Monday, November 07, 2011

Ecumenism: What it is and what it's not


Last week I attended a function organised by a colleague of mine that was to award and recognise individuals who have made extraordinary efforts in Religious Education. Don't get me wrong; I was very pleased to be there, but there were one or two things that made me cringe and made me want to pull my hair out.

The function begain with an "ecumenical prayer service". A what?!? Yeah, an "ecumenical prayer service", and this entailed an acknowledgement of other faith traditions and a thanksgiving for their presence in the world. I'm all for inter-faith dialogue and praying to the same God as say our Jewish brothers and sisters do and our non-Catholic Christian brethren, but this is not ecumenical; it is not ecumenism!

So just what is Ecumenism? The Catholic Church defines Ecumenism this way (emphasis added):
"'The sole Church of Christ [is that] which our Saviour, after his Resurrection, entrusted to Peter's pastoral care, commissioning him and the other apostles to extend and rule it. . . . This Church, constituted and organized as a society in the present world, subsists in (subsistit in) the Catholic Church, which is governed by the successor of Peter and by the bishops in communion with him.' 
The Second Vatican Council's Decree on Ecumenism explains: 'For it is through Christ's Catholic Church alone, which is the universal help toward salvation, that the fullness of the means of salvation can be obtained. It was to the apostolic college alone, of which Peter is the head, that we believe that our Lord entrusted all the blessings of the New Covenant, in order to establish on earth the one Body of Christ into which all those should be fully incorporated who belong in any way to the People of God.'" - Catechism of the Catholic Church, par. 816
In layman's terms: The Catholic Church is the one true church; the fullness of truth. There are to be no divisions; the Body of Christ cannot be divided for it is one. It is a moral responsibility of the Church today that it stand united and undivided (John 17:21). It is for this reason that the Church must make efforts to reach out to our separated brethren and bring them to full communion with the Catholic Church; "If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand" (Mark 3:24). Ecumenism is an act of evangelisation.

When is it not Ecumenism? Take for instance this inter-faith prayer service that I attended. There was no effort or intention to have representatives of other faith traditions evangelised and be received into the Catholic Church. It was an inter-faith prayer service; nothing more and nothing less. Even if the Catholic Church was to invite representatives of different faith traditions (presumably non-Catholic Christians) together, it does not necessarily mean there's anything ecumenical going on. If the Holy See is, however, working to dialogue with these representatives in order to bring them into full communion with the Catholic Church, then yes: you have Ecumenism!

We saw a classic example of the result of Ecumenism take place in late 2009 and last year where several Anglican communities around the world asked for a Catholic Ordinariate, which whereby these Anglican churches are received into full communion with the Catholic Church but are able to preserve elements of their distinctive Anglican spiritual and liturgical patrimony. Those Anglican churches (now known as "Anglo-Catholics" or "Anglican-Catholic") profess the Catholic Church's principles and doctrines in their entirety and maintain fidelity to the leadership of the Pope. This could only take place as a result of ecumenical dialogue led by the Holy See; Pope Benedict XVI made it possible for these Anglican communities around the world to be received in full communion with the Catholic Church.

Ecumenical dialogue is always done with the intention of leading others from other Christian faith traditions into full communion with the Catholic Church. It's not an opportunity to get all "warm and fuzzy" with other Christians, talk about how different we are and that it's our differences that make us special... fooey! As St. Paul said in his letters to the Corinthians:

"I urge you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree in what you say, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and in the same purpose." - 1 Corinthians 1:10 

But hey, by all means let's all get together in a spirit of unity and share in Christian prayer together, but understand that to call it "ecumenical prayer" is misleading and by definition inappropriate. I'm all for sharing a prayer with a Baptist, Methodist, Calvinist, or Lutheran (I dare you to invite them to pray the Rosary together), but ultimately it is my duty as a Catholic-Christian to evangelise people of these faith traditions and - at the very, very least - make them Catholic on an intellectual level. The rest is up to the Holy Spirit; a conversion of heart and soul.

Was that too much of a rant? If anything I'm glad it's off my chest now.

Deus vobiscum!

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