Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Catholic Ecumenism

I was reminded of how difficult it is to determine what motivates people to do the things they do while reading an article in the May/June issue of Foreign Affairs on 'The Church Undivided: Benedict's Quest to Bring Christians Back Together'. The author Victor Gaetan does a very fair job describing the Catholic Church's idealism, it's desire to be reunited with old friends and foes alike. He describes Pope Benedict's deliberate steps towards reconciliation with the Lutheran, Anglican, and Eastern Orthodox churches. The perception of a papal misstep in the now infamous Regensberg Address, in which the pope appeared to disparage the Muslim faith, is ably shown to be faulty.

In Gaetan description of Benedict's papacy, something of the spirit of the Renaissance Cardinal Nicholas of Cusa's idea there is only ever one religion for all human beings, even if the rituals are various and sundry. A concluding comment on the tenor of Francis' papacy sees more of the same.

What (for lack of a better term) caused or 'gave rise' to these new efforts towards ecclesiastical reconciliation--and even inter-religion understanding? This is where the narrative gets a bit thin. Gaetan notes two contributing factors to the contemporary rise in ecumenism: the need to respond to the marginalization of religion in a secular age and a shared sense of vulnerability in response to an escalation of violence.

It's at this point I scratch my head. Is that the only two things that could be mentioned? Both are external causes acting on the Christian community, forcing it to react to a new situation. Like the theory of natural selection, they are environmental factors determining the development of the social organism. That means internal motivations, like a common confession or the biblical testimony about the desirability, aren't treated on par with the external causes, which would surprise Benedict and Francis, and their counterparts in the Lutheran, Anglican, and Orthodox communities.

Gaetan's explanation also seems to me to be too narrow. Once the importance of internal factors are discounted, or at least demoted in order of importance, those broad inter-generational shifts that sweep everyone up as they make children collectively doubt the wisdom of their parent,s also get missed. Of course, Gaetan is aware that the age of polarizing ideologies has been over since the Berlin Wall fell in 1989. The story of John Paul II's papacy cannot be told without reference to that epochal event.

But something I have notice while reading works published through the 20th century and growing up in the last two decades is that we no longer take our ideas as seriously as our parents and grandparents once did.  We are no longer idealists in the high modern sense of the word. And this has a number of obvious consequences. We no longer think of communities as wholes to which we belong. We don't love abstractions like humanity or a nation like we used to. The boundaries between us and them are being recast on different social fault lines. Where those will lie is not yet clear. Certainly socio-economic divisions, for example, in North America, will be more pronounced than they were in the middle of the 20th century.

That sort of shift in attitude cannot fail to effect on the broader Christian community. In my own life, I witnessed the bottom fall out of a belligerent indifference to other Christian denominations in the Christian Reformed Church. The more Evangelical among the members found common cause with a wider Evangelical community, while the more intellectually inclined became more sympathetic to the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches. Some regretted the loss of theological distinctiveness; but that only confirms my thesis that we no longer take our heady ideas so seriously.

I am not claiming we have stopped thinking, only that we think differently about ourselves. It seems to me the   papacy's push for ecclesiastical reunification makes sense in the context of our mounting disillusionment with old intellectual idols. The election of pope like Francis, a pragmatic servant of the people, is entirely of a piece with the intellectual climate.

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