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“Making” Christian Unity

January 27, 2013

Rowan Williams

In 1986, the German journal Theologische Quartalschrift invited Joseph Ratzinger to share his thoughts on the state of Christian unity. Recalling the Second Vatican Council, and the “tempo at which new and hitherto unexpected things suddenly became possible,” Ratzinger observed how many Christians, following the close of the Council, entertained the seemingly well-founded hope that divisions between Christians were nearing their end. Such Christians, however, were largely unaware of the “long struggle” leading to (and occurring during) the Council, and when the unity they desired did not so speedily materialize, short-cuts in pursuit began to be taken.

Egalitarianism & Chauvinism

Ratzinger holds that in the pursuit of Christian unity, to be avoided is a false egalitarianism which tends toward viewing the existing practices of others as de facto traditions, regardless of the relation such practices hold to the Scriptures or to Tradition. Concretely, a person motivated by false egalitarianism might view the Book of Common Prayer, or the Book of Alternative Services, as having worth simply because they are possessed by Anglican believers, rather than because of the relation such texts hold to the Scriptures or to Tradition.

To be avoided also is confessional chauvinism. In Ratzinger’s view, the Christian person is not to “interpret as truth that which is, in reality, a historical development with a more or less close relationship to truth.” Confessional chauvinism confuses traditions or practices with the Truth itself, and the result is a distrust of diversity. At the World Youth Day happenings of Cologne (in 2006), Ratzinger, as Pope Benedict, described ecumenism as being not what could be called an “ecumenism of the return.” The Pope described, as false, the approach which sought the denial of another person’s faith history. He stated that ecumenism was not to be seen as a movement toward “uniformity in all expressions of theology and spirituality, in liturgical forms and in discipline.”

Aim of Ecumenism

Aidan Nichols states that, for Ratzinger, the true aim of the ecumenical endeavour is that separated confessions become authentic and concrete embodiments of the single Church. The interest of ecumenism, as Ratzinger noted in a 1976 lecture, cannot be linked to the precondition that particular confessions disappear. Rather, the interest of ecumenism is that particular confessions (like, for example, Anglican or Lutheran ones) be translated into the “full meaning of a binding community of faith in the Church.”

The Personal Ordinariate for Anglicans, I think, is a concrete rejection of confessional chauvinism. Here, Anglicans wish to place themselves in union with the Catholic Church and retain their own liturgical forms and practices. Examples might include the continued use of the Book of Common Prayer or the continued practice of ordaining married persons. The October 2009 “Note,” published by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, stated the hope of Pope Benedict that Anglicans desiring union with the Catholic Church find, in this Ordinariate, the “opportunity to preserve those Anglican traditions precious to them and consistent with the Catholic faith.”

Maximum Demands vs. Exchange of Gifts

An appropriate ecumenical pursuit distances itself from what Ratzinger calls maximum demands and opens itself to an exchange of gifts. Maximum demands, Ratzinger wrote in 1976, offer no real hope of unity, and as long as (and to the extent that) maximum demands are regarded as a requirement for unity, no other recourse exists “than to simply strive to convert one’s partner in the debate.”

Christian faith, on the other hand, when properly understood, has a definite context. A consequence of such a context is its search for unity, its openness to purification and to deepening, and its hope that others experience purification and deepening as well. Far from relativizing Catholicism, it is to be held that while the Church of Christ subsists in Catholicism, elements necessary for Catholicism’s own flowering may be sought, depending on time and circumstance, outside of its visible boundaries.

While we do not make unity, neither do we, as Ratzinger asserts, “twiddle our thumbs.” In other Christian communities, the Catholic person should find, recognize, and acknowledge already existing forms of unity (forms which, to Ratzinger, are “not insignificant”). For example, Catholics and Protestants read together the Scriptures and they share the profession of faith. Catholics and Protestants have in common the basic form of Christian prayer and, to Ratzinger, these fundamental unities should correspond to a fundamental unity in action. Once put into action, such unity becomes concrete and becomes capable of being extended.

To Ratzinger, the Catholic person must be “unwilling to impose” on his or her partner in dialogue anything which might still threaten the core of that person’s Christian identity. The Catholic person, Ratzinger notes, should not try to force Protestants to recognize the papacy or the Catholic understanding of apostolic succession. We Catholics, he notes, should “respect” that our own reflection on these subjects often appears, to Protestant persons, as “manipulation” of the Scriptures.

In Paragraph 11 of Unitatis redintegratio, the Second Vatican Fathers note that within Catholic teaching “there exists a ‘hierarchy’ of truths, since they vary in their relation to the fundamental Christian faith.” The Catholic person is sensitive to what might appear to threaten the core of another person’s Christian identity, precisely because that Christian partner in conversation has already appropriated that which is at the heart of the Christian faith, even if he or she has not yet embraced truths which, while important, do not lie at center of the hierarchy of truths.

This appears why, in 1974, Avery Dulles suggested that certain Marian-related anathemas be removed as a gesture of good will. In the 1 November 1950 Apostolic Constitution Munificentissimus Deus, Pope Pius XII had stated that should anyone “dare willingly to deny or call into doubt” that which had been defined about the Assumption of Mary, then such a person should be considered having fallen “completely from the divine and Catholic faith.” However, informed by Unitatis redintegratio, and evidenced in the Dulles Proposal, as well as in Ratzinger’s reflection on ecumenism, what emerges is, in the view of Richard Gaillardetz, the recognition that the central dogmatic content found within a text such as Munificentissimus Deus (the central dogmatic content being the promise of the integral bodily resurrection) is affirmed by those sometimes seen as affected by the anathemas, even if certain confirmatory features have not yet been appropriated (for example, that the reality of the bodily resurrection has been communicated in the bodily assumption of Mary).

Unsatisfactory Approach (?)

Ratzinger understands that “many people will not like the concept [of ecumenical realities] when it is put in this way.” However, as he has noted, it is not we who make unity. By not imposing, and by not reducing ecumenism to simply the attempt to convert one’s partner in an ecumenical conversation, persons “leave to God what is his business and his alone.”

Citing the divisions of one thousand years between Christian people, Ratzinger notes that what once seemed impossible no longer needs to be. Persons are to possess hope. Christianity rests on the victory of improbability and Christian persons place their confidence in the Holy Spirit. Quoting the Protestant reformer Philip Melanchthon, Ratzinger holds that Christian unity will occur “where and when God has seen fit” and, until that moment occurs, even “as separated brethren we can be one.”

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