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Protestantism and Non-Christian Religions

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The New Spirit of Protestantism

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

A new spirit has entered the body of American and world Protestantism. For the first time since the Reformation, leaders in every denomination are deeply concerned about their cleavage in doctrine, worship, and practice and are seriously trying to heal what they brand as the sin of disunity. Their success in the past fifty years has been remarkable. The only risk for Catholics is to be unaware of this “working of the Holy Spirit,” as Pius XII called it, and therefore not respond to its implications for those who possess the fullness of revelation.

The first barrier to a proper understanding of the ecumenical movement is its name. Ecumenical comes from the Greek oikoumene, which means “the inhabited world” and was already used by St. Matthew to describe the promise of Christ that “this Gospel of the Kingdom shall be preached in the whole world for a witness to all nations.” Later on, it became synonymous with a general council of the Church and is so understood in Catholic circles today. Non-Catholic writers appropriated the term and invested it with a new connotation. They speak of the ecumenical movement as the search for a world-wide unity “from the Church as men have conceived it, to the Church as God wants it to be.” The word catholic might have been chosen, and is often equated with ecumenical, but was officially avoided to prevent confusion with the Church of Rome.

Reunion efforts began on the international level, under pressure of the need for coordinating the Protestant foreign missions. How could pagans be asked to believe that Christianity is true, unless the missionaries themselves witnessed to the truth by professing the same message of the Gospel? The idea was first broached at Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1910. By 1921, the International Missionary Council was formed at London to become the chief organ of liaison for Protestant evangelism. Five world conferences have been landmarks in missionary history: Jerusalem (1928), Madras (1938), Whitby, Canada (1947), Willingen, Germany (1952), and Ghana (1958).

According to its constitution, the “sole purpose of the International Missionary Council is to further the effective proclamation to all men of the Gospel of Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour.” Its function is not to command but to advise by furnishing information, studying policy and strategy, “as an agency through which all the forces of world-wide missions can think and act together.”

Though historically first, federating Protestant missions was only a logical outcome of reunion labors at home, one in the field of doctrine and worship, called Faith and Order, and another to deal with social and economic problems, under the title Life and Work. At the charter meeting of Faith and Order in Lausanne, Switzerland (1927), the leading spirit was Bishop Brent an Episcopalian, who frankly told the delegates from seventy denominations that “in our hearts most of us are devotees of the cult of the incomplete – sectarianism. The Christ in one Church often categorically denies the Christ in a neighboring Church. It would be ludicrous were it not tragic.” Two years before representatives from thirty-three countries met at Stockholm for the opening congress of Life and Work, to face the problems of social morality.

By 1948 the two movements had sufficiently matured to fuse at Amsterdam into the World Council of Churches, which has since met twice in a world assembly: at Evanston (U.S.A.) in 1954 and at New Delhi (India) in 1961. As expressed by the Secretary General, who asked himself, what is the purpose of the Council, “Our name gives the clue to the answer. We are a Council of Churches, not the Council of the one undivided Church. Our name indicates our weakness and our shame before God. Our plurality is a deep anomaly. Our Council represents therefore an emergency solution – a stage on the road.”

A Respect for Catholicism. As a stage on the road, the World Council has done more in the dozen years of existence to make Protestants unity-conscious than any other movement in the past four centuries. Even adding the forty years of preparation, its achievements are monumental. Presently combining about two hundred Protestant and Orthodox Churches in fifty nations, its membership covers most of the Christians whom the Reformation separated from Rome. The latest major addition was the Orthodox Church of Soviet Russia.

The Council opened its third general assembly at New Delhi last November by integrating with the International Missionary Council, parent of the W.C.C., which represents non-Catholic Christian missionary groups in thirty-eight countries. By this historic action, the three basic strands of the ecumenical movement were untied – doctrine and worship through Faith and Order, social service in Life and Work, and now the missions under the International Missionary Council.

From its headquarters in Geneva, the World Council has given Protestants a new sense of solidarity. In spite of their divisions, they profess to be “one in faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the incarnate Word of God. We are one in acknowledging that this allegiance takes precedence of any other allegiance that may make claims upon us.” Thus a discovery was made, which the sectarianism of hundreds of conflicting bodies had for so long obscured, that beyond the divisions lay a mysterious unanimity. Churches that used to call one another heretical found they were strangely one, “because we are all objects of the love and grace of God, and called by Him to witness in all, the world to His glorious Gospel.”

At the same time they recognize how widely they are separated, not only in accidentals, but in essentials of the Christian faith. They confess that “our divisions are contrary to the will of Christ, and we pray God in His mercy to shorten the days of our separation and to guide us by His Spirit into fullness of unity.”

Correspondingly, the Council of Churches has begun to impress the leaders of Protestantism that what they are seeking must be bought at the price of autonomy and that some semblance of visible authority is necessary. Unlike the purely spiritual churches of Luther and Calvin, their ecumenical followers are “convinced that our unity of spirit must be embodied in a way that will make it manifest to the world, though we do not yet clearly see what outward form it should take.”

Most importantly, it has developed among Protestants a welcome sense of respect for Catholicism. The shadow of Rome hovered over the first beginnings of the Council. In 1919, when the founders were canvassing for member churches, 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 declared: “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.” In 1948, at the first assembly in Amsterdam, one of the principal topics was on “The Roman Catholic Church and the Ecumenical Movement.”

Since then, the need for taking the Catholic Church into account has become a growing preoccupation. Even the harsh speech of American Reinhold Niebuhr at the closing session of the Evanston Assembly was symbolic. He castigated Rome for building two great “heresies” into the Christian message: making herself an extension of the Incarnation and pretending she alone held the keys of the kingdom of heaven. But he admitted that “the unity of the Roman Church is indeed impressive, and in some respects enviable, in comparison with our unhappy divisions.”

When, five years later, Pope John XXIII announced that he planned a general council, one of whose aims would be the reunion of Christendom, the head of the Council of Churches seconded the Pope’s intentions. “All Christians, to whatever confession they belong, hope and pray that this historic event may be useful for promoting the cause of Christian unity for which Our Lord prayed.”

Unity in America. What have been the practical results of these changed internal sentiments? They must be seen on the national and local levels, where the churches actually exist. And their most graphic evidence may be found in America, which is the real testing ground of the ecumenical movement. As one critic put it, “the fissiparous tendency which has characterized the whole of Protestantism has run riot in the United States.” More than any other country, it has witnessed the evils of church disunity and, to its credit, has also become the pioneer in reunification.

The American counterpart of world ecumenism has two phases: the formation of new churches through organic merger and the co-operative federation of many churches to reduce the friction of competing private interests.

Since 1900, about forty major denominations have entered into mergers to form new churches, often remerging two or three times. In the last five years, the Evangelical and Reformed joined with the Congregational Christian to produce the United Church of Christ (membership 2,300,000) over the protests of a minority who fought the merger through the courts; the United Presbyterian Church in the United States (3,200,000) was created out of two Presbyterian segments; and in 1961, the American Lutheran Church (2,200,000) came into being out of three smaller denominations. Once there were a hundred and fifty Lutheran synods in the United States; today there are twelve. The high point in organic alliances occurred in 1939, when three branches of Wesley’s family, which had split during the Civil War over the slavery question, combined into the Methodist Church.

More mergers are in the offing. In December 1960, Eugene Carson Blake, Stated Clerk of the United Presbyterians, suggested an amalgamation of the Presbyterians and Episcopalians, along with Methodists and the United Church of Christ. Among the Episcopalian arguments in favor of the move is the fact that half the clergy of the Protestant Episcopal Church has come to it from other denominations, whereas one rarely hears of the reverse. Without claiming that this one-way ecclesiastical traffic is a direct sign of Divine Providence, proponents of the union believe it shows a restlessness throughout the Protestant world for some adjustment of traditional positions,” namely, toward the acceptance of a historic episcopate. On the other hand, many Episcopalians have been shaken by the proposal, especially those who believe in the priesthood and the Mass, which are anathema to Presbyterians.

Parallel with the formation of larger churches out of smaller groups was the rise of a giant co-operative, which began in 1908 as the Federal Council and in 1950 became the National Council of the Churches of Christ. Now federating thirty-three bodies, with a total of forty million members, it is the most impressive attainment of church unity in modern times. (Though the National Council is the largest confederation of Protestant Churches in America, it should be noted that there are also three other alliances.)

Religion in Education. Its four divisions of Christian Life and Work, Home and Foreign Missions are modeled on the structure of the National Catholic Welfare Conference, while service units handle broadcasting and films, research and survey, public relations, state and local councils, and a variety of twenty periodical publications.

Typical of its activities, the department of Christian Education has been promoting the integration of moral and religious values in the public schools on a national scale. Catholic educators were invited to co-operate in the project from the start and as a result they attended the first three-day conference on the subject at St. Louis in 1955. Under the able leadership of Dr. R. Lanier Hunt, the Council published a set of norms that includes the judgment, “Belief in God and in inalienable rights stemming from God is taken for granted in our cultural life and in our public institutions. The historical religious assumptions and foundations of the American heritage should be explicitly recognized and factually presented as the regular subjects are taught in the public schools.”

The section on Foreign Missions has been concentrating since the last war on Latin America. Its editor of Nueva Democracia told the writer he deplores the tactics used by some Protestant missionaries from the States and confided that his studies have taught him, “We must cover the ground of fifteen centuries of Catholicism to reach the person of Jesus Christ.”

The Catholic Response. Catholics have not been impassive to this often groping but dynamic search for reunification. Some people are surprised at the apparent change of Catholic policy in the last forty years. But that was only a response to the revolutionary changes outside the Church, which themselves have been modified in the process, from a vague pan-christianization in the twenties to an ever clearer concept of religious unity with which the Church can legitimately sympathize.

When Benedict XV turned down the invitation to join the budding World Council of Churches, he promptly made it known that he did not disapprove of the congress, “On the contrary, he earnestly desires and prays that 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.” Pius XII was more explicit. Following the Amsterdam assembly, he urged that “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 care, and every Catholic should pray ever more earnestly to God for this object.” At the same time he issued careful directives for “mixed” conferences and meetings in which Catholics participate.

Still more decisively, Pope John XXIII recognized the dawning “catholic” spirit in the non-Catholic world. In 1960, he set up a special advisory board or secretariat under Agostino Cardinal Bea, to act as intermediary with Protestant and Orthodox leaders interested in the Second Vatican Council, which, he said, would be “a gentle invitation to seek and find unity” for those who are “separated from this Apostolic See.”

Behind these papal approvals is the implicit judgment that the ecumenical impulse comes from the Spirit of God, who is one and whose guiding hand may be seen in the unitive desires He impels.

Moreover, the Church has encouraged prudent collaboration with Protestants. For the first time in history, the Vatican sent official observers to the third assembly of the World Council of Churches, meeting at New Delhi, November 18 to December 6, 1961. Among the five delegates were a Dutch layman, a French Dominican, two priests from India, and American Jesuit Father Duff, who had spent five years at Geneva studying the social work of the World Council. There were no Catholic observers at Evanston, and those at Amsterdam in 1948 were present in “private” capacity.

Formal colloquia or conferences have been going on for years between Catholic and Protestant scholars, though more frequently in Europe, as in the Una Sancta movement of Germany. Americans prefer to work through existing organizations, like the Religious Education Association, the American Schools of Oriental Research, and the Society of Biblical Literature and Exegesis. On the present board of directors of the REA are two Protestants and a Catholic. Less formal meetings are growing in frequency, as in one diocese where priests and invited ministers regularly discuss a pre-arranged controversial subject like Church and State relations. Protestant leaders are asked to address Catholic groups on topics of mutual interest, and Catholics to speak before Protestant audiences. Several books have been co-authored, and a spate of syndicated articles and radio programs sponsored with the same orientation, including a “Frontiers of Faith” telecast on “What is the Protestant-Roman Catholic Dialogue trying to accomplish?”

The answer to that question is easy enough from the Catholic side. Catholics welcome the opportunity to reduce misunderstandings between the two religious cultures, to assist Protestants in meeting the common dangers of Communism and godless secularism, and to co-operate with them in the whole gamut of moral and civic enterprises which Christian charity and our pluralistic society demand. Above all, they hope the unprecedented willingness to listen to Catholics and read their position (created by the ecumenical movement) will dispose many of them to enter the Church.

But Catholics are realists. No one seriously involved in inter-faith relations expects mass conversions in the near future. There are too many obstacles. Cardinal Bea stresses four that, by human standards, seem insurmountable: opposition to unchangeable dogmas and to the doctrine of the Roman primacy, denial that doctrinal unity is essential to the Church and the absence of any recognized authority for dealing with the non-Catholic world. I would add a prudential difficulty for Catholics and the need of insuring them against indifferentism when they feel, perhaps mistakenly, that their own and other religions are being treated on an equal footing. Zeal for converts should not be allowed to cool by careless exposure to the “dialogue,” which, if rightly used, can be a powerful stimulus in the apostolate.

These obstacles and difficulties, however, are not strange. It is the changed attitude of a large body of Christians who are not Catholic that astounds. An American Protestant theologian and member of the Faith and Order commission of the World Council of Churches recently made public a letter he sent to Pope John XXIII. “By God’s grace,” he wrote, “Your Holiness has been called to the See of Peter 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 for the healing of the wounds in the body of Christ.” If sentiments like this can be multiplied – and fostered by Catholic assistance and prayer – the prospects of remaking the Reformation are more than idle dreams.

The Sign
January, 1962, pp. 20-22,65

Copyright © 1998 by Inter Mirifica

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