Few ministries in the Catholic Church have undergone more transformation in the past fifty years than the ecumenical and inter-faith apostolates. Until the mid-twentieth century Roman Catholics hardly set foot inside a Protestant Church or a Jewish temple. Perhaps a wedding or a funeral might have drawn a few Roman Catholics into a non-Catholic edifice, but such Catholics were there as mere observers. Singing hymns, responding to prayers, even standing or sitting with the non-Catholic worshippers was quite unlikely. There was to be no compromise with error.
Some would suggest that Vatican Council II changed this rigid attitude toward other faiths. Actually, the ecumenical movement had been developing all throughout the twentieth century. The Protestant Churches of Europe attempted some formal reconciliation between the Word Wars, sharing pulpits and promoting discussion. The Catholic hierarchy of course resisted this development. A Church possessing the fullness of truth had little to gain from communities founded on error. About mid-century even the Catholic Church began to see that the traditional Protestant Churches were not constituted solely of doctrinal error. These believing communities had rituals, prayers, hymns, charitable enterprises, Biblical insights, missionary activities and community techniques that were solidly Christian. The old Church believed that error had no rights. Hence, it had no regard for Protestantism. A new Church began to see that even persons in error do have rights and even in the midst of their errors the prayers, songs, sermons and rituals of other faiths might have some validity. Catholic truth should not be compromised but Protestant and inter-faith truths should at least be recognized. Ecumenism is giving credit where credit is due.
The later 1900s witnessed great ecumenical advances as Catholic and Protestants, even on a local level, met to discuss the Scriptures, to reflect on our common baptism, to consider the Eucharist, to investigate the notion of priest/minister, and to plan neighborhood charitable events. The Pentecostal movement, with its emphasis on Scripture and vocal prayer, enriched both the Catholic and Protestant communities. But incipient agreement on doctrinal issues has been sadly severed by profound disagreement on moral issues. The burning issues of the 21st century — reproductive rights, abortion, re-definition of marriage, homosexuality, fetal experimentation, religious indifference, Scriptural inerrancy, women’s ordination — have truly alienated the Roman Catholic Church from the mainline Protestant churches. With an obvious irony, the prominent Roman Catholic Church shares much with the Evangelical store-front communities who have resisted the naturalism and secularity that has ravaged Protestant theology over the past hundred years.
Today much ecumenism is mere politeness. The smiles, the handshakes, the recited prayers, and the familiar hymns disguise much uneasiness and misgivings within the major Christian churches. “Why should I go and pray with them,” one local pastor remarked, “when the next minute they’re defending abortion?” The challenge of authentic ecumenism is the recognition of truth in the midst of error. The apostles attempted to stop the exorcist who was not of their company. But Jesus cautioned them not to stifle the good no matter where it is found. “For whoever is not against us is for us.” Moses’ elders were perturbed when men who were not present at the Spirit’s bestowal begin to prophesy. Moses, however, was not stingy with the grace of God: “Would that all the people of the LORD were prophets! Would that the LORD might bestow his spirit on them all!” There are prophets hidden everywhere and it is the task of ecumenism to discover them, to encourage them, to authenticate them and to promote them.
Such willingness to discover the truth, to encourage the truth, to point out the truth, to insist on the truth, is at the heart of the ecumenical and interfaith movements. Doctrinal bitterness in the past divided Christianity for 500 years. Moral indignation nowadays is sadly deepening the rift among believers even more. Holding dear to one’s own truth and making every effort to celebrate another’s truth is the goal of ecumenism and is the major step toward the one, holy, Catholic and apostolic Church.