On Sunday Pope Francis visited Rome’s historic central Synagogue following a precedent set by his two predecessors, Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI to assure the Jewish community of Rome of his good wishes and to re-iterate the teachings of the Second Vatican Council regarding Catholic-Jewish relations. Even more important, however, is Francis’ repeated call, given once more during his visit to the Synagogue, for an end to religion-based violence. The obvious allusion is to the so-called Islamic State and its program of slaughter of non-Muslims, but the problem is considerably deeper and more wide-spread.
Coincidentally today begins the week of prayer for Christian Unity. This practice goes back over a hundred years when then Episcopalian priest, Father Paul Wattson conceived the idea of an annual week of prayer for the restoration of unity among Christian denominations. Father Wattson and his immediate associates were received into the Catholic Church within a year or two of his beginning the movement for this week of prayer, but the idea persisted both among Catholics and Protestants despite the aversion of the Catholic Church for “ecumenism.” (Pius XI condemned the Ecumenical Movement in the 1928 Encyclical, Mortalium Animos.) It was only under Popes John XXIII and Paul VI and the Second Vatican Council that this negative polity was reversed.
There are still those quasi-Catholics who are opposed to Ecumenism and inter-religious dialogue. (Ecumenism refers to the move to restore church unity among Christians; Inter-Religious Dialogue concerns the dialogue (in this case) between the Catholic Church and the non-Christian religions.) Perhaps the most sensitive sticking-point between the Catholic Church and the Lefebvrist semi-schism is not the liturgy but the teaching of the Second Vatican Council on Ecumenism and on Inter-Religious Dialogue.
The danger in any sort of theological dialogue, whether ecumenical or inter-religious, is that faith will devolve into syncretism or indifferentism. In our search for common ground we might settle for the least-common-denominator and settle rather than pursue an honest inquest for the Truth. There is always a danger when we—individually or collectively—fall into the delusion that “I (or we) possess the fullness of the Truth.” Truth is not something static—or rather, our appreciation of the Truth is not something static. Our Christian faith tells us that God has revealed himself once and for all in Christ Jesus, but the history of our Christian faith shows us that we mature in our understanding and apprehension of that Truth over the centuries. We are able to articulate a faith that would not be unknown to the Apostles but a faith far richer and deeper than they were able to express. Future generations—if we do not destroy the planet and its inhabitants in the meantime—will be able to comprehend and articulate the Truth far better than we.
Those who resist the guidance of the Holy Spirit over the Church as we forge into the future hold to the idea that the Church’s treasure house of Truth has all been catalogued and filed and there is nothing more at which we can marvel. They also betray an astounding ignorance of the history of the Church and how doctrines and disciplines alike have continued to unfold and develop over the centuries. What if the Fathers of the Church had never cracked open the scripture and help us articulate the Doctrines of the Trinity and of the Incarnation? What if Saint Augustine had never written his treatises on the Eucharist or on the Church? What if Saint Gelasius had never composed his Sacramentary? Or if Saint Gregory had never written his Moralia? Or what if the Desert Fathers and Mothers had never established Monasticism? What if Saint Thomas had not taken the work of centuries and re-interpreted it according to Aristotelian/Scholastic Philosophy? What if the Roman Rite had frozen in the second century? What if Leo XIII had never initiated the Social Theology that has adapted the Church to the contemporary world? What if Ignatius Loyola had never established a radically different form of religious life adapted to the Missions and to working undercover in Protestant Europe? What if the Church had never founded the great universities of Europe in the 12th and 13 centuries? What if the Church had suppressed polyphony as a “novelty?” What if the Roman Rite never abandoned Greek for Latin in the 3rd century. What if we had never permitted the Doctrine of the Immaculate Conception to develop in the Middle Ages? What if we had never let the doctrine of Purgatory develop in the 11th century? What if Saint Thomas had never been able to talk about Transubstantiation? We are a Church that continues to mine the vein of Truth ever more deeply. Our faith is constant but it is not static. As Cardinal Newman said: To live is to change and to change often is to live perfectly.
Meanwhile over at the neo-trad blog Rorate Caeli, John Rao writes an incredibly stupid essay scoring Pope Francis as an “idolator of change.” Change is threatening and the track of change that the Church has been on (albeit intermittently) since Leo XIII, is particularly threatening to the socio-economic-political establishment. It is shaking the foundations way beyond levels of which we—or those leading us—are aware. Even for its insensitivity towards the full participation of women, it is, at seismic levels, shaking the patriarchy found in the Church itself. But this is where faith comes in. Faith in not intellectual assent to a fixed body of doctrine but putting ourselves trustingly in the hands of God to do his will to the best of our ability to comprehend how he has revealed it to us. There are those who long for the fleshpots of Egypt and the slavish security they provide but for those who are God’s chosen ones the uncertainty of the journey through the desert is what will bring us to the Promised Kingdom. That is a lesson that the Holy Father’s visit to the synagogue keeps us mindful of.