Blog Template Theology of the Body: Ecumenical Acumen Excursus: The Church Triumphant and The Ecumenism of Return

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Ecumenical Acumen Excursus: The Church Triumphant and The Ecumenism of Return

A few posts ago, I wrote about contemporary ecumenism's resistance to a so-called triumphalism in the Catholic Church; this seemingly bad attitude of the Catholic Church would become most blatant in the Church's assertion that Christ's members belong with her, with His body, and those who find themselves in the unfortunate position of being separated from her- whether by birth into a non-Catholic family or by misguided personal decision- should return, for their own fourishing, and for the realization of the Church's universality in a world which so desparately needs it. Modern liberal ecumenists would like to forget or downplay the fact that the above really is something like what the Catholic Church believes and proposes about herself, but there is just no getting around it: the Catholic Church wants YOU, always has, always will, and she does not think that you properly belong in a separated, denominated Christian community that does not, cannot enjoy the fullness of Christ.

What about seeming assertions to the contrary? There are statements a'plenty by non-Catholic ecumenists (who like to put words into the Church's mystical mouth) that deny that the Church holds forth an "ecumenism of return;" there are even comments by Catholic spokesmen and women that might seem to imply the same thing. And well they might. The thing to keep in mind is, regardless of the eloquence of "
mainstream RC ecumenical literature -from Congar to Bea to Willebrands to Kasper, and many others, including Pope John Paul II," (if I may quote a resident liberal ecumenist), even regardless of off-hand remarks made by Cardinal Kasper or the Holy Father himself, the Church is not run or defined by the despotism of ad hoc remarks offered in eloquent commentary. She has been entrusted with the mission of making disciples of all nations by Christ Himself, and taking that call seriously, the Church issues her official teaching only with great care, reflection, and consensus.

There is a hierarchy of proposals in the Catholic Church; there are dogmas which are proclaimed with infallibility, given the Holy Spirit's promises to guide His Church; there are encyclicals which propose definitively, and which require the religious assent of the faithful as an exercise of faith, hope, and love; and then there is midrash, which can be taken up or left behind by the faithful in good conscience. And when a Catholic responds to modern ecumenism, he will properly represent the Catholic tradition only when he responds within the bounds and context established by the Church's explicit and authoritative statements on point (on the other hand, this would not be the case if the Catholic respondant referred instead to a hodge-podge of personal midrash, selected according to to his own personal whims de jour).

In other words, even the seemingly accomodationist commentary of the highest Vatican official in an address to those who are persistently separated from the Catholic Church does not diminish or posit an official contradiction to the definitive statement on point:
“… the union of Christians can only be promoted by promoting the return to the one true Church of Christ of those who are separated from it…” (Pope Pius XI, Encylical Mortalium Animos (#10), Jan. 6, 1928).

The same sentiment is affirmed in the definitive statements of Vatican II; Lumen Gentium VIII (1964) insistst as follows:

"This is the one Church of Christ which in the Creed is professed as one, holy, catholic and apostolic, which our Saviour, after His Resurrection, commissioned Peter to shepherd, and him and the other apostles to extend and direct with authority, which He erected for all ages as "the pillar and mainstay of the truth". This Church constituted and organized in the world as a society, subsists in the Catholic Church, which is governed by the successor of Peter and by the Bishops in communion with him, although many elements of sanctification and of truth are found outside of its visible structure. These elements, as gifts belonging to the Church of Christ, are forces impelling toward catholic unity."

Even the beautiful encyclical Ut Unum Sint of John Paul II (1995), which liberal ecumenists like to tout as a rebuttal of Catholic "triumphalism," refuses to equate schismatic and defective "ecclesial communities" with the fulness of Christ's Catholic Church, to which every Christian is called; God's plan of gathering all Christians into unitiy is identified as the particular prerogative and vocation of the Catholic Church, such that she cannot be identified as one disparate community among many to be gathered into a nebulous consensus; (V) the encyclical holds that the unity bestowed by the Holy Spirit "does not merely consist in the gathering of people as a collection of individuals, but rather is a unity constituted by the bonds of the profession of faith, the sacraments and hierarchical communion," which the Church identifies as fully present only within her body (IX); the encyclical affirms that the Catholic Church has alone "been preserved in unity, with all the means with which God wishes to endow his Church, and this despite the often grave crises which have shaken her, the infidelity of some of her ministers, and the faults into which her members daily fall." (XI) We could go on, but we can conclude just as well with this striking paragraph XIV of the same encyclical:

All these elements (of grace present in separated Christian communities) bear within themselves a tendency towards unity, having their fullness in that unity. It is not a matter of adding together all the riches scattered throughout the various Christian Communities in order to arrive at a Church which God has in mind for the future. In accordance with the great Tradition, attested to by the Fathers of the East and of the West, the Catholic Church believes that in the Pentecost Event God has already manifested the Church in her eschatological reality, which he had prepared "from the time of Abel, the just one". This reality is something already given. Consequently we are even now in the last times. The elements of this already-given Church exist, found in their fullness in the Catholic Church."

In short, the "triumphalism" of the Church's definitive self-understanding is not really triumphalism at all, though it is understandable how a liberal ecumenist might resort to that accusation when feeling whiny; rather, the Church is merely willing to recognize that the will of her Lord does not return to Him void, and that in as much as His Word has gone forth into all the world, the one holy, catholic, and apostolic Church is Christ's present gift, ready to be found by all those who seek her in obedience to Christ.