January 2003

Enthusiasm for ecumenism

Cardinal Walter Kasper

Walter, Cardinal Kasper is the President of the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of Christian Unity. Here he describes how the progress of ecumenism has reached a time of crisis, but also of real, if incomplete, unity. He offers six proposals towards an ‘ecumenism of life’, adding that ‘we need new ecumenical enthusiasm. But this does not mean devising unrealistic utopias of the future.’

Ecumenism in a changing situation

Where are we ecumenically at the beginning of the new Millennium? What have we achieved in the last 35 years since the Catholic Church officially entered the ecumenical movement with the Second Vatican Council? What have been the positive outcomes? What are the new problems and new challenges that we face? My reflections on these issues have been deliberately placed under the heading: ‘Ecumenism in a changing situation’.

Through the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of Christian Unity, the Catholic Church is presently involved in thirteen different dialogues. Rather than go into detail about all of these, I would like to highlight some general characteristics of the present situation and to reflect on the changes that seem to me to be particularly revealing. I want to put forward the thesis that a new ecumenical situation is emerging.

Time for decision
In a certain sense we can speak of a crisis. Here the term ‘crisis’ is meant in the original sense of the Greek term, meaning a situation where things are hanging in the balance. This state can turn out to be either positive or negative; both remain possible. A crisis situation is one in which old ways come to an end, but room for new possibilities are opened up; it is a time of challenge and a time for decision.

To get a better hold of both the possibilities and dangers of the present context, it may be helpful to look back to some of the major ecumenical events of the past three or four years, and especially during the Jubilee Year 2000.

That year we had the joy of celebrating some important prophetic ecumenical events: the opening of the Holy Door at St Paul Outside the Walls; the Day of Pardon on the first Sunday in Lent; and the commemoration of the martyrs of the twentieth century at the Colosseum. At the first and the last of these three events, more ecumenical delegates were present than during the Second Vatican Council. These were deeply moving events. It was a source of hope for many, at the beginning of the new Millennium, to witness the Bishop of Rome sharing a sign of peace with the bishops and leaders of the Churches and ecclesial communities of both East and West, and inviting the delegate of the Ecumenical Patriarch and the Archbishop of Canterbury to join him in opening the Holy Door.

Even more moving for me was the celebration of the witnesses of the twentieth century which, more than any previous century, had been a century of martyrs in all the Churches and in all ecclesial communities. The commemoration of this common heritage of martyrdom is a source of inspiration and, paradoxically, of hope, because the blood of the martyrs sows seeds of faith, and seeds of unity as well. These events during the Jubilee Year are indicative of the positive new ecumenical situation, reflecting the gains of the last decades.

We have also seen important gains being made in our ecumenical dialogues. Permit me to select three examples of such progress, before reflecting on some of the limits to the gains thus far achieved. In 1999 in Augsburg we not only signed but celebrated the signing of the ‘Joint Declaration on Justification’ with the Lutheran World Federation. As Pope John Paul II expressed it, this was a real milestone. It was the result of many ecumenical dialogues on the international and national levels during the preceding years, and was seen by many Christians as offering the world a sign of hope. They rejoiced that centuries-old polemics and differences which had divided the Churches over a central and fundamental point of their message could be overcome through serious ecumenical dialogue.

Enormous progress
In 1999, the dialogue with the Anglican Communion (ARCIC) resulted in the publication of The Gift of Authority, a document which reflects the enormous progress which has been made, not least regarding the question of the Petrine ministry. The climate and atmosphere on the hierarchical level, as well as the theological level, are excellent. During the past four years, outgoing Archbishop of Canterbury Dr George Carey visited the Vatican on four occasions, an indication of the close relationship which has been established.

There have also been positive events in our relations with several of the Oriental and the Orthodox Churches recently. In March 2002, the Synod of the Greek Orthodox Church sent an official delegation to Rome, the first one in a thousand years, as a response to the Pope’s visit in May 2001. They visited several Congregations, sharing experiences and asking questions on various topics. We value their visit as a great improvement in relations between the two Churches.

Many other examples could be chosen from relations with our other ecumenical partners. Along with the events of the Jubilee Year, these improved relations and results of dialogues are signposts indicating that we find ourselves ecumenically in a new situation. In his ecumenical encyclical Ut Unum Sint (1995), Pope John Paul II describes and appreciates the fruits of the dialogues as ‘brotherhood rediscovered’ (n.41). Christians of the different Churches and ecclesial communities are no longer enemies or indifferent neighbours; they meet as brothers, as sisters and as friends; they are walking on the same path, on the same pilgrimage towards full communion.

At the same time, it must be recognised that we are still well short of that goal, and it does not appear to be easily within reach. After clearing up many misunderstandings, and after establishing a basic consensus concerning the centre of the faith, we have now reached the hard core of our ecclesiological, or institutional ecclesiological, differences.

In the encounter with the ancient Oriental and Orthodox Churches this is the Petrine ministry, in the encounter with the Churches of the Reformation it is the question of the apostolic succession in the episcopate. According to our Catholic understanding, establishing full church communion and, therefore, eucharistic fellowship depends on the solution of these questions. Furthermore, our relations with several of our dialogue partners have also been complicated by their experience of internal tensions: tensions over institutional ecclesiological questions, but also over ethical questions like abortion, homosexuality, bioethics, and political ethics. These tensions are another reminder that the journey ahead is likely to be long.

And so, at the beginning of a new Millennium, we find ourselves at an intermediate stage, living in a transitional period, which will probably last for some time to come. It may prove helpful to reflect further on some of the defining elements and characteristics of this intermediate period, and then to identify tasks and possibilities which are open before us in this emerging context.

Result of success
A first element of a changing situation is the simple distance of 35 years from the Second Vatican Council and its Decree on Ecumenism that declared the restoration of unity among Christians to be one of its principal concerns (Unitatis Redintegratio 1). To some degree the crisis of the ecumenical movement is, paradoxically, the result of its success. Ecumenism for many became obvious. But the closer we come to one another, the more painful is the recognition that we are not yet in full communion. We are hurt by what still separates us and hinders us from joining around the table of the Lord; and we are increasingly dissatisfied with the ecumenical status quo. In this atmosphere, ecumenical frustration and sometimes even opposition develops. Ironically, ecumenical progress has become a cause of ecumenical malaise.

There is also a second aspect to the distance in time. For my generation the Second Vatican Council and its decision in favour of the ecumenical movement was a great and to some extent a new experience. In the meantime we have a new generation of Catholic people and young priests who ‘knew not Joseph’; they were not yet born at the time of the Council, so they do not really understand what, how and why things have changed. They do not understand our theological problems and they are not bothered by them. So the ecumenical questions have lost their fascination. This is very often connected with a lack of catechetical and homiletic instruction. Many do not know what Catholic or Protestant doctrine is all about and what the differences are. Often they have only a superficial and patchy knowledge through the mass media.

Double challenge
In this situation we are faced with a double task and challenge. First, we have to promote ecumenical education and the reception of ecumenical results. The results of ecumenical progress have not yet penetrated into the hearts and into the flesh of our Church and of the other Churches as well. Ecumenical theology is not present as an inner dimension in theological programmes. Secondly, we must clarify and renew the ecumenical vision; we need a new ecumenical push and verve. We are in danger of losing a whole generation of young people if we do not give them a vision. This means catechetical, homiletic, theological endeavour, but even more a spiritual renewal and a new start.

Another element in our present situation is a new emphasis on identity. The search for openness and dialogue, within the Churches but also in the secular world, is being challenged by a new search for cultural, national, ethnic, confessional and also personal identity. The new question’s are: Who are we? Who am I? How can we, how can I avoid being absorbed in a faceless, bigger whole? In this context, ecumenism is sometimes misunderstood as abolishing confessional identity and leading to an arbitrary pluralism, to indifference, relativism and syncretism.

From other quarters, it is the slow pace of ecumenical progress which has evoked a range of negative reactions: disappointment and scepticism, harsh criticism of the official Church, attitudes and acts of protest, the emergence of a reckless ecumenism that disregards church leaders and the rules and guidelines they set forth. This unbridled ecumenism is counter-productive because, instead of more communion, it creates new divisions.

What is ecumenism?
All of this invites a clarification of the concept of ecumenism. Ecumenical dialogue does absolutely not mean abandoning one’s own identity in favour of an ecumenical ‘hotch-potch’. It is a profound misunderstanding to see it as compromising or as doctrinal relativism. The aim is not to find the lowest common denominator. Ecumenical dialogue does not foster spiritual impoverishment but mutual spiritual enrichment and induction into the whole truth. Ecumenism must be understood as an open sharing of our Catholic identity, as a genuine and necessary expression of Catholicity in the profound sense of the term.

What is needed is a mature ecumenism which has become both realistic and responsible, one that has gone beyond the enthusiasm of youth and reckless behaviour of adolescence. The present context invites us to envisage a longer period during which we will continue living in the present situation of an already existing and profound communion, having left behind the old hostility and indifference, but not yet having reached full communion. So now the question arises of how to give life and structure to this intermediate situation. What can we do already, here and now? What are the next steps?

Ecumenical praxis during the transition period
If we live in a period of real but incomplete communion, it is clear that we need to find a way to live deeply and faithfully in the midst of that transition, to endow and fill that period with real life. To the ‘ecumenism of love’ and the ‘ecumenism of truth’, which both naturally remain very important, must be added an ‘ecumenism of life’. The Churches did not only diverge through discussion, they diverged through the way they lived, through alienation and estrangement. Therefore, they need to come closer to each other again in their lives; they must get accustomed to each other, pray together, work together, live together, bearing the sting of our incomplete communion and the ongoing impossibility at present of eucharistic communion around the Lord’s table. I would like to make six proposals towards an ecumenism of life during this intermediate period:

1. This transitional period must have its own ‘ethos’ involving renunciation of all kinds of open or hidden proselytism, awareness that all ‘inside’ decisions touch also our partners, healing the wounds left by history (purification of memories), and wider reception of the ecumenical dialogues and agreements already achieved. Without danger to our faith or our conscience we could already do much more together than we actually do: common Bible study, exchange of spiritual experiences, gathering of liturgical texts, joint worship in services of the Word, better understanding of our common tradition as well as existing differences, co-operation in theology, in mission, in cultural and social witness, co-operation in the area of development and the preservation of the environment, in mass media, etc. Ecumenical reception and formation are particularly important for this transitional period, as we have already pointed out.

2. We must find institutional forms and structures for the present transitional period. This can be undertaken in particular through Councils of Churches on the regional and national level. They do not constitute a super-church, and they require none of the Churches to abandon their own self-understanding. Responsibility for the ecumenical journey ultimately remains with the Churches themselves. But such councils are an important instrument for the promotion of unity, and a forum for co-operation between the member churches (cf. Directory for the Application of Principles and Norms on Ecumenism, 1993, 166-71).

3. The changing situation does not prevent us from continuing with our dialogues. After the substantial clarification of the central content of the faith (christology, soteriology and doctrine of justification), it is the question of the Church and its mission which becomes central. It will be necessary to clarify the understanding of church and to come to an agreement on the final goal of the ecumenical pilgrimage. All Churches will have to do their homework in order to understand and explain better the nature and mission of the Church. In doing so we have to present our agreements and our differences; this is the only way to come to a clarification and, ultimately, to a consensus.

4. Closely related to this is the ongoing dialogue work needed on the crucial subject of ministries in the Church. Particularly at stake is the episcopate in apostolic succession and – in answering the question and the request of Pope John Paul II in the encyclical Ut Unum Sint (n. 95) – the future exercise of the Petrine ministry within the new ecumenical situation. We should make it clear that both are a gift for the Church that we want to share for the good of all. But it is not only others who can learn from us – we, too, can learn from the Orthodox and Reformation traditions, and consider further how best to integrate the episcopate and the Petrine ministry with synodical and collegial structures. Such an effort to strengthen and develop the synodal and collegial structures in our own Church without giving up the essential nature of personal responsibility is the only way in which an ecumenical consensus could be reached about the Petrine and episcopal ministries.

5. In this interim stage two forms of ecumenism are important and interrelated: ecumenism ad extra through ecumenical encounters, dialogues and co-operation; and ecumenism ab intra through reform and renewal of the Catholic Church itself. There is no ecumenism without conversion and reform (Unitatis RedintegratioUt Unum Sint 15-17). It is particularly important for us also to develop a ‘spirituality of communion’ (Novo Millennio Ineunte 42f.), in our own Church and between the Churches. Only if, in this way, we are able to restore the recently lost confidence, will further steps be possible. In more concrete terms, only through a balanced relationship between the universal Church and the local Churches can we find credibility for the ecumenical concept of communion as unity within diversity and diversity within unity.

6. Last but not least, from its very beginning the ecumenical movement has been and will continue to be an impulse and a gift of the Holy Spirit (Unitatis redintegratio 1; 4). So pre-eminence among all ecumenical activities belongs to spiritual ecumenism, which is the heart of all ecumenism (Unitatis redintegratio 7-8; Ut unum sint 21-27). A special emphasis of spiritual ecumenism corresponds to our present intellectual situation which, on the one hand, is influenced by post-modern relativism and scepticism but in which, on the other hand, there also is an often rather vague residual longing for a spiritual experience. In this missionary situation therefore we will only be able to make progress if we return to the spiritual roots of ecumenism and search for a renewed ecumenical spirituality. Or we can say that it is not more ecumenical activism and action which are needed but more ecumenical spirituality.

A legitimate ecumenical spirituality will primarily be a biblical spirituality, and will express itself in the common reading and study of the Bible. It will always ponder the biblical accounts of the coming of Jesus, of his liberating message and his freeing and healing acts, of his service for others, his kenosis unto death, the whole of his person and his work, and use them as its criteria.

Spirituality of prayer
An ecumenical spirituality must also be a spirituality of prayer, especially common ecumenical prayer for the unity of Christians, for personal conversion and individual renewal, for repentance and the striving for personal sanctification (tatis Redintegratio). Like Mary and the apostles, and with them, it will always gather people and pray for the coming of the Spirit which will unite the peoples in one language, pray for a renewed Pentecost (Acts 1:13f.).

Like Jesus himself, an ecumenical spirituality lives by prayer and, like Jesus on the cross, suffers and endures in prayer experiences of being forsaken by the Spirit and by God (Mark 15:34), experiences of ecumenical difficulties and disappointments, ecumenical desert experiences.

Finally, an ecumenical spirituality is ecclesial, i.e. spirituality of the community which is mainly exercised in ecumenical groups and gatherings. However, such groups must not be separated from the larger community of the Church or stand above it. Rather, they would do well to continually seek a deeper understanding and awareness of the nature, tradition and especially the liturgy of the Church, and try to make it present. But mindful of the suffering caused by the divisions of the Church, they can act as its conscience, reminding it not to withdraw into a confessional self-sufficiency, but fostering instead an ‘exchange of gifts’, to take and use the riches of other traditions and thus seek greater ecumenical unity in order to achieve the whole concrete fullness of catholicity.

As we embark upon the new Millennium, we need new ecumenical enthusiasm. But this does not mean devising unrealistic utopias of the future. Patience is the little sister of Christian hope. Instead of staring at the impossible, and chafing against it, we have to live the already given and possible communion, and do what is possible today. By advancing in this way, step by step, we may hope that, with the help of God’s Spirit who is always ready with surprises, we will find the way towards a better common future. In this sense we hear again the Lord’s invitation: Duc in altum! ‘Launch out into the deep!’ (Luke 5:4).

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