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Catholic Librarians and the Ecumenical Movement

by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

Cardinal Newman once remarked that nothing is more common than for men to think that because they are familiar with words, they understand the ideas they stand for. The word “ecumenical” is not an exception. In fact on the very meaning of this term rests the basic cleavage among the churches that Christian leaders are trying to heal.

As might be expected, “ecumenical” has a variety of meanings. Its etymology comes from the Greek oikumene, which means “the inhabited world.” St. Matthew used the term to describe the prophetic promise of Christ that “this Gospel of the Kingdom shall be preached in the whole world, for a witness to all nations.” Later on the same word was used to designate the universality of the Church, as in the Martyrdom of Polycarp (157 A.D.), where the writer says that before his death, Polycarp had prayed “for the Catholic Church throughout the world.” A century later it became the technical term for a general council of the Church. Thus, according to St. Athanasius, “the word of the Lord uttered by the ecumenical synod of Nicea abides forever.”

Non-Catholic writers on the subject of religious unity have appropriated the term and invested it with connotations that are quite new in Christian tradition. They speak of an “ecumenical reformation that asserts the unity of the Church in the midst of the disunity of the churches,” or, more accurately, “the ecumenical movement is a movement toward one universal Christian Church throughout the whole inhabited world.” For our purpose we shall understand the ecumenical movement in the latter sense, as a revolutionary change in religious attitude among non-Catholic Christian bodies throughout the world, that for the first time since the Reformation are seriously trying to solve the problem of their disunity.

The Ecumenical Movement

Practically speaking the ecumenical movement in modern times may be identified with the formation and development of the World Council of Churches, whose juridical existence is just fifty years old. In 1910 the Protestant World Missionary Conference held its first meeting at Edinburgh, Scotland, on the basis of national representation. To remedy the problems arising from multiplicity of sects, each promoting its own brand of Christianity, the conference suggested the formation of a study group to explore and if possible to resolve the points of disagreement. Out of this practical missionary venture has grown a world-wide organization which currently federates 170 Protestant and Orthodox Churches in 43 different nations and represents a major part of the Christianity that once had been united with Rome.

Contrary to popular belief, the World Council is not a “super-Church.” It is an organization designed to foster consultation between Churches and other organizations which exist to promote the study of questions relating both to “reunion” and to the impact of Christianity on the world.

As expressed by the Secretary General, who asked himself what is the function of the World Council, “Our name gives us the clue to the answer. We are a Council of Churches, not the Council of one undivided Church. Our name indicates our weakness and our shame before God, for there can be and there is only one Church of Christ on earth. Our plurality is a deep anomaly. Our Council represents therefore, an emergency solution—a stage on the road.” Other prelates within the Council have described it in similar terms. “The essence of denominationalism,” according to the Anglican Bishop of Bristol, “is to suppose the sufficiency of denominations; the essence of our covenant with each other is to deny that our denominations are enough. By entering into this relationship with each other, we have already willed the death of our denominations.” Bishop Neill of India is more forceful—“The final terrible difficulty is that the Churches cannot unite, unless they are willing to die. In a truly united Church there would be no more Anglicans or Lutherans or Presbyterians or Methodists,” but only Christians.

From its earliest years, the shadow of Rome hovered over the Council of Churches. In 1919 when the original founders were canvassing for members, they called on Benedict XV and invited his cooperation, which he courteously declined. In 1937, at the opening service of the Edinburgh Conference on Faith and Order, the Archbishop of York confessed that “We deeply lament the absence from this collaboration of the great Church of Rome—the Church which more than any other has known how to speak to the nations so that the nations hear.” And on the eve of the Evanston Assembly of the World Council in 1954, the chairman of the theological section called it “a tragic fact that the Church of Rome has not found it possible to take active part in any of the gatherings which we have been used to call ecumenical, in spite of the absence of so large a part of the Christian world.”

Without prejudice to their own position as members of the true Church of Christ, Catholics have been sympathetic with the World Council. Numerous directives of the Holy See lay the principles and guiding norms on how to estimate the ecumenical movement and, as occasion arises, assist in its efforts for Christian unity.

After Benedict XV had been asked, and refused, to cooperate in the formation of the Council, he promptly issued an explanatory document, declaring, in the third person, that “His Holiness by no means wished to disapprove of the Congress in question for those who are not in union with the Chair of Peter. On the contrary, he earnestly desires and prays that, if the Congress is practicable, those who take part in it may, by the grace of God, see the light and become reunited to the visible head of the Church, by whom they will be received with open arms.”

Much has happened since 1919, to show that the Council of Churches was “practicable.” In the past 40 years it has learned how to estimate the disunity among Christians separated from Rome and to look with respect, if not wistful regret, at the strength in union of the one Christian body that is not plagued with sectarianism.

When Pope John XXIII announced that he planned a general council, one of whose aims would be the reunion of Churches, the response of ecumenical leaders was spontaneous, genuinely respectful, and in some cases enthusiastic.

Many of these responsive statements have been published, and some are well known. But there was one that I think synthesizes the whole spirit of the ecumenical movement outside the Catholic Church, on the basis of which we can study our own contribution as Catholic librarians to the cause of Christian re-unity. The statement came from an American Protestant theologian and member of the Faith and Order Commission of the World Council of Churches. He addressed it to Pope John and I quote from the text as it was published in Rome. It was written on the first Sunday of Advent in 1959.

By God’s grace, Your Holiness has been called to the See of Rome at a time when Christians of every communion are notably sensitive to division and ardently desirous of unity. And Your own actions and pronouncements have raised the hopes of many who long for the healing of the wounds in the Body of Christ. A spirit of true charity is expressed in Your recent Encyclical Ad Petri Cathedram when the words of the venerable Saint Augustine are quoted, “They will cease to be our brethren only when they shall cease to say the Our Father.”
It is clear to us that the Roman Catholic Church asserts unequivocally that the fullness of unity can be attained only by conversion to herself. It is equally clear that many of us, who may be willing to consider certain modifications of our faith if required for the sake of the truth of the Gospel, cannot conceivably accept the gracious invitation extended in the Encyclical. Yet we believe that love and truth and unity belong together as one perfect expression of the Divine will, no one of which may be opposed to the other. Love does not need to wait until truth is wholly agreed upon and unity made manifest.
While we divided Christians may not all be disposed to seek unity by absorption, we are being faithful to our Lord when we do all we can to reduce animosity, oppose prejudice, and remove the barriers to liberty of conscience. Even more, despite our divisions, we can find many occasions for entering into Christian solidarity through mutual support and common defense against the great and increasing enemies of Christ’s Church which rage in the world today. And we can pray for each other’s sanctification in faith, and for the full revealing of that churchly unity which God intends us to enjoy in this earthly pilgrimage.

I have quoted this statement at length because it shows the new climate of interest in the Catholic Church by those who share with us the name of Christian, but whose fragmentation makes them painfully aware that what Christ intended to be one Body under one Lord has, through human folly, become a medley of rival institutions which belie the wisdom and love of the Savior.

It may come as something of a surprise to Catholics that church leaders in all the major denominations are deploring their sectarian condition as something sinful, that Christians on every social and dogmatic level are deeply sensitive to division and ardently looking for unity, and that they are sincerely turning to Rome for help if not for ultimate solution to their problems.

Response of Catholic Librarians

Before we examine our response to this atmosphere of concern for Christian unity, we should recognize the ecumenical movement for what it really is: the evidence of divine grace operating in the souls of men outside the actual membership of the Mystical Body.

Twelve years ago, after the first assembly of the World Council of Churches in Amsterdam, the Holy See issued an instruction Ecclesia Catholica dealing expressly with the ecumenical movement. This document is a vade mecum for every educator who wishes to understand the mind of the Church on the subject and the encouragement she gives her leaders to correspond with the dispensations of Providence in favor of the non-Catholic Christian world. “The present time,” we are told, “has witnessed in different parts of the world a growing desire among many persons outside the Church for the reunion of all who believe in Christ. This may be attributed, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, to external factors and the changing attitude of men’s minds but above all to the united prayers of the faithful. To all children of the true Church this is a cause for holy joy in the Lord; it urges them to extend a helping hand to all those seeking after the truth by praying fervently that God will enlighten them and give them strength.”

However, we are not only to pray for those who are seeking unity that God may enlighten and strengthen their efforts. “This excellent work of ‘reunion’ of all Christians in the one true faith and in the Church should daily assume a more significant place within the Church’s universal pastoral care” –which makes it incumbent on all who are engaged in Catholic education to take stock of themselves and see how they can implement what is so clearly the work of God in the modern Christian world.

Librarians are educator’s par excellence, whether they are associated with formal institutions or not. By definition they deal with books and the written word, and their profession, as I see it, is to make available the best writing to the greatest number of minds.

In terms of Catholic promotion of Christian unity the field that lies ahead is overwhelming in opportunities. Knowledge precedes action as surely as the dawn comes before day. Unless those who possess the fullness of faith first know the riches they received, understand the wants of those who are less privileged than they, are convinced that a Catholic is not fully a Christian if he has no desire to share with others the gifts of grace, and have been inspired by the example of apostolic zeal and sacrifice—all the rhetoric of the Church’s preachers will be in vain. It may even be irritating to hear exhortations about “the reunion of Christendom” unless the mind has been prepared to listen sympathetically. In the economy of thought communication, the librarian is a principal, if not the main, channel through which this necessary mental preparation must pass, or, to change the figure, a leading instrument for placing into the hands of a Catholic public those convictions without which all the talk about the ecumenical movement is inane.

What are these convictions that a Catholic must be helped to acquire through reading if our response to the workings of grace is to bear fruit? Their number is myriad, but the main lines are easily drawn as recommended norms for the selection of books and periodicals for libraries, and for making useful and accessible to readers the literature already in stock.

A Catholic must be deeply conscious of the intrinsic value of his faith and of the transcendent benefits which membership in the Mystical Body of Christ brings. The Catechism answer that the Church is one, holy, Catholic and apostolic must be sublimated from a pious aphorism that he memorized to a living reality which he comprehends from the reading he has done over the years. While there are other sources from which to get this understanding, I think Church History and Biography, Hagiography and Convert Literature are outstanding—and have the added advantage of catering to every age, not only while a student is in high school or college but for the rest of his life.

Church History will reveal what could never be learned so well from experience, that the blessings of unity are the result of a constant vigilance to preserve the Mystical Body from doctrinal aberration. Within a century of the Edict of Milan, four general councils were called to clarify and define certain doctrines that were controverted, with never a thought of compromise and often at the cost of heavy losses among the clergy and laity who refused to accept the Church’s teaching. One after another the recalcitrant’s were condemned: the Arians for denying the divinity of Christ, the Pelagians for rejecting the necessity of grace, the Albigenses for reviving the ancient dualism of a good and evil deity, the Reformers for disclaiming papal authority, the Jansenists for holding that grace is irresistible, and modern Rationalists for making reason the sole arbiter in matters of faith.

Too often the Church’s unity is conceived only geographically—all Catholics within experimental range are known to believe and profess the same faith. Yet its historical dimension is more important—that in all ages of her existence, the Church has labored and suffered to preserve unchanged the dispositum fidei she received from her Founder. To appreciate this fact is to say that a person has read widely in the Church’s history, made available to him by the library.

Not only Church History in the technical sense, but secular history and biography, provided they are objective and deal with the Catholic past, are effective means to cultivate that “sense of unity” which must be instinctive if the Catholic laity are ever to take the ecumenical movement seriously. The forty years of the Great Western Schism (1378-1417) are a graphic example. What human institution could have withstood the ordeal” asked de Maistre. Bitter enemy of the popes, Gregorovius, believed the Schism “raised the papacy from decadence to a new eminence, and showed the world once more how the mystical faith of the people endows the pontiffs with power that can rise to glory even when apparently dead.”

Holiness is not a tangible commodity that directly affects the senses. Yet unless Catholics are convinced their Church is holy they will scarcely be concerned to share what they enjoy of those means of sanctification which the world around them needs to be saved. Hagiography is not the only means of discovering the Church’s sanctity, but it may be indispensable to neutralize the deadening effect of experience that seems to be contrary. Given the complex of human existence in which Catholics find themselves, the knowledge of their own weakness and moral failure, and the example, perhaps close to home, of people who are Catholic only in name, their minds demand evidence to support this promise of their faith.

In the past thirty years we have come a long way towards making the lives of saints and near-saints palatable to modern taste. The laity in increasing numbers are reading these lines and learning in the process what holiness means. “Every saint,” wrote John Ayscouph, “is a small looking-glass of God; a face of the jewel which constitutes the Catholic Church.” Members of the Church must have seen a bit of this vision if the zeal to propagate their kind is to fructify in action.

In a class by itself is the growing volume of convert literature, written by or about those who were no “born Catholics” but entered the Church in later life, often at great sacrifice to their ease and reputation. If we are tempted to take this kind of writing lightly, we should recall that most of the New Testament belongs to this literary genre, telling the story of conversion that Jesus Christ came down on earth to effect, written by His converts in memory of His name.

Not the least value of convert books is the lesson they teach of the Church’s catholicity. The range of social levels from which converts are drawn, their intellectual and temperamental differences, their varied ages and national origins are symbolic of that universality of the Mystical Body which is one of its greatest glories and a mark of its divine character.

Convert writers also bring into focus the Church’s apostolicity and spell out its meaning for Catholics to recognize that their faith is the same that was preached by the Apostles in obedience to the mandate of Christ. Previous doubts and difficulties vanish like a mist in the morning sun, absolute certainty may replace years of vacillation about the most sacred principles of man’s relations with God. “There is no happiness in the world comparable to that of the experience known as conversion,” according to Robert Hugh Benson. Even Newman, who admitted he was conscious of no startling change at his conversion, yet said “it was like coming into port after a rough sea; and my happiness on that score remains to this day without interruption.” Those who are born into the true faith learn from converts what it means to “discover Christ” in the mystical person of His Church, and devote themselves to His (and the Church’s) service in a way that may scandalize those who had never suffered the pangs of religious hunger.

A final important lesson of convert literature is the prominent role that reading normally plays in leading people to the Catholic faith. Two years ago I had occasion to undertake a study request by Pere Legrand, editor of Cristo al Mondo in Rome. A group of theologians and myself examined the life and writings of about seventy outstanding converts in modern times, along with a few classic figures such as St. Augustine. The pattern which emerged from this research showed that in proportion as a man is educated and mentally developed his conversion depends in large measure on the kind of reading that by accident or through foresight he has done before the grace of investigating the Church’s claims dawned upon him.

In making our survey we also contacted some prominent living persons to ask them what place reading had in their conversion. Among others Graham Greene wrote from England that writings about the Catholic doctrine on original sin were one strand he could trace. This doctrine, he said, explained, to him the world with its depraved tendencies. The world needs a Redeemer; this Redeemer came. He is continued in the Church founded by Him and it is, therefore, the role of the Church to direct the world towards the truth, towards good, towards salvation, towards God by whom it is invested with the authority which is essential to its mission.

No doubt Catholics must first become aware of their own treasure of faith before they are moved to communicate this faith to others. But the very desire for unity assumes there are fundamental divergences between Catholic and Protestant (or non-Catholic) belief and polity. These differences must also be known and their value appraised before anything approaching the true ecumenism of the Gospel can begin or be assured the grace of God without which human efforts will fail.

In the past ten years something like fifty books have been published in English, under Catholic auspices, which offer a spectrum analysis of the non-Catholic Christian mind. Some deal with specific areas of the religious tension between Catholic and other Christian communions; others cover a broad field of denominational history, doctrine and forms of worship; still others study the origins of the Eastern Schism or the Reformation. About a dozen handle the ecumenical movement exclusively.

However it is one thing to have these books on the library shelf, and another to have them read. I was told recently by a Catholic publisher that ecumenical titles are among the slowest moving on the market. Besides native apathy towards anything new, Catholic educators (including librarians) have not done enough to advertise the subject of Christian reunion.

Parallel with information about the churches separated from Rome, reading in the faith and culture of non-Catholic people should prove what nothing else can reveal—the deep-souled desire of millions for the religious life, and certitude about the things of God that members of the true Church often enjoy with complacency. Communication implies that I have something which someone else lacks, and the desire to share requires that I am conscious of the other person’s wants. Both factors are essential. Catholics must know the blessings they possess against the background of other people’s needs. The latter without the former ends in helpless pity, the first without the second may lead to pride.

Personal Note

As Catholic educators we are naturally interested to promote whatever the Holy See believes is worth promoting and which in context is the cause of Church Unity. Pope John anticipates the next Vatican Council as “a wonderful manifestation of truth, unity and charity. It will be a manifestation that we hope will be received by those who behold it, but who are separated from this Apostolic See, as a gentle invitation to seek and find the unity for which Jesus Christ prayed so ardently to His heavenly Father.”

Yet we know that Christian reunification on any large scale is only a dim possibility. Nine centuries of separation from Rome for the Eastern Churches and four centuries for the Protestants cannot be erased in a decade. Time, patience, prayer and sacrifice will be needed, and always an apostolic zeal that responds to the prayer of Christ, “that they all may be one,” even to the point of heroism—knowing that the salvation of souls is at stake.

Behind the plain façade of information that readers may acquire through the books and periodicals we place at their disposal must lie something deeper, that we ourselves have mastered and passed on to others. We have to be sure that religious unity is pleasing to God and disunity is against His will. It is not easy to keep this vision alive. All around us we see diversity, where religious differences are said to belong to the structure of democracy as part of the original plan of our republic. Did our Founding Fathers look aghast at this religious coat of so many colors? We are told they helped design it. “Happily for the States,” wrote James Madison, “they enjoy the utmost freedom of religion. This freedom arises from that multiplicity of sects, there cannot be a majority of any one to oppress and persecute the rest.”

We have been reared in this tradition of pluralism and, although our Catholic conscience tells us otherwise, the atmosphere we breathe urges preservation of the status quo and suspects any effort to change in the direction of uniformity as a threat to the national culture.

This is part of the problem we face if we would be responsive to the Holy Father whose call for unity, also directed to the United States, is only an echo of the Incarnation, whose purpose was to bring all men to Christ, in the union of His Body which is the Church.

Catholic Library World
Vol. 33 - #1, September 1961, pp. 17-25

Copyright © 1998 by Inter Mirifica

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