Ecumenism and inter-faith activities were in their hay-day in 1960s and 70s. Father Edward Flannery, Father Thomas Trepanier, and, of course, Father Edward St. Godard were Roman Catholic pillars supporting discussions and celebrations among diverse believers. Father Howard Olsen at St. Barnabas Episcopal Church in Apponaug and the Rev. George Peters at Pawtucket Congregational Church in the Blackstone Valley warmly welcomed Catholics and diverse Protestant congregations into their prayer and study sessions. The Chair of Unity Octave in January and Thanksgiving observances in November were found on many parish calendars. On the local level, gatherings usually resulted in fellowship among neighbors. Hymns would be sung, Bible verses would be explained, a collection for the neighborhood food bank would be received, signs of peace would be exchanged, and all would retire to the parish hall for refreshments. It was an era of good feeling.
On a scholarly and international level exchanges among the various faiths continue. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Vatican maintain serious discussions with the Anglicans, Lutherans, Orthodox and Jews. But nearer to home, ecumenical activities have almost come to a halt. A very few faith communities in Northern Rhode Island will share a Thanksgiving service this year as will a few congregations in Rumford and rural Scituate. A small spark of ecumenism still flickers around Quality Hill in Pawtucket. Catholics are sometimes honored at annual assemblies by the Rhode Island Council of Churches. And persons of other faiths have been recognized at the Providence diocese’s Lumen Gentium awards banquet. But inter-religious dialogue is hardly a burning issue in most Catholic rectories, schools, offices and homes.
To my mind, the local death of ecumenism and inter-faith dialogue was the result of Roe v. Wade, the US Supreme Court decision striking down all anti-abortion laws in the fifty states. American Catholic bishops have thankfully and resolutely resisted the taking of unborn life which this legal decision permits. Catholic clergy, religious, and laity, with rare exceptions, concur with the bishops’ commitment to respect life at all levels: from conception to natural death. The pro-life record of some other faith communities sadly has not been quite so resolute. And, with equal lament, the contemporary disregard or at least indifference toward unborn life has led to a similar disregard for fetal experimentation, for end of life issues, for the nature of marriage, for the understanding of gender, and even for parental supervision of children. Roe v. Wade’s blatant disrespect for life has precipitated a contempt for life on many levels. To sit down and breezily discuss a passage from Scripture with someone whose name you will read in the Providence Journal the next day endorsing an executive order that will ensure a minor girl’s ability to procure an abortion without parental consent does not really foster an authentic ecumenical experience. Seeking the truth on a Biblical level while thwarting the truth on the day-to-day level is bewildering. Authentic truth is not that capricious.
Some might wonder whether a disagreement over gun-control matters or a failure to agree on immigration concerns or a variance on climate change should also slow the possibility of authentic inter-faith dialogue that the inconsistency on life-issues provokes. Clearly there are several national concerns on which diverse believers might sincerely debate a suitable outcome in good faith. But such cordial indifference cannot apply to taking life in the womb, to challenging male/female marriage, to hastening the end of life, or directly to violate the human person. Some truths are clearly inviolable, or should be.
On this Solemnity of Christ the King, Jesus resolutely aligns his kingship, his supreme authority, his Godly power, with the truth: “Jesus answered, “You say I am a king. For this I was born and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” Faith communities and American society must acknowledge once again, as Western civilization did for centuries, that there is such an entity as “the truth.” Yes, much of life is debatable. But somethings are right and somethings are wrong. The sanctity of unborn life, the nature of marriage, and the inviolability of life’s final hours are unchallengeable. Catholics and other persons of good will must, like Christ, “testify to the truth,” bearing witness, even in the face of harassment and persecution, to the perennial wisdom for which Christ died. “Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice,” Jesus warns his followers. Authentic ecumenism can thrive only among those who first listen to Christ’s voice as preserved through the centuries, accepting his enduring word as the truth.