I recently ran across on Facebook a group named “Catholic & Orthodox: Steps Towards a Reunited Church,” which naturally interested me since I am, among other things, keen to understand how Orthodoxy compares and relates with Rome and vice versa. It’s always hard to figure out exactly what the character of these groups is at first blush, even from reading their official descriptions, so I read through several dozen posts. I eventually came across this one from an administrator (Update: Concerning this quoted passage, see my note at the bottom of this post):
As an administrator, I would like to welcome all of our new members. I also want to take the opportunity to let them know, as well as remind all members, that if you are not committed to reunification and the diakonia of koinonia, which certainly requires charitable engagement (i.e., if your idea of ecumenism is that the Orthodox and Eastern Catholics become Roman, or vice-versa), this is likely not the place for you.
I was suddenly reminded of the eminent Fr. Georges Florovsky, a multi-decade participant in ecumenical dialogues who was at the founding of the World Council of Churches and is probably the foremost Orthodox Christian theologian of the 20th century. What immediately came to mind was a passage from one of his papers given in the context of the WCC (if this seems familiar, it may be because I’ve quoted this bit before; it’s a favorite):
I believe that the church in which I was baptized and brought up ‘is’ in very truth ‘the Church’, i.e. ‘the true’ Church and the ‘only’ true Church . . . I am therefore compelled to regard all other Christian churches as deficient, and in many cases can identify these deficiencies accurately enough. Therefore, for me, Christian reunion is simply universal conversion to Orthodoxy. I have no confessional loyalty; my loyalty belongs solely to the ‘Una Sancta’.
(From “Confessional Loyalty in the Ecumenical Movement”)
That is, Florovsky believed that everyone (including Roman Catholics, who largely were not involved in the WCC during Florovsky’s time) should become Orthodox Christians. So one of the most prominent Orthodox ecumenists (and I use that term in the sense Florovsky embodied, not in the sense of doctrinal compromise) of all time would not be welcome in that group. Why? It is because (based on this administrator’s presumably authoritative comment) it is based on an ecclesiology which both Orthodox Christians and Roman Catholics should reject, i.e., that their own church is not uniquely the true Church of Christ.
Yes, it is true that the Roman Catholic Church regards the Orthodox as “true churches” in some sense, but there is still a sense in which the Orthodox are nonetheless lacking something—that we “suffer from defects,” as written in Dominus Iesus, approved by Pope John Paul II but signed by then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI). So while there is some kind of recognition there, it certainly is not anything that would preclude the notion that Orthodox (and other) Christians really ought to become Catholics in the Vatican’s sense.
But even setting aside the somewhat complicated reality of Orthodox/Catholic relations, other Christians and most of the world’s other religions probably harbor the notion that what they believe is actually true. And if what they believe really is the truth, shouldn’t they want other people to agree with them and become part of their religion?
Sadly, the truth is that the answer to that question, at least here in the West, is more and more becoming “No.” Yes, I believe what I believe is true, but it is true for me and maybe isn’t true for you. Or maybe we just don’t know the truth or can’t know the truth. Isn’t the important thing that we just love each other?
Now, I know that my previous paragraph is certainly taking things beyond the portion I quote above from that Facebook group (and its official description certainly seems to allow far more room for actual debate), but isn’t this really just pietism in another form? Isn’t this just another way of saying that doctrine does not really matter? Surely ecumenists of any sort would recognize that there really are doctrinal differences between the churches. One can only conclude that the “no-convert” types must believe that the differences just don’t matter, because doctrine really doesn’t matter. Or maybe only some doctrine matters.
That said, I did find some honest engagement over doctrinal differences in that Facebook group, indicating that those people actually believe that doctrine matters and that differences should be overcome. But that leads me to wonder if it wasn’t therefore in violation of the administrator’s admonition. After all, what is the point in debating doctrine if you don’t actually want the other guy to change his mind? Nevertheless, the idea of actually believing in one’s own faith and wanting other people to convert to it is referred to in a comment on one post in the group as “unilateral ecumenism” which is “like, so two centuries ago.”
Anyway, to me, good ecumenism is really the sort that tries to get other people to convert. We should want them to convert, and quite frankly, I want people who are not Orthodox to want me to convert to their religion. Why? It shows that they 1) really believe in it and 2) want to share it. If you don’t want me to convert to your religion, I have to conclude that either 1) you don’t really believe in it or 2) you don’t want to share it. Or maybe both!
It should be said that working for conversion is not the same thing as proselytizing, which generally involves some kind of coercion or manipulation. I’m not advocating anything of that sort. But shouldn’t we care enough about our faiths and about our family and friends that we should want to share that faith with them?
Should one be sensitive about how one shares one’s faith? Of course. Should one be careful about not being overbearing? Of course. Should one know that it’s sometimes most fruitful just to leave someone alone entirely? Of course. Should one hope that sometimes doctrinal differences turn out not to be differences at all? Of course. Should one not presume that membership in one’s own church guarantees salvation? Of course. (Actually, come to think of it, some may well believe that. And if that’s what their church teaches, well, they should either believe it or jump ship.)
But at least be praying that they convert. Anything else can only mean you either don’t believe your own faith or you don’t care about them enough to hope they share it.
If some of these ideas sound familiar, I’ve written on them here before. Here are a couple of those pieces:
- The One True Church and the Partisans of Anti-Ecclesiology (this also makes use of the Florovsky quote above)
- Who’s not a Christian? (this examines the question of “mutual recognition”)
I’ve also written on my personal weblog more generally about the question of theological engagement (“ecumenism”):
- Una Sancta: Fundamentalism, Ecumenism and the One True Church (a meditation of sorts on being called both a “fundamentalist” and an “ecumenist”)
- Ecumenism with a Gun (on vigorous theological engagement between traditions)
- Encomium Fidei (on what I personally appreciate and derive from non-Orthodox traditions)
Update: Since writing this post, I’ve been informed by an administrator that the approach criticized here is not the official policy of that Facebook group and also that the post quoted above from another administrator has been removed and that its author has left the group. He also invited me to join the group. In any event, while I drew some examples from the group, my point is not really to criticize it (after all, its members clearly take different approaches) but to comment on a certain approach to theological engagement I observed there.
The Rev. Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick is pastor of St. Paul Orthodox Church of Emmaus, Pennsylvania, author of Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy (Conciliar Press, 2011), and host of the Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy and Roads from Emmaus podcasts.