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John Grondelski recommends The New Ecumenism by Kenneth Whitehead.
BY John M. Grondelski
Straightening the Roads to Unity
THE NEW ECUMENISM
How the Catholic Church After Vatican II Took Over the Leadership of the
World Ecumenical Movement
By Kenneth D. Whitehead
St. Paul’s, 2009
214 pages, $19.95
To order: stpauls.us
Before the Second Vatican Council, ecumenism was
primarily a Protestant affair. Since Vatican II, Catholics have played a lead
role in ecumenical dialogue.
How and why that happened, what has
been achieved, and where the author thinks ecumenism can (and cannot) go is the
subject of The New Ecumenism by Kenneth Whitehead.
In 21 chapters, Whitehead leads readers from the Church’s 1962 approach to
ecumenism (other Christians should simply “return” to Rome) to Pope
Benedict XVI’s latest ecumenical efforts.
Among the highlights discussed are:
why the Church moved from an ecumenism of simple “return” to one of “dialogue”;
what Vatican II taught (and did not teach) about ecumenism; the history of key
ecumenical developments with the Orthodox, the non-Chalcedonian East (e.g.,
Syrian Jacobites and Egyptian Copts), and Protestants (with focus on the
Anglicans and Lutherans); the significance of Pope John Paul II’s invitation,
in Ut Unum Sint, for Catholics and other
Christians to discuss how the papacy might be exercised to “accomplish a
service of love recognized by all concerned”; reactions, especially from the
Orthodox, about the Roman primacy; recent Vatican documents (e.g., Dominus
Iesus and “Reflections on the Primacy”) on the Church’s relation to
other Christian communities and non-Christian religions; and where ecumenism
might be headed.
In setting out to pursue ecumenical
dialogue, Vatican II had to hold two poles together: to preserve continuity with
essential Church teaching while moving a stalemated ecumenism along. “What the
Second Vatican Council did with regard to ecumenism ... was not to change or
contradict what ... previous popes had decided and taught ... but rather to
look at the whole question of ecumenism from a different angle, and to approach
it in a different way — to change the terms of the discussion, as it were.
“Vatican II’s new approach was that,
like the Good Shepherd in the parable, the Church herself henceforth had to go
out in search of the Lost Sheep” (emphasis original).
Whitehead, former assistant
secretary of education in the Reagan administration, makes it clear that
ecumenical dialogue cannot be conducted by jettisoning or ignoring settled
Catholic teaching. At the same time, he also insists that a new approach was
both needed and justified, because Jesus himself prayed for Christian unity at
the Last Supper.
Indeed, the book sometimes seems
skewed in repeatedly justifying the Church’s new ecumenical approach: The
loudest objections often heard in America and Western Europe are not that
ecumenical dialogue is taking place, but that it is taking so long.
On the latter, however, Whitehead is
clear: Unity will be achieved on God’s timetable, by grace and not diplomatic
He also maintains perspective:
Considering where Catholic ecumenical dialogue was in 1962, the Church has
traveled light years in the past half century.
This book does a good job of tracing
the historical development of Catholic ecumenism, although it might have
expanded more on dialogue with other Protestant denominations. Its theological
treatment of the question of the Roman primacy, with an intense focus on
Orthodox responses, seems a little drawn out for the needs of this book.
Whitehead, whose other book this year was Mass Misunderstandings: The Mixed Legacy of the Vatican
II Liturgical Reforms, broaches
a topic in his last chapter that deserves expansion: “the need for an
‘ecumenism of the trenches’ — the cooperation between Christians of various
confessions in opposing some of the grave evils stemming from the galloping
moral degradation [of] ... society today.”
In some ways, the divide is not between religions, but between those who
believe versus architects of a godless world.
Readers in search of a quick,
up-to-date and easy-to-read synopsis, faithful to essential Catholic
perspectives, about where the Church has come in ecumenical dialogue from
Vatican II to the present will benefit from this book.
John M. Grondelski writes