The present Pope made it clear long ago, and has stated this very clearly during his years in the Holy See, that he desires “the restoration of full, visible unity” among Christians. Those are his words, not mine. He has pledged his commitment to this end and he continues to work for this reality.
The last two days I cited two quotations from Pope Benedict XVI from the book Light of the World: The Pope, the Church and the Signs of the Times (Ignatius, 2010). This book is conversational and follows a Q & A format that makes it easy to read and understand. I encourage everyone interested in this subject to read the book.
Pope Benedict XVI answers a question about his ecumenism, and in particular his interest in talks with the Orthodox, by saying:
Ecumenism is a multilayered, multifaceted phenomenon. It involves the whole of global Orthodoxy, which is already quite varied in itself, but also global Protestantism, whose classical confessions are quite different from the New Protestantism, the growth of which is one of the signs of the times. The place where we are, if you will, closest to home, and where there is also the most hope of reunion, is Orthodoxy.
Paul VI and John Paul II already devoted a great deal of effort to dialogue with Orthodoxy. I myself have always had very close contacts with Orthodoxy. When I was a professor in Bonn and Regensburg, I always had Orthodox among my students, and this gave me the opportunity to form many friendships in the Orthodox world. Catholics and Orthodox both have the same basic structure inherited from the ancient Church, and in that sense it is natural for me to take special pains to foster their encounter. I am very grateful for the cordiality shown me by Patriarch Bartholomew, who practices ecumenism as much more than a cold duty; there is a real friendship and sense of brotherhood between us. And I am also very grateful for the friendship and the great cordiality that Patriarch Krill has shown me (86-7).
Peter Seewald then asks Benedict why this rapprochement has significance for “the future history of the world” as he referred to it at an earlier point in his life. The Pope answers:
Because it makes our common responsibility for the world plain for people to see again. It would, or course, be perfectly possible to keep arguing about all sorts of things. Or, basing ourselves on what we have in common, we could render a common service instead. And, as our conversation has made clear, the world needs a well-founded, spiritually based, rationally bolstered capacity for witness to the one God who speaks to us in Christ. In this sense, our cooperation is enormously important. Krill emphasizes the same thing as well, precisely in the debate concerning the major ethical issues. We are not moralistic, but, standing on the foundations of the faith, we are bearers of an ethical message that provides a compass for mankind. And it is of the greatest importance that we provide it together at this time when the people of the earth are in crisis (87-88).
Some very conservative Catholics still insist that only Rome constitutes a true church and thus all other churches are not churches. The logic they then apply, to great harm, is that non-Catholic churches are false, unfaithful churches. But this is not how the Pope himself thinks about this problem. Nor is it how Vatican Council II understood it in the famous Fourth Session, influenced so deeply by one of the finest Catholic minds and hearts of the last century, Cardinal Suenens (photo right). Suenens was a well-known charismatic cardinal who stands out as a bright light in the last half of the twentieth century. As I’ve previously shown this argument that Rome alone constitutes a “true church” is not precisely true. What is true is that Rome believes she is “the first among equals” (Orthodoxy is even prepared to grant this phrase) but Rome also says, in Benedict’s own words, that she “has specific functions and tasks” which mean that “in this respect, not everyone is equal” (89). This is not doubletalk. It is a graceful, 21st century way of seeking to relate to one another in a manner that denies nothing essential while we still honestly seek to advance unity among us. This debate is, as I’ve noted before, the one that officially hinders reunion between the East and West. (There are many other issues but this is the one that is “on the table,” as it were.) But Benedict rightly notes that for Rome the concept of “first among equals” does not address the precise tasks given to the Pope as Rome understands the papacy. Many Protestants do not understand this debate at all, or even seem to care if the truth is known. I care and pray for unity, even reunion, between East and West. If this all goes by you then please don’t stop reading.
Pope Benedict adds:
The Eastern Churches are genuine particular churches, although they are not in communion with the Pope. In this sense, unity with the Pope is not constitutive for the particular church. Nevertheless, the lack of unity is also an intrinsic lack in the particular church. . . . In this respect, non-communion with the Pope is a defect in the living cell of the particular church, as it were. It remains a cell, it is legitimately called a church, but the cell is lacking something, namely, its connection with the organism as a whole (89).
So non-Catholic churches, at least among the Orthodox, are not in communion with the Pope but they are particular churches with defects in the living cell. Non-Catholic churches are churches but with defect. For me this is a huge category to grasp and pursue. There remain huge problems in all these discussions. The formal process seems to get nowhere at times. But what is rather exciting is just how far we’ve come in Christian love between us. We now do mission side-by-side. And this is not just mission in ethical debates like that of abortion. We actually share, in the trenches, unity in the Spirit as we walk side-by-side and serve the risen Christ.