27. “Ecumenism is like a flight”. Cardinal Koch and the current state of ecumenism

“Ecumenism is like a flight”. This is the metaphor that Cardinal Kurt Koch, president of the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity, used in a public lecture given in Rome on the current state of world-wide ecumenism. Like any successful flight, so ecumenism is experiencing different phases: take off, cruising and landing. The take off stirs some adrenaline; cruising can be turbulent but provides ample possibilities to enjoy the panorama; landing at destination is always risky but, in this case, both vehicle and pilot are trustworthy. Here is what Cardinal Koch told about the flight of ecumenism.


Cruising the ecumenical movement

For the Roman Church, Vatican II (1962-1965) was the take off of the Catholic participation in the ecumenical movement. Expectations were high. Restoration of unity seemed at hand and the process was meant to be quick and immediate. But after take off, cruising can face unexpected and worrying times of turbulence. So the ecumenical season did not bloom from Spring to Summer, but regressed backward from Spring to Winter through a series of sunny and rainy days. Some results were realized, while major problems remain.

According to Vatican II and subsequent magisterial teaching, Christian unity is threefold: professing the same faith, celebrating the same Eucharist, and being united under the same sacramental ministry in apostolic succession. From the Vatican side, there is no unity apart from this threefold dimension. Unity is not a “pick-and-choose” affair, nor is it a vague sense of commonalities. Therefore, ecumenical unity with non-Catholic churches and communities is “real”, yet “imperfect” until it will reach its full scope.


Two schisms to reconcile

Koch reminded the meeting that RC ecumenism deals with the results of two “schisms”: that between the East and the West (since the XI century division between Rome and Constantinople) and that within the West itself (since the XVI century division between Rome and the Protestant Reformation).

The former is facilitated by the shared Eucharistic vision of unity and ecclesiastical structure (i.e. episcopacy in apostolic succession) but is hindered by significant differences in cultural patterns and historical developments. The latter is the other way around: facilitated by common cultural patterns (e.g. religious freedom, pluralism) and hindered by significant ecclesiological differences. The crux of the matter with Constantinople (and even more with Moscow) is the Eastern difficulty to recognize the Petrine ministry of the Pope in the full juridical form of its primacy. Cardinal Koch stressed the fact that Rome is working to allow Eastern Churches to recognize the role of the Pope as it was recognized up to the First Millennium prior to the schism. In other words, the Vatican is not pushing the Orthodox to adhere to the Papal office  as it is now, but as it was before 1054. If that happens, “perfect” unity can be achieved.


The Protestant complexity

The Protestant “schism” is much more difficult to overcome, says Koch. While the Eastern schism maintained the basic sacramental structures of the Church, the Reformation gave rise to a “new” type of church based on the Word rather than on the sacraments and a “new” ecclesiological paradigm based on communities rather than on the Roman succession of ordained ministry. For the Reformers, the Eucharist and episcopacy (i.e. two defining elements of unity) are no longer constitutive of the church but only subsidiary at best.

The RC problem with Protestants is not only institutional, i.e. having to deal with several, fragmented, divided Evangelical groups instead of having one Protestant church. The underlying and deeper problem is the defective Eucharistic and sacramental theology of Protestantism which nurtures a totally different vision of the nature of the church. Therefore, agreements can be found on basic Christian doctrines (e.g. Trinity, Christology, Bible), but they do not touch the sacramental level and therefore are not conclusive for the ecumenical process. Perhaps, Protestants do not even understand what RC sacramentality is all about, and why it matters (my comment, not Koch’s). The Cardinal gave an example: after the 1999 Joint Declaration on Justification, most Protestants expected full unity (e.g. mutual ministerial recognition and Eucharistic hospitality) to be at hand once the doctrinal division was solved. Not so for the Catholic partners. That statement clarified “aspects” of the doctrine, but did not revolve around the deeper sacramentality of it, i.e. what is the role of the Church in it. Remember that doctrine is only one pole of RC unity, not the only one, and never in isolation from the other two.

The lack of sacramental awareness pushes Protestants to understand unity as “mutual recognition”. In other words, for them reciprocity is the goal of ecumenism. But for Catholics unity entails a common faith, a common Eucharist, and a common ordained ministry. There can be no reciprocity until all three dimensions are involved. So, the RC Church expects her ecumenical partners to change accordingly. Going back to the flight metaphor, Cardinal Koch said that since the pilot is the Holy Spirit, unity in the RC sense will indeed happen.


“Doctrine divides, life unites”, or the other way around?

A further complication for RC ecumenism towards liberal Protestants has to do with the sharp divisions that exist on moral issues in church and society. The old dictum stated that “doctrine divides, life unites”, but this is no longer the case. Koch said that doctrinally speaking there has never been a higher degree of theological agreement in Catholic-Protestant relationships than today. Yet, on life issues the ditch is expanding. Pro-life versus pro-choice mirrors our present-day situation and Catholics and liberal Protestants stand on opposite sides. Yesterday, doctrine was felt to be the major obstacle to unity. Today, while doctrine is commonly held, common action in society is becoming a bigger ecumenical problem. The issue at stake is a different “Christian anthropology”.


New ecumenical partners

Cardinal Koch gave a picture of what he sees in flying over the ecumenical territory. The sky seems filled with clouds rather than sunshine. However, the ecumenical field shows that new partners are emerging. Historical Protestant churches are declining in numbers and consistency, whereas Evangelical and Pentecostal groups are growing. The latter have “strong convictions” about the Christian faith, often elaborated in an anti-Catholic fashion. Yet generally speaking they share with Catholics a similar moral vision . “We have just begun to get to know them and to talk to them”, Koch concluded.

So far, Evangelicals are an appendix of the RC mapping of the ecumenical scene. Yet they are on the radar and are subjects that generate RC curiosity and puzzlement: a mix of perplexity and intrigue.



Leonardo De Chirico



Rome, 19th December 2011

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