—the fruit of three decades of intensive discussions launched in the 1960s—few significant steps toward unity have been made. Ecumenical professionals (such as I) continue to attend meetings (when the churches can fund the meetings) and produce texts of various sorts. Regional and national church structures still have offices that attend to ecumenical matters. Truth be told, though, these activities often just mark time. At present, there appear to be no ­breakthroughs around the corner, no trial projects of great consequence.

St. John Paul II said in his 1995 encyclical on ecumenism, Ut Unum Sint, that the Second Vatican Council had committed the Catholic Church “irrevocably to following the path of the ecumenical venture.” Prior to Vatican II, Catholic ecumenism had aimed at persuading non-Catholic Christians that their separation was schismatic, and that they must return to the unity they had broken—a so-called “ecumenism of return.” Since Vatican II, Catholic ecumenical efforts have sought to understand and emphasize the “elements of sanctification and truth,” as the council documents put it, that exist in other Christian communions. The Church hopes and intends that, through prayer, dialogue, and common witness, the separated communions may finally be reunited in a Church recognizably Catholic, but transformed and renewed. But what does the Church’s commitment to ecumenism mean in a time of ecumenical stagnation? What can be done to renew the ecumenical venture?

It is common to speak of an “ecumenical winter,” and to blame it on a conservative return to tradition and certainty—for instance, the continued Catholic refusal to ordain women, or the rejection by some Lutherans of agreements on the doctrine of justification. This diagnosis is often followed by exhortations to overcome institutional inertia, reject ecclesial prejudices, and transcend self-interest and fear of change. With a bit of goodwill, spring can come again.

That account is, I believe, simply wrong. It misunderstands how ecumenical change came about in the twentieth century, and it fails to see why progress has slowed. Misdiagnosing the predicament, it prescribes solutions that will only make the ecumenical ­situation worse.

To understand our situation, we need to ask a larger question: How have changes in the unity and disunity of Christians occurred in the past? Change has usually come in brief periods of significant disruption, set off by particular crises that could not be accommodated by previous patterns of common life. The separation between the Chalcedonian and non-Chalcedonian churches in the Near East in the middle of the first millennium a.d. is one example; the separation of Western Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches at the beginning of the second millennium is another. And of course the Reformation crisis of the sixteenth century changed the ecumenical landscape in profound ways.

In this history, we observe that change in church unity has been “punctuational” rather than gradual. Most of the time, church structures remain relatively constant. Institutions resist change. But problems and pressures accumulate. Rome and Constantinople had been moving in different directions religiously and culturally for a long time prior to the decisive breaks of 1054 and 1204. The century and a half before the Reformation saw the conciliar crisis and the growth of the power of local rulers over the churches in their territories, which destabilized old patterns of church governance. In these situations, earthquakes occur and old patterns collapse. Things then settle down into new, relatively stable configurations.

This pattern of stability punctuated by brief periods of significant change accords with modern analyses of large-scale change in various fields. In The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962), Thomas Kuhn criticized the notion of scientific change as resulting from the gradual accumulation of data and theories. He contrasted “normal science,” in which scientists work on problems in accordance with a stable sense of the basic laws and methods of a field, with “revolutionary science,” which emerges when basic laws and methods are up for grabs, when even what counts as a problem may be redefined. In 1972, the evolutionary biologists Niles Eldredge and Stephen Jay Gould coined the phrase “punctuated equili­brium” to describe the way in which species typically remain unchanged for long periods of time, and then undergo sudden bursts of evolutionary activity.

Perhaps the modern ecumenical movement is best seen as a “punctuation” in the history of church unity. In retrospect, we can see that pressures were accumulating during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Within the increasingly large and energetic Protestant missionary movement of the late nineteenth century, intra-Protestant church differences seemed increasingly trivial. The Student Volunteer Movement, which recruited young and idealistic missionaries, became one of the most important incubators for future ecumenical leaders. In Europe, the bonds between national and confessional identity loosened. Increasing geographical mobility caused formerly isolated Catholic and Protestant groups to mix with each other, and the new secular, urban, and industrial environment undercut structures of confessional identity. These social changes put new pressures on traditional religious boundaries. Political upheavals had decisive consequences, as well. The fall of the Russian and Ottoman empires at the end of World War I altered the situation of the Orthodox Church. It is no coincidence that the Ecumenical Patriarch in Constantinople sent out an important letter on the topic of church unity to the leaders of all churches—Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox—in 1920.

In the twentieth century, these pressures crystallized into the ecumenical movement. A wide range of Protestant churches joined with the Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarchate and the Orthodox churches of the non-communist world in large assemblies during the 1920s. The goal of these meetings was to articulate a unity in doctrine and church ordinances (“faith and order”), and to make common cause in social ethics and meeting the world’s needs (“life and work”). By the late 1930s, everything was in place for the creation of the World Council of Churches, which, after being postponed due to World War II, was launched in 1948. In the U.S., the Federal Council of Churches was organized among various Protestant denominations in 1908, to be succeeded in 1950 by the more expansive National Council of the Churches of Christ.

Initially, the Catholic Church was suspicious of these initiatives. In 1928, Pope Pius XI banned Catholics from attending ecumenical assemblies. By 1949, however, joint prayer and limited Catholic participation in ecumenical meetings were officially sanctioned. The Second Vatican Council brought far-reaching—though complex—changes. The Decree on Ecumenism, Unitatis Redintegratio, focused on the existing unity of the people of God and characterized non-Catholic Christians as separated Christian brethren. The ecumenical movement among non-Catholic Christians was now described as the work of the Holy Spirit, rather than an expression of indifference to doctrine. Protestant congregations were said to mediate salvation and their members to be genuine brothers and sisters in Christ. Language of a “return” to Mother Rome was replaced by language of reconciliation and repentance on all sides. Yet the Catholic Church was still said to be the community in which the one Church of Christ uniquely subsists. Many of the realities that constitute the Church were acknowledged to be present in Protestant communities, yet those communities were not acknowledged as “churches” in the strict sense. Whatever shape a reconciled Church might take, the bishop of Rome must still be its head.

Thus, the Catholic Church entered the ecumenical movement with vigor, but on its own terms. It never has joined the World Council of Churches, though it has pursued dialogue with almost every group one might place within mainstream Christianity. Joint prayer is encouraged, though Eucharistic communion remains limited to those who belong to the Catholic Church.

Where has all the activity and enthusiasm of the twentieth century left us? What “punctuation” has ­occurred in the flow of the Church’s history? Among Protestants, change has been decisive. For the vast majority of the laity, and even for many clergy, the differences among the mainstream Protestant churches have become irrelevant. People move from one Protestant church to another easily when they move to a new neighborhood or city. Some ecumenical agreements permit clergy from one church to serve in another. When two Lutheran seminaries in Pennsylvania merged last year, a Presbyterian became the new seminary’s president.

These changes have occurred without much actual change in church structures. A proposal to create one large mainstream Protestant church in the U.S.—the Consultation on Church Union’s 1970 Plan of Union—failed and now is almost forgotten. Almost all church mergers over the last fifty years have taken place within particular traditions—Presbyterians joining Presbyterians, Lutherans joining Lutherans. The structures created by bitter post-Reformation divisions over doctrine remain in place. But they are inhabited in a new way. Differences are now seen as more like the difference between Skippy and Jif, or Crest and Colgate, than like that between truth and falsehood.

What about the deeper, more challenging divisions between Catholics and Protestants? (I will not say much about the Orthodox, who raise different questions and present a different set of ecumenical opportunities and challenges.) Real change has come here, as well. A 2017 Pew Research Center study indicated that more than half of both Protestants and Catholics in the U.S. believe that Catholics and Protestants are more alike than different. A parallel survey of Western Europe found similar attitudes. Comparative data for one hundred years ago is not available, but it is hard to imagine that nineteenth-century Americans or Europeans were not more impressed by Protestant and Catholic differences than by their similarities. The trend toward downplaying differences is reinforced by declining commitment to the doctrines that have historically split the churches. The Pew survey found that only 30 percent of American Protestants accepted both “Scripture alone” and “salvation by faith alone.” (One can argue about the way the survey phrased its questions, but the result is still striking.)

This shift in attitudes parallels changes in behaviors and practices. Research shows that contemporary Americans have a strong propensity to change religions. More than a quarter of Americans have shifted from one major tradition to another (not counting movement among Protestant churches), or to no religion at all—for instance, from Judaism to Catholicism or from Hinduism to Protestantism or atheism. By contrast, as recently as the mid-­twentieth century, only about 4 percent had made such a shift. A quarter of married Americans today are in religiously mixed marriages (not counting spouses in different Protestant churches).

Worship practices have also converged. The Catholic Mass is no longer restricted to Latin. The liturgical movement has made Protestant worship more liturgical and Catholic worship more demotic. The result is a similitude in worship that makes it easier to cross the lines of church division on Sunday mornings. The Presbyterian church in which I grew up had no liturgical calendar beyond Easter, Christmas, and Pentecost, and the only liturgical colors were black and white (as the pastor’s black preaching robe was exchanged for a white one in the heat of a Tidewater Virginia summer). When I encountered vestments in other churches, they looked odd. When a nor’easter that struck the area in 1962 was dubbed “the Ash Wednesday storm,” I was baffled. I had no idea what Ash Wednesday was.

The changes in attitudes and convergences in church practice rarely arose from official ecumenical efforts. The social trends that helped to generate the ecumenical movement generated these changes, as well. Church-sponsored ecumenism has often provided a rationale for what was already occurring on its own. It is in the area of theology and doctrine that the ecumenical movement has sought to lead rather than follow. Ecumenical dialogues demonstrated that hard and creative thinking may reveal commonality where for centuries we had assumed theological opposition. The World Council of Churches’ text Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry articulated extensive similarities in sacramental theology. The Catholic-Lutheran Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification addressed the doctrine of salvation, showing that the divergent Catholic and Protestant doctrines need not be church-dividing. These documents represent permanent achievements.

Since then, discussion has turned to the Church and its way of life, and the ecumenical movement has hit a wall. Different churches may agree on many questions about God and salvation, but they do not agree on how to live together in Christ. Intra-­Protestant discussions have often run aground on the issue of church leadership and authority—the question of whether bishops, presbyteries, or some combination of models would be best. When people change churches, seeing Methodism as not so different from Presbyterianism, their informal ecumenism leaves church structures in place, downplaying and working around them. For Catholics, such ad hoc solutions are not possible. Church unity, for Catholics, requires unity in teaching, sacraments, and governance. The Catholic Church’s insistence on unity in governance is itself a source of disagreement, as it cuts against the grain of much Protestant ecclesiology. Catholicism sees unity as manifest in the teaching and governing authority of the local bishop, who is himself in union with the bishop of Rome. As Walter Cardinal Kasper, former head of the Vatican’s ecumenical office, put it recently: “The main question which still divides the churches is the understanding of the Church itself.”

There are good reasons why modern ecumenism has foundered on the question of the nature of the Church. Theologians are adept at analyzing the history and use of the theological concepts with reference to which core convictions are elaborated into doctrines; for this reason, recent decades have seen progress in defusing formerly church-dividing differences. These differences, concerning primarily the nature of God and of salvation, have been addressed on the level of official church teaching. They relate to concrete practices, but often only in indirect ways. By contrast, theological issues concerning the nature of the Church are often closely related to specific practical questions. Who makes what sorts of decisions in the Church? Who decides what is authoritative? Who may be ordained, and by whom? These are necessary questions, and contradictory answers have consequences. When churches cannot find a way to live as one Church in unity, then they are in a significant sense divided. Ecumenism is finally about the relations among actual, existing churches, not about the relations among theological schools or professors.

There is an additional factor. When the ecumenical movement first gained momentum in the early twentieth century, differences among the churches on ethical matters were marginal. Service, social advocacy, and moral witness were areas in which the churches could easily come together. That agreement has eroded in recent decades, especially in relation to issues of sex—abortion, contraception, same-sex relations, and marriage. This erosion is closely related to divergences in the churches’ understandings of male-female difference, divergences manifest in debates about the ordination of women. These ethical questions often excite immediate and passionate disagreements, which do not portend the discovery of common ground anytime soon.

And so we face a paradox. The churches are characterized by much friendlier attitudes than prevailed in the past, a certain fluidity among their members, worship patterns that look similar, and theological agreement on some important doctrinal issues. At the same time, we observe a stalemate on unavoidable issues of church life and widening divergences on prominent ethical matters. The possibility that a breakthrough on the ecclesiological issues might be forthcoming cannot be excluded—but it seems unlikely. The few ecumenical dialogues that have addressed the new ethical differences have simply registered the impasse. In a general climate of goodwill, the ecumenical movement has ceased to move.

The cessation may stem in part from the fact that the typical Christian, at least in the U.S., is satisfied with the new status quo. Much of the pain of Christian division has been relieved. Protestants may marry Catholics without social stigma, and usually without family disapproval. If one doesn’t like one’s church, one feels free to seek another.

To borrow Kuhn’s language about science, the “revolutionary” ecumenism of the twentieth century disrupted old patterns. It rearranged many aspects of church unity and division, changing the way we think about our commonalities and differences. This ­rearrangement happened both in formal ways, through dialogues, and in informal ways, through changed attitudes and practices. But in a pattern of punctuated equilibrium, the period of disruption eventually ends, and we settle into new patterns, which become the new normal. The ecumenical movement has a problem. What can it accomplish, now that the possibilities of the period of disruption have come to an end?

To my mind, the new normal requires a new approach, a “normal” ecumenism, suited to the present moment. We need an ecumenism that does not live off the expectation of new breakthroughs—an ecumenism weaned from the addiction to “progress.”

Achieving it will not be easy. Two temptations should be avoided. One is the temptation to see ecumenism as simply over, yesterday’s news. We can be happy that we no longer curse one another, some say, but now let Catholics be Catholics and Baptists be Baptists. Stressing what makes our church distinctive is better marketing, anyway. As differences over hot-button ethical issues continue to increase, the impulse to walk away from ecumenical engagement becomes stronger. Despair and complacency conspire to remove ecumenism from the new normal.

All Christians must grapple with the meaning of Christ’s call for us to be one, as he and his Father are one. Catholics cannot abandon ecumenical efforts. The “irrevocable” commitment St. John Paul II spoke of is theologically grounded. In Lumen Gentium, its Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Vatican II declared that the many elements of truth to be found in other churches and ecclesial communities have their true home in the Catholic Church. We know that the Catholic Church has not always found a suitable home for truths emphasized (or overemphasized or misinterpreted) by other traditions. This is a loss for the Catholic Church, for insofar as she fails to bring into herself the fullness of Christian truth, she fails to live out her native catholicity. The universal claims of the Catholic Church are not an obstacle to her ecumenical commitment, needing to be relativized for the sake of politeness. On the contrary, they serve as the theological foundation for the irrevocable character of Catholic ecumenism. Simply turning our backs on other traditions, traditions that embody, however imperfectly, genuine aspects of Christianity, is profoundly uncatholic. Other Christian traditions need to think through their ecumenical commitments on their own terms, but they too affirm the universality of Christ’s proclamation, and so they too must discern how to serve the catholic character of Christian truth—which is to say, how to be ecumenical.

A second, opposite temptation must also be resisted. This is the temptation to insist that ecumenical progress must somehow continue, regardless of whether the theological grounding is adequate. Let each church invite members of the other churches to receive Communion, even while church division remains! Unity can be experienced at the altar, even if not in a truly common life!

For Catholics, this proposal is unacceptable. One cannot separate unity at the altar from unity elsewhere. The reception of Communion is not a private exchange between the Christian and Christ. Reception joins the recipient to the gathered community and to those with whom the community is united by virtue of its incorporation into the universal Church made visible in her common life. Widespread inter­communion in the face of institutional division would contradict this truth about the Eucharist, a truth that is central to Catholic belief. Nor can we assume that intercommunion will be a spur to greater visible unity over time. Many mainstream Protestant churches have entered in recent decades into full communion agreements that allow for intercommunion, as well as interchange of clergy. These practices have produced very little movement toward unity of teaching authority and governance.

If we should neither give up on ecumenism nor press forward at all costs, what should we do? Does “normal” ecumenism mean merely a friendly but distant coexistence, with the occasional joint service when neither side can turn out a sufficient congregation on its own?

I don’t have a full answer, but I can give a partial sketch of what is needed. A normal ecumenism would seek less to achieve decisive breakthroughs than to deepen the real but limited communion that exists already. This kind of ecumenism is already emerging. The Global Christian Forum came into existence at the beginning of this century as a looser, leaner organization than the World Council of Churches. It includes a wider range of churches, among them the Catholic Church and many Evangelical and Pentecostal bodies not in the World Council. It is a forum, not a council, providing an open space for encounter, mutual learning, encouragement, and whatever common initiatives might develop.

A similar shift can be seen in bilateral relations. The international Catholic–Anglican dialogue involving theologians is now complemented by a regular meeting of Catholic and Anglican bishops. When the head of the Anglican Communion, Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, visited Pope Francis in ­October 2016, the joint declaration they issued was clear: “We ourselves do not yet see solutions to the obstacles before us.” The emphasis fell on common endeavors in which cooperation is possible. We should at least be living in whatever unity the gains of the last century have made possible, even if we cannot see our way to the next punctuation in the equilibrium.

Our sense of what counts as ecumenical dialogue also needs to expand. The last fifty years have seen many officially sponsored dialogues among experts. Such dialogues almost always have the goal of producing an agreed-upon text, which the experts hope will move the churches closer to unity. This enterprise has reached the point of diminishing returns. More important for the future, perhaps, will be unofficial engagements across confessional boundaries. They will not aim at agreements or the production of common statements, but will be motivated by an interest in vigorous theological discussion. These discussions already take place at the occasional ­conferences sponsored jointly by the Thomistic Institute at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C. and the Center for Barth Studies at Princeton Theological Seminary, and at conferences of the Center for Catholic and Evangelical Theology. The lack of official sponsorship (and of implicit pressure to seek agreement in a common statement) gives these discussions a livelier character than official dialogues possess. In these contexts, disagreement can be more prominent, and indeed is sometimes sought out as a spur to a shrewder grasp of the issues.

A normal ecumenism must seek common mission, where common mission is possible. Anyone active in pro-life endeavors has experienced such common mission, but it can also occur in our central witness to Christ and to God’s saving work. Catholics, Orthodox, and many Protestants share basic convictions on such matters, convictions that are increasingly at odds with our secular context. How can we witness to those convictions together? When Billy Graham embarked on his preaching missions, he assembled coalitions of local churches to receive those who pledged their lives to Christ. In the post-Christian West, the churches increasingly rely on one another to spark and strengthen the faith. Catholics such as Bishop Robert Barron or Scott Hahn can be evan­gelizing allies for a Protestant pastor planting a church, just as Protestant writers such as William Lane Craig or C. S. Lewis can be indispensable aides to Catholic university chaplains.

Our situation is not easy. We cannot sustain the old revolutionary optimism; nor can we accept the new normal as our permanent condition. We are like the children of Israel under Moses in the wilderness. They were not to turn back to Egypt, and they were not to look upon the wilderness as their new home. They could not press forward into the Promised Land until the Lord willed that they should do so. We are not to forget the unity to which we are called, but we cannot simply will that unity. Disagreements are real and significant; pretending they do not exist will not make them go away. But we cannot become ­complacent. Talk of “normal ecumenism” can become a self-fulfilling prophecy, an excuse for ignoring real opportunities for change. We can easily misread the signs of the times. How many foresaw the rapid collapse of communism? We need to think carefully about our situation and weigh the merits of any paths forward.

Ecumenism is rooted in a sense that things are not what they should be. As Christians, we take our name from the One who came to break down the walls of division. Disagreement, even dispute, may be a permanent part of Christian existence. Paul told the Corinthians, “There must be factions among you in order that those who are genuine among you may be recognized” (1 Cor. 11:19). But dispute among the followers of Christ should not take the form of enduring structures of disunity. Today, we need to find ways of living out as faithfully as we can the unity we find possible. As we do so, we must not forget the unity to which we are called, the fullness of unity we seek with God in Christ and thus with all others who share in Christ. 

Michael Root is Ordinary Professor of Systematic Theology at the Catholic University of America.

This is the first of your three free articles for the month.