The fullness of universality? Eschatological Hope and Sincere Repentance in Catholic Ecumenism

There was a significant question posted to the end of my last blog, unfortunately from “Anon”, so I can’t thank them personally. The question was:

Is the RCC “defective” or less than catholic since it isn’t in communion with the EO or Lutherans or Baptists, Pentecostals, etc.?

Chris Burgwald rightly pointed out that the CDF Clarification does note that

because of the division between Christians, the fullness of universality, which is proper to the Church governed by the Successor of Peter and the Bishops in communion with him, is not fully realised in history.

There is an important element of “eschatology” in Catholic ecclesiology. It relates to verses from Scripture such as John 10:16, where Jesus says:

I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.

, 1 Cor 15:28

When all things are subjected to him, then the Son himself will also be subjected to the one who put all things in subjection under him, so that God may be all in all

and Eph 2:21

In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord.

All these verses indicate that the Church of Christ will never be complete until the consumation of the world, that although the Church of Christ fully and uniquely subsists in the Catholic Church here and now, just as all the baptised

are God’s children now; [but] what we will be has not yet been revealed. (1 John 3:2)

The division among Christians is relevant here because all the baptised belong to the universal Church of Christ–and yet not all are in communion with that visible society in which this universal Church uniquely and fully subsists, namely the Catholic Church governed by the apostolic bishops in communion with the successor of Peter. This is a paradox which does not lessen the truth that fullness of the Church of Christ subsists fully and uniquely in the Catholic Church, but does give a clear indication why the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council prefered the term “subsists in” rather than the term “is”–because the Catholic Church as it exists at any particular time in history cannot be the fullness of the Catholic Church as it will be at the consumation of history.

The Commentary on the Document ends with a quotation from Pope Benedict’s Encyclical Deus Caritas Est:

Union with Christ is also union with all those to whom he gives himself. I cannot possess Christ just for myself; I can belong to him only in union with all those who have become, or will become, his own. Communion draws me out of myself towards him, and thus also towards unity with all Christians.

Thus, just as those elements which are to be found in communities outside the Catholic Church that “belong by right to the one Church of Christ” (such as Baptism and the Word of God) can act as bonds that draw members of those communities into the closer embrace of the unity of the Catholic Churuch, by exactly the same token, members of the Catholic Church are compelled to seek to perfect that “real but imperfect” communion which already exists with our separated brothers and sisters. This is, of course, the whole basis of the involvement in the ecumenical movement.

But there is another aspect to the matter which is connected to the eschatological aspect. In a short but significant phrase in the Commentary, we are alerted to the factor of human sinfulness as a cause of the divisions among Christians. The Commentary explains that:

The fullness of the Catholic Church, therefore, already exists, but still has to grow in the brethren who are not yet in full communion with it and also in its own members who are sinners “until it happily arrives at the fullness of eternal glory in the heavenly Jerusalem.”

. There are two points here. The minor point is the fact that many non-Catholics often overlook. It isn’t only members of non-Catholic communities who are in a situation of broken communion with the Church. Catholics themselves regularly and often find themselves out of communion with the Church because of mortal sin which enters into their hearts and lives. It isn’t only the separated brethren and sistern who are not able to receive communion from Catholic altars, but also any Catholic who has committed mortal sin and who has not yet been reconciled to communion with the Church through the Sacrament of Penance. Thus the everyday reality of the Catholic Church herself is that she is “wounded” (if you like) by sin which breaks that fullness of communion all her members should have with her and with Christ in, with and through her.

The second point is that this sinfulness is a signficant factor to be taken into account in ecumenical relationships. Here an article by Cardinal Ratzinger (THE ECCLESIOLOGY OF THE CONSTITUTION ON THE CHURCH, VATICAN II, ‘LUMEN GENTIUM’)written in 2001 is very useful (in fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if he simply gave a copy of this to Cardinal Levada and said: “Here, do vot you can mit zis”). I am going to quote at length what he says there in two paragraphs as it is particularly pertinent to this discussion.

The difference between subsistit and est however contains the tragedy of ecclesial division. Although the Church is only one and “subsists” in a unique subject, there are also ecclesial realities beyond this subject—-true local Churches and different ecclesial communities. Because sin is a contradiction, this difference between subsistit and est cannot be fully resolved from the logical viewpoint. The paradox of the difference between the unique and concrete character of the Church, on the one hand, and, on the other, the existence of an ecclesial reality beyond the one subject, reflects the contradictory nature of human sin and division. This division is something totally different from the relativistic dialectic described above in which the division of Christians loses its painful aspect and in fact is not a rupture, but only the manifestation of multiple variations on a single theme, in which all the variations are in a certain way right and wrong. An intrinsic need to seek unity does not then exist, because in any event the one Church really is everywhere and nowhere. Thus Christianity would actually exist only in the dialectic correlation of various antitheses. Ecumenism consists [sic–bad translation: should read “would then consist”] in the fact that in some way all recognize one another, because all are supposed to be only fragments of Christian reality. Ecumenism would therefore be the resignation to a relativistic dialectic, because the Jesus of history belongs to the past and the truth in any case remains hidden.

The vision of the Council is quite different: the fact that in the Catholic Church is present “the subsistit” of the one subject the Church, is not at all the merit of Catholics, but is solely God’s work, which he makes endure despite the continuous unworthiness of the human subjects. They cannot boast of anything, but can only admire the fidelity of God, with shame for their sins and at the same time great thanks. But the effect of their own sins can be seen: the whole world se
es the spectacle of the divided and opposing Christian communities, reciprocally making their own claims to truth and thus clearly frustrating the prayer of Christ on the eve of his Passion. Whereas division as a historical reality can be perceived by each person, the subsistence of the one Church in the concrete form of the Catholic Church can be seen as such only through faith.

Thus ecumenism is inspired not only by eschatological hope, but also by sincere repentance for the sin of division–“for which”, as the Council itself said, “men of both sides were [/are] to blame”. You cannot understand Catholic ecumenism without understanding these two factors in Catholic ecclesiology.

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2 Responses to The fullness of universality? Eschatological Hope and Sincere Repentance in Catholic Ecumenism

  1. John Weidner says:

    Aha! Now certain things make more sense. I confess I’ve never really understood ecumenism, and tended to think, “We’re right and they’re wrong, so why do we keep jumping through hoops?”. Thanks.

    Here’s my tiny contribution to ecumenism: A moment of concern…

  2. Schütz says:

    Catholic ecumenism’s bane is the fact that many among both its supporters and detractors really have no idea what it is all about. Glad these remarks were were helpful.

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