For most Catholic Americans, it is likely that ecumenism and the quest for Christian unity fall fairly low on the list of priorities.
There are good reasons for that. First, while it is a scandal that Christianity has been fragmented for many centuries, somehow we seem to be getting by OK anyway, and there are plenty of other scandals that seem to demand more immediate attention. Second, the gap seems only to be widening between the Catholic Church and denominations and ecclesial communities, particularly on questions of sexual ethics — like contraception and same-sex marriage — on which Catholics stand as an increasingly lonely sign of contradiction amid the prevailing culture. Third, given the complexity of the history and the theology behind the splintering of Christian groups, ecumenism seems best just left to specialists (though naturally with the support of our regular prayers for success). Fourth, given the virtual certainty Christian unity is unlikely to be achieved in any of our lifetimes, it seems to be, at the very least, an unsatisfying and misplaced focus of time and effort.
It is of the greatest importance that we provide it together at this time when the peoples of the world are in crisis.
And doesn’t the pope’s recent creation of an innovative new Church structure — the “ordinariate,” whose American incarnation came into being Jan. 1 — to welcome groups of disaffected Anglicans into the Catholic fold show that even Church leadership sustains no real hope for the ecumenical project?
Not at all. From the moment of his installation as pope, Benedict has underscored that one of his goals is the advancement of ecumenism — but he emphasizes that it is not “negotiation” or “compromise” as much as common witness and service to a world that is increasingly secularized and adrift.
“It would, of course, be perfectly possible to keep arguing about all sorts of things,” he says in the booklength interview, “Light of the World.” “Or basing ourselves on what we have in common, we could render a common service instead. ... The world needs a well-founded, spiritually based, rationally bolstered capacity for witness to the one God who speaks to us in Christ. In this sense, our cooperation is enormously important. ... We are bearers of an ethical message that provides a compass for mankind. And it is of the greatest importance that we provide it together at this time when the peoples of the world are in crisis.”
There are several practical suggestions that present themselves. It is fortuitous that this year’s Jan. 18-25 Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, in which the Catholic Church has participated since its launch in 1968, focuses on the transformative power of faith in Jesus Christ. Later this year, Catholics will be starting a Year of Faith, which recalls the pre-eminence of “self-evangelization” in spreading the Gospel.
Another oft-overlooked opportunity is for Catholics to recognize and seize opportunities to share witness and service with other Christians engaged in interfaith charitable efforts in their communities, and also through fostering fellowship and Christian good will in their own neighborhoods.
American Catholics, particularly blessed to live in relative peace and prosperity, also must show greater support for Christians around the globe. In the words of the Vatican’s top ecumenical official, Cardinal Kurt Koch, “martyrdom is not only the property of the Catholic Church.” He recently pointed out that 80 percent of those persecuted today around the world for their religion are Christian. “This can be a seed for the new unity,” he said. “There is not enough solidarity among all the Christians of the world.”
Let’s resolve this year to make Christian unity a priority.
Editorial Board: Greg Erlandson, publisher; Msgr. Owen F. Campion, associate publisher; Beth McNamara, editorial director; John Norton, editor; Sarah Hayes, presentation editor.