91. Ecumenism in All Directions. Pope Francis and the Unity of the Church

October 8th, 2014

Nothing is substantially new, but everything is affirmed and lived out in a really new way. This is how Cardinal Walter Kasper, former head of the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity, summarizes Pope Francis’ approach to ecumenism. In a foreword to a book that analyses the major papal speeches and acts as far as the unity of the church is concerned (Riccardo Burigana, Un cuore solo. Papa Francesco e l’unità della chiesa, Milano: Edizioni Terra Santa, 2014), Kasper argues that from his first address after being elected to his daily words and gestures, ecumenism has been central to what Francis has been doing thus far.

As is often the case in the Roman Catholic Church, there is no substantial change in the overall doctrinal framework. The Catholic approach to ecumenism is still the same without additions or subtractions. The final goal of ecumenism is to bring the whole church cum Petro (with Peter, i.e. in fellowship with the Pope) and sub Petro (under Peter, i.e. in submission to the Pope). Having said that, emphases and attitudes do change and this Pope certainly has a distinct way of interpreting his mission as a chief promoter of the ecumenical cause.

Ecumenism of Friendship

The book reflects the on-going commitment of Pope Francis to foster his view of Christian unity. After reading it, here are some observations that can be made. His ecumenical initiatives are based more on personal contacts with leaders of different churches and organizations than on institutional channels. In performing his role the Pope does not totally depend on Vatican bureaucracy but instead retains his own sphere of initiative. This relational aspect is often underlined as the primary way to foster mutual trust and deeper relationships. In Francis’ view, theological dialogues are less important than personal acquaintances. Nothing changes as far as the long term goal of the Pope presiding over the whole church is concerned, but this is not the issue that the Pope likes to focus on. The important thing for him is to say that we are friends, brothers, sisters, already “one” in some sense.

He wants different ecumenical partners and friends to be valued, listened to, cared for, and even admired. He wants to affirm them and wants them to feel appreciated. Theological and ecclesiastical alignments are secondary. Anyone interested in what is happening with this Pope should note that the paradigm he is operating under is that of an ecumenism of friendship rather than one of convictions. The two are not opposed, but the emphasis for him lies on the former, not the latter.

In his 2013 exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, Francis made clear that time is more important than space. What he meant is that those who set their lives in long-term trajectories are better suited to achieve something than those who concentrate on the here and now. The overwhelming appreciation of the ecumenical partners and the on-going investment in personal relationships are two tracks of the ecumenical path that is consistent with this view.

Closer to All?

Another impressive mark of Pope Francis’ ecumenism is that he manages to get closer to all his ecumenical partners without making distinctions between them. He has similar words, attitudes, and approaches to Eastern Orthodox of various stripes, Liberal protestants, Anglicans, Evangelicals, Pentecostals and other kinds of Christians. Theologically speaking this is rather awkward because the closer you get to the sacramentalism and the devotions of the East, the farther away you go from the liberal agenda of most Western protestant churches, and vice versa. Furthermore as you draw nearer to the “free” church tradition of Pentecostalism you at the same time distance yourselves from the highly hierarchical and sacramental ecclesiology of both the Roman and the Eastern traditions. Not so for Pope Francis. As already pointed out, this is not his approach. He invests in relationships with all people while leaving aside theological traditions and ecclesiastical settlements. He wants to get closer to all.

A further illustration of this point is that as he draws nearer to all Christians, Pope Francis is also determined to draw nearer to all people, be they religious or secular. The same brotherly and appreciative afflatus is what marks the Pope’s attitude towards Jews, Muslims, and agnostic intellectuals. Divisive issues are left aside whereas the “brotherly” dimension is always in the foreground. The Pope is clearly pushing with the same intensity the relational side of ecumenism and inter-religious dialogue as if they were two intertwined paths to achieve the overall catholic goal: cum Petro and sub Petro.

The point is that one’s objective is to draw nearer to everyone, this means that the driving concern is not biblical truth and love that is a principled and discerning criterion but the catholicity of friendship that is much more flexible and fluid. While appreciating the friendly tone, the keeping of Christian unity cannot be a matter of friendship alone. Unity in truth is what Jesus prayed for in John 17, and unity in truth and love is what Paul wrote about in Ephesians 4.


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