Friday, December 07, 2007

John Allen on the state of ecumenism

Full, visible communion is only an eschatological hope. Let's not overlook just how much progress has been made.
Here's the unvarnished ecumenical truth: Pluralism is an almost immutable fact of life in a globalized world, akin to the law of gravity. In that context, and given the weight of history, it's deeply unlikely that we'll see full, visible communion among all the branches of Christianity anytime before the Second Coming. The Orthodox are not going to accept papal jurisdiction, Catholics are not going to tolerate the kind of doctrinal and ecclesiological flexibility one finds in the Anglican Communion, and so on. That doesn't mean renouncing full communion as a dream, but it implies not broadcasting it as the primary motive for ecumenical work, because doing so is a sure prescription for heartbreak.

In practical terms, the point of "ecumenism of life" is not overcoming ecclesiological and theological differences, but living with them in a spirit of common purpose. By that standard, success abounds, from joint social and charitable projects to common efforts to resist the inroads of secularism and what Benedict XVI calls the "dictatorship of relativism." To take one small but telling example, this week Catholic Archbishop Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz and Orthodox Metropolitan Filaret in Belarus signed a declaration, along with Baptist and Lutheran leaders, outlining a common strategy against HIV/AIDS. In Eastern Europe, that kind of ecumenical cooperation would have been unthinkable even a generation ago.

If ecumenical success were defined that way, the dominant impression would be of unstoppable momentum rather than malaise.

Fans of "The Simpsons" will recall an episode in which Bart donates blood to Mr. Burns, thereby saving his life. Homer greedily anticipates that Burns will shower his family with riches, but instead Burns presents the Simpsons with a massive stone head carved by ancient Olmecs, called Xtapolapocetl. A dismayed Homer looks at the head and asks, "What does it do?" His long-suffering wife Marge replies, "Whatever it does, it's doing it right now."

In a similar vein, I would say that whatever a unified Christian church does -- at least one that's realistic to expect in this order of history -- it's doing it right now. This isn't an ecumenical winter, it's spring, even if there are still clouds on the horizon, and the trick is to enjoy the weather rather than longing for an utterly flawless day that's just not in the forecast.
Lots of other good stuff in his weekly column too, including a brief mention of the reception of Jeffrey Steenson, former Episcopal Bishop of Rio Grande, by Bernard Cardinal Law into the Catholic Church.

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