As of late I have written a number of articles that address the now 500 year old division between the Roman Catholic and Protestant Churches. I have been largely critical of what I see in the Catholic Church as standing in the way of healing that division, not least of which is the Roman papacy as it has come to be defined and exercised. Since, however, my aim is not to be critical as an end in itself (for critique should only clear the ground for construction), I want to give credit where credit is due and highlight positive developments where and when they occur. For this reason, I think that Pope Francis should be commended for his recent definition of “true ecumenism”.
First a word of introduction. Although in some evangelical circles the term “ecumenical” carries negative connotations, I unreservedly confess to being an ecumenical at heart, for I would desire nothing less than to witness a clear and visible manifestation of unity between the churches now divided. I am concerned, however, that such unity be pursued in the proper way, in the way in which the New Testament itself directs us. I do not envision that the Catholic-Protestant schism will be overcome through a mere “return to Rome” or a glossing over of the differences that exist. Why not? Because for all of the various social, cultural, and political factors that contributed to the birth of the Reformation, the Reformers were driven fundamentally by theological motivations. It is easy to forget that Martin Luther did not initially intend to break communion with the bishop of Rome, indicating that his basic complaint was not with the Church as an institution so much as with the errors that he discerned in its teaching. Since the Reformation arose primarily as a movement aimed at correcting the faith of the Catholic Church, then it is unlikely that a mere return of the Reformation’s offspring to the institution of the Catholic Church will suffice for true unity.
All of this leads me to the substance of this post. This month (18-25 January) witnessed the annual Week of Prayer for Christian Unity whose theme, in commemoration of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, was “Reconciliation – The Love of Christ Compels Us”. During the celebration, Pope Francis had this to say in an address the Finnish Lutheran Ecumenical Delegation (full text here):
True ecumenism is based on a shared conversion to Jesus Christ as our Lord and Redeemer. If we draw close to him, we draw close also to one another. During these days let us pray more fervently to the Holy Spirit so that we may experience this conversion which makes reconciliation possible.
On this path, we Catholics and Lutherans, from several countries, together with various communities sharing our ecumenical journey, reached a significant step when, on 31 October last, we gathered together in Lund, Sweden, to commemorate through common prayer the beginning of the Reformation. This joint commemoration of the Reformation was important on both the human and theological-spiritual levels. After fifty years of official ecumenical dialogue between Catholics and Lutherans, we have succeeded in clearly articulating points of view which today we agree on. For this we are grateful. At the same time we keep alive in our hearts sincere contrition for our faults. In this spirit, we recalled in Lund that the intention of Martin Luther five hundred years ago was to renew the Church, not divide her. The gathering there gave us the courage and strength, in our Lord Jesus Christ, to look ahead to the ecumenical journey that we are called to walk together.
Now the pope’s address contains some elements with which I could take issue, but that is not the purpose of this post. Rather, I would like to commend the pope for clearly articulating what I believe to be the heart and soul of “true ecumenism”. Though I still stand by the reservations I have voiced in the past about the pope’s ecumenical intentions, I cannot but wholeheartedly affirm his summary of the true path to unity between the churches: it is ultimately by drawing close to Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior, that we draw near (or are drawn near!) to one another. I am reminded here of the apostle John’s admonishment in his first epistle: “But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin” (1 John 1:7). This verse is highly instructive: we have fellowship with each other – visibly manifesting the fullness of our catholicity – to the extent that we walk in the light as Christ is in, and indeed himself is, the light. If we do not have fellowship with one another, then the only conclusion is that we are not walking in the light of Christ! In some form or another, we do not have full fellowship with each because we do not have full fellowship with Christ. As Karl Barth powerfully put it:
The quest for the unity of the Church must in fact be identical with the quest for Jesus Christ as the concrete Head and Lord of the Church. The blessing of unity cannot be separated from Him who blesses, for in Him it has its source and reality, through His Word and Spirit it is revealed to us, and only in faith in Him can it become a reality among us. I repeat: Jesus Christ as the one Mediator between God and man is the oneness of the Church, is that unity within which there may be a multiplicity of communities, of gifts, of persons with the one Church, while through it a multiplicity of churches are excluded. When we confess and assert that it belongs to the Church’s commission to be one Church, we must not have in mind the idea of unity, whatever its goodness and moral beauty may be – we must have Him in our mind; for in Him and in Him only…can those other multiplicities of the Church whether recent or of long standing, which claim an independence of their own, lose their life. “Homesickness for the una sancta” is genuine and legitimate only insofar as it is a disquietude at the fact that we have lost and forgotten Christ, and with Him have lost the unity of the Church.
If the root problem of our disunity is a disrupted fellowship with Christ, then the only solution, as the pope rightly observed, is a “shared conversion to Jesus Christ as our Lord and Redeemer”. This means, as the pope further acknowledged, that we must “keep alive in our hearts sincere contrition for our faults”. I appreciate that the pope included himself, and by extension the Catholic Church as a whole, in this. He did not say to the Lutheran delegation: “you keep alive in your hearts sincere contrition for your faults”, as though the blame is only to be laid at the feet of Luther. Indeed, Pope Francis reaffirmed the fact that Luther never wanted to divide the church, but quite the contrary: he believed that a renewal of the church could only strengthen its unity. Rather, the pope stressed that when it comes to church disunity, all sides are culpable and thus must adopt a fundamentally repentant attitude.
It is not coincidental that in the verse subsequent to the one quoted above John wrote: “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us”. (1 John 1:8). In other words, when we find that we have broken fellowship with each other, than it will not do for some of us claim that we have no sin in the matter! None of us, neither Catholic nor Protestant (to say nothing of the Orthodox!), can be wholly exonerated. We have all contributed to this division in one way or another. Self-posturing or self-justification will never bring about the fellowship of which John is speaking. That can only happen through confession and repentance: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9).
Thus, if we as Catholics and Protestants truly want to walk the pathway to greater unity, that pathway will first and foremost be directed toward Christ himself. It is only as we draw near to Christ (rather than to a particular tradition or person or institution) that we will find ourselves drawn nearer to each other as well.
 Karl Barth, The Church and the Churches. (Grand Rapids/Cambridge: Eerdmans, 2005), pp.13-15.