Catholic ecumenism and the elephant in the room

world | Jan 23, 2006 | By Fr Matthew Kirby

In the discussion of how to re-unite the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches the greatest stumbling block is the one least addressed. Ecumenically minded theologians on both sides, supported by their respective hierarchies, search for ways to harmonise Eastern and Western understandings of the Trinity, the Papacy, the Intermediate State and so on. And many of them do so in the belief or hope that apparent differences can be reconciled without either Church betraying its principles. But many would say that the most fundamental principle that each Church holds is that it and it alone is the One True Church and that those bodies outside its present communion are thus not so. Why? Because their confidence about their beliefs is founded on a confidence about who they are. And since both sides believe in the Unity and Unicity of the Church, it seems that this in combination with their self-identification as that Church leads logically to a perfectly symmetrical yet utterly irreconcilable understanding of the Church and the goal of ecumenism.

If this is true, it means that, whatever theological and doctrinal barriers are broken, the greatest hurdle that will have to be faced is answering the question “Who is coming back to whom?” In other words, who, if anybody, will admit they were wrong about their basic identity and accept that for centuries they have been outside the Una Sancta, the Catholic Church? Catholic ecumenism is a question then, not just of how to forge a common future, but how to interpret a divided past.
Anglican Catholics have been somewhat distinctive in that their self-understanding has asserted their Catholicity but in a non-exclusive manner. That is, they have seen present divisions as being within the Catholic Church, such that they along with the Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Old Catholic, and perhaps even Oriental Churches are in fact all in the One Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church. (There was a time when many Catholic Anglicans would have put a “perhaps” qualifier before the Roman Catholic Church as well. And, of course, most Old Catholic and Anglican Churches have now undermined their sacramental and doctrinal integrity through innovations such as ordination of priestesses.) It is believed that outward divisions hide but do not destroy an underlying spiritual, doctrinal and sacramental unity.

This Anglican non-exclusivity has then been used against us. Our appeal to Catholic consent, it is claimed, means that we cannot differ from the exclusivist ecclesiologies common to Rome and the East without trampling the Vincentian Canon and proving our Protestantism. This line of argument has been common in Roman Catholic controversial literature directed against Anglicans, being fundamental to Cardinal Newman’s critique and much relied upon, for example, by Al Kimel, recent “convert” to Roman Catholicism and author of the blog Pontifications.

And so it seems we are at an impasse. East and West cannot re-unite without one of them denying its identity, and others who only claim to be part of the Catholic Church without presently being in communion with either East or West, are by that very fact excluded from consideration. One has a picture of two gunslingers facing up and saying simultaneously “This town ain’t big enough for the two of us!” Just then a little guy comes up and says “Ah, come on, I’m sure we can all get along, if … ”. Just then, the first two pause long enough to take turns blowing the little guy away. “Finally, something we can agree on … Now, back to business.”

Is it really so hopeless? Some among RCs and EO would say yes with joy, seeing ecumenism as a heresy or at least a waste of time. Others would say no with a smile, triumphally convinced that the “others” claiming to be Catholic will eventually, either in


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