Ecumenism, “Proselytism”, and the Danger of Doctrinal Ambiguity

Working to overcome the divisions brought about by the Reformation and the Eastern Schism is laudable, but it must not come at the price of doctrinal ambiguity and the undermining of the Church’s evangelical mission.

When the Catholic Church began its great project of ecumenical dialog following the Second Vatican Council, great hopes were expressed for the benefits that might spring from it. In the eyes of the council fathers, expressed in the decree Unitatis Redintegratio, the ecumenical movement had the potential to “promote justice and truth, concord and collaboration,” eliminate misunderstandings between Catholics and non-Catholic Christians, and lead to joint activities for the common good, particularly works of social justice. 

Most importantly, the council  hoped to lead non-Catholics into the Catholic Church, expressing the desire that “all Christians will at last, in a common celebration of the Eucharist, be gathered into the one and only Church in that unity which Christ bestowed on His Church from the beginning.” That Church, the bishops stated, was none other than the one lead by the apostle Peter and his papal successors. Ecumenism, then, was a component of the Catholic Church’s evangelizing mission, and had conversion to the Catholic faith as its ultimate aim. 

The tack taken by the Council regarding the ecumenical movement represented a decades-long trend in the Church favoring a conciliatory approach towards baptized non-Catholics, whom Pope Leo XIII had begun to call “separated brethren.” Although Pope Pius XI had rejected and forbidden Catholic participation in the ecumenical movement in the 1920s, by the late 1940s Catholics were holding congresses with non-Catholics to discuss their beliefs with the express approval of the Holy See, and had even engaged in minimal acts of joint prayer. However, the popes had also strictly warned of the dangers involved in such an enterprise, dangers of lattitudinarianism, indifferentism, and a communicatio in sacris inappropriate for those still outside the Church.

In a 1949 instruction, the Holy Office, led by Pope Pius XII, acknowledged the potential usefulness of joint congresses with non-Catholic Christians for the purpose of disseminating the doctrines of the Catholic faith, but urged caution, “lest, on the false pretext that more attention should be paid to the points on which we agree than to those on which we differ, a dangerous indifferentism be encouraged” and the “genuine and certain meaning” of Catholic doctrine “be obscured.” 

The Holy Office was particularly concerned that dialog with Protestants might lead to a whitewashing of the faults of the Reformers, directing that care be taken that “in going over the history of the Reformation and the Reformers the defects of Catholics be not so exaggerated and the faults of the Reformers be so dissimulated, that what is most essential, namely the defection from the Catholic faith, be scarcely any longer seen or felt.”  It also sought to avoid that “through an excessive and false external activity, or through imprudence and an excited manner of proceeding, the end in view be rather harmed than served.”

Increasingly, the warnings of Pius XII appear to be prescient, if not prophetic. A certain “ecumania” among Catholic prelates that appears to undermine the value and authority of Catholic doctrine has long been the subject of criticism in the Church. Now, however, the drive for unity with “separated brethren” has reached a fever pitch that threatens to distort Catholic doctrine and even to compromise the Church’s evangelical mission.  

Lutheran dialogue and hyperbolic rhetoric

In recent weeks and months Catholics have been shocked to read about Pope Francis’ statements that seek to “commemorate” the Reformation and the work of Luther, statements that seem to attribute sanctity and doctrinal orthodoxy to one of the most bitter and acrimonious of the Catholic Church’s historical enemies. The developments that led to this situation, however, extend back more than fifteen years, to a dialog with the liberal Lutheran World Federation that led to a much-ballyhooed “Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification.”

The document, signed in 1999, was the product of a hasty enthusiasm on the part of dialog participants who were eager to show progress towards “unity” between Lutherans and Catholics. It is mostly a review of doctrines that were never in substantial dispute between the two communions. However, as the Holy See noted in its official response to the agreement, the document contains affirmations that could be read as denying Catholic doctrine, as well as leaving other substantial differences on the doctrine of justification unresolved. 

Although the Holy See hailed the Joint Declaration as representing “a significant progress in mutual understanding and in the coming together in dialog,” and showing “that there are many points of convergence” between Catholics and Lutherans, it warned that passages that appear to affirm Lutheran doctrines, such as “God’s gift of grace in justification remains independent of human cooperation” and that man’s freedom “is no freedom in relation to salvation” would have to be somehow read in a Catholic sense, a stretch at best. It also observed that “divergencies on other points must, on the contrary, be overcome before we can affirm . . . that these points no longer incur the condemnations of the Council of Trent.”

The official response of the Holy See makes it clear that the Joint Declaration is incomplete and contains what is, at best, ambiguous language, a sentiment that was expressed by theologians at length in the years that followed. However, during the same period a mythology regarding the document has developed among the professional ecumenical class and even among high prelates in the Church, one that sees it as a final resolution to the most fundamental doctrinal issue of the Reformation.

In a recent interview with Crux, English bishop William Kenney, a Lutheran dialog participant, said that the statement, “the Reformation was all a big misunderstanding” is “a good popular summary” of the conclusion of the Joint Declaration on Justification, which he claims to be a document “approved by Rome, which binds Catholics whether they like it or not.” He also told Crux, “Would Martin Luther have been excommunicated today? The answer is no, he probably wouldn’t.” 

Pope Francis has taken the hyperbole to an even higher level. In a recent inflight press conference, the pope told reporters, “Today Lutherans and Catholics, Protestants, all of us agree on the doctrine of justification. On this point, which is very important, he (Luther) did not err.” He added that Luther had created a “medicine for the Church,” but didn’t elaborate on its nature.

In his homily delivered on October 31 during an ecumenical prayer service commemorating  the Reformation in Lund, Sweden, Pope Francis spoke of Luther and his doctrines in glowing terms, claiming he “encountered that propitious God in the Good News of Jesus, incarnate, dead and risen. With the concept ‘by grace alone,’ he reminds us that God always takes the initiative, prior to any human response, even as he seeks to awaken that response. The doctrine of justification thus expresses the essence of human existence before God.”

Creeping “proselytism” 

One of the most quoted statements of Francis regarding the “commemoration” of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation illustrates another effect of the excessive zeal for ecumenism: an ever-expanding definition of “proselytism.” In response to a question from a girl who was interested in bringing her unchurched friends with her to worship, Francis warned her, “It is not licit that you convince them of your faith; proselytism is the strongest poison against the ecumenical path.”

“You must give testimony of your Christian life; it will be your testimony that will stir the hearts of those who look at you,” Francis added, and explained, “It will be the Holy Spirit that moves the heart with your testimony – that is [the] way you ask – and regarding that you can tell the ‘why,’ with much thoughtfulness. But without wanting to convince.”

Francis made similar statements at an earlier audience the same month regarding the Eastern Orthodox, who frequently complain about attempts by Catholics to convert their faithful. “Let the theologians study the abstract realities of theology,” said Francis, “but what should I do with a friend, neighbor, an Orthodox person? Be open, be a friend. ‘But should I make efforts to convert him or her?’ There is a very grave sin against ecumenism: proselytism. We should never proselytize the Orthodox! They are our brothers and sisters, disciples of Jesus Christ.”

The pope’s condemnation of efforts to convert others as “proselytism” stems from terminology developed during the early days of ecumenical dialog following Vatican II, when it was used to refer to inappropriate, unethical, and uncharitable methods used to obtain converts to one’s own religious tradition. However, in the years that followed, “proselytism” came to be used to condemn any attempt to lead another to conversion, a view that would invalidate much of the New Testament and bring the evangelical mission of the Church into question.

In response to the growing confusion regarding ecumenism and evangelization, the Holy See revised its Directory on Ecumenism in 1993 to emphasize that the goal of the ecumenical movement remains the conversion of non-Catholics to the Catholic faith and their return to the unity of the Church. Later, in 2007, the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued a corrective “Doctrinal Note on Some Aspects of Evangelization” with the approval of Pope Benedict XVI. 

The Doctrinal Note expressed alarm that “there is today . . . a growing confusion which leads many to leave the missionary command of the Lord unheard and ineffective (cf. Mt 28:19). Often it is maintained that any attempt to convince others on religious matters is a limitation of their freedom. From this perspective, it would only be legitimate to present one’s own ideas and to invite people to act according to their consciences, without aiming at their conversion to Christ and to the Catholic faith.”

It further explained that “if a non-Catholic Christian, for reasons of conscience and having been convinced of Catholic truth, asks to enter into the full communion of the Catholic Church, this is to be respected as the work of the Holy Spirit and as an expression of freedom of conscience and of religion. In such a case, it would not be a question of proselytism in the negative sense that has been attributed to this term.” It noted that while the “work of preparing and reconciling those individuals who desire full Catholic communion” is “distinct from ecumenical action”, there is “no opposition between the two…” Therefore, it asserts, “the work of ecumenism does not remove the right or take away the responsibility of proclaiming in fullness the Catholic faith to other Christians, who freely wish to receive it.”

The “confusion” noted in the document, which seems uncomfortably similar to recent comments by Francis, was contrasted with the a true “love of neighbor” that impels the Christian to lead others to the faith: “The communication of religiously significant events and truths in order that they will be accepted by others is not only in profound harmony with the human phenomena of dialogue, proclamation and education, it also corresponds to another important anthropological fact: the desire, which is proper to the human person, to have others share in one’s own goods.” 

However, the contents of the Doctrinal Note seem to have been forgotten in the ecumenical enthusiasm of the Francis papacy, in which any attempt to bring about the conversion of another is derided and dismissed as “proselytism,” a theme that has run through his papacy since the beginning.

In an interview with the Argentine newspaper Viva in July 2014, Pope Francis listed “tips” for living a happy life, making the first “Do not proselytize,” which he defined as, “‘I am talking to you in order to persuade you.’ No. Each one must dialogue from his own identity. The Church grows by attraction, not by proselytism.” He made a similar comment to the leftist journalist Eugenio Scalfari in October of 2013. When asked if he would try to “convert” Scalfari, Francis replied, “Proselytism is solemn nonsense, it makes no sense.”

Unrealistic expectations? 

The excesses of the ecumenical movement and the increasing hostility expressed towards the evangelical mission of the Church seem to stem from unrealistic expectations about the possibilities offered by dialog with organizations whose very identity depends upon doctrines the Catholic Church has condemned as heretical. The premise that seems to underlie so much of the dialogical process is that somehow, if we spend enough time talking, we will realize that we have been misunderstanding one another for centuries, and that no real dispute ever existed. 

Such a vision is tempting to Catholic dialog participants, because it seems more convenient to their task than the hard reality they face, which is that official doctrines and historical identities of their interlocutors are, in many ways, fundamentally irreconcilable with Catholic dogma. Unity with non-Catholics can only occur if the latter repudiate their institutional and doctrinal legacies to the extent they conflict with the Catholic faith, and return to the orthodoxy and organizational unity of the Catholic Church, as envisioned in Unitatis Redintegratio

The desire of the Catholic hierarchy to overcome the divisions brought about by the Reformation and the Eastern Schism is laudable, but if it comes at the price of doctrinal ambiguity and undermines the Church’s evangelical mission, it is a truly Faustian bargain. Corporate dialog with non-Catholic religious bodies can yield real fruits for the Catholic Church, but only if its limits are recognized. An unrealistic ecumenism will not only fail; by ignoring the substance of our disagreements, it will undermine the spiritual goods that both sides bring to the table.

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About Matthew Cullinan Hoffman 26 Articles
Matthew Cullinan Hoffman is a Catholic essayist and journalist, and the author and translator of The Book of Gomorrah and St. Peter Damian's Struggle Against Ecclesiastical Corruption (2015). His award-winning articles have appeared in the Wall Street Journal, London Sunday Times, Catholic World Report, LifeSite News, Crisis, the National Catholic Register, and many other publications. He holds an M.A. in Philosophy from Holy Apostles College and Seminary, with a focus on Thomism.

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