One of the things I first noticed when I became executive officer for the Ecumenical and Interfaith Commission in 2002, was the difficulty of getting agreement among the Churches on issues of a moral nature concerning our society. For instance, there had been some attempt in the past (our files had the draft statements) to organise a joint Christian stand on the matter of abortion in Victoria. These attempts never finally saw the light of day, as the period in which they were attempted coincided with a new division among Christians themselves on moral issues surround matters of human life and sexuality. To this day, “moral ecumenism” seems a doomed endeavour.
And yet, and yet… We have seen at the same time a coming together, precisely over moral questions, not only of Christians previously divided but also with other religous groups, particularly some groups of Jews and Muslims. Here in Victoria this is evidenced by the existence of the Ad Hoc Interfaith group which includes members of protestant groups such as the Presbyterians (not known otherwise for their ecumenical engagement in this country), Lutherans and Evangelicals, together with other Evangelicals and Catholics, and indeed with some significant input from a significant member of the Jewish Community. In the US there are movements such as “Evangelicals and Catholics Together”, a particular project of the late Fr Richard John Neuhaus. The anti-abortion movement in the US has seen a quite astonishing coming together of Evangelicals and Catholics – overcoming many previously existing animosities.
Now, the new Health Scheme mandate of the Obama administration in the US seems to be forging another round of ties between groups not previously regarded as obvious bedfellows. Here is an example from the blog of my one time neighbour and friend, Pastor Matt Harrison, the President of the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod: Lutherans Support Catholics on HHS Mandate (From the LCMS Reporter online. Catholic bishop ‘overwhelmed’ by Lutheran support). The story includes some neat pictures of pastors and members of the LCMS in Fort Wayne, Indiana, standing in solidarity with the local Catholic community and their bishop Kevin Rhodes against the restriction of religious freedom represented by the HHS Mandate.
Of course, the pictures also tell a story about who isn’t there. The Evangelical Lutheran Church of America congregations and pastors did not take part in this protest. And so we see the sad side of even this “good news story”: while moral issues draw together members of some religious communities with those communities from which they have been historically divided, never-the-less new divisions are opened up (or should I say, exposed?) precisely within those very communities over these very issues. What kind of times do we live in, when we see Lutherans of one ilk standing side by side with Catholics over an issue on which they cannot stand together?
This should be a warning to Catholics also. It is no secret that there are divisions between the members of the Catholic Church on issues of morality. Not that the Church is divided, of course – communion remains intact, and the Church’s magisterial teaching has not wavered. But we should be aware of how crucial it is that the members of the Church (and her bishops) remain united in their stand on these moral issues, lest these real divisions of opinions between Catholics manifest themselves in a real division of communion. Thankfully, as far as one can tell, the issue of the HHS mandate has done more to unite Catholics in the States than divide them. Yet we cannot ever take such a stand for granted.
Perhaps here too is a connection with the (otherwise seemingly unrelated) issue of the possibility of the SSPX returning to the fold of the Catholic Church. From a Catholic point of view, when there is a formal division in the Catholic Church (such as occured with the Lefebvre movement), this is not seen as a split “within” the Church, but a split “from” the Church. Yet there can be no doubt that the Pope has set the goal of restoring communion with the Lefebvrites so high precisely because of the danger of a permanent split “within” the Church. The recent review of the LCWR in the US could be seen in a similar light – a significant group “within” the Catholic fold whose position, especially on moral matters, threatens to create division within the Church. An argument has been mounted that, even though the SSPX disagrees with (say) 5% of what the Catholic Church officially teaches on some lesser points of doctrine, is it not ironic that this bars them from communion when other groups currently in full communion with the Catholic Church disagree on a much larger percentage of much more fundamental doctrines of the Church?
This might be seen within the context of another issue. I have, in recent days, been debating in another circle the question of the movement that has come to call itself “progressive Christianity”, and whether or not this movement can claim to be an authentic Christian “tradition”. Not yet a denomination as such, this movement exists across the Christian community as a real threat to the inner unity of many Christian denominations – our Catholic community included. These “progressive Christians” question not only the traditional morality of the Christian tradition, but also fundamental doctrines concerning Christology, Scripture, and the nature of the Triune God. Yet they remain within their particular folds – most of which have public confessions of faith and morality which are perfectly traditions – as a destabilising factor in the inner unity of their communties.
All this leads me to wonder whether, under our very noses, the whole ecumenical landscape is being drastically redrawn. No longer is it a matter of repatching old divisions between (for eg.) Catholics and Protestants. These traditional divisions continue to exist on a formal level at the level of the public institutions known as “the Churches”, but within the various Christian communities themselves, the rise of “progressive Christianity” appears to be taking place at the same time that a drawing together of more traditional forms of Christianity is taking place. I, for one, have no idea where this will all eventually lead. For the moment, it is of great interest to me to see the new friendships being forged at the line of battle for Christian freedom and traditional morality in our society.