Yves Congar on Ecumenism and Conversion

(This is Neil)

… The more closely we strive for a deeper understanding of the divine mysteries, the more eloquently our works of charity will speak of God’s bountiful goodness and love towards all. Saint Augustine expressed the nexus between the gift of understanding and the virtue of charity when he wrote that the mind returns to God by love (cf. De Moribus Ecclesiae Catholicae, XII, 21), and that wherever one sees charity, one sees the Trinity (De Trinitate, 8, 8, 12).

For this reason, ecumenical dialogue advances not only through an exchange of ideas but by a sharing in mutually enriching gifts (cf. Ut Unum Sint, 28; 57). An “idea” aims at truth; a “gift” expresses love. Both are essential to dialogue. Opening ourselves to accept spiritual gifts from other Christians quickens our ability to perceive the light of truth which comes from the Holy Spirit. …

Pope Benedict XVI, Address, Meeting with Ecumenical Representatives, Sydney 18 July 2008

We can even say that this intensified perception of the light of truth through the reception of the spiritual gifts of other Christians might occur in unlikely places. At a press conference at the Lambeth Conference, Rowan Williams, the archbishop of Canterbury, noted that the different churches seem to be grappling with similar questions, “In the conversations I have had with a wide variety of people among our ecumenical friends, the same message has come through – from a commissioner of the Salvation Army to a cardinal of the Roman Catholic Church. These are everyone’s issues.” These issues – having to do with authority, Scripture, and ethics – are not just Anglican issues, even if Anglicans are “dealing with them in a pretty acute way.” We’re in the same boat. And, thus, the Anglican deliberations – even if we will always find them somewhat alien – might be unexpected gifts to us, if only by compelling us to think about these issues in fresher and more attentive ways.

This might still sound too speculative, too risky. I’d like to quickly look at a very concrete example of a Catholic reception of gifts from other Christians that clearly led to a deeper perception of the light of truth. For a 1963 festscrift for Willem A. Visser ‘t Hooft, the great Catholic ecumenist Yves Congar contributed a short essay entitled, “Ecumenical Experience and Conversion: A Personal Testimony.” Congar, a Dominican friar who would become a cardinal in 1994, links conversion and ecumenism by noting that ecumenical contacts cause an “expansion both mental and spiritual” as we are freed “from a certain narrowness of outlook.” He is able to do this autobiographically.

We only grasp the real importance of truth by distinguishing it from all “that is not the truth itself.” The realization of the absolute primacy of doctrine comes as we “acquire a wholesome sense of relativity.” Ecumenism shows us just how much we have been “conditioned by mentality, culture, spiritual practices and group attitudes, and the historical background of the milieu to which we belong.” We only fully comprehend the truth when we can discover new possibilities of understanding and expressing it which had once been closed off to us by the narrowness of our “conditioning.” Congar reminds us that we are only freed from this “narrowness of outlook” through the “knowledge of others, which is only complete if it is first-hand and factual.” This knowledge, we can say, only comes with love. Congar tells us that he will always remember the deep impression made on him by Anglican Evensong and Compline. Personal friendships led to his “understanding and love of the Orthodox Church.”

But Congar, writing 45 years ago, realizes that he is a unique figure. Congar writes that he now turns to the works of Luther “almost monthly.” But do others?

If fact I know that nothing really worthwhile with regard to Protestantism will be achieved so long as we take no steps truly to understand Luther, instead of simply condemning him, and to do him historical justice. For this conviction which is mine I would gladly give my life. But Catholics as a whole, and Protestants and Orthodox as well, have obviously not made experiments similar to mine: they live their religion on a plane that is more sociological than truly personal and soundly critical.

Congar dreams of a research center comprised of Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican and Protestant students, and, of course, a very good library. These fortunate students would publish great histories – perhaps of Luther or the papacy – but only after all of them could sign his or her name to each volume. This forced collaboration would prevent them from living their religion on a sociological level – beholden to a narrow “orthodoxy” forever holding its truths against others and carefully avoiding any contamination from outside. Presumably, our group of students might also become friends. Ecumenism might then lead us to a “total truth.”

Ecumenism, besides freeing us from narrowness, helps us escape from a related problem – “a certain complacency which thinks it has the answers to all the problems, be it an apologetic, even apostolic haste that is rather sordidly triumphant.” Congar warns, “Sometimes true spiritual depth is to be found in a mind that does not know the truth and seeks it, whereas superficiality, a lack of any serious spiritual commitment is apparent in one who goes forward armed with a ready-made orthodoxy whereby all errors are known and refuted.” To such a person, the truth is already known and formulated and any question has been dealt with in a published article to be quickly retrieved from one of his desk drawers. But, Congar says, “This little game soon proves unplayable when one enters into dialogue with a real man” (my emphasis).

For in dialogue, we must present our convictions in a real – as opposed to formulaic – way, and we must try to “embrace what is valid in the standpoint of the other.” We are forced to question whether we really have a “fullness of understanding,” or if parts of the Christian tradition have gone undiscovered by our own theologians. We must constantly consider the “purity of our Christian standpoint” – if, for instance, as the Orthodox might directly ask, we haven’t taken seriously the active role of the whole body of the Church simply because of our inevitable post-Reformation defensiveness regarding the hierarchy. This is the sort of conversion that cannot occur if we are imprisoned within a “ready-made orthodoxy,” already complete and unquestionable. Ecumenism, said Dom Clement Lialine, must work by shock. And, Congar tells us, “I myself am conscious of having profited in many fields from shocks received twenty-five years ago, when, on the points at issue, I had not even had any discussion and was pursuing my quest within the framework of the Catholic tradition alone.”

Thus, ecumenism isn’t only an academic exchange of ideas – it is an experience. It is like a “second birth,” after which one becomes a different person. “It is what takes place at, say, the beginning of love or when one has undergone the blessed experience of sacrifice, of the Cross.” Remember that Congar has already told us that he “would gladly give my life” in apparent martyrdom for his belief that we must understand, not merely condemn, Martin Luther. Its deepest expression is common prayer, for we are closest to one another when we consecrate ourselves fully to Jesus Christ.

Ecumenism is a journey away from our “conditioning” to a “broader conception of truth” and a “shock” to our theological complacency. It is an expression of “a truly evangelical readiness to refuse nothing that is of God,” even if it brings suspicion on oneself and causes painful “self-interrogation.” And can’t we call this dynamic process conversion? Congar finally speaks of the possibility of a collective conversion. To be sure, he understands that we cannot suggest that the “covenant-relationships which God establishes in Jesus Christ” (or some legal definition of this) are sinful.

But one can also understand by “Church” those who make up God’s People or Assembly: the ordinary congregation and the leaders (praepositi) who, having authority, represent or personify the ecclesia. It is in this sense that the New Testament and generally the Liturgy and the Fathers, use the word ecclesia. One could almost always translate it in their writings by “the Christian community” or even “the community of Christians.” … This collective entity is human and, by its very nature, limited and fallible. One cannot, however, attribute sins, in the strict and ethical sense of the word, to a collective subject, for, in this sense, sins can have as subjects only individual persons. But the responsible leaders – theologians, bishops, and popes – commit sins in their sphere as responsible leaders, sins which, inasumuch as the leaders personify and represent the whole community, are considered without distinction as sins of the community. These same leaders and, to a lesser but nevertheless real extent, all the faithful, thus bear responsibility for bringing about certain situations in which the desire for improvement is not strong enough, in which mission, preaching, and doctrine are neglected, in which worldly postures of power and prestige are so highly developed, and shortcomings are so widely tolerated in worship, in the behavior of the clergy, etc., that all this rouses the wrath of God and sometimes even the wrath of man.

The Church – in this definition – can and “must indeed do penance.” Ecumenism – the drawing nearer to the light of truth through receiving the gifts of other Christians – is one form of ecclesial conversion from a state of sin (narrowness, complacency, etc.) to “conforming more closely to the pattern of its Master and of his Apostles.”

Ecumenism – this conversion experience – cannot occur without love, without, as Congar says, “the joy of meeting, of being together, diverse and even heretical in each other’s eyes, yet assembled in a similar and harmonious response to God’s call.” As the Pope, following St Augustine, says, there really is a “nexus between the gift of understanding and the virtue of charity.” We must open ourselves, despite our habits of narrowness and complacency, to accept spiritual gifts from other Christians. Otherwise our exchange of ideas will remain sterile and repetitive. We will never learn anything.

What do you think?

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Todd and his family live in Ames, Iowa. He serves a Catholic parish of both Iowa State students and town residents.
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8 Responses to Yves Congar on Ecumenism and Conversion

  1. FrMichael says:

    Unfortunately, I think contemporary ecumenism has been hampered by internal controversies in the other Christian communions.

    The mainline Protestants have their own internal debates about homosexuality and other hot-button topics. Since part of the preconditions of ecumenical talks are our common Trinitarian baptism and pursuit of holiness, it certainly hurts the ecumenical climate when these are being debated among the mainliners.

    Likewise, the Orthodox have divisions among themselves (I’m thinking most notably between Constantinople and Moscow) that hamper ecumenism. Not much we can do about that either.

    My 2 cents.

  2. Neil says:

    Dear Fr Michael,

    Thanks, as always, for writing. I think that you are correct to say that “contemporary ecumenism has been hampered by internal controversies in the other Christian communions.”

    Pope Benedict, during the ecumenical meeting in New York on April 18, expressed concern that “Fundamental Christian beliefs and practices are sometimes changed within communities by so-called ‘prophetic actions’ that are based on a hermeneutic not always consonant with the datum of Scripture and Tradition.” The unity of ecclesial bodies is replaced by “local options” and the need for “communion with the Church in every age” can be forgotten.

    But, while events in the Anglican Communion have made church unity seem like an even more remote possibility, I think that Catholics can learn something about homosexuality from the Anglican deliberations. I would think that even the most ardent defender of Catholic teaching on homosexuality has to admit that Catholic theology still has to clarify what it means by “homosexual” (see Bruce Williams, OP, on the 2005 Instruction on seminaries), and what it practically means to counsel gay men and women to, as the Catechism says, “unite to the sacrifice of the Lord’s Cross the difficulties they may encounter from their condition.” Perhaps the Anglican difficulties can force us to examine these questions with greater sensitivity and attentiveness that we otherwise would. That would be a gift.

    Furthermore, one can ask whether, although Anglicans are dealing with these problems “in a pretty acute way,” there isn’t a similar sort of pastoral confusion and inconsistency regarding homosexuality in the Catholic Church. This confusion never comes to the surface because bishops are appointed, not elected, but it exists.

    We can say, then, that these debates about homosexuality both separate the different Christian churches and communities and bind them together. Might we say that the ecumenical climate is paradoxical?

    Finally – and most speculatively – a Catholic has to wonder if Anglican history would have been different if Rome had given a warmer welcome to the ARCIC documents in 1991. Might we be implicated in all of this?

    Regarding the Orthodox, again, I think that you’re right. But – again – the situation might be a bit more complicated. An Orthodox respondent (see, for instance, David Hart in First Things March 2001) would suggest that the papal unity of Roman Catholicism conceals a degree of theological, liturgical, and hierarchical confusion (we have three Patriarchs of Antioch) that would be intolerable to most Orthodox Christians.

    Thus, we can’t exempt ourselves from the call to ecclesial conversion.

    Thanks again.

    Neil

  3. FrMichael says:

    Dear Neil:

    I wasn’t exempting ourselves from the call to ecclesial conversion. My point is that at the present point in time, our ecumenical partners have severe internal problems which prevent them from going forward no matter who the Pope is. Catholics did not cause these internal problems nor do we have the ability to resolve them: they exist completely independent of us. Seems to me the best course of action is to pray for the other communions and avoid becoming embroiled in their disputes.

    I’m not sure what you are referring to with respect to ARCIC 1991, “Church as Communion.” The document warned that women bishops would cause grave damage to the idea of church unity and this is indeed what has happened. Why would Rome give approval to the unstoppable train of female ordination in Anglicanism? Once again, internal developments which we have no power to influence affect the ecumenical discussion.

  4. Quite simply, the opportunity to view matters (particularly matters of faith) from a different perspective is quite a valuable thing, if actually done. I recall reading in the Autobiography of Bertrand Russell that Lord Russell went out of his way to read the periodicals of the opposition parties, so at least to be able to figure out what the other side was actually thinking, rather than the lampoons which we inevitably make of them.

    A simpler way of expressing the same thing is from Proverbs: “Mind sharpens mind as steel sharpens steel.”

    And, as regards the comments, while it is a pity that the Anglicans appear to have gone so far around the bend that they can’t even see the bend any more, the Orthodox of various jurisdictions definitely do not fall into that category. As my weblog and my comments have indicated, there is a great deal that we can, and should, learn from them.

  5. Neil says:

    Thanks to all for writing.

    Regarding Fr Michael’s comment:

    If the question is whether our “ecumenical partners have severe internal problems which prevent them from going forward no matter who the Pope is,” I would agree. In fact, I think that this is fairly uncontroversial.

    If the question is whether these problems “exist completely independent of us,” I would tend to disagree, because I think that we face the same problems, even if not as acutely.

    The ecumenists Mary Tanner and Monsignor Andrew Faley write that the Vatican’s very, very cautious response to ARCIC in 1991 was received as a “rebuff” by Anglicans who felt that substantial agreement had been reached. “Thus the prospect of visible unity with the Catholic Church was seen to be unrealistic and its bearing on Anglican life – and faith and order questions – was diminished.”

    Conceivably, Anglican history might have been very different – including on the question of women’s ordination to the episcopate – with a different Vatican response. This is admittedly speculative, but still, I think that we are implicated, even if in a small and vague way.

    Best,
    Neil

  6. Jim McK says:

    The Vatican response to ARCIC-I revealed deep conflicts among Catholics, most notably between the official dialogue participants and the Vatican. It became clear that the “official” dialogue would go through a difficult reception by the “official” church. It seemed almost as if the RCC had sent sailors out to discover new worlds, but did not want to let them into port when they returned.

    Needless to say, such unresolved divisions were not a good example for those suffering from internal divisions within their own communities.

    The Church As Communion was the 1990 agreed statement from ARCIC-II. It was largely non-controversial, maybe because everyone was soon taken up with the response to ARCIC-I.

  7. FrMichael says:

    Neil: by 1991 TEC and other Anglican entities were far into women’s ordination. That horse had left the barn long before. ARCIC I, II, or XVII wouldn’t matter one whit to the General Convention of TEC, the bishops of Canada, et al. Say what you will about why they make the decisions they do, but paying attention to the RCC or ecumenical partners probably wouldn’t be in the Top Five, perhaps not even in the Top Ten considerations.

    Jim McK: You are onto something I have observed first-hand in ecumenical dialogues– a large mismatch between the personal theologies of the official representatives of dialoging churches and the stated theologies of said churches. This has been true for both Catholic and Protestant participants (which is what my chief experience is in local dialogues). Quite frankly, I find most formal ecumenical dialogues a waste of time and money for that reason. The notable exeption is the Orthodox: they are refreshing in their profundity as well as integrity.

  8. Neil says:

    First, I’d like to thank Jim McK and Fr Michael for their kind responses.

    Was it inevitable that women’s ordination in the Anglican Communion would present ecumenical difficulties? Yes. Absolutely.

    But it is important to note three things:

    1) The Lambeth Conference in 1988, as Mary Tanner says, didn’t completely endorse women’s ordination. It only declared an intention to remain in communion as much as possible during an “open period of reception,” when different provinces would choose different paths.

    2) There has been a sense – perhaps now outdated – that, in Anglicanism, England is normative, and the Church of England thus has a privileged ecumenical status. Women were only ordained to the priesthood in the Church of England in 1992.

    3) A last line is only being crossed right now: in 2006, Cardinal Kasper warned that the possibility of women bishops in the Church of England might mean an Anglican withdrawal from the “special place” recognized by the Second Vatican Council, a “turning away from the common position of all churches of the first millennium,” and a serious and long-lasting ecumenical “chill.”

    Thus, the horse definitively left the barn after 1991, I would say. During this crucial time period, any idea of visible unity with the Roman Catholic Church was a very dim possibility, in large part, I would think, because of Rome’s delayed and cautious response to ARCIC (and other Vatican actions, as well).

    Could a different response have changed Anglican history? This is speculative. But I think that one can answer yes. Perhaps this is so speculative that it isn’t worth discussing, though.

    There can be an apparent mismatch between the theologies of ecumenists and the stated theologies of the churches. Why is this? It could have to do with the failure of ecumenists – for instance, one could suggest that ARCIC was imprecise. That’s certainly a possibility. But it might also have to do with a failure to understand ecumenical methodologies. The method of ARCIC was to try to go behind entrenched and divisive positions or statements of doctrines to find new perspectives or language – sometimes, as with Mary, using Eastern theology. ARCIC can only be understood if one understands this.

    Furthermore, it might have to do with a failure within the churches to properly receive the fruits of ecumenism, perhaps because the fruits might seem to focus on topics that aren’t of immediate interest (do Catholic priests preach on justification?), or because ecumenism challenges certain ecclesial fantasies, particularly triumphalism (this is why ecumenism always involves repentance).

    It isn’t true, however, to suggest that recognizable ecumenical progress hasn’t been reached. There is an ecumenical language to speak of the relation of Scripture and tradition, the church as communio, and the Eucharist as memorial, that, I believe, has been recognized in the stated theologies of many churches.

    Thanks again. Must run.

    Neil

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