Some Ecumenical Reciprocity

The Catholicity of the Reformation edited by Carl Braaten and Robert Jenson (Eerdmans, 1996, 117 pp., $12)

NOT INFREQUENTLYIN the past 20 years as a teacher, lecturer, parish priest and writer, I have been confronted with the following sentiment in one form or another: “Father, all this ecumenism has gotten us absolutely nowhere. We've changed everything; they've changed nothing.” I've generally gone on to note, more anecdotally than empirically, that “we” have changed nothing substantive and that “they” have indeed made significant strides, due largely to our better explanations and improved manner of presenting Catholic truth. I don't think I've changed many minds or hearts with such a response.

And from the other side, what will Protestants, for example, make of “problematic” statements like the following:

“… [T]he ecclesiology just sketched obviously suggests the necessity of a pastor of the one universal Church, a shepherd of its unity.”

“Neither death nor yet the hiddenness of the future can sever the fellowship of the saints, for the koinonia of the Church is participation in the eternal inner koinonia of the triune God, and is constituted in that Spirit who is the very Power of life.”

“… [T]he Mass … is to be celebrated with the greatest reverence.”

“Only if these ritual acts are intact can there be an adequate catechesis or teaching based on them.”

“The image of the Church as our mother underlines the mediating role of the Church in God's work of salvation … [for] Christ and his Church cannot be separated….”

“One thing is more life-threatening to the Church than heresy, and that is the unwillingness or inability to tell the difference between orthodoxy and heresy.”

“According to divine right, therefore, it is the office of the bishop to preach the Gospel, forgive sins, judge doctrine and condemn doctrine that is contrary to the Gospel, and exclude from the Christian community the ungodly whose wicked conduct is manifest…. [C]hurches are bound to be obedient to the bishops.”

“It is the goal of all our ecumenical endeavors that the unity of the Church should find its visible manifestation in the form of a communion of Churches … [which] presupposes and is expressed in agreement in faith, mutual recognition, reconciliation, sharing of ordained ministries and sacraments, forms of common deliberations and decision making, and common witness and service in the world.”

The necessity of the episcopate; a worldwide and organically united Church; human mediation, both in terms of an external ecclesial structure and the intercession of saints; a liturgical life rooted in the Eucharist; a Magisterium with authority to establish the limits of heresy and orthodoxy. Yes, what shall Protestants make of such Catholic demands or notions?

In point of fact, the preceding citations do not come from Catholic sources but from theologians who are heirs to the Reformation. They have found their way into a small but powerful collection of essays, The Catholicity of the Reformation. The editors, Carl Braaten and Robert Jenson, assembled this anthology to demonstrate that the Reformers—especially Luther—“did not set out to create what later came to be known as Protestant Christianity. Theirs was a quest for reformation and renewal in continuity with the ‘one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church’of ancient times.” The authors rely on authoritative Reformation texts to prove their point, and they challenge their denominational fellow-travelers to discover these facts and to begin to live according to their implications. The editors do not hesitate to warn “against seeing the relation of Protestantism to Catholicism mainly in terms of contrast. By defining itself as anti-Catholic, Protestantism progressively loses essentials of the faith confessed in the Creeds.”

The chapter titles are indicative of the scope of interest in the retrieval of the “Catholic” dimension of the Reformation: “The Church as Communio”; “The Catholic Luther”; “The Reform of the Mass: Evangelical, but Still Catholic”; “The Problem of Authority in the Church”; “The Pastoral Office: A Catholic and Ecumenical Perspective”; “Lutheran Pietism and Catholic Piety”; “The Church Is a Communion of Churches.” Throughout the volume, we find efforts to remind—or teach for the first time— Evangelicals of the roots of their own movement; many Protestant readers will be amazed to discover their heritage to be so “catholic” and “Catholic.”

This type of book would have been inconceivable 40 years ago and probably even 10. But with the Catholic entrance into ecclesiological study and ecumenical dialogue, beginning with Pope Pius XlI's Mystici Corporis Christi and reaching a high-point in Pope John Paul II's Ut Unum Sint, the Holy Spirit has caused old insights to be re-captured, so as to prepare believers for the work of Christian unity. Now, I can offer any future inquirers not merely a “gut” feeling of ecumenical reciprocity; I can hand them tangible proof. And I suspect that Luther who, may we hope, now sees things with greater clarity, should also be rejoicing.

Father Stravinskas, is founding editor of The Catholic Answer.