On Ecumenical Method

I have just finished reading an article in the latest edition of the Lutheran Quarterly (thanks, Dr William!) which criticised the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification on several grounds, one of which was that it follows a methodology of “consensus”. The characterisation of this method is “You still say what you say, and we still say what we say, but through our dialogue we now see both as ways of saying it as complimentary rather than mutually exclusive.” The method is thus critiqued as an over optimistic exercise in post-modernism.

But I was a little surprised today to read this from the Council of Florence (1439) – definitely PRE-modern, rather than post-modern:

For when Latins and Greeks came together in this holy synod, they all strove that, among other things, the article about the procession of the holy Spirit should be discussed with the utmost care and assiduous investigation. Texts were produced from divine scriptures and many authorities of eastern and western holy doctors, some saying the holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son, others saying the procession is from the Father through the Son. All were aiming at the same meaning in different words. The Greeks asserted that when they claim that the holy Spirit proceeds from the Father, they do not intend to exclude the Son; but because it seemed to them that the Latins assert that the holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son as from two principles and two spirations, they refrained from saying that the holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son. The Latins asserted that they say the holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son not with the intention of excluding the Father from being the source and principle of all deity, that is of the Son and of the holy Spirit, nor to imply that the Son does not receive from the Father, because the holy Spirit proceeds from the Son, nor that they posit two principles or two spirations; but they assert that there is only one principle and a single spiration of the holy Spirit, as they have asserted hitherto. Since, then, one and the same meaning resulted from all this, they unanimously agreed and consented to the following holy and God-pleasing union, in the same sense and with one mind.

It seems that the modern ecumenical method isn’t that modern after all.

As we know, the Florence “agreement” was actually rejected by the Greeks in the final analysis. In the same way, the JDDJ is being challenged today mainly from the Lutheran side (Catholics are barely discussing it, but that is another matter). It seems that the mutual consensus model, the “complimentary expression” model, while it may be as old as dialogue itself, is nevertheless not helpful when one of the parties is particularly convinced that the particular expression of faith utilised by the other party is not only wanting in fullness but actually heretical.

And yet it seems inevitable that when two groups come together seeking a renewed unity in the place of division over a particular issue, there does seem to be only a few possibilities:

1) One of the parties capitulates entirely to the expression of faith of the other, condemning its former expressions as (at least) inadequate [ie. I was right, you were wrong; or vice versa];

2) Both parties accept some degree of compromise and adopt a new joint expression of faith for the sake of agreement [ie. we are both partly right and partly wrong];

3) Both parties accept that each will continue to employ their traditional language but agree that these diverse expressions are complimentary rather than mutually exclusive – again, for the sake of agreement [ie. we are both right].

There is perhaps another outcome, but I’ve never heard of it happening. The dialogue could result in both parties becoming convinced that they were both wrong, and both seek together a new, truer formulation of faith. As I say, I haven’t heard of it happening.

One of the reasons that dialogue statements rarely bear the fruit of true unity, is that the place where the dialogue really needs to take place in is our own hearts and minds. Speaking of my own personal experience, my acceptance of the Catholic faith did not mean throwing out my Lutheran faith. Rather, it was the beginning of a deep internal dialogue that shows no sign of reaching a conclusion. My faith was founded in Lutheranism, and it would be fair to say that my spirituality has a Lutheran shape. What happens when that mould is filled with Catholic data?

Much the same as happens in ecumenical dialogue:

1) Sometimes I have simply had to say “My Lutheran doctrine was wrong” (or at least “inadequate”) and take on board the Catholic expression of faith. Generally this is in relation to clearly defined dogmas, such as the Assumption of Mary.

2) Sometimes I have found a new way of expressing my faith that is a synthesis between both Lutheran and Catholic theology. A good example would be in the understanding of “sin”.

3) Sometimes I am perfectly comfortable with both the Catholic expressions of faith and with the Lutheran expressions of faith, seeing them as complimentary, rather than mutually exclusive. An example would be the language of “transubstantiation” (Catholic) and “in, with and under” (Lutheran) in the doctrine of the Real Presence, both expressions seeking to say nothing other than that the Eucharistic bread IS the body of Christ.

4) And yes, in my own internal dialogue, I can go that one step further which is so difficult to achieve in actual ecumenical dialogue: I can seek the “authentic heart” of a given doctrine for which both Lutheran and Catholic has been searching but which neither has yet discovered. For example, the doctrines of purgatory and justification.

The ecumenical method isn’t perfect. Seeking unity in one’s self is hard enough; how much harder it is when we seek unity with someone completely other than me! Jesus prayed: “Father, may they be one, even as you and I are one”. Whether the Spirit proceeds from the Father only or from the Father and the Son, I do believe that one day God will work that miracle which unifies all who have received that Spirit. And that will be a real miracle.

About Schütz

I am Catholic, married to Cathy, father of Maddy & Mia. Since 2002, I have been the Executive Officer of the Ecumenical & Interfaith Commission of the Archdiocese of Melbourne. I was once a Lutheran pastor, but a "year of grace" and soul-searching led me into the Catholic Church. It was a bumpy ride, but with the support of my (still Lutheran) wife, I was finally confirmed on June 16, 2003.
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