Comments on The Pope’s Ecumenical Address
April 19, 2008
I heartily recommend the Pope’s address to the ecumenical audience given at St. Joseph’s church in New York City. The full text can be found here.
The Pope’s message makes the important connection between unity and mission. The proclamation of reconciliation with God and our fellow human beings in Jesus Christ is contradicted by our sad divisions. Unity and mission are inextricably intertwined. Furthermore the breaking of unity with the faith and practice of the church of ages in the name of “prophetic action” and “local option,” demonstrates a loss of grip on the nature of Christian truth which transcends time and culture. The Pope of course is making a reference to among other things the unilateral actions of the Protestant Churches including The Episcopal Church in authorizing same-sex blessings and the ordination of actively homosexual clergy.
The Pope warns against the temptation to try to find an ecumenical unity which is not also a unity in faith and doctrine. The downplaying of the role of doctrinal agreement in the search for unity is according to Benedict the result of alien and secular ideologies taking root in the church.
“My dear friends, the power of the kerygma has lost none of its internal dynamism. Yet we must ask ourselves whether its full force has not been attenuated by a relativistic approach to Christian doctrine similar to that found in secular ideologies, which, in alleging that science alone is “objective”, relegate religion entirely to the subjective sphere of individual feeling. Scientific discoveries, and their application through human ingenuity, undoubtedly offer new possibilities for the betterment of humankind. This does not mean, however, that the “knowable” is limited to the empirically verifiable, nor religion restricted to the shifting realm of “personal experience.”
For Christians to accept this faulty line of reasoning would lead to the notion that there is little need to emphasize objective truth in the presentation of the Christian faith, for one need but follow his or her own conscience and choose a community that best suits his or her individual tastes. The result is seen in the continual proliferation of communities which often eschew institutional structures and minimize the importance of doctrinal content for Christian living.
But the uncritical acceptance of this reduction of dependable knowing to scientific knowledge by the intellectual elites of the mainline churches has led to exactly the marginalization of the dogmatic tradition which the Pope rightly sees as the enemy of any true ecumenism. (The Pope is here making a philosophical critique of popular epistemology similar to that made by Michael Polanyi and others. See my remarks given at GTS below.) The result is an acceleration of the momentum toward a kind of anti-ecumenism with the church breaking into more and more idiosyncratic communities.
Without what Lesslie Newbigin calls proper confidence in the truth there can no true community and a church which has lost its proper confidence in its own proclamation cannot effectively evangelize a world which hopes for truth but doubts its existence. As the Pope puts it:
Only by “holding fast” to sound teaching (2 Thess 2:15; cf. Rev 2:12-29) will we be able to respond to the challenges that confront us in an evolving world. Only in this way will we give unambiguous testimony to the truth of the Gospel and its moral teaching. This is the message which the world is waiting to hear from us. Like the early Christians, we have a responsibility to give transparent witness to the “reasons for our hope”, so that the eyes of all men and women of goodwill may be opened to see that God has shown us his face (cf. 2 Cor 3:12-18) and granted us access to his divine life through Jesus Christ. He alone is our hope! God has revealed his love for all peoples through the mystery of his Son’s passion and death, and has called us to proclaim that he is indeed risen, has taken his place at the right hand of the Father, and “will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead” (Nicene Creed).