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Apologetics Is Where the Action Is

Ecumenism is back in the news. The Catholic Church announced last October it had worked out with certain Lutheran groups an accord on the doctrine of justification. (For an analysis of the accord, see Jimmy Akin’s “Justification,” This Rock, November/December 1999.) No other ecumenical event in the Church’s life in modern times has been so widely commented on, even in the secular press.

In recent years, Catholics have been noted (dare one say “notorious”?) for not evangelizing, not sharing their faith with non-Catholics. Today, however, there is much more talk about—if not practice of—evangelization. And who can count the many dozens of Catholic apologists proclaiming the faith on the Internet? The number grows steadily. The web sites and e-mail exchanges of these volunteer apologists reflect much serious study of the Catholic faith and of that of non-Catholic traditions. So far as I know, no one in this enthusiastic crowd of articulate Catholics bills himself as an “ecumenist.” For them, apologetics is where the action is.

What is the relation then of Catholic apologetics to Catholic ecumenism? Are they opposites or complements? Catholic Answers’ apostolate is that of apologetics and evangelization. Should this apostolate be clearly distinguished from the Catholic Church’s ecumenical outreach?

We can begin to answer these questions by asking another: How does the Catholic Church define ecumenism? The Decree on Ecumenism (Unitatis Redintegratio) of Vatican II says that “the initiatives and activities encouraged and organized to promote Christian unity” make up the ecumenical movement (UR 4).

God wills unity for his people. Christian disunity greatly hinders proclaiming the gospel to a desperately needy world. And so the Catholic Church is committed to carrying on ecumenism. Indeed, that commitment is explicit and firm.

The subtitle of Pope John Paul’s 1995 encyclical on ecumenism, Ut Unum Sint (That They May Be One), is “On Commitment to Ecumenism.” The first chapter is entitled “The Catholic Church’s Commitment to Ecumenism.” In his introduction the Pope assures us that in Vatican II “the Catholic Church committed herself irrevocably [his emphasis] to following the path of the ecumenical venture” (UUS 3). Indeed, “The Catholic Church embraces with hope the commitment to ecumenism as a duty of the Christian conscience enlightened by faith and guided by love” (UUS 9; emphasis added).

What is perhaps the Holy Father’s strongest statement of the Church’s commitment to ecumenism occurs in section 20. Ecumenism, he says “is not just some sort of ‘appendix’ [his emphasis] which is added to the Church’s traditional activity. Rather, ecumenism is an organic part of her life and work.” Therefore, it “must pervade all that she is and does; it must be like the fruit borne by a healthy and flourishing tree which grows to its full stature.”

Where does apologetics come in? Start with the fact that apologists are summoned to be ecumenists, first of all because all Catholics have ecumenical responsibilities. Twice in the Decree on Ecumenism Vatican II declared that all Catholics must be involved in ecumenical activity of some kind. “The concern for restoring unity involves the whole Church, faithful and clergy alike. It extends to everyone, according to the talent of each” (UR 5). Thus the Council exhorted “all the Catholic faithful to recognize the signs of the times and to take an active and intelligent part in the work of ecumenism” (UR 4). No other Christian tradition lives under a mandate like this.

We can turn the matter around and say that while apologists must also be ecumenists, ecumenists also have to be apologists. This latter necessity arises out of the Church’s approach to Christian unity.

What we are saying about ecumenism and apologetics applies only to Catholics. The general Protestant approach to ecumenism is quite different. Protestantism starts from the assumption that the Church of Jesus Christ is widely divided. Some Protestant ecumenists are fond of saying that all Christian traditions are in schism. The Church will never be united until all the more than 25,000 denominations have come together in agreement about Christian faith and practice. A former archbishop of Canterbury has been widely quoted as saying, “I devoutly believe in the Holy Catholic Church and deeply regret that it does not now exist.” In this orientation, which we might call the “jigsaw puzzle” approach, there will be Christian unity only when all the pieces are fitted together.

Protestant ecumenism assumes that though Christ specified unity for his people, he made no specific preparation for bringing it about and perpetuating it. A Catholic may ask, “How will it ever be possible to work out agreements on basic faith and morals among the huge number of separate denominations? Even if agreements could be reached, how can we know they authentically express the Gospel? And what assurance do we have they would endure?” A study done in the 1980s revealed that every year almost 300 new Protestant denominations were appearing on the scene. To continue the jigsaw-puzzle analogy, one may ask, “How can you work a jigsaw puzzle when the number of pieces is constantly increasing?”

In contrast, the starting point of Catholic ecumenism is that Christian unity is a reality to be restored, not a goal to be achieved. According to John Paul II, the Catholic Church “affirms that during the two thousand years of her history she has been preserved in unity, with all the means with which God wishes to endow his Church” (UUS 11). Vatican II expressed the hope that all Christians would be gathered eventually into “the unity of the one and only Church, which Christ bestowed on his Church from the beginning.” In strongest possible terms, the Council taught, “This unity, we believe, subsists in the Catholic Church as something which she can never lose” (UR 4).

Christ has bestowed on his Church the unity for which he prayed (John 17:21). It is his will to embrace all people in that unity. John Paul sums up the meaning of Christ’s high-priestly prayer for unity in these words: “To believe in Christ means to desire unity; to desire unity means to desire the Church; to desire the Church means to desire the communion of grace which corresponds to the Father’s plan from all eternity.” Again, “God wills the [Catholic] Church because he wills unity” (UUS 9).

The goal of Catholic ecumenism is to restore unity to the separated traditions by bringing them within the unity of the Catholic Church (UR 24). The current Pope assures the world that full communion, the hallmark of restored unity, “will have to come about through the acceptance of the whole truth into which the Holy Spirit guides Christ’s disciples” (UUS 36). And where is that truth to be found? Vatican II’s answer: “It is through Christ’s Catholic Church alone, which is the universal help towards salvation, that the fullness of the means of salvation can be obtained” (UR 3).

In light of what the Church teaches about ecumenism and the restoration of unity, we can see the intimate relationship between ecumenism and the practice of apologetics. The ecumenist has to be an apologist in order most effectively to explain to those outside the Church the unity that they are being invited and urged to share. Both ecumenists and apologists are bound by the rule of faithfully presenting the Church’s teaching, and fairly and charitably setting forth the beliefs of those with whom one is in dialogue. Both have the obligation of helping non-Catholics to see why and how the Catholic Church is the “pillar and bulwark of truth” (1 Tim. 3:15).

Vatican II taught Catholics that they must express their concern for the “separated brethren” by praying for them and by “keeping them informed about the Church.” Moreover, Catholics are called to take initiative in reaching out to those separated from the unity of Christ’s one and only Church. The Catholic’s ecumenical responsibility is greater than that of the non-Catholic simply because the Catholic stands within the unity into which the separated brother or sister is being invited. (Luke 12:48: “Every one to whom much is given, of him will much be required.”)

The council fathers called on Catholics to carry out renewal of the Catholic household, so that the life of the Church will “bear witness more clearly and faithfully to the teachings and institutions which have been handed down from Christ through the apostles” (UR 4). In Ut Unum Sint Pope John Paul pledged himself to the task of apologetics: “I myself intend to promote every suitable initiative [his emphasis] aimed at making the witness of the entire Catholic Community understood in its full purity and consistency” (UUS 3).

The recently proclaimed Catholic-Lutheran accord on the doctrine of justification is the product of long deliberations by Catholic and Lutheran theologians. While I cannot speak for the Lutheran signatories, I know it is not the result of a compromise on the part of the Catholic delegation. (In some ecumenical circles the current euphemism for “compromise” is “convergence.”) If the accord did not clearly reflect Catholic teaching, the Vatican would not have approved it.

Cardinal Edward Idris Cassidy, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, signed the accord for the Catholic Church. A few weeks later he issued a statement that contained this sentence: “There is nothing in this agreement that is not in the Council of Trent or the Catholic tradition” (Zenit News Service, 12/20/99).

We can further and finally contrast the Catholic and the Protestant approaches to ecumenism in this way. The Protestant ecumenical venture invites us to take part in a search for buried treasure, with no map to guide us. The Catholic venture invites separated brothers and sisters to come share in the treasure that was never lost. The Church uses the services of both ecumenists and apologists to help the outsiders find their way to that treasure—the fullness of unity in the faith, in their true home.


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