In this first part of a two-part essay George Ripon explores what happened to the great quest for Christian Unity that had so much attraction a decade or two ago? This ought stir up a good discussion on Catholica and further afield. We'll published the second part tomorrow.
Christian Unity, getting our churches back on track
Having written recently on matters of direct concern to our own Church I thought it appropriate to move to the broader issue of Christian Unity. Referred to as "Ecumenism" the objective being to heal the divisions brought about by the Reformation and establish a united world-wide Christian church. In Nov. 2017 it will be 500 years since Martin Luther nailed his thesis to the door of the church in Wittenberg. Rome, sadly gave Luther, on a plate, the inspiration he needed, the sale of Indulgences. Commissioned by the Pope, (Leo X, 1513-1521), Friar John Tetzel would set up in a town and in exchange for cash would issue certificates granting an Indulgence, forgiveness of sin at the moment of death. Not only untheological but deceitful and fraudulent.
Some years later in 1534 Henry VIII broke with Rome and set himself up as Head of the Church of England (Anglican) because the Pope (Clement VII 1523-1534) refused him a divorce. many years of bloodshed in England and across Europe followed, with the stage set for the divisions which are still with us to-day. Fortunately, through the twentieth century relations between the Christian traditions improved significantly allowing for dialogue and the sharing of some Services, much however remains to be done if we are to achieve the unity for which Jesus prayed at the Last Supper (John 17).
The Vatican II Decree on Ecumenism, Unitatis Redintegratio, was published by Paul, Bishop, Servant of the Servants of God on Nov-21 1964. I do not propose to deal with the Decree here except to say that like so many of the great initiatives of Vatican II it has been quietly side-tracked in recent times. This was highlighted recently when a colourful German woman bishop, Margot Kaessmann, made the comment that nothing is expected of the present Pope in ecumenical dialogue. This annoyed Cardinal Walter Kasper, then President of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity who described her comment as "unfair" and "deeply unecumenical". However Kasper, a great theologian and dedicated ecumenist would have seen an element of truth in Margot Kaessmann's remarks. Unfortunately Bishop Kaessmann has since resigned having been caught drink-driving in her luxury VW Phaeton after going through a red light. No one is perfect!!
Significantly a week after the above exchange of words Cardinal Kasper hosted a meeting at the Vatican with the Anglican, Lutheran, Methodist and Reformed Churches. This get-together was subject to a report in the National Catholic Reporter by John Allen Jr, on 8 Feb 2010 [LINK]. The report highlighted two unusual aspects of this meeting. Firstly that free discussion took place described by John Allen as a sort of "State of the Union" consideration of the entire ecumenical project. Secondly while in recent times the Vatican has preferred "one on one" dialogues with individual traditions, often on specific topics, this did not apply here. So there is hope, maybe even joyful?
Two possibilities were signalled by the get-together, the first being preparation of a working document to identify guidelines for future ecumenical dialogues. A recent check with one of those present and our Melbourne Ecumenical Commission indicated that nothing further has emerged as yet. Secondly, at the meeting Cardinal Kasper flew a kite for an "Ecumenical Catechism" prepared by the Christian traditions and to be published with the blessing of our church. Hopefully, we in the pews will be kept informed as matters progress.
Kasper: the voice of one crying in the Roman wilderness...
Ecumenism presents a major challenge for all concerned and I'm not sure where to begin or where I'll end up. However a word here about Walter Cardinal Kasper, as I said above a great theologian and a dedicated ecumenist. Why then, under his watch do we have what John Allen describes as a perception of a vast ecumenical malaise? Here with respect to all concerned I express it as I see it. I see Kasper as "the voice of one crying in the Roman wilderness". Surrounded by a Curia obsessed with other matters such as the sex abuse crisis and the imposition of the appalling English Mass translations on the remaining faithful one can sense Kasper's frustration as he saw ecumenism quietly side-tracked. Maybe the German woman Bishop had a point.
While the following deals primarily with matters within our church, the outcome or understanding is critical in our ecumenical dealings with other Traditions. In 1999 Kasper published an essay "On the Office of the Bishop". In the following year Ratzinger responded in a lecture "On the Ecclesiology of the Second Vatican Council", highly critical of Kasper's position. This led to a further article by Kasper entitled "On the Church" [LINK]. This was published in America Magazine on April 23 2001. As a seven-page document it's not easy to summarise but the gist of it is as follows:
As a German bishop, Kasper became concerned at the way in which authority was exercised by Rome with the expectation that all, bishops, priests and the faithful would obey without question. Bishops were the servants of Rome, there to see that the people continued to "Pay, Pray and Obey". In Kasper's view the local bishop had no discretion to respond to local culture, conditions or traditions. Rome's adamant refusal of Communion to divorced or remarried Catholics and very restricted rules for intercommunion are good examples of this. After all, those concerned need only go to a neighbouring parish and receive Communion in good conscience. While B16 supports a monolithic structure governed from the top by the supreme pontiff, Kasper, drawing on history and tradition, sees the need for a much more open church. Churches established by Paul such as Corinth, Ephesus and other places were independent and in time local churches came under the oversight and leadership of a bishop. They were "in communion" with each other and with Rome. Kasper in a very scholarly way describes how he sees the proper relationship between the local churches and the See of Rome, more like "Primus inter Pares" (First among Equals). This gets us back to Collegiality with bishops worldwide sharing with the Pontiff in the governance of the Church. Sadly collegiality is another casualty of the bogus "reform of the reform" promoted by the negative voices in the Curia. So ecumenically we have some in-house work to do to decide what we have to offer our non-Catholic friends.
Like it or not unity will have to be negotiated, the days are long gone when Rome could sit back and await the penitent return of the wayward. So it's the hard yards before us. Critical to the whole process is how we see headship and leadership in a united Christian church. We have to have a desk where "The Buck Stops" (Harry S. Truman) but I cannot see non-Catholic traditions accepting anything like the rigid autocratic structure that we now suffer in our Catholic Church. To his credit JPII in May 1995 published his encyclical letter "Ut Unum Sint" (That They may be One) [LINK] outlining the ecumenical challenge with an appeal to the other traditions to reflect with him on how the different churches saw the role of Peter as we approached the third millennium. Sadly, we must ask, some fifteen years on, what progress has been made? Some I gather but, as with many church issues, there is very little communication with the faithful in the pews. In a matter like this why can we not have regular informative Pastoral Letters from our bishops, promoted in church weekly notices and from the pulpit?
However, we, as the numerically largest Christian Church must put something on the table on how leadership would be determined in a united Christian church. A conclave of Cardinals personally appointed by the previous Pope(s) cosily getting together to appoint one of their own will not be good enough. We would need something like a world-wide Conference of Bishops including non-Catholics. Other churches, surviving without bishops would appoint representatives. This body would appoint delegates to an electoral college to elect a leader of the Christian Church. After 2,000 years of Popes this could be a bitter pill for Catholics. If it's any consolation other churches committed to the prayer of Jesus for unity will also need to make major concessions.
Many other hurdles...
Another big hurdle is the role of women in the church. With an absolute mindset (almost infallible?) against the ordination of women in our Catholic tradition it's hard to see any easy compromise. However it's worth noting that all is not sweetness and light in the Anglican church on this issue. In an article in the Melbourne Age on 10 June 2010 religion editor Barney Zwartz referred to a growing backlash against women being treated as equals in Australian Anglican churches. His article is headed "Men lead. Women obey?" [LINK]. With the Diocese of Ballarat in Victoria and the Sydney Archdiocese both refusing to accept women for ordination the battle is far from over. In recent times the Anglican Synod in the UK saw a bitter debate on the question of women bishops. Clergy unwilling to accept the headship of a woman as bishop sought the right to serve only under a male bishop. This was refused on the vote leaving much bitterness with veiled threats of "a move to Rome" by many. I hate to think of our Church as the negative default option for unhappy Anglicans. That is a discussion for another day. Sadly on the question of Authority our Anglican friends do not have a "Desk where the Buck Stops" with Canterbury only having an advisory and persuasive role. So another problem for unity here.
A third problem lies in the approach to gay women and men in society and especially in church life and ministry. Many fundamentalists regard any gay sexual activity as evil and very sinful. Moderates seek ways to acknowledge the reality even to accepting gay people into church ministry. Others go the whole hog with one US bishop (male) openly living with his gay partner. Other Churches permit gay marriages similar to heterosexual ceremonies. This is a highly contentious issue mentioned here as another matter for ecumenical discussion.
These three matters on their own will need much prayer and consultation and there are many more, so where to start?
George Ripon 21/07/10
What are your thoughts on this commentary?