Two years ago Herbert Chilstrom, the first and former presiding bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, wrote an open letter to the clergy of the ELCA. His primary aim was to try to hold his denomination together in the face of an impending schism over deep divisions springing from sexuality issues, but in the course of his letter he wrote: “How long are we going to live with the illusion that Vatican II is alive and well in Roman Catholicism?” Bishop Chilstrom was referring both to a stalling—if not a chilling—of ecumenical relationships between the Catholic Church and other Christian groups and internal conflicts within the Catholic Church that indicate that the open and hopeful spirit that characterized the Catholic Church in the years during and immediately after the second Vatican Council has been replaced by a slow but determined return to preconciliar doctrines and disciplines. “The illusion that Vatican II is alive and well in Roman Catholicism” is an interesting comment from an outside observer. It is brutally frank, almost offensively so, and yet because it comes from someone outside the Catholic Church itself, it has, if not an objectivity of perspective at least a disinterested neutrality that an insider cannot make.
What are some of the signs that ecumenical and inter-religious relations have taken a step back from the heady days of the Council? The 2000 declaration of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, Dominus Jesus, written by then prefect Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger and approved by John Paul II sounded one alarm bell. Dominus Jesus declares that non-Catholic Christian churches that have not preserved a valid episcopate therefore do not possess a genuine and integral substance of the Eucharistic mystery and without the fullnes of the Eucharistic mystery they are not “Churches” in the proper theological sense. In fact, the Conciliar decree on Ecumenism, Unitatis Reintegratio had made the same distinction but does so in a more circumspect, even dialogical manner that invited response, conversation, argument, and dialogue. Moreover, the thirty-one years of ecumenical cordiality between John XXIII’s calling the Council explicitly to heal the divisions among Christians and the CDF issuing Dominus Jesus had created an atmosphere of open dialogue and mutual respect that the unilateral tone of Dominus Jesus undercut. The reaction from Protestant, Anglican, and Orthodox officials was one of hurt and resentment. To be fair, however, the breakdown in dialogue—or perhaps better put as the dialogues are not officially terminated—the theological impasse resulted not only from the CDF document but also in great part from the decision of the majority of Churches in the Anglican Communion and the majority of Protestant Churches to ordain women to the priesthood and episcopacy or the equivalent offices. This made further dialogue, at least regarding sacramental reunion, appear pointless to the Catholic side of the discussion. Of course, dialogue does not need to have an identified point; a perceived impossibility of agreement might be reason to cease discussion in military and political circles, but there is never a reason for conversation among Christians to break down. Charity and Hope alone are sufficient reason.
It was not only Christians that were offended by Dominus Jesus. The same decree went on to declare non-Christians are seriously deficient in terms of access to the means of salvation in comparison with those who in the Church have the full means of salvation. Again, this does not substantially differ in essence from the decree on non-Christian religions, Nostra Aetate, but its tone of the CDF document is far more typical of the pre-Vatican II dogmatism than the conciliar decree which highlighted that all the great world religions contain elements of truth and that the Catholic Church rejects nothing of what is true that is held by these various religions. The exact words of Nostra Aetate are:
The Catholic Church rejects nothing that is true and holy in these religions. She regards with sincere reverence those ways of conduct and of life, those precepts and teachings which, though differing in many aspects from the ones she holds and sets forth, nonetheless often reflect a ray of that Truth which enlightens all men. (NA para2)
Despite reservations about religions other than Christianity, Pope John Paul had reached out to peoples of all religions and no religion in a way that built rapport and trust, empowering Catholics to work with people of good will in addressing many of the challenges which face the human family around the globe. Pope John Paul did not hesitate to join in prayer with representatives of all the various religions of the world. In 1986 and again in 2002 John Paul hosted interfaith assemblies in Assisi. The times of common prayer were very carefully structured to avoid giving the impression that Christians were joining in the worship of deities other than the One God who is recognized by the Abrahamic faiths and the interfaith services tended to be rituals of solidarity rather than actual worship. Nevertheless, then Cardinal Ratzinger made it known that he was uncomfortable with such gatherings and he avoided---I hesitate to say” refused” to attend though that was the impression at the time—the second of these meetings.
The situation is not entirely bleak. While there seems little thaw in the air with the Patriarchate of Moscow, and while the Orthodox Church in Greece is not about to let go of their traditional bias against Catholicism, the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Constantinople and the Papacy seem to be gradually becoming more trusting of one another. In one hopeful sign of the good will generated almost fifty years ago during the Council, Pope Benedict has recently announced a third meeting of religious leaders scheduled for this October (2011) in Assisi to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the first encounter. As Cardinal Ratzinger he had not been enthusiastic about these gatherings; it is very significant that now that he is Pope, he is convoking such a meeting, It must be said too that Benedict, always a gentleman, has cordially received various religious leaders at the Vatican and in 2007 did meet with a gathering of religious leaders, Christian and non-Christian, in an effort to discuss how religion might be used for reconciliation and non-violence rather than deepening the divisions in the human family. Nevertheless, the Pope’s own track record with ecumenical and inter-religious dialogue has been less than satisfactory. Anglicans have not been happy at his issuing procedures not only for individuals but for entire parishes and even dioceses to move their fold to the Catholic side. Of course, at least in the United States, far more Catholic clergy (and probably laity) have moved to the Anglican/Episcopalian bleachers than have come over to our team. Benedict’s 2006 lecture at the University of Regensburg deeply offended Muslims when he quoted Byzantine Emperor Manuel II Palaiologos, as saying “show me just what Muhammad brought that was new and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.” Similarly he offended many Jews when he permitted the restored Tridentine Good Friday Service to contain the traditional prayer for the conversion of “the perfidious Jews.” His reconciliation to the Church of Lefebvrist bishop Richard Williamson, a holocaust denier, also set back the Jewish-Catholic relationship.
Perhaps the saddest thing—and the most fatal—is not what has happened on the official level but the breakdown of ecumenism and inter-religious dialogue on the local level. The various ecumenical and inter-faith prayer services seem to have mostly fallen into decline. One does not usually see the clergy in one’s town any longer sharing pulpits or teaching a Sunday School in one another’s churches. Monthly lunches may survive from place to place and friendships do form but over all the ecumenical and interfaith dialogue on the local level is a thing of the past. And now when we need it more than ever as America struggles to integrate a new and—to us—very foreign religious tradition, Islam, into our society.
To do a balance sheet on Ecumenical and Interfaith relations in the last two papacies, one would have to say that we are ahead of where we were before the Council started, and overall we accomplished much in the pontificate of Paul VI and the first half of the pontificate of John Paul II but there has been not only a slowing down but a loss of ground in ecumenical and interfaith collaboration and understanding in the last twenty years. It seems to be more than a loss of steam, a threat to any long-term project; there has been a change of tone away from the dialogic and while not in the preconciliar “unconditional surrender” attitude certainly one of (to paraphrase a current movie) “my game, my rules.”
Today's image: In England the Anglican Dean of York Minster incenses the relics of Saint Thérèse of Lisieux during an interfaith service in the Cathedral two years ago. Ecumenism may not be as healthy as it once was, but it is far from dead.