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

Friday, May 9, 2008

Love and Ecumenical Unity

"Christ and the Samaritan Woman"
Bernardo Strozzi (1581 – 1644)

When Jesus, being a Jew, asked the Samaritan woman for a drink, she was surprised that He had even spoken to her, for as the Apostle John tells us, "Jews have no dealings with Samaritans." (St. John 4:9)

Sadly, in many cases, the same could be said for many Christian traditions. It is quite commonly the case that "Catholics have no dealings with Baptists", or "Lutherans have no dealings with Pentecostals", or "Methodists have no dealings with Presbyterians". We naturally tend to retreat into the isolation of our own tradition, and thus ghettoize ourselves. (Click on the maps below to see larger versions.)

But Jesus commissions His Apostles (St. Matthew 28:19) to go to "panta ta ethne" (all the nations/peoples), even to "the remotest part of the earth". (Acts 1:8) Surely we can at least reach out to our brothers and sisters in Christ, in different traditions from our own, but right in our own nation, to seek peace and reconciliation with them.

This is not merely or even primarily for pragmatic reasons, i.e. because a house or city divided against itself cannot stand. (St. Matthew 12:25) This is because love compels us. Love by its very nature is unitive; love seeks out the beloved because love seeks union with the beloved. I have written about the role of love in our ecumenical efforts here, here, and most recently in "Sex, Dualism and Ecclesial Unity".

To love our brothers and sisters in other Christian traditions, even those we believe are deeply mistaken in many ways, we have to be willing to enter into dialogue with them. The Apostle John teaches that God is love (1 John 4:8). Aquinas adds also, drawing from St. Paul's teaching in 1 Corinthians 13:13, that love is the greatest virtue, and that no true virtue is possible without it. Jesus tells us that all the law and prophets are summed up in the two commands to love God and love our neighbor as ourselves (St. Matthew 22:40). Because of all this, St. John teaches in his epistles that our love for each other is directly proportional to our love for God. In his epistles he teaches us that if we say that we love God, and yet do not love each other, we are deceiving ourselves. And if we love each other, we are loving God. (1 John 2:9-11; 3:10-11,14-18; 4:7-12,16-21; 5:1; 2 John 5-6) If we wish to measure our love for God, we may do so by measuring our love for God's children, the members of God's own family. The person who claims to love his brothers and sisters in other Christian traditions, but refuses to dialogue with them, is deceiving himself. Love requires both courage and action. It also requires perseverance and determination.

In Deus Caritas Est, Pope Benedict writes, "Love of God and love of neighbour have become one: in the least of the brethren we find Jesus himself, and in Jesus we find God." (DCE 15) He goes on to add:

"The unbreakable bond between love of God and love of neighbour is emphasized. One is so closely connected to the other that to say that we love God becomes a lie if we are closed to our neighbour or hate him altogether. Saint John's words should rather be interpreted to mean that love of neighbour is a path that leads to the encounter with God, and that closing our eyes to our neighbour also blinds us to God." (DCE 16)

Love for one another is not merely external actions; that is legalism. Jesus condemns this error in the Pharisees. St. Paul does likewise in 1 Corinthians 1:13. If we are pious in our devotion to God, but do not love each other from the heart, we are deceiving ourselves. St. Peter wrote: "Now that you have purified yourselves by obeying the truth so that you have sincere love for your brothers, love one another deeply, from the heart." (1 Peter 1:22) Pope Benedict writes:

"But if in my life I fail completely to heed others, solely out of a desire to be "devout" and to perform my "religious duties", then my relationship with God will also grow arid. It becomes merely "proper", but loveless. Only my readiness to encounter my neighbour and to show him love makes me sensitive to God as well. Only if I serve my neighbour can my eyes be opened to what God does for me and how much he loves me." (DCE 18)

Nor is love for one another merely internal well-wishing, without external incarnation of that internal benevolence. St. James condemns this error in James 2:14-18. True love for one another involves sincere benevolence (goodwill toward the other) in the heart, expressed in our outward actions toward one another, i.e. in our words and deeds.

Pentecost is two days from now. On that day, the Apostles received the Holy Spirit, and preached the Gospel in different languages. The linguistic confusion and separation at Babel resulting from man's pride was reversed by the Holy Spirit through the Church on her birthday. The isolation by which the Jews had no dealings with Samaritans was broken down by the Holy Spirit, as the Apostles preached in "all Judea and Samaria, and even to the remotest part of the world" (Acts 1:8). As Pope Benedict said in his homily on Wednesday:

Afterward, at the feast of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit is shown through other signs: an impetuous wind, tongues of fire, and the apostles speaking all languages. This last one is a sign that the Spirit, who is charity and who fosters unity in diversity, has overcome the Babylonian Diaspora, fruit of the pride that separates men. From the first moment of its existence the Church spoke all languages, thanks to the power of the Holy Spirit and the tongues of fire, and lives in all cultures.

Now, in this present day, we need the power of the Holy Spirit so that we may speak the languages of these various Christian traditions, in order to reconcile into true unity believers who have been separated by schisms during the history of the Church.

If we wish to be instruments of peace and reconciliation, we need peace and reconciliation ourselves, for we cannot give what we do not have. Am I at peace with God, with my family and my neighbors, and with my self? Ecumenical union begins with me, in me, as I seek to be one with God. In order to be an instrument of unity to others, I must be an instrument of unity in my own home, to my own family. Just as the love of Christ for the Church is an outflowing of the shared love of the Persons of the Trinity for each other (see here), so the love by which I seek to reconcile my brothers and sisters in Christ should be an outflowing of the shared love in my own home, family, and faith community.

Let us ask Christ to renew the gift of His Spirit in us this Pentecost, that we may be instruments of His peace and reconciliation not only to those who have not heard the Good News, but also to our brothers and sisters in Christ who are separated and divided (from us and from each other) as a result of various schisms, and who now speak different 'languages'. May we be given the gift to speak the fullness of the gospel in their 'languages', so that we may all be one, as Christ and the Father are one.


Grifman said...


This all sounds pretty empty when in two prior posts you sll but call Protestants modern day "gnostics" and say that their beliefs are based upon "the sin of pride". I don't have a problem with being told I'm wrong (in your opinion), but it's rather presumptuous on your part, IMO, to say you know my motivations, or the motivations of millions of Protestants that you don't even know. Attributing bsd motives to people is no way to encourage the "table talk" and dialog that you say you want.

I don't know if you realize this but your posting style comes off as rather condescending sounding at times. I've learned a lot about the Catholic perspective from your blog, but it always seems that half the time I have to filter out the "attitude" to get to anything worthwhile reading.

If you want to post so you get pats on the back from other Catholics, then fine. But if want Protestants to hear you with respect, you need give respect and to talk to Protestants, and dialog with them, not talk down to them - mo matter how right you think you are.

You can take that as you like.



Bryan Cross said...


Thanks for your comments. I'm not attempting to know anyone's motives. My comment about sola scriptura is that it implicitly (though not explicitly) appeals to the sinful sort of pride in fallen man. That does not mean that any particular person who affirms sola scriptura has done so out of sinful pride. I'm talking about something intrinsic to the position itself, in relation to fallen human nature.

As for your comment that I'm coming across as condescending, it would be helpful to me if you would give me examples. Otherwise, such a comment doesn't help me know what to change. You may not be used to talking to someone who is not a relativist or a pluralist. (It doesn't help that I don't know anything about you, so I don't know where you are coming from.) I believe that some things are true, and other things are false. And so I talk about false things as though they are false. I don't talk about false things as though they are true or are either true or false. I don't talk about a range of positions as though they could all (simultaneously) be true, if I know one of them to be true. If anything I say is false, I would greatly appreciate having that pointed out.

I can be entirely respectful to a person who holds a false belief, while treating the false belief he holds as false. That, in my opinion, is not being condescending; it is being honest and charitable. I make a distinction between persons and the positions they hold. I criticize false positions. I generally do not criticize persons.

So, I do criticize Protestantism for the gnosticism that is implicit in its various expressions. But I generally don't criticize Protestants per se. If you keep that distinction in mind, it may help you view my criticisms of Protestant *positions* more accurately and charitably. Thanks again for your comments, and please feel free to explain where and why you think I'm wrong, if you think I'm mistaken about something.

In the peace of Christ,

- Bryan

Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Unknown said...

Noticing your conversion to "our" faith, I am stricken with the understanding that many who convert are overly zealous in their defense of the Faith. When you were a Protestant, I imagine you defended your Calvinist theology with the same vigor that you defend true Catholic teachings. You are in a very good parish, one that I am familiar with. The New Cathedral has played host to my High School alma mater for years and I am aware of the solid teachings from the Pastor there. However, I cannot accept your conclusion that Christians ghettoize themselves according to their Faith traditions. Even in the heavily Catholic St. Louis, you still find large numbers of other denominational practice. Especially after evaluating the maps provided. My family is from New England and is 98% Episcopalian/Anglican and so are many of their neighbors and all of their spouses were before marriage. These maps do support your hypothesis that we heavily ghettoize ourselves, but it fails to capture the fact that many of the "landed" families of New England and the Northeast in general are members of the first faith tradition in the U.S. and that of our founding fathers, Anglicanism. If we evaluate Anglicanism in its organic movement, many Anglo-Catholics practice the catholic faith and fully celebrate the seven sacraments but lack full union with the Holy See because of political reasons(The Anglican Use/Pastoral Provision has sought to rectify some of these issues). But I digress, my original point was to emphasize the fact that we are not to use our faith isolate those who have not seen the truth in Catholicism, nor to analyze the isolation of other faith traditions, because God knows if anyone isolates themselves, it is we Catholics; but to seek unity and understanding through the actions of these splinter groups as to better enlighten them.

Bryan Cross said...


Thanks for your comments. I agree that Catholics isolate themselves too. I said as much in my post. I'm an equal-opportunity proponent of inter-tradition dialogue. :-)

As for your comments about my formerly being a Calvinist, do you think I should have less zeal for the Catholic Church and the full visible unity of all Christians? If so, why?

How exactly are you reaching the conclusion that I am "isolating" others who have not seen the truth of Catholicism?

I don't understand what you mean by:

but to seek unity and understanding through the actions of these splinter groups as to better enlighten them.

Thanks for your feedback.

In the peace of Christ,

- Bryan

Unknown said...

In reference to your last comment, by enlightening them of the faults in their practices, they may see the light and need for conversion to the truth. I understand the wording is a bit difficult, but my point is that, when people are shown the deficiencies in their own practices, and are shown why their practices are deficient of the full glory of Christ, then they are more ready to accept the truth. Does that flow? Sorry, my original post was a short ejaculatory response without much thought being given to formulate my idea.