That They May All Be One: The Imperatives and Prospects of Christian Unity (1997)
by Edward Idris Cardinal Cassidy
Relations between Catholics and Evangelical Christians have traditionally been rather cool at their very best. While Catholics in pluralistic societies have throughout the twentieth century slowly built up new contacts with Protestants from the mainline churches, they have found it difficult to find common ground with “Evangelical” Christianity. The term “Evangelical” itself seemed to cover such a vast spectrum of doctrine, discipline, and organization so far removed from the Catholic understanding of the Church that any kind of deep relationship appeared impossible. Evangelicals, for their part, have generally looked upon Catholicism as a total distortion of the Gospel, teaching works-righteousness instead of justification by faith alone, substituting the Church for the Lord, encouraging such non-biblical practices as veneration of Mary and the saints. Evangelicals and Pentecostals have been generally reluctant to become involved in the ecumenical movement. They do not easily identify with the goals that other Christian churches seek to attain through ecumenical commitment. Catholics, for their part, have often been guilty of stereotyping Evangelicals and Pentecostals. In certain parts of the world, and particularly in Latin America, Catholic–Evangelical relations have been characterized by deep hostility and intense proselytism.
More recently, however, there have been significant changes in this situation. Some Evangelicals and Pentecostals have begun to take a closer look at Catholicism. The Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity has been in official dialogue with leading Pentecostals acting in an individual capacity; an Evangelical–Roman Catholic Dialogue on Mission was established in 1977. The publication of “Evangelicals and Catholics Together: The Christian Mission in the Third Millennium” (First Things, May 1994) by a group of Evangelicals and Catholics aroused great interest and not a little controversy.
It seems to me obvious that Catholic–Evangelical dialogue cannot be orientated along lines identical to those that have so far governed the official dialogues between the Catholic Church and the mainline churches. Those who have participated in our dialogues and discussions in recent years have not normally been representatives of any international body, nor have they always had the support of their communities. Yet they have moved the waters, and there are signs of Catholics and Evangelicals, especially at the local level, beginning to recognize each other as sharing in common faith and hence being, in fact, brothers and sisters in the Lord.
Pope John Paul II renews this call and proposes it once more “with determination,” stressing that “believers in Christ cannot remain divided if they wish truly and effectively to oppose the world’s tendency to reduce to powerlessness the Mystery of Redemption.”
This call, which comes from Christ, is an imperative for all Christians. We are living in a time of particular grace, as evidenced by the fact that the aspiration for Christian unity “is finding an ever greater echo in the hearts of believers, especially as the year 2000 approaches.” But it is also a time of special challenge. For so many of our fellow world-citizens, even from traditionally Christian countries, there is no place in their lives for Christ—Christ who prayed that his disciples might be one “so that the world may believe that you, Father, have sent me” (John 17:21). “How indeed,” asks Pope John Paul II, “can we proclaim the Gospel of reconciliation without at the same time being committed to work for reconciliation among Christians?” Here is what the encyclical refers to as an “imperative of charity . . . that admits of no exception,” since “ecumenism is not only an internal question of the Christian communities. It is a matter of love which God has in Jesus Christ for all humanity; to stand in the way of this love is an offense against him and against his plan to gather all people in Christ.”
Pope John Paul II has on several occasions confirmed as “irrevocable” the commitment made by the Second Vatican Council “to following the path of the ecumenical venture, thus heeding the Spirit of the Lord, who teaches people to interpret carefully the ‘signs of the times.’“ There is no doubt that substantial progress has been made over the past thirty years in creating a sound and committed mentality within the Catholic Church to this ecumenical quest. At the same time, it is our experience within the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity that former mentalities, indifference, and even a certain fear of unity continue to hinder the rate of progress in our ecumenical relations. His Holiness himself refers to problems encountered in the ecumenical movement as a consequence of “complacency, indifference, and insufficient knowledge of one another.”
These clear statements from His Holiness should cause members of the Catholic Church to examine their own attitude towards this imperative. Ut Unum Sint refers to the fact that there is also far too much complacency about ecumenism within the churches. For His Holiness, the same transparency and prudence which require us to avoid false irenicism and indifference to the Church’s directives urge us “to reject a half-hearted commitment to unity and, even more, a prejudicial opposition or a defeatism which tends to see everything in negative terms.” For the Pope, the search for Christian unity is a priority, the commitment irreversible. If, as the Holy Father states, “ecumenism is an organic part of the Church’s life and work,” then it ought to be an important part of the life and work of every bishop and responsible person in the Church-and indeed touch the life of every member of the Church.
Pope John Paul II sees the first ecumenical step as spiritual. The most effective means are prayer and conversion. The encyclical recalls the words of the Second Vatican Council, which described “change of heart and holiness of life, along with public and private prayer for the unity of Christians, as the soul of the whole ecumenical movement.”
The Council Fathers realized that “there can be no ecumenism worthy of the name without a change of heart.” To walk effectively along the ecumenical way-“a path difficult but so full of joy”—requires a deep humility, a readiness to pardon and to ask pardon. There is need for both a personal conversion and for communal conversion, of a more radical following of the Gospel if we are to rid ourselves and our communities of “the burden of long-standing misgivings inherited from the past, and of mutual misunderstandings and prejudices.” We are all well aware of the difficulties resulting from the memories of the past, but we acknowledge with Pope John Paul II that “thanks to ecumenism, our contemplation of ‘the mighty works of God’ (mirabilia Dei) has been enriched by new horizons, for which the Triune God calls us to give thanks: the knowledge that the Spirit is at work in other Christian communities, the discovery of the examples of holiness, the experience of the immense riches present in the communion of saints, and contact with unexpected dimensions of Christian commitment.”
Pope John Paul II does not hesitate to develop the statement made by the Second Vatican Council to the effect that the blame for past divisions cannot be put entirely at the door of only one of the parties involved. Calling for repentance, he mentions a series of failings which we can all recognize in the experience of our own communities: “Certain exclusions which seriously harm fraternal charity, certain refusals to forgive, a certain pride, an unevangelical insistence on condemning the ‘other side,’ a disdain born of unhealthy presumption.” Hence it would seem obvious that no Christian community remains free to exempt itself from this call to renewal, conversion, and reform.
Along with a radical change of heart, there is a call by Pope John Paul II for greater attention to prayer, both in common and individual. Indeed His Holiness speaks of the primacy of prayer. It is there that we realize just how much we have in common with other Christians, while very effectively petitioning for the grace of unity. We see how little really divides us in comparison to that which unites us. When Christians pray together, the goal of unity seems closer: “In the fellowship of prayer Christ is truly present; he prays ‘in us,’ ‘with us,’ and ‘for us.’“
When Christians come together in prayer they soon begin to think about possibilities for common action. It takes only little time and thought for them to find ample space for such Christian witness in the social, cultural, and pastoral fields. The Second Vatican Council Decree on Ecumenism, which Pope John Paul II quotes in Ut Unum Sint, describes the value of such cooperation: “Cooperation among all Christians vividly expresses that bond which already unites them, and it sets in clearer relief the features of Christ the Servant.”
Finally, there is the way of dialogue, which His Holiness describes as being not just an exchange of ideas, but an “exchange of gifts.” Experience has shown that a sincere dialogue between Christian partners never fails to produce good results. It does truly become an “exchange of gifts.” Among the most precious moments of my ministry as President of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity are those of encounter and dialogue with representatives of other Christian communities. We Catholics have been enriched by our ecumenical contacts and dialogues, and I feel sure that other Christians have enjoyed a similar experience.
As we proceed in dialogue, new possibilities open up before us. It is rather like a journey through a mountain range. As one mountain is conquered the horizon changes and what was until then hidden and unknown suddenly appears clearly before our eyes. It is quite remarkable how in the past thirty odd years, doctrines have been discussed and differences narrowed or even eliminated on questions that only a short time before seemed to be intractable.
Dialogue is necessary if we are to rid ourselves of misunderstandings. There are still numerous misunderstandings that make Evangelical–Catholic relationships difficult. Pope John Paul II can justly claim that “ecumenical dialogue, which prompts the parties involved to question each other, to understand each other, and to explain their positions to each other, makes surprising discoveries possible.”
We must rejoice and give thanks to the Lord for the great progress that has been made in our pilgrimage over the past half century. Yet we are far from certain that we shall reach our destination, at least in the foreseeable future. The going is slow and difficult.
It is this very fact that creates one of the difficulties that the ecumenical movement is facing. There is a certain impatience within ecumenical circles that tends towards frustration. Some of the earlier enthusiasm is now missing. There are doubts about Christians ever overcoming their differences and a tendency to set aside the traditional goal of our endeavors and substitute for it a more easily attainable form of unity.
During the centuries following the Reformation, doctrinal understanding has developed along several independent lines, taking the churches and ecclesial communions ever further apart. To make matters worse, there is a tendency among all Christian churches to believe that they understand the doctrine of other churches adequately, when in fact they have a very inadequate and often quite misleading knowledge of the other’s faith. I would think that Catholics and Evangelicals often sin in this way with regard to each other.
To overcome these doctrinal differences will take time and much patience. We must first of all come to know each other as we really are; to know the faith of each other as it really is; and then together seek to delve more deeply into the doctrine with that “love for the truth [which] is the deepest dimension of any authentic quest for full communion between Christians.”
Pope John Paul II in Ut Unum Sint reminds Catholic theologians of two fundamental principles that must be kept in mind when involved in theological dialogue: a) that there is a “hierarchy of truths,” according to which not all doctrines have an equal relationship to the foundation of Christian belief; and b) the difference between doctrine and the formulation of that doctrine. The first of these principles opens the way for those involved in dialogue to differ at times on doctrines, without these differences being necessarily “church-dividing.” The second principle is one that still too often remains neglected by many theologians, Catholic and Protestant alike, who cling jealously to their favorite expressions of doctrine, even though historical circumstances have made them an obstacle to reaching possible consensus by means of different doctrinal formulations. At times, the theological dialogue encounters a difficulty when the respective partner has not evolved a process by which dialogue results can be authoritatively received. Perhaps the problems that Protestants themselves are encountering in this connection will cause their churches to reflect more deeply on this particular aspect of their ecclesial life.
While it is true that we have eliminated many of the misunderstandings, prejudices, and stereotypes of the past, there is ample evidence that memories from the past continue to create serious difficulties for the ongoing ecumenical task. An example of this was the great tension resulting from the decision of Pope John Paul II last year to canonize Blessed Jan Sarkander. The memories of the religious wars of the seventeenth century, of which this saint was a victim, came once again to the fore and threatened much of the good progress that has been made in the Czech Republic over recent years. I would venture to state that the restoration of unity between Orthodox and Catholics is primarily a matter of healing past memories. To help overcome such difficulties, Pope John Paul II has stressed the need for repentance and conversion, for metanoia. In his apostolic letter Tertio Millennio Adveniente, he finds it appropriate “that, as the Second Millennium draws to a close, the Church should become more fully conscious of the sinfulness of her children.”
Other psychological elements that undoubtedly influence progress in the ecumenical movement are fear and complacence. For many of the members of our churches, the ecumenical movement is seen as a threat to their security within a tradition that is part of their identity and of which they are deeply fond. These are worthy sentiments and the ecumenical movement must take note of them and seek to show by word and deed that such fears are not well founded. Yet, there can be no doubt that fear of change and uncertainty about the goal of the ecumenical movement are among the principal difficulties that the churches and ecclesial communions face as they seek the unity willed by the Lord.
The difficulties encountered in the various theological dialogues have led to some ecumenical circles opting for a less demanding goal for the ecumenical movement than that which has been widely accepted in the past, namely, unity in faith, ministry, and sacramental life. Among the foremost exponents of this new vision is Dr. Konrad Raiser, secretary-general of the World Council of Churches. Dr. Raiser’s opinion is not at this time the official view of the World Council of Churches, though admittedly it has a strong following among the members of that organization.
Last year Dr. Raiser paid an official visit to the Vatican, together with several highly placed officials of the WCC. In an address made during that visit, he stated:
We are approaching the end of the second millennium. Shortly before, the World Council of Churches will hold its Eighth Assembly commemorating on this occasion the fiftieth anniversary since the First Assembly at Amsterdam in 1948. The challenge of a future under the threat of growing fragmentation and violence, of a de facto apartheid between rich and poor, and of progressive degradation of the whole ecosphere is such that it should lead to an urgent reordering of the ecumenical agenda. The jubilee values of reconciliation and forgiveness, of repentance and metanoia, of restitution and reconstruction should inspire us to close the books over our past struggles and to concentrate all our energies on addressing together the life and survival issues of today and tomorrow in the light of the Gospel of Christ. It is this spirit which should characterize and which should energize our ecumenical efforts towards the year 2000. The kairos must not be missed.
This new and less demanding ecumenical vision tends to see theological dialogue as a negative element in the ecumenical search, as a process which instead of offering new hope tends to revive old disputes which drag the partners back into unresolvable arguments of the past. Continuing to discuss past issues risks, in this view, making ecumenism a backward-looking movement. Dr. Raiser would simply “close the books” on these questions and concentrate on questions of justice, peace, and the protection of the environment, on deepening and expressing in common action the communion that we already share. Differences should be seen not as reasons for continuing divisions, but as a source of enrichment and something to be shared.
This vision is based on the conviction that a growing cultural and religious pluralism in our societies calls for a new definition of aims and goals on the part of the ecumenical movement. In the words of Dr. Raiser, “It will, therefore, be necessary to develop a much more dynamic understanding of unity, unity as a process rather than as a structured unity with a definitive doctrinal formulation.”
This new goal for ecumenism finds support in the widespread modern philosophy of the pluralistic society. The Catholic Church’s understanding of ecumenism as a search for truth in love runs into difficulty when truth itself is relativized. When what seems to matter most is not the objective truth, but rather the personal understanding and opinion of each individual, what one thinks and what one desires, the search for truth in ecumenism fails to arouse much interest.
For the Catholic Church, the goal of our ecumenical endeavors remains clearly the restoration of full visible unity, in faith, ministry and sacramental life. That does not mean that we are lacking in appreciation of the need for, and value of, intermediate goals. The fourth and fifth chapters of the 1993 Ecumenical Directory offer a large range of spiritual activity and ecumenical cooperation that is available already to the churches and ecclesial communions as an expression of the communion which they already share. The same Directory insists, however, on the definition of unity as given in the Second Vatican Council Decree Unitatis Redintegratio as consisting of the “confession of one faith . . . the common celebration of divine worship . . . the fraternal harmony of the family of God,” and goes on to affirm that “this unity, which of its very nature requires full visible communion of all Christians, is the ultimate goal of the ecumenical movement.”
The Ecumenical Directory makes its own the Council’s explanation that “this unity by no means requires the sacrifice of the rich diversity of spirituality, discipline, liturgical rites, and elaborations of revealed truth that has grown up among Christians in the measure that this diversity remains faithful to the Apostolic Tradition.”
What then are the possibilities for us ever reaching this goal? Are we living in a dream world to think that we can really overcome the essential differences that exist between Christian churches and communions today? Are they not more practical who look for only short-term goals?
Humanly thinking, I suppose they are. But our ecumenical task is not merely human. It is a divine calling. The Lord is calling us to unity, and there is no doubt that He has blessed abundantly the efforts of those of his children who have dedicated themselves to promoting this “noble goal.” In Ut Unum Sint, Pope John Paul II thanks the Lord “that he has led us to make progress along the path of unity and communion between Christians, a path so difficult but full of joy.” I have no doubt that the Lord is present in the ecumenical movement in a very special way.
But the Lord will not force us along the way to unity. His grace will be there for sure, but we are and will be free to go along with that divine urging or remain nicely bottled up in our comfortable divisions. This is the challenge that faces the churches and Christian communions as we prepare to enter the third
Christian millennium. Do we possess the will for unity? The Catholic Church is fully committed to this task and so too are other churches and ecclesial communions. Yet, much still has to be done in order to bring this commitment to fruition in these communities, so that prayer, cooperation, and common witness become a normal part of their life and thought.
There are signs that this is actually happening. In the field of dialogue, for instance, who would have thought even a few years ago that Lutherans and Catholics would be seriously discussing a Common Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification that sets out to show that these two communions have a common understanding of justification? Very significant also is the fact that the Lutheran-Roman Catholic International Theological Dialogue Commission has, in the present phase of its discussions, given itself the title Lutheran–Roman Catholic Commission for Unity.
A major development at the national level in recent years has been the entry of the Catholic Church to full membership in some fifty National Councils of Churches and to several Regional Councils. Even where for various reasons the Catholic Church is not able at this time to become a full member of such a body, new relationships are being established and cooperation strengthened.
While tension has not entirely been eradicated in Eastern Europe between Orthodoxy and Catholicism as a result of developments in those countries after the fall of communism, the situation has improved greatly. The Joint International Commission for the Theological Dialogue between the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church was able in May 1993 to approve a document on this problem that has become known as the Balaman document. The visit of His Holiness Bartholomeos I, Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, to Pope John Paul II at the end of June 1995 manifested most vividly to the world the depth of the real communion that already exists between these two sister churches. As already mentioned, not every bishop or member of these churches welcomes such initiatives—yet they are signs of great hope for the future.
Much is happening here in the United States that makes the goal of unity seem closer. In general, our Christian communities at all levels no longer merely tolerate one another, but live that spirit of universal brotherhood which Pope John Paul II sees as the first great fruit of dialogue among Christians. The United States Catholic Bishops’ Conference, through its Committee on Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs, has been in official dialogue with various partners from other Christian communions. These dialogues have produced significant results that have had an impact far beyond this country. I would mention in passing the work of the Lutheran–Catholic dialogue, which has produced some of the best ecumenical reports so far published anywhere. In 1985 Pope John Paul II praised the report of this dialogue on Justification by Faith. In many places, covenants between Catholics and other Christian communions have been signed, Regional Councils established, common action taken. Other churches and communions are in the process of seeking new forms of organic unity.
Of particular interest in this context are the signs of progress in Catholic–Evangelical relations. The publication of “Evangelicals and Catholics Together” not only shows that dialogue is possible between Catholics and Evangelicals, but calls for further exploration along similar lines. A joint effort at cooperation was made in the spring of 1996 when sixteen Christian leaders made a common approach to a political party asking that its pro-life plank be retained at the party’s convention. Of those signing the request, four were Catholics and the others Evangelicals.
Father Thomas P. Rausch, S.J., has noted a significant change in relationships between local Catholic and Evangelical-Pentecostal Christians in the United States: “In what is a surprising development to many ecumenists, representatives of these traditions are beginning to recognize the number of concerns they have in common, among them strengthening the family, the welfare of children, the sanctity of life, the place of religious values in society, and—most importantly—evangelization.”
Father Rausch also indicates a number of ways in which members of these communities are now beginning to cooperate, ways which only a few years ago would have seemed impossible, making special reference to youth ministry, evangelization and development, and informal conversations.
This very experienced author does not minimize the difficulties that Catholics and Evangelicals have to overcome, yet I am greatly encouraged by his conclusion:
But there are significant signs of a new and vital relationship emerging from grassroots. Catholics and Evangelicals share far more than a mutual interest in life and family values. Both remain strongly committed to the central doctrines of the Trinity, the Incarnation, the atoning death and bodily Resurrection of Jesus. And both are concerned with a personally appropriated faith, Catholics through their emphasis on spirituality, Evangelicals through their stress on a personal relationship with Jesus.
One aspect of the Catholic–Evangelical relationship calls for special reflection. It is obvious from Evangelicals and Catholics Together: Towards a Common Mission that the Papacy constitutes an enormous problem for Evangelicals. J. I. Packer observes, “Nor does the fact that John Paul II is a wonderful man who has done a wonderful job as a world Christian ambassador make the papacy a credible institution or the Catholic claim to conciliar and ex cathedra infallibility at all plausible.”
Pope John Paul II is of course well aware of this difficulty and has addressed it on several occasions. In his book Crossing the Threshold of Hope, he writes: “Against this background . . . expressions such as ‘Supreme Pontiff,’ ‘Your Holiness,’ and ‘Holy Father’ are of little importance. What is important originates in the Death and Resurrection of Christ. What is important is that which comes from the power of the Holy Spirit.”
During the papal visit to the Scandinavian and Nordic Countries in 1989, he prayed:
May all the difficulties related to this [Petrine] office be overcome, so that it will be ever more clear that its only goal is to point to the Gospel of Jesus Christ and to the fullness of truth and to serve the unity which he, the Lord of the Church, founded as he broke down every dividing wall and overcame every hostility, so that he might unite all into one body and effect reconciliation with God through his cross. (Cf. Ephesians 14:16.)
As Pope John Paul II has pointed out, the ecumenical way is a difficult way, but one that is full of joy. It is the Lord’s way and we are privileged to accompany him as he seeks with us to repair the damage done to his work of salvation by those who were called to further that cause. It is a way that one can walk only if one is like the Master: humble and gentle of soul, dedicated to the truth, but fully responsive to the call to love one another as he has loved us. The closer we come to him, the closer we come to each other. We know the way: through prayer, conversion, common witness, and dialogue, putting all our trust in the Holy Spirit—but ready to do our part. Lord, show us your way and give us the courage to follow it.
Edward Idris Cardinal Cassidy is the President of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity. This is an abbreviated version of a talk sponsored by the Institute on Religion and Public Life that was presented in New York City on September 16, 1996.
Copyright (c) 1997 First Things (January 1997).