"Let unity, the greatest good of all goods, be your preoccupation." - St. Ignatius of Antioch (Letter to St. Polycarp)

Friday, November 23, 2007

Saving Ecumenicism from Itself

Avery Cardinal Dulles' latest article in First Things is titled "Saving Ecumenicism from Itself". (HT: M. Liccione)

Cardinal Dulles discusses the 'convergence method' that has been in operation in ecumenical efforts for the past fifty years. This method starts with a recognition of common ground and seeks to use that common ground in order to find and achieve greater unity (hence the name 'convergence'). While acknowledging that this method has helped to bring about greater mutual understanding and greater recognition of common ground, Cardinal Dulles notes that it tends toward a reduction to a lowest common denominator. He writes:

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.

Not only do many conservative traditions oppose this reduction of the faith to a "least common denominator", so does the Catholic Church. He writes:

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."

But Cardinal Dulles expresses concern that the 'convergence method' of achieving ecumenical unity has nearly exhausted its potential. He writes:

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. ... 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.

Why does he think that this method has nearly exhausted its potential? Because the various participants are relying on "different normative sources" or "different exegetical methods". He writes:

But to the extent that churches rely on different normative sources or different exegetical methods, the dialogues have been less ­fruitful.

That is where (in my opinion) Cardinal Dulles puts his finger right on the fundamental point of disagreement: the issue of authority. In order to advance ecumenical discussion to the next level, it is no longer adequate to leave our 'presuppositions' (or meta-level beliefs) under the table. We need to take the conversation to the meta-level questions. And the chief of these, in my opinion, has to do with authority. It requires us to focus on questions such as these:

  • Whose determination of the canon of Scripture is authoritative?
  • Whose interpretation of Scripture is authoritative?
  • Which councils are authoritative and on what grounds?
  • What is the source of ecclesial authority, and how is it acquired?
  • What authority do the fathers have, and whose interpretation of the fathers is authoritative?
  • What role would the answer to these questions play in the answering of these questions, and how should that affect the way we go about seeking the answers to these questions?

Consider an example. Andrew Sandlin, in an article titled, "The New (Old) Catholicity", wrote:

Am I suggesting that the various segments of churches give up their distinctives (the Baptists, the Pentecostals, the Presbyterians, and so on)? No, indeed. I am simply contending that they should subordinate their distinctives to the Lordship of Christ in all of life – God's gospel and law in our culture. A related problem is that Christians are willing to write off other thoroughly orthodox Christians. Some Lutherans believe it is sinful for their members to pray with any non-Lutherans. They call the this "promiscuous prayer." (I kid you not.) Some Presbyterians will not grant a letter of transfer to any churches but Presbyterian churches. Some Baptists claim they are the only Bible-believing church in town (when, in fact, there are plenty of non-Baptistic, but Bible-believing churches). Many Roman Catholics claim that theirs is the only church outside of which there is no salvation. Some Pentecostals believe that unless a person has been "baptized in the Spirit" and spoken in tongues, he is no Christian. All of these views are not merely silly; they are sinful. The boundary separating orthodox Christians from heretical Christians and from the world is the great creeds of the Church, or as is sometimes said, the fundamentals of the Faith. Roman Catholics are very mistaken, but they are a part of Christianity. The Eastern Orthodox have tragically misunderstood Christ's atonement, but they are a segment of Christendom. Dispensationalists may be mistaken about the rapture, but they are fellow believers. Presbyterians may be in error about Church policy, but they are brothers and sisters in Christ. Anglicans may be wrong about the relationship between Church and State, but they are in Christ's Body. They are all a part of the one true, visible, catholic (universal) Church.

Notice in particular this line: "The boundary separating orthodox Christians from heretical Christians and from the world is the great creeds of the Church". Sandlin embraces something like a "least common denominator" (i.e. "mere Christianity") approach to determining what is sufficient for Christian orthodoxy. Implicit in Sandlin's statement, however, is the assumption that while elucidation of doctrine so as to delineate orthodoxy from heresy occurred in the fourth and fifth centuries after Christ, it has not occurred since then. The question that naturally arises is this: What authority does Sandlin have to determine for all Christians which councils do not matter with respect to delineating heresy and orthodoxy? What authority does Sandlin have to determine for all Christians what is sufficient for orthodoxy, and what is necessary for heresy? "Who made [him] a ruler and judge over us?" (Genesis 2:14) What makes Sandlin's opinion more authoritative than that of the episcopal successor of St. Peter? Sandlin does not address the authority question; he simply starts declaring what is sufficient for orthodoxy. When that is the first move, the authority question has already been begged (cf. this selection from Tertullian). Sandlin is effectively saying either that there is no magisterial authority, or that he himself is (or is equal to or greater in authority than) any magisterial authority.

Consider another example.
Rich Lusk, in "Reclaiming Catholicity" writes:

At the heart of any quest for restored catholicity is the canon of Vincent of Lerins: "Now in the Catholic Church itself we take the greatest care to hold that which has been believed everywhere, always and by all." That's not to say his canon is easy to apply, or even fully adequate after twenty centuries of doctrinal development and dispute. But Vincent does remind us that we should always focus most intently on those things that all Christians hold together: the basic doctrines articulated in the early ecumenical creeds concerning the Triune nature of the Creator God, the Incarnation of the eternal Son in Jesus Christ, and redemption through the death and resurrection of the God-man. In our teaching, our liturgies, and our prayer, it would do wonders for Christian unity if we kept coming back to these basic touchstones of Christian orthodoxy, what C. S. Lewis, following Richard Baxter, called "mere Christianity."

St. Vincent stated his canon in a context (fifth century AD Christendom) in which sacramental magisterial authority was an unspoken given. But if we take the Vincentian canon out of the context of the givenness of sacramental magisterial authority, then we have the following problems. No person's determination of the identity of the "all" is authoritative. There is then no basis for excluding the Arians from the "all". And then there is no basis for making Christ's divinity one of the basic doctrines of Christianity. Lusk accepts the early Ecumenical Councils, but, presumably, rejects the Seventh Ecumenical Council. On what grounds? Presumably, because it disagrees with his interpretation of Scripture. But then the Arians (and Jehovah's Witnesses) could say the same thing about the decisions of the Council of Nicea. So who gets to determine what are the "fundamentals of the faith"? If there is no ecclesial authority that can say definitively for all Christians, "These are the things you must believe and these are the things you must not believe", then terms such as 'orthodox' and 'heresy' are relativized. 'Your orthodoxy' is my heresy, and 'my orthodoxy' is your heresy.

When we get into the meta-level issue of authority, the Catholic Church has a gift to offer that makes genuine ecumenical unity possible. Cardinal Dulles writes:

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.

The Catholic Church has received this gift directly from the incarnate Christ, and extends it to all who seek to follow Christ. The Petrine See has been made that unbreakable rock upon which Christ is building His Church; the rains come and the floods rise, but this house will stand firm. All those built on sand (i.e. ecclesial democracy) will crumble in a very short time. They have no principium unitatis by which to hold together. What mere man builds must pass into dust. The only house that lasts is the house built by the incarnate Christ. And that house is built not on pure form (i.e. the doctrine of Christ's divinity that Peter affirmed in Matthew 16:16), for pure form cannot be a rock. The rock is a form/matter composite, i.e. Peter (whose name means Rock), who by his confession showed himself to have been chosen by the Father to be the rock upon which the Church is built, the steward of the Church after Christ's ascension entrusted with the keys of the Kingdom of heaven. The form is hidden in the matter, and discovered through the matter. (See here). In this way the papacy is sacramental in character; it is a mystery hidden in matter. As St. Ambrose said, "Ubi Petrus, Ibi Ecclesia". That is what is meant by finding form through matter.


Unknown said...

Cardinal Dulles:
St. Vincent stated his canon in a context (fifth century AD Christendom) in which sacramental magisterial authority was an unspoken given.

There were no "unspoken givens" in St. Vincent. In his Commonitories he quite explicitly laid out the sources of authority on doctrinal questions, which were the scriptures, the Fathers, and the bishops gathered in a council. Joe

Bryan Cross said...


Thanks for your comments. I didn't say that there were any unspoken givens "in" St. Vincent. Everything that he spoke was, in that respect, not unspoken. But the sacramentality of magisterial authority was an unspoken given in the ecclesial context in which St. Vincent wrote. It was understood by all, for example, at the time of St. Vincent, that bishops received their authority by the laying on of hands by other bishops whose Holy Orders extended back to the Apostles. When I say that in a certain context something is an unspoken given, that doesn't mean that nobody must have written about it. It just means that everybody already knew and believed it, as a given.

In the peace of Christ,