Two Ecumenicisms

Mar 2nd, 2009 | By | Category: Blog Posts

There are fundamentally two different types of ecumenicism. The more well-known type seeks some general agreement about doctrine, and also seeks increased cooperation in charitable social activities such as caring for the poor and the homeless.

One of the positive results of this type of ecumenicism is that Christians are more at ease talking with Christians of other traditions about our respective differences than we were sixty years ago. We are glad to be able to join arm in arm, for example, in standing up for the unborn and defending marriage and the family in what Francis Schaeffer called co-belligerency.

But at the same time, this type of ecumenicism worries many people, and justifiably so. That is because it seems to seek its goal of achieving general agreement about doctrine by way of compromise. So those who think a particular doctrine is essential feel pressured to drop their belief that this doctrine is an essential doctrine in order to attain some unity with those who think that that doctrine is adiaphorous (i.e. indifferent, non-essential). The very nature of the goal of this type of ecumenicism makes this kind of compromise essential to ecumenical progress. As someone said to me a while back, “True ecumenicism means everybody has to compromise.” And the necessary result of such a methodology is a least-common-denominator minimalism regarding doctrine, an acceptance as sufficient of something far short of the unity in communion to which Christ calls all His people.

This minimalism concerning doctrinal truth is so meager that ecumenicism of this type necessarily turns toward an emphasis on what is called ‘spiritual unity.’ Such ‘spiritual unity’ amounts to a recognition and celebration of our common humanity, and a performative (even if not conscious or intentional) disregard for the truths of divine revelation. This disregard sometimes takes the form of ‘celebrating’ what are in actuality contradictory claims about God and the Christian faith, as though they nevertheless constitute a glorious tapestry of diversity. Of course we all do share a common humanity, and it is important to recognize that we do. And diversity of the sort that does not compromise the truth is truly beautiful. But division and contradiction construed as diversity-within-unity are not beautiful. And Christianity is about much more than our shared humanity. Insofar as this type of ecumenicism is intrinsically inclined to humanism, it is intrinsically inclined to fall short of the truth of Christianity, which is a divine revelation of God through Jesus Christ who is the Truth.

Another reason for Christians to have misgivings about this type of ecumenicism is that by its very methodology it cannot recognize any principled difference between Christianity and non-Christian religions. The effort to find a minimal common ground for the sake of some general doctrinal agreement is a methodology that in itself sees no line in the sand between Christian, Jew, Muslim, or Hindu. And so the compromising pressure that such ecumenicism applies is not only on distinctive doctrines that certain Christian traditions hold to be essential, but on all doctrines distinctive to Christianity, and thus on all Christians. These are reasons, in my opinion, why this sort of ecumenicism rightly troubles Christians who take Christianity and the Bible seriously. It poses the threat of a one-world man-made syncretistic religion encompassing and embracing all religions in a jumbled doctrinal mish-mash at best, and a man-worshipping humanism at worst. And this may very well be the fundamental reason why ecumenicism of this type has stalled in recent years. While liberalism has mostly given up on the notion of divinely revealed truth from the incarnate Christ, Orthodox, Catholics and Protestants who take the Bible seriously rightly have no interest in compromising what they believe to be essential divine truths.

Regarding this sort of ecumenicism, the late Avery Cardinal Dulles, in his First Things article titled “Saving Ecumenicism from Itself,” wrote:

John Paul II consistently opposed styles of ecumenicism 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 “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.

If the pursuit of compromise were the only possible type of ecumenicism, then truth-loving Protestants and Catholics could not engage in it. But there is another type of ecumenicism. This type of ecumenicism does not make general agreement on doctrine its goal. Rather, this ecumenicism has complete agreement on doctrine as its goal, or more precisely, complete agreement on what each person believes to be essential doctrine. Moreover, and perhaps most importantly, it rejects compromise regarding what anyone believes to be truly essential as a means of achieving its goal. As a result, there is no pressure to compromise in order to attain this ecumenicism’s goal. Instead of proposing compromise as a means to reaching a watered-down unity, this type of ecumenicism recognizes that we are not fully united until we are doctrinally united on every doctrine about which anyone believes to be essential. In this ecumenicism we do not sweep our essential doctrinal differences under the rug. We even straightforwardly, and in genuine charity and sincerity, remind each other that the other person’s position, from the point of view of our own tradition, is nothing less than heresy. And nobody is insulted by such utterances, not only because we recognize that they are presented in a genuine charity that is rooted first in a deep love for God, but also because such bracing honesty reveals as fundamental something that those engaged in this type of ecumenicism deeply share, namely, a love for and deep commitment to the truth.

In this type of ecumenicism, we all recognize that there has to be a doctrinal change of mind in order to be united in full communion. But because this ecumenicism rejects compromise as a means of attaining that goal, we seek to attain that goal instead through perseverance in prayer and charitable dialogue that involves careful and mutual consideration and evaluation of the fundamental reasons for our disagreement and their relation to the objective evidence. For this reason there is no intrinsic temptation in this ecumenicism to turn away from essential doctrines and to settle for mere ‘spiritual unity’ or a reduction of Christianity to humanism. All of us who practice this type of ecumenicism recognize that the absence of pressure to compromise does not detract from the divine mandate to pursue agreement with other Christians on essential doctrines. Rather, we believe that this type of ecumenical activity is imperative for us precisely because of what our Lord says in John 17. And yet participating in this type of ecumenicism neither performatively compromises our own beliefs about what is essential nor settles for some sort of minimalism or milquetoast spirituality.

Practitioners of the other type of ecumenicism sometimes accuse this type of ecumenicism of being “apologetics for our own tradition, masked as ecumenicism.” They make this charge because this type of ecumenicism is apologetics for our own tradition, the only qualification being that it is also, at the same time and without contradiction, a genuine and humble pursuit both of the truth and of complete agreement with those of other traditions regarding the essential truths. That is why this ecumenicism is not apologetics in the sense of simply pushing an ideology, with no regard for truth as such. It involves genuine listening, and the developed discipline of understanding other traditions, not just to critique them, but with the sincere and shared desire to determine whether and where and to what degree they are true. This is the only sort of ecumenicism by which full communion can be achieved, and this is the sort of ecumenicism that we here at Called to Communion embrace and seek to practice.

Lord Jesus, as we pursue with each other the unity that Your heart desires us to have and manifest to the world, may we love You faithfully by loving without compromise what we believe You to have revealed as essential, and by maintaining a docile heart before You who are the Truth. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.


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  1. That’s a useful taxonomy, Brian. And it is certainly impossible to construct an authentically Catholic ecumenics without a vigorous apologetical prolegomena – and proclamation!

    Subsistit in – the conciliar antidote to misguided minimalism.

    cf also

  2. […] went on to refer the readers to this post, which I believe made several points germane to our discussion. H responded that the post has […]

  3. […] in the writings of some Catholic apologists who are out there today, writing such things as: Two Ecumenicisms – Called to Communion […]

  4. What Fr. Barron refers to as “Ecumenism 2.0” is the primary reason we started this site, to provide a place in which to we all could enter into that sort of dialogue:

    Robert Barron Quotes 1 from ACT3 Network on Vimeo.

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