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By The Most Rev. Joseph Strickland, The Wanderer, May 11, 2020
(Republished with permission of Mr. Joe Matt, The Wanderer)
The Catholic Church proclaims that, in and through Jesus Christ, and by the power of the Holy Spirit, authentic unity with God the Father — and with one another — is the plan of God for the entire human race. That plan has begun through the Redemption brought about by the voluntary offering of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, on the cross on our behalf. It is sin which separated us, from God and from one another. The Church birthed from the wounded side of the Savior on Golgotha is the way toward realizing that unity.
We should want to walk toward that unity and not fear it.
The Church is meant to become the home of the whole human race. For the Church to continue the redemptive mission of Jesus most effectively, she must be one. It was not the Lord’s plan that Christians be separated. It is His Plan that the Church be restored to full communion. His prayer to the Father, that we may all be one (John 17:21), will someday be fully answered. In that priestly prayer, Jesus made it clear that the witness of Christian unity is connected to the world coming to believe.
Catholic teaching on the Church is rooted in an ecclesiology of communion. All who are validly baptized, in accordance with a Trinitarian formula, even if they are not in full communion with the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church, already have a form of imperfect communion with the Catholic Church. We who are in full communion with the Catholic Church are invited to make the prayer of Jesus for the restoration of full communion and visible unity our own, in the way in which we relate to other Christians.
We properly speak of the impetus toward restoring Christian unity through recovering full communion as ecumenism. But, sadly, the word ecumenism has been brutalized and used in ways which were never intended. Perhaps it is one of those words which needs to be avoided until we can recapture the true teaching which is essential to explain it.
In its 1964 Decree on Ecumenism Unitatis Redintegratio the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council warned of a false ecumenism. Here are words from the very beginning of that decree:
“The restoration of unity among all Christians is one of the principal concerns of the Second Vatican Council. Christ the Lord founded one Church and one Church only. However, many Christian communions present themselves to men as the true inheritors of Jesus Christ; all indeed profess to be followers of the Lord but differ in mind and go their different ways, as if Christ Himself were divided. Such division openly contradicts the will of Christ, scandalizes the world, and damages the holy cause of preaching the Gospel to every creature.”
Yet, the Council Fathers, throughout this decree, also warned of a false irenicism. For example, in paragraph 11:
“The way and method in which the Catholic faith is expressed should never become an obstacle to dialogue with our brethren. It is, of course, essential that the doctrine should be clearly presented in its entirety. Nothing is so foreign to the spirit of ecumenism as a false irenicism, in which the purity of Catholic doctrine suffers loss and its genuine and certain meaning is clouded.
“At the same time, the Catholic faith must be explained more profoundly and precisely, in such a way and in such terms as our separated brethren can also really understand.
“Moreover, in ecumenical dialogue, Catholic theologians standing fast by the teaching of the Church and investigating the divine mysteries with the separated brethren must proceed with love for the truth, with charity, and with humility. When comparing doctrines with one another, they should remember that in Catholic doctrine there exists a ‘hierarchy’ of truths, since they vary in their relation to the fundamental Christian faith. Thus, the way will be opened by which through fraternal rivalry all will be stirred to a deeper understanding and a clearer presentation of the unfathomable riches of Christ.”
Not only is this false irenicism infecting authentic ecumenical conversation and collaboration, a denial of the uniqueness of the Christian Gospel message and the absolute necessity of salvation through Jesus Christ has been replaced, even within the Church, with an emerging syncretism, religious relativism, and growing rejection of orthodoxy and orthopraxy.
One only need recall so many recent events. One need to simply read or listen to the myriad of confused messages, even from some Catholic leaders, to verify this claim. I have written of it in past columns, where I urged a rereading and renewed adherence to and application of the instruction from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in the year 2000 Declaration Dominus Iesus on the Unicity and Salvific Universality of Jesus Christ and the Church.
That clear and vital teaching of the Magisterium of the Catholic Church — which has never been abrogated — makes the much-needed careful distinctions between a false ecumenical approach and a true ecumenical approach. For example, in its restatement of the authentic teaching of the Catholic Church concerning ecclesiology — found in in paragraph 17 — we read these words:
“Therefore, there exists a single Church of Christ, which subsists in the Catholic Church, governed by the Successor of Peter and by the Bishops in communion with him. The Churches which, while not existing in perfect communion with the Catholic Church, remain united to her by means of the closest bonds, that is, by apostolic succession and a valid Eucharist, are true particular Churches. Therefore, the Church of Christ is present and operative also in these Churches, even though they lack full communion with the Catholic Church, since they do not accept the Catholic doctrine of the Primacy, which, according to the will of God, the Bishop of Rome objectively has and exercises over the entire Church.
“On the other hand, the ecclesial communities which have not preserved the valid Episcopate and the genuine and integral substance of the Eucharistic mystery, are not Churches in the proper sense; however, those who are baptized in these communities are, by Baptism, incorporated in Christ and thus are in a certain communion, albeit imperfect, with the Church. Baptism in fact tends per se toward the full development of life in Christ, through the integral profession of faith, the Eucharist, and full communion in the Church.”
Additionally, the declaration warned of what is a twin error — that of embracing a false ecumenism and then confusing interreligious dialogue with ecumenism. They are very different. Ecumenism deals with relationships with other Christians, and our special relationship with the Jewish people. Interreligious dialogue refers to our relationship with leaders and members of other world religions. The decree warned about the danger of indifferentism and religious relativism. In so doing, it stood in the trajectory of the clear teaching of Sacred Scripture, the Bible, and the unbroken, authentic teaching of the Catholic Church from the first century on. Sadly, the warning has all but gone unheeded.
I offer a lengthy but critically important passage from paragraph 22 of the declaration:
“With the coming of the Saviour Jesus Christ, God has willed that the Church founded by him be the instrument for the salvation of all humanity (cf. Acts 17:30-31). This truth of faith does not lessen the sincere respect which the Church has for the religions of the world, but at the same time, it rules out, in a radical way, that mentality of indifferentism ‘characterized by a religious relativism which leads to the belief that “one religion is as good as another”.’
“If it is true that the followers of other religions can receive divine grace, it is also certain that objectively speaking they are in a gravely deficient situation in comparison with those who, in the Church, have the fullness of the means of salvation. However, ‘all the children of the Church should nevertheless remember that their exalted condition results, not from their own merits, but from the grace of Christ. If they fail to respond in thought, word, and deed to that grace, not only shall they not be saved, but they shall be more severely judged.’ One understands then that, following the Lord’s command (cf. Matt. 28:19-20) and as a requirement of her love for all people, the Church ‘proclaims and is in duty bound to proclaim without fail, Christ who is the way, the truth, and the life (John 14:6). In him, in whom God reconciled all things to himself (cf. 2 Cor. 5:18-19), men find the fullness of their religious life.’
“In interreligious dialogue as well, the mission ad gentes ‘today as always retains its full force and necessity. . . . ‘Indeed, God “desires all men to be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim. 2:4); that is, God wills the salvation of everyone through the knowledge of the truth. Salvation is found in the truth. Those who obey the promptings of the Spirit of truth are already on the way of salvation. But the Church, to whom this truth has been entrusted, must go out to meet their desire, so as to bring them the truth. Because she believes in God’s universal plan of salvation, the Church must be missionary.’ In-terreligious dialogue, therefore, as part of her evangelizing mission, is just one of the actions of the Church in her mission ad gentes.”
How desperately the Shepherds of the Roman Catholic Church need to reaffirm and then clearly proclaim the following language from the declaration:
“Equality, which is a presupposition of interreligious dialogue, refers to the equal personal dignity of the parties in dialogue, not to doctrinal content, nor even less to the position of Jesus Christ — who is God himself made man — in relation to the founders of the other religions. Indeed, the Church, guided by charity and respect for freedom, must be primarily committed to proclaiming to all people the truth definitively revealed by the Lord, and to announcing the necessity of conversion to Jesus Christ and of adherence to the Church through Baptism and the other sacraments, in order to participate fully in communion with God, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Thus, the certainty of the universal salvific will of God does not diminish, but rather increases the duty and urgency of the proclamation of salvation and of conversion to the Lord Jesus Christ.”
So, how can we pursue a true ecumenism and avoid false irenicism? I have much to share. But, for the purposes of this column, I will deal only with one, our language.
Our language with other Christians: I suggest we heed the wise instructions of Pope St. John Paul II and use the language of communion which the Catholic Church encourages when we speak of, to and with other Christians. For example, John Paul II wrote in his encyclical letter on Christian Unity, Ut Unum Sint:
“It happens for example that, in the spirit of the Sermon on the Mount, Christians of one confession no longer consider other Christians as enemies or strangers but see them as brothers and sisters. Again, the very expression ‘separated brethren’ tends to be replaced today by expressions which more readily evoke the deep communion linked to the baptismal character which the Spirit fosters in spite of historical and canonical divisions.
“Today we speak of ‘other Christians,’ ‘others who have received Baptism,’ and ‘Christians of other Communities.’ The Directory for the Application of Principles and Norms on Ecumenism refers to the Communities to which these Christians belong as ‘Churches and Ecclesial Communities that are not in full communion with the Catholic Church. The broadening of vocabulary is indicative of a significant change in attitudes.’ There is an increased awareness that we all belong to Christ.”
He strongly encouraged what he called practical cooperation and “spiritual ecumenism,” which includes praying with one another:
“Relations between Christians are not aimed merely at mutual knowledge, common prayer, and dialog. They presuppose and from now on call for every possible form of practical cooperation at all levels: pastoral, cultural, and social, as well as that of witnessing to the Gospel message. Cooperation among all Christians vividly expresses that bond which already unites them, and it sets in clearer relief the features of Christ the Servant.
“This cooperation based on our common faith is not only filled with fraternal communion but is a manifestation of Christ himself. Moreover, ecumenical cooperation is a true school of ecumenism, a dynamic road to unity. Unity of action leads to the full unity of faith: ‘Through such cooperation, all believers in Christ are able to learn easily how they can understand each other better and esteem each other more, and how the road to the unity of Christians may be made smooth. In the eyes of the world, cooperation among Christians becomes a form of common Christian witness and a means of evangelization which benefits all involved’.”
Unity Is The Lord’s Plan
Into a world that is fractured, divided, wounded, filled with sides and camps at enmity with one another, the Catholic Church is called to proclaim, by both word and deed, the unifying love of a living God. To proclaim the full Gospel of Jesus Christ. To proclaim the necessity of salvation in Him, Baptism and incorporation into His Mystical Body, the Church.
Yet, the Body of Christ is broken — and that should break our hearts. Of all Christians. Catholics have the highest obligation to work toward healing the divisions — and promoting an authentic path toward Christian unity.
There is an adage in the Gospels which has a special application in this arena, “To those to whom much is given, much more will be required” (Luke 12:48). If the fullness of truth subsists in the Catholic Church (see n.8 Lumen Gentium) that should not make us haughty, but humble in our relationship with other Christians.
Let us take our lead in pursuing a true ecumenical approach from the Catechism of the Catholic Church as we consider the disunity among Christians. These paragraphs are found in the section entitled “Wounds to Unity”:
817: “In fact, ‘in this one and only Church of God from its very beginnings there arose certain rifts, which the Apostle strongly censures as damnable. But in subsequent centuries much more serious dissensions appeared and large communities became separated from full communion with the Catholic Church — for which, often enough, men of both sides were to blame.’ The ruptures that wound the unity of Christ’s Body — here we must distinguish heresy, apostasy, and schism — do not occur without human sin: Where there are sins, there are also divisions, schisms, heresies, and disputes. ‘Where there is virtue, however, there also are harmony and unity, from which arise the one heart and one soul of all believers’.”
818: “However, one cannot charge with the sin of the separation those who at present are born into these communities [that resulted from such separation] and in them are brought up in the faith of Christ, and the Catholic Church accepts them with respect and affection as brothers….All who have been justified by faith in Baptism are incorporated into Christ; they therefore have a right to be called Christians, and with good reason are accepted as brothers in the Lord by the children of the Catholic Church.”
819: “‘Furthermore, many elements of sanctification and of truth’ are found outside the visible confines of the Catholic Church: ‘the written Word of God; the life of grace; faith, hope, and charity, with the other interior gifts of the Holy Spirit, as well as visible elements.’ Christ’s Spirit uses these Churches and ecclesial communities as means of salvation, whose power derives from the fullness of grace and truth that Christ has entrusted to the Catholic Church. All these blessings come from Christ and lead to him and are in themselves calls to ‘Catholic unity’.”
820: “‘Christ bestowed unity on his Church from the beginning. This unity, we believe, subsists in the Catholic Church as something she can never lose, and we hope that it will continue to increase until the end of time.’ Christ always gives his Church the gift of unity, but the Church must always pray and work to maintain, reinforce, and perfect the unity that Christ wills for her. This is why Jesus himself prayed at the hour of his Passion, and does not cease praying to his Father, for the unity of his disciples: ‘That they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be one in us, so that the world may know that you have sent me.’ The desire to recover the unity of all Christians is a gift of Christ and a call of the Holy Spirit.”