When Peter Seewald’s book Light of the World, based upon extensive interviews of Pope Benedict XVI, was released a few months ago it was met with consider fanfare in the media. The reason was Pope Benedict’s response to the question about using condoms to help save lives and stop the spread of HIV. When I read Light of the World I looked first for further insights into Pope Benedict’s views of ecumenism. I was not disappointed.
As I was reading Light of the World I recalled an earlier Seewald book, God and the World (2002). In this book he interviewed Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (obviously before he became the pope). In this much larger book Cardinal Ratzinger has a great answer to a question about ecumenism that needs to be understood by Catholic and Protestant alike. Here is Seewald’s question and the pope’s answer:
Q. The Church prays for Christians to be united. But who ought to join up with whom?
A. The formula that the great ecumenist's have invented is that we go forward together. It's not a matter of our wanting to achieve certain processes of integration, but we hope that the Lord will awaken people's faith everywhere in such a way that it overflows from one to the other, and the One Church is there. As Catholics, we are persuaded that the basic shape of this one Church is given to us in the Catholic Church, but that she is moving toward the future and will allow herself to be educated and led by the Lord. In that sense we do not picture for ourselves any particular model of integration, but simply look to march on in faith under the leadership of the Lord – who knows the way. And in whom we trust (452-53).
I believe this is an excellent way to express the position of the Roman Catholic Church toward ecumenism, contrary to what some well-meaning, and very often over-zealous, Catholic conservatives would like Protestants to believe. Ratzinger here emphasizes that faith is living and active, not dead and static. Notice his words clearly: “As Catholics, we are persuaded that the basic shape of this one Church is given to us in the Catholic Church.” I do not agree or I would be Catholic. But I respect this stance very deeply. Ratzinger said so much more than this when he added, “. . . she [the Roman Catholic Church] is moving toward the future and will allow herself to be educated and led by the Lord. In that sense we do not picture for ourselves any particular model of integration . . .” This statement, rightly understood, does not mean Rome sees itself as having reached some singular model for unity that everyone else will simply have to embrace or be gone.
In the newer book, Light of the World, Pope Benedict admits the struggle for oneness with Protestants is increasingly difficult given the diversity of Protestant positions, especially on women in ministry and homosexual partnerships. (It is, to me, most unfortunate that he puts these “issues” in the same category and thereby reveals a serious blind spot for the Catholic Church but that debate is for another day and time.) He adds:
At the same time, of course, there are also people in the Protestant communities who are pressing very energetically for the authentic substance of the faith and who do not approve of this attitude on the part of their denominations as a whole. (Note: Here he is referring primarily to homosexual ordination in the mainline Protestant churches.)
What we should be saying is this: As Christians, we have to find a common basis; as Christians we must be capable of speaking with a common voice about the major questions and of bearing witness to Christ as the living God. [This is very simply my missional-ecumenism as I read him.] We are not going to bring about full unity [union] in the foreseeable future, but let us do what we can. Let us join as real Christians in performing some task, in bearing some witness, in this world (93).
Tomorrow: More on the Pope and Missional-Ecumenism