I am truly thinking of writing a book at some stage outlining, clarifying and defending the Catholic Church’s understanding of ecumenism and inter-religious dialogue. I have spent a very, very long time thinking all these things through, from a point of deep skepticism at times, until I feel that I can comprehend what is going on in the “mind of the Church” (all part of my project of “sentire cum ecclesia”). I don’t pretend that I have understood it all yet, however, everytime something comes up that is clearly a part of the magisterial teaching and yet does not fit the model that I had built up in my own mind, my first presumption is that it my model of ecumenism/interfaith relations that is wanting, not the teaching of the magisterium.
It will come as no surprise to you, gentle reader, that there are many Catholics who do not use this method. This can be seen in the reaction to the recent CDF Clarifications on The Doctrine on the Church. Stephen Crittendon, on the Religion Report, didn’t even bother to seek to speak to a Catholic theologian on the matter of the document, and reported that the document was trumpeting “We are the Champions”–and he played an extract from the Queen hit to rub it in. Thanks, Stephen, you’re a real help. (If you can’t hear my voice dripping with sarcasm in that last comment, you’re not listening.)
For a Catholic comment, we go to Andrew Hamilton at Eureka Street, in an article “Ecumenical Roads no longer lead to Rome”. Here again we find the common failure to attempt to “think with the Church”, and the all too common attitude that the teaching of the Church is “lacking”. Implication? Fr Andrew thinks he could have done it better, that he understands this better than those people in their ivory towers there in the Vatican.
In attentive conversation it is possible to say honestly that in Catholic understanding, only the Catholic Church embodies structurally the fullness of church and ministry. But to imply that other churches are not really churches, and that their ministry is not really Christian ministry, would fail to attend to the way in which Christians, including Catholics, commonly use words. The implication of the claim is gratuitously offensive. We should presume that the offence was not intended. But if it is to be avoided, a different kind of attention is needed.
Yes indeedy, there is the problem, folks: the way that “Christians, including Catholics, commonly use [these] words”, that is words like “Catholic”, “Church”, “Christian”, “Ministry”, “Apostolic” etc. If Fr Andrew was paying attention, he would have realised that the way we “use words” was precisely what the Clarification was about. It was intended to clarify the precise meaning of words in the Catholic lexicon.
In fact, this is how I see the problem with most of the commentary on the document:
1) The commentator disputes the meaning of the word “Church” as clarified by the authors of the document
2) The commentator decides to continue reading the document using his own defintion of the word “Church”
3) This of course gives meanings to the statements of the document which are not those intended by the authors
4) The commentator condemns the document for saying what its authors never actually said.
It is axiomatic when interpreting any document that you must seek to understand the meaning of words in their own context. Imagine reading a dictionary definition of the word “cat”. Eg. “A cat is a small feline carnivorous mammal. They make good household pets”. But hold on a minute, since I believe that a cat is in fact a kind of small elephant, this defintion is obviously wrong in asserting that it would make a good household pet.
Back to Fr Andrew’s piece. He himself gets it all hopelessly wrong when he says that the Second Vatican Council taught that
the Church of Christ subsists in the Roman Catholic Church.
The Council asserted no such thing. It asserted that
The sole Church of Christ … subsists in (subsistit in) the Catholic Church, which is governed by the successor of Peter and by the bishops in communion with him
. The Catholic Church does not equal the “Roman” Catholic Church. The Catholic Church is that thing of which we speak in the Creed, the Una Sancta Catholic et Apostolica, it is not the Western Latin Church, much less is it a denomination. The Una Catholica is a communion of Churches which, the council insisted, have communion with the See of Peter as an essential mark of their belonging to that communion.
Nor is this a matter of “structures”, as Fr Andrew tries to make out. That suggests to the modern mind that document is insisting upon some human, earthly, political characteristic as essential to the Church. The document does not talk about structures, but about communion, which is a spiritual reality, which grows out of the common Christian heritage of God’s word and sacraments.
Moreover, it is simply being mischievous to suggest that the document says that the ministry of those not in full communion with the Catholic Church is “not really Christian ministry”. The document says nothing about whether or not a group or its members are “Christian”–it is talking about the proper application of the word “Church” in Catholic theology.
Let’s be quite clear. The document does not state that “only Roman Catholics are Christian”, and it expressly states that “the Church of Christ is present and operative in the churches and ecclesial Communities not yet fully in communion with the Catholic Church”.
That, I think, is not a miserly statement. It is certainly more generous toward the Orthodox than they are towards us, and it is much more generous than the attitude of those Protestants who believe that Catholics “are not Christian, although there may be true Christians among them.”
Broken communion–which is what currently exists among Christians and what the ecumenical movement is seeking to overcome–is a two way street. Those not in full communion with the Holy See are not so because the nasty old Pope doesn’t want to be in communion with them. Our separated brothers and sisters are separated from us because they judge us or our doctrine not to be truly Christian.
Fr Andrew Hamilton is right: Ecumenical roads do not “lead to Rome”. There is only one ecumenical road and it leads to Christ. Nevertheless, Catholic ecclesiology–and in fact ecumenical logic–asserts that you can’t walk this ecumenical road without seeking to walk it alongside of and in communion with the Bishop of Rome.