Sunday, January 15, 2006

Catholic Ecumenism and the Elephant in the Room (I)

Herewith a piece by contributing editor Fr Matthew Kirby on the obstacles to ecumenism. Due to my continuing technological inadequacies, I shall post it in serial form.

In the discussion of how to re-unite the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches the greatest stumbling block is the one least addressed. Ecumenically minded theologians on both sides, supported by their respective hierarchies, search for ways to harmonise Eastern and Western understandings of the Trinity, the Papacy, the Intermediate State and so on. And many of them do so in the belief or hope that apparent differences can be reconciled without either Church betraying its principles. But many would say that the most fundamental principle that each Church holds is that it and it alone is the One True Church and that those bodies outside its present communion are thus not so. Why? Because their confidence about their beliefs is founded on a confidence about who they are. And since both sides believe in the Unity and Unicity of the Church, it seems that this in combination with their self-identification as that Church leads logically to a perfectly symmetrical yet utterly irreconcilable understanding of the Church and the goal of ecumenism.

If this is true, it means that, whatever theological and doctrinal barriers are broken, the greatest hurdle that will have to be faced is answering the question “Who is coming back to whom?” In other words, who, if anybody, will admit they were wrong about their basic identity and accept that for centuries they have been outside the Una Sancta, the Catholic Church? Catholic ecumenism is a question then, not just of how to forge a common future, but how to interpret a divided past.

Anglican Catholics have been somewhat distinctive in that their self-understanding has asserted their Catholicity but in a non-exclusive manner. That is, they have seen present divisions as being within the Catholic Church, such that they along with the Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Old Catholic, and perhaps even Oriental Churches are in fact all in the One Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church. (There was a time when many Catholic Anglicans would have put a “perhaps” qualifier before the Roman Catholic Church as well. And, of course, most Old Catholic and Anglican Churches have now undermined their sacramental and doctrinal integrity through innovations such as ordination of priestesses.) It is believed that outward divisions hide but do not destroy an underlying spiritual, doctrinal and sacramental unity.

This Anglican non-exclusivity has then been used against us. Our appeal to Catholic consent, it is claimed, means that we cannot differ from the exclusivist ecclesiologies common to Rome and the East without trampling the Vincentian Canon and proving our Protestantism. This line of argument has been common in Roman Catholic controversial literature directed against Anglicans, being fundamental to Cardinal Newman’s critique and much relied upon, for example, by Al Kimel, recent “convert” to Roman Catholicism and author of the blog Pontifications.

And so it seems we are at an impasse. East and West cannot re-unite without one of them denying its identity, and others who only claim to be part of the Catholic Church without presently being in communion with either East or West, are by that very fact excluded from consideration. One has a picture of two gunslingers facing up and saying simultaneously “This town ain’t big enough for the two of us!” Just then a little guy comes up and says “Ah, come on, I’m sure we can all get along, if … ”. Just then, the first two pause long enough to take turns blowing the little guy away. “Finally, something we can agree on … Now, back to business.”

Is it really so hopeless? Some among RCs and EO would say yes with joy, seeing ecumenism as a heresy or at least a waste of time. Others would say no with a smile, triumphally convinced that the “others” claiming to be Catholic will eventually, either in groups or as individuals, recognise their fraudulent position and “come back to the Church”. I disagree with both of these positions and believe that there is hope, as long as everybody is willing to take Church history seriously. Let me explain.

Al Kimel, in his Pontificator’s Fourth Law states that “A church that does not understand itself as the Church, outside of which there is no salvation, is not the Church but a denomination or sect.” My past response to this on his blog, with minor modifications, follows:

This is not so much an axiomatic law as a derived one. I submit that it is based on the following argument (or something like it):
1. Any truly Catholic ecclesiology must not only teach that the Church is visible and one, but that it is visibly one.
2. A Church holding a Catholic ecclesiology will obviously believe that it is Catholic.
3. Therefore, such a Church must also hold that any body outside its visible unity, that is, not part of its internal communio in sacris, is outside the unity of the Catholic Church. [1 + 2]
4. Any truly Catholic ecclesiology must also teach that outside the Church there is no salvation.
5. Any body claiming to be a church which does not hold a truly Catholic ecclesiology is a denomination or sect.
6. Therefore, a church that does not understand itself as the Church, outside of which there is no salvation, is not the Church but a denomination or sect [3 + 4 +5]

The first premise identified above as underlying this Law has the following corollary for historical interpretation: Any break in communion that discontinues the visibility of unity between one Christian body and another, if the two groups were previously united within the Catholic Church, must leave one group outside the Catholic Church until that breach is visibly healed. Call this proposition 1*.

Thus, if any historical circumstances exist that have very commonly been interpreted by theologians with undisputedly Catholic ecclesiologies in ways that conflict with this corollary, then it must be accepted either that the corollary is oversimplified and requires denial or modification or it must at least be admitted that its denial does not prove a theologian is an ecclesiological heretic! Therefore, given the existence of such interpretations of Church history by substantial numbers of Catholic and Orthodox theologians in good standing, proposition 1 of 6 and the derived Fourth Law would no longer obtain in their present form. Call the existence of such interpretations contra-1*, or C-1*. Now for the evidence.


Fr Matthew Kirby said...

Please, pretty please, put a line between every paragraph. :-)

I think they were there in the original. Hope so. Perhaps the internet ether has swallowed them. I wouldn't be surprised.

Computers, gotta love 'em.


Archpriest John Morris said...

It is quite possible for East and West to unite. There are already Western Rite Orthodox Churches. East and West were united for the first 1,000 years of Church history and can be again. Unity can easily be achieved by Orthodoxy and Rome, if Rome is willing to unite on the basis of the teachings of the Church before the Roman Schism. That means that innovations such as universal papal supremacy, purgatory and indulgences, and other such innovations must be redefined to return to the beliefs and practices of the ancient undivided Church. Great progress is being made through the Orthodox Catholic Ecumenical dialogues. What confuses Orthodox about Anglicanism is that every Anglican or continuing Anglican group has a different definition of Anglicanism. There are Anglicans who are very close to Orthodoxy, but there are also Anglicans who are definitely Protestant.

Fr. John W. Morris

Fr. Robert Hart said...


Archpriest John Morris said...

There is a web site that has links to two different descriptions of the beliefs of traditional Anglicanism. One states that Anglicans recognize the first four Ecumenical Councils. The other states that Anglicans recognize all seven Ecumenical Councils. That is what I mean when I write that every Anglican group has its own unique definition of traditional Anglican doctrine.

Fr. John W. Morris

Archpriest John Morris said...

In response to Fr. Robert Hart. When I became Orthodox, I built on the foundation laid by the instructions that I received when I became an Episcopalian when I was 16. I did not have to reject what I was taught except for matters dealing with ecclesiology. Even when I went to seminary, I did not have to reject what I was taught in the Episcopal Church, I did have to go into more depth than a class for converts can do, but I did not have to reject the basic doctrines and practices taught at St. John's Episcopal Church in Oklahoma City in the late 60s. However, when I got a job teaching at a small college in Texas the local Episcopal Church practiced a very different religion than St. John's in Oklahoma City. Back then St. John's was closer to Orthodoxy than it was to Grace Church in Georgetown, Texas. That is what I mean. I might very well have become a continuing Anglican in 1976 had that possibility presented itself, but it did not, so I became Orthodox. I still respect High Church Anglicanism. I guess that is why I am such a strong supporter of the Orthodox Western Rite, although I am an Eastern Rite priest.

The Very Rev. John W. Morris

eulogos said...

I think if there were reunion everyone would have to agree to leave with God the issue of who was the One True Church while we were separate. No one asks which of the three popes and his followers were the one true church.

With respect to principle 4, have you read Unitatis Redintegratio?