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From the November, 2000 issue of Touchstone


Full & Honest Ecumenism by S. M. Hutchens

Full & Honest Ecumenism

The Most Reverend Glauco Soares de Lima, Anglican Primate of Brazil, does not like Dominus Iesus. In a recent communiqué he joined a chorus of Protestant and Catholic leaders bemoaning the “blow to ecumenical relations” delivered under this title by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith, and principal Vatican theologian. Cardinal Ratzinger, with the explicit approval of the pope, has officially directed Catholic bishops not to use the term “sister churches” in referring to Protestant denominations. In Dominus Iesus he made it clear that according to Catholic teaching, these churches lack a valid episcopate, and the integral substance of the Eucharistic mystery, and are therefore not churches in the true sense of the term. Rather, they are “ecclesial communities,” ambiguously related to the Mother Church of Rome.

It is not odd, given his convictions, that Bishop Soares considers these pronouncements evidence of William James’s “sick-minded” religion, nor that he regards people who would say such things as timorous fundamentalists retreating from Alvin Toffler’s “third wave” of cybernetic enlightenment. Nor is it surprising that the God in whom he believes is a companion-Father who would never indulge in such religious authoritarianism. This is wish-fulfillment fantasizing typical of the theological liberal who wagers his soul that more than half of what the Bible says about God is false. Mainline ecumenism is imbued with a reverence for the religious progress evident in Bishop Soares’s view of God. This assures that its approved doctrines and practices will be determined by its most progressive—that is, its most radical and unstable—elements. Its theological magisterium is constitutionally unable to recognize a fixity of belief maintained and defended by a teaching authority beholden to Scripture as read from within a defining tradition. The idea being both detestable and inscrutable, there are a limited number of ways it can be dealt with when brought forward. Bishop Soares uses one of them: he calls it a bad name.

What is less reasonable than the bishop’s rancor is the dismay he and any number of similar authorities have expressed at what they regard as the ecumenical setback represented by these documents. Religious progressives have in this century perpetrated outrage after outrage on the beliefs and sensibilities of (among others) serious Roman Catholics, driving themselves and those they represent, despite numerous and clear warnings from the see of Peter, farther than ever from communion or even communication with Rome, all the while indulging the stupendous arrogance of thinking they can still make substantive advances on the ecumenical frontier. They would have Rome overlook not only their ordination of women, increasing acceptance of sodomy, and numerous servilities to the Spirit of the Age, but its own clearly stated and often-repeated beliefs on the status of Protestant churches and their ministries, iterated once again in Dominus Iesus.

This curious blind spot seems to be a genetic feature of Protestant ecumenism, even the variety that still makes some attempt to resist the paganizing forces ravaging its churches. Recently this writer attended a conference on liturgy sponsored by ELCA Lutherans who regard themselves as “evangelical catholics.” They are in many respects admirable Christians, and an extraordinarily bright lot, but profess, in public anyway, to have “no problems” with ordaining women. The conference speakers, many of whom were Roman Catholic, were of the highest quality. It was generally agreed that everything that goes on in our worship of God on earth is to be reflective of the worship of heaven, that all things in connection therewith bear their significance—the music, the architecture—everything. There was a great deal of firm agreement on what was acceptable and what was not. But the symbolic significance of “inclusive language” and the sex of the person who stands at the very center of the Liturgy was not mentioned once, much less opened to discussion. When some of the Lutheran pastors were privately asked why there was no allusion to these swords swinging so brightly and quietly over the proceedings, the consensus appeared to be that such things are no longer brought up for discussion in that church by those who wish to remain unmolested. They were well aware of the importance of the subject, ecumenically and otherwise, but it was “not discussed.”

It is just this sort of atmosphere that sustains the illusion that ecumenical progress is being made because ecumenical meetings are being held and joint manifestos are being issued. Dominus Iesus, which cannot be ignored, is a violent jerk back into a reality that will not go away. It is being read by many Anglicans and Lutherans—rightly one would think—as a Catholic invitation to reverse their anti-ecumenical follies or keep to the sectarian bunker they have for years been busily excavating for themselves, encouraged by Catholics who are really liberal Protestants, and heedless of the constant stream of magisterial warnings that they are not headed in the direction of fraternal amity, much less communion. It is an invitation to reread Lumen Gentium for what it actually says, and a reminder that while Rome has been careful to define the likes of Unam Sanctam and Apostolicae Curae as generously as possible, it has not repealed them.

The teachings articulated in these recent Vatican documents are constitutional. Any ecumenical approach to Rome must take full and honest cognizance of them. Protestants may think them wrong but are ill-advised to treat them as un-Catholic, no matter how much they are encouraged to do so by Catholic revisionists, still brandishing their officially discredited interpretations of Vatican II. Nor can they be made to abate by moaning about how badly ecumenical feelings have been hurt by Cardinal Ratzinger, who speaks here not only for the pope, but from the heart of the Roman Catholic understanding of the character and identity of the Church.

The editors of Touchstone have no desire for Rome to surrender the integrity of its beliefs on the terms required by mainline ecumenism, for we cannot imagine it could, in that frame of mind, stand against the “progressive” Catholics who are trying with all their might to baptize their church in the same wallow of confusion, heresy, and immorality into which their Protestant counterparts have already introduced their own. It is this integrity from which Dominus Iesus issued. We hail the magisterium for not settling for worse, pray, with faithful Catholics, that the next papal administration be like the present one—or more so—and insist, as we always have in these pages, that progress toward unity must be progress in truth, no matter how hard or unwelcome the truth may be.

S. M. Hutchens, for the editors

S. M. Hutchens is a senior editor and the book review editor of Touchstone.

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