Avery Dulles and Ecumenism

Avery Cardinal Dulles, has written a piece about ecumenism in the new edition of First Things. It’s a good article. It’s sober, it provides a nice historical context of recent ecumenical work, and most of all it’s a realistic assessment about exactly how much (or little) agreement there really is between protestants and catholics who actually care about their own respective theologies.

The blogosphere has already picked up on the article. (Cf. Millinerd, and J. Goroncy). One thing that I noted when I read the article hasn’t been mentioned yet in the blogs (to my knowledge) so I thought I’d chirp in.

What Dulles really wants is a new sort of ecumenicism which isn’t based on levelling off dogmatic differences.

 “Unlike some recent models of dialogue, ecumenism of this style leaves the participants free to draw on their own normative sources and does not constrain them to bracket or minimize what is specific to themselves. Far from being embarrassed by their own distinctive doctrines and practices, each partner should feel privileged to be able to contribute something positive that the ­others still lack. “

 So far, so good. I think Avery D is on track here. The problem comes when he starts talking about what ‘gift’ he thinks the catholics have to offer prots.

“Conversely, Catholics would not hesitate to go into the dialogue with the full panoply of beliefs, sustained by our own methods of certifying the truth of revelation. We are not ashamed of our reliance on tradition, the liturgy, the sense of the faithful, and our confidence in the judgment of the Magisterium. “

So the unique contribution of catholicism to ecumenical dialogue is: the authority of the magisterium! Not surprising for a catholic to say, but probably a hard sell as an ecumenical talking point. What concerns me is not this claim, however–it’s actually just exactly what I would expect him to say. What concerns me is a paragraph towards then end in which he says that the participants in ecumenical dialogue should be open to ‘conversion’:

” As a Roman Catholic, I would make use of the methods by which my church derives its distinctive doctrines. I would also expect that any reunion to which Catholics can be a party would have to include as part of the settlement the Catholic dogmas, perhaps reinterpreted in ways that we do not now foresee. Other churches and ecclesial communities will have their own expectations. But all must be open to possible conversion. We must rely on the Holy Spirit to lead us, as Vatican II recommended, “without obstructing the ways of divine Providence and without prejudging the future inspiration of the Holy Spirit.” “

 This is where I think it’s gone absolutely off the rails. How can you be ‘confident’ in the magisterium and open to the possibility of conversion. To be open to conversion you have to recognize the possibility that you might be wrong. If you are confident in the magisterium, then you are not open to the possibility that the magisterium might be wrong. So Dulles is either deeply confused or very disingenuous. It is disingenuous if Dulles is calling protestants to be  ‘open to conversion’, i.e. open to accepting the gift of magisterial authority, but does not call catholics to be ‘open’ in the same way.


7 Responses to Avery Dulles and Ecumenism

  1. millinerd says:

    I have a great deal of respect for Dulles. However the difficulties you point out in your post resemble the difficulties in an earlier article of his that attempted to square earlier Cathoilc condemnations of democracy with Vatican II on democracy.

  2. hughvic says:

    Phenomenologically, Catholic/Protestant ecumenism is bullshit. It’s a nice idea, but then so is global disarmament. It’s a privileged taste of the Kingdom of Heaven to experience a true meeting of the two churches, a meeting in which each really understands and respects the other’s beliefs and practices and is grateful to God for the other’s good company. But for, say, the past 20 years I’ve seen that only in exegesis, which surely is a case of an exceptional proof, since exegetes are irrepressably curious a la vivre la difference: “show me your hermeneutic and I’ll show you mine.”

    Otherwise ecumenical couture has tended to come in your choice of two styles these past 80 seasons: Kumbaya, for the leveler in you, and Cambridge Apostle, for those occasions when you simply can’t resist indulging your inner recruiter. Both are devious, in the sense that they are, as a friend of mine says, a “skillful evasion of the main point.” The Kumbaya style is devious because it reduces the Gospel–which is, however light a yoke, still a tragically heavy and gravely demanding narrative–to a collection of pleasantries. This is as evasive as the “statistical Christianity” that Kierkegaard saw in Mortenson upon the death of Mynster. There, at the locus betwixt the gathering of Catholic and Protestant in his name, the consubstantiation of Dale Carnegie. This style is a Protestant specialty.

    The Cambridge Apostle is always in style for any Catholic worth his or her salt peter, especially for Jesuits, whose encyclopedic minds are busy dynamos indeed. Catholics simply make the best espionage agents in the world, as Ronald Reagan was brought by William Casey to understand. Francine du Plessy Gray also has made this observation, and of course Vatican watchers revel in its internecine implications. Not for nothing does a German Shepherd and former Grand Inquisitor sit upon the Throne of St. Peter. Irrespective of their so-called romance of orthodoxy, Roman Catholics dig the sheer derring-do of acting as ecclesiastical agents of influence. For some reason they almost never pour their evangelicalism neat. Rather, they handle it surreptitiously, the way Dulles does. (The Cardinal, not the CIA Director.) Let’s face it, they rightly regard Protestantism as degraded Christianity, just as serious Protestants view Roman Catholicism as degraded Christianity. Ergo impasse. Hell, Dulles can’t even acknowledge the obvious, retarded Protestantism of Vatican II! Consider the Latin derivation of the word “conspiracy”. Greet the brothers with a kiss!

    In answer to your question as to whether Dulles is fooling himself or fooling us, I say yes. He’s fooling himself if he thinks that Protestants are ever going to meet Papists at the point of Catholic “dogma”, because Protestants by historical definition do not respect dogma, but rather doctrine, of which dogma is of course the antithesis and nemesis. The “fooling us” part comes in when Dulles suggests, rather ambiguously, that Catholics should be open to Protestant conversion. I doubt that he or any other prelate, no matter how intelligent, could conceive of such a thing. The laity, yes, but not the made clerics. Every Protestant official who has engaged in ecumenical liaison regards The Mother Church as his or her Alma Mater. But while it isn’t difficult for one to take one’s mother seriously, it’s nearly impossible for mothers to take their young children seriously. And to our mothers we are always young children. Mother’s always right, and the Holy See is the One True Church. Period.

    OK. Ideas for breaking the impasse? Fantasize this: a Catholic emissary and a Protestant emissary rendezvous on a Galilean beach. They face off at twenty paces and each scrawls with a crozier a simple ichthys into the sand. They then trade places, eyeing one another warily as they pass. When both emissaries are satisfied that their holy mackerels match, they obliterate the symbols and greet one another with an embrace and a kiss beside both cheeks. They sit down in the sand and begin by agreeing that they are both apostate Jews shortcutting the marathon. That having been said, they proceed with the rigor, self-depricating humor and radical creativity of post-Second Temple rabbis to laugh deeply and joyously at all the ways in which their churches have re-created idolatrous, sacrificial religion. At dusk the two emissaries rise, shake off the sand, and walk off together, just the two women, to spread the word and begin anew.

  3. scholasticus says:

    Here’s my fantasy scenario of ecumenism. Papa B dies and goes to heaven. When he gets to the gates, St. Peter and Martin Luther meet him. Papa B expects St. Pete, but is surprised Luther made it onto the welcoming committee. Luther bends down and kisses Papa B’s signate ring.

    “It’s his penance,” explains St. Peter, “he has to kiss your ring to get in the door.”

    Having knelt to kiss the ring, Luther then stands up, turns around, pulls down his pants and bends over.

    “What is all this about?” asks Papa B.

    St. Pete: “Now it’s time for yours.”

  4. hughvic says:

    That’s the ticket!

  5. wtm says:

    I like Scholasticus’ fantasy better, but we must remember that Calvin and Cyprian are laughing together on the side-lines as they watch!

  6. hughvic says:

    I pray that they are so doing. It would be nice also to hope that they are dancing the Marty Hop.

  7. bls622 says:

    Hey Shane, Brennan from Leuven here, accidentally stumbled onto your blog while searching you out, couldn’t remember if you went to SLU or Fordham in the end. (I have a friend at SLU).

    First thing, in regards to this debate, I think the most telling phrase is that Dulles, says, 7th paragraph I believe, he says:

    “Without concealing or minimizing the specific claims of the Catholic Church, the Second Vatican Council found ways of showing how that Church could and should pursue ecumenism. Four important insights, all expressed by Vatican II, undergirded the commitment of Catholics to this new apostolate.”

    Therefore, I think Dulles is already implicating himself, so to speak, that he isn’t exactly going to be shy about his views on Catholicism, whatever they are. I think this is kinda fair, all things considered…catholics (usually) never claimed to be shy about their beliefs, but on the other hand, it’s not like Catholics aren’t interested in ecumenism, c’est pas vraix. I’m a big fan. (Hopefully that doesn’t make me somebody to hate here, but oh well…) and also, I’m not sure about that whole magestirium bit. I mean, yeah, it’s important, but it depends which Catholics you talk to for how much it influences their daily catholic living. And while I’m no scholar, the big point for me is that Dulles says that Catholics aren’t ashamed of their differences from Protestants.

    Also, I think there is a difference between what dogma is right and whether human beings are always right (as per Vat II, I think), but I’d have to go check, so there’s a good chance ‘I’ am not right about that, but whatever. I’m too tired tonight to go spelunking.

    I guess my question to you would be, what would you like Catholics to be open to, if you are ‘open’ to the magisterial authority bit?

    And, LOL, yes it WOULD be nice if the Pope did more butt kissing, but we can’t always have the popes we love. Part of the ‘universalism’ of Catholism.

    Glad to know you’re alive and well, Shane.

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