The December issue of First Things is now out and includes an good reflection by Avery Cardinal Dulles entitled ‘Saving Ecumenism from Itself’ in which he reports that ‘the principal instrument of ecumenism over the past half century has been a series of theological conversations between separated churches. Proceeding on the basis of what they held in common, the partners tried to show that their shared patrimony contained the seeds of much closer agreement than had yet been recognized. Rereading their confessional documents in light of Scripture and early creeds as shared authorities, they produced remarkable convergence statements on traditionally divisive subjects such as justification, Mariology, Scripture and tradition, the Eucharist, and the ordained ministry’. And yet, valuable though it was, the convergence method was not without limitations, not least, he suggests, because all parties do not accept the historical-critical method. He observes:
Many of the twentieth-century dialogues have opted to take Scripture, interpreted by the historical-critical method, as their primary norm. This method has worked reasonably well for mainline Protestant churches and for the Catholic Church since Vatican II. But many Christians do not rely on the critical approach to Scripture as normative. Catholics themselves, without rejecting the historical-critical method, profess many doctrines that enjoy little support from Scripture, interpreted in this manner. They draw on allegorical or spiritual exegesis, authenticated by the sense of the faithful and long-standing theological tradition. As a consequence, certain Catholic doctrines, such as papal primacy, the Immaculate Conception, the Assumption, and purgatory, have been banished to the sidelines. Unable to cope with doctrines such as these, the dialogues have treated them as an ecumenical embarrassment.
Also, he contends, that as valuable and as principled as the convergence method of dialogue between various denominations has been over the past half century, it has not been without limitations: ‘Each new round of dialogue raised expectations for the future. The next dialogue, at the price of failure, was under pressure to come up with new agreements. The process would at some point reach a stage at which it had delivered about as much as it could. It would eventually run up against hard differences that resisted elimination by this method of convergence. When the dialogues attempted to go beyond convergence and achieve full reconciliation on divisive issues, they sometimes overreached themselves’.
Finally, he concludes his essay by asking ‘How then can Christian unity be envisaged?’. His response:
The first condition, I believe, is that the various Christian communities be ready to speak and listen to one another. Some will perhaps receive the grace to accept what they hear credibly attested as an insight from other communities. The witnesses and their hearers need not insist on rigorous proof, because very little of our faith can be demonstrated by deductive methods. Testimony operates by a different logic. We speak of what has been graciously manifested to us and what we have found to be of value for our relationship with God. If others accept what we proclaim, it is because our words evoke an echo in them and carry the hallmark of truth.
The process of growth through mutual attestation will probably never reach its final consummation within historical time, but it can bring palpable results. It can lead the churches to emerge progressively from their present isolation into something more like a harmonious chorus. Enriched by the gifts of others, they can hope to raise their voices together in a single hymn to the glory of the triune God. The result to be sought is unity in diversity.
True progress in ecumenism requires obedience to the Holy Spirit. Vatican II rightly identified spiritual ecumenism as the soul of the ecumenical movement. It defined spiritual ecumenism as a change of heart and holiness of life, together with public and private prayer for the unity of Christians. We must pray to God to overcome our deafness and open our ears to what the Spirit is saying to the churches, including our own. No mutual rapprochement can be of any value unless it is also a closer approach to Christ the Lord of the Church. We must ask for the grace to say only what the Spirit bids us say and to hear all that he is telling us through the other.
Then we may hope that, by accommodating what other communities are trying to tell us, we may be enriched with new and precious gifts. By accepting the full riches of Christ we lose nothing except our errors and defects. What we gain is the greatest gift of all: a deeper share in the truth of Christ, who said of himself, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.”
The entire essay can be read here.