Ecumenism 2

“Ecumenism is open to two kinds of misunderstanding or abuse. First, it can be misconceived as aiming merely at a modus vivendi and more friendly relations among communities that remain divided. Second, there seems to be a temptation for Catholics to represent Protestant views, formerly rejected by the Church, as not irreconcilable with Catholicism, to thin down Catholic doctrine to aspects that may be compatible with Protestant positions, and to dodge the differentiation between truth and error.

The Second Vatican Council, however, in welcoming the Ecumenical Movement and encouraging its progress, has not sanctioned such confusions. The Decree on Ecumenism repeatedly states that the aim of ecumenism is the restoration of full unity between the now divided communities (see nos. 1, 4, 5, 12). It is with this objective in view that the document readily admits that we can learn from the separated separated Christians (nos. 4, 6), and it urges that we should try to understand better the mind of the separated brethren (no. 9). But the Decree also demands “that it should become clearer what the position of the Catholic Church really is” and “that our faith be more adequately expounded” to the separated Christians (nos. 9, 11 para. 2). It warns that those things which we can learn from the separated Christians “have carefully to be distinguished from the Deposit of Faith” (no. 6). There is no room for a license to blur essential differences. The Decree explicitly cautions against confusion in stating: “Nothing is so alien to ecumenism as that false irenicism by which the purity of Catholic doctrine suffers damage and its genuine and plain sense is obscured” (Nil ab oecumenismo tam alienum est quam ille falsus irenismus, quo puritas doctrinae catholicae detrimentum patitur et ejus sensus genuinus et certus obscuratur. No. 11).

True ecumenism is a common quest for the truth and for possibilities of re-establishing real unity. The principal objective of such endeavors is, of course, the discovery of agreements and a rapprochement without detriment to the truth. But since truth is opposed to error, it is also necessary to make distinctions and even to venture criticism. Honest inquiry for the truth does not evade the challenge of serious criticism.

Catholics are at present criticizing their own past and the present condition of their Church with a zeal which to some extent is surely justified and healthy, though it often overshoots the mark. But is it only Catholicism that requires to be criticized? Is it not necessary that the principles underlying the separate existence of Protestant churches should also be critically examined?

The movement that resulted in the division was started by Martin Luther. Crucial to his theology and spirituality, from about 1518 onward, was his new conception of faith. This concept was a seed whose germinative power has remained unimpaired throughout four-and-a-half centuries. It is the inchoate form of anthropocentric theology. Now it is anthropocentric trends which at present are causing considerable confusion in Protestantism and Catholicism alike, and the writings of modern Protestants evidence the impact of Luther’s central idea. A critique of this idea seems therefore requisite for clarifying the situation.

But is it wise to reopen an old wound which has just begun to heal? Should we not be glad that the period dominated by controversy has at last come to an end? Would it not be more helpful to the cause of reconciliation to confine our studies to features in Luther’s thought acceptable to all partners in the dialogue?

There is no one today who denies that there are genuinely Christian values in Luther’s works. The present author is well aware that these can be made fruitful for true ecumenism and he has been anxious not to overlook such values even in writing this critique. However, experience of recent years has come to confirm his conviction that a positive evaluation of Luther’s ideas presupposes criteria, and these can only be gained by critical scrutiny. The present confusion is in a great measure the outcome of a lack of criteria. Today, a critique of Luther’s central concept is not a triumphant assertion of Catholic claims but an attempt to discern one of the origins of dangers that threaten all churches alike.

The thought of pre-Protestant Luther (1509–17) is grand and deep. His passion for the Word of God, his “theology of the cross,” and his spirituality of humility revivified vital elements of Catholic tradition with an originality indicative of charism. Even his anti-philosophical attitude is evidence of his total surrender to the majesty of God. His allegiance to nominalism did not impair his religious originality. On the contrary, he kept a critical attitude toward tenets of that school and succeeded in making its way of thinking subservient to his intention, which was exclusively and passionately religious. All the great impulses of a truly Christian nature that remained even in his later career date from that early period which, though very different from prevailing forms of medieval Catholicism, must be judged as the promise of a Catholic renewal.”

-Hacker, Paul (2017-09-22T23:58:59). Faith in Luther: Martin Luther and the Origin of Anthropocentric Religion (Kindle Locations 391-428). Emmaus Academic. Kindle Edition.

Love & truth,
Matthew

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