(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?