Straightening the Roads to Unity

John Grondelski recommends The New Ecumenism by Kenneth Whitehead.

Straightening the Roads to Unity


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:

(800) 343-2522

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 negotiation.

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.

Finally, 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

from Bern, Switzerland.

The Earth is Not Our Mother

“The main point of Christianity was this: that Nature is not our mother: Nature is our sister. We can be proud of her beauty, since we have the same father; but she has no authority over us; we have to admire, but not to imitate.”—G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy