After centuries of separation, some in each of the major branches of traditional Christianity—Protestantism, Orthodoxy and Catholicism—are finding that they must cross denominational lines to find common ground. What will be the ultimate outcome of this trend?
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Traditional Christian churches are perceived as institutions that promote unity and inclusiveness. Paradoxically, division and fragmentation have plagued these churches for centuries.
The first major split in “Christendom” was the Great Schism of 1054, in which the Eastern Orthodox Church broke away from the Roman Catholic Church. This was followed in the sixteenth century by the Protestant Reformation, which further eroded the Catholic sheepfold. Since then, the Protestant world has continued to splinter and divide, with the Roman and Eastern churches remaining separate, but reaching states of relative stability.
Today, Christian denominations are divided internally along many of the same “red-blue/conservative-liberal” ideological lines found in the political arena.
A range of opinion on certain controversial moral and social issues exists among members of each major division of traditional Christianity—but the spectrum of varying beliefs is especially broad among Protestants. These topics include abortion, euthanasia and the death penalty (sometimes referred to as “sanctity of life” issues), homosexuality (including homosexual marriage and openly “gay” clergy), and the ordination of women. Mainline (moderate) and liberal Protestants usually take a permissive stance on these issues, while evangelical, charismatic and Pentecostal Protestants hold more conservative views.
To confuse the matter further, many historically liberal denominations now have conservative caucuses growing within their ranks, and doctrines are being liberalized by the leaders of certain “old guard” traditionalist groups.
In this climate, members of the many “fellowships” can no longer expect to find a consensus of belief within their local congregation—or even among the clergy and top officials of their corporate church. Many professing Christians feel compelled to find others of like mind and are being forced to look beyond denominational boundaries to do so.
The term “ecumenical” derives from the Greek word oikoumene, meaning “the inhabited world.” The current ecumenical movement consists of organizations, initiatives, programs and forums that promote unity among the various “Christian” factions. The movement first gained widespread attention in 1910 with the Edinburgh Missionary Conference, an all-Protestant gathering. This led to the formation of other groups, which soon began to include Eastern Orthodox adherents.
Alongside the long-established World Council of Churches (WCC), a number of ecumenical organizations have arisen in recent years: The Association for Church Renewal (ACR); the Foundation for a Conference on Faith and Order in North America (FCFONA); Christian Churches Together in the U.S.A. (CCT); Global Christian Forum (GCF); the World Evangelical Alliance (WEA), and others.
While this movement is not new, two recent developments are noteworthy: increased inclusion among these groups of Roman Catholic representatives alongside Protestant and Orthodox officials, and an increased acceptance of Catholic doctrine among Protestants. This is striking, as it was dissent with Catholic doctrine that ignited the Protestant Reformation. In spite of a history of disagreement that often led to persecution, martyrdom and war, these differences are now being minimized.
How is ecumenism viewed by the Roman Catholic Church, which, at over 1.2 billion members, is the largest professing Christian church?
The Catholic Church began to address this question in its Second Vatican Council, also called Vatican II. The ecumenical council was comprised of four sessions, spanning 1962 to 1965. In these meetings, Catholic leaders encouraged contact with Protestants, and slightly softened their exclusivist language and their opposition to “freedom of conscience” in matters of religion.
Regarding divided Christendom, the Council’s decree on ecumenism, Unitatis Redintegratio, states the following: “…many Christian communions…profess to be followers of the Lord but differ in mind and go their different ways…Such division openly contradicts the will of Christ, scandalizes the world, and damages the holy cause of preaching the Gospel to every creature.”
It goes on to assert that, “more than ever before, [Christ] has been rousing divided Christians to remorse over their divisions and to a longing for unity.”
During his pontificate, Pope John Paul II built bridges with many denominations, and even other religions, winning an unprecedented degree of admiration and goodwill among non-Catholics.
The leading Protestant evangelist Billy Graham, despite his fame as “America’s Pastor” and a high-profile career beginning in the mid-1950s, had never met with a pope until 1981. His visit with John Paul II at Rome ended with the pontiff clutching Mr. Graham’s thumb and telling him, “We are brothers.” Mr. Graham did not publicly share this story until 1990, in a Time magazine interview. In this nine-year span, relations between the two leaders’ flocks had apparently warmed to the degree that this sentiment was palatable to each group.
John Paul’s 1995 papal letter on ecumenism, Ut Unum Sint (“That They May be One”), concluded, “As the Church turns her gaze to the new millennium, she asks the Spirit for the grace to strengthen her own unity and to make it grow towards full communion with other Christians.”
Aside from interdenominational outreach, John Paul II’s efforts in helping to defeat communism also endeared him to many non-Catholics.
John Paul II’s successor, Benedict XVI, plans to follow a similar pattern, plainly stating that his “primary task is the duty to work tirelessly to rebuild the full and visible unity of all of Christ’s followers” (Zenit News Agency).
A close associate of the new pope expressed that “[Benedict XVI] has written extensively on the subject of ecumenism. As a German, he has had extensive experience with the traditions coming out of the 16th-century divisions, especially Lutheranism and Reformed, or Calvinist, Christianity. He has a sympathetic appreciation of what Martin Luther got right, and an incisive but non-polemical analysis of what he got wrong, and why. As head of CDF [the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, formerly known as the Holy Office of the Inquisition], he was responsible for the doctrinal aspects of all the ecumenical dialogues in which the Church is engaged…CDF was, for instance, intensely involved in the 1999 Lutheran-Catholic declaration on justification” (ibid.).
As Benedict takes the helm, what is the status of relations between Rome and other denominations?
The Eastern Orthodox Church resembles the Roman Church in doctrine, tradition, liturgy and structure more than any other group. Vatican II states, “These Churches, although separated from us, yet possess true sacraments and above all, by apostolic succession, the priesthood and the Eucharist, whereby they are linked to us in closest intimacy” (Unitatis Redintegratio).
The Orthodox Church split from Rome in 1054, but, like the Catholic Church, claims an unbroken line of apostolic succession stretching back to Peter. The mutual excommunications that accompanied the Great Schism nearly 1,000 years ago were mutually rescinded in 1965.
John Paul II’s efforts to reach out to the Orthodox are well-known, and the results are summarized by the following statement, published after a June 1995 meeting with the Orthodox leader: “…our Churches declare their desire to relegate the excommunications of the past to oblivion and to set out on the way to re-establishing full communion…Our new-found brotherhood in the name of the one Lord has led us to frank discussion, a dialogue that seeks understanding and unity…A common sacramental conception of the Church has emerged, sustained and passed on in time by the apostolic succession…the Joint Commission has been able to declare that our Churches recognize one another as Sister Churches, responsible together for safeguarding the one Church of God, in fidelity to the divine plan, and in an altogether special way with regard to unity” (Common Declaration Signed in the Vatican by Pope John Paul II and Patriarch Bartholomew I, June 29, 1995).
In a telling public gesture, John Paul’s funeral was the first papal funeral in centuries to be attended by the Patriarch of Constantinople, the leader of the Eastern Orthodox.
A number of Protestant denominations known as evangelical emphasize evangelism (preaching to witness and proselytize), doctrinal conservatism, professed adherence to Scripture, a “born-again” conversion experience, and promoting family-oriented cultural values, often through politics. In general, evangelicals are seen as the right wing of the Protestant world.
Evangelicals and Catholics comprise more than half of all churchgoers in the United States. It seems there is now more common ground between these two groups than between evangelicals and liberal Protestants. The common enemy that has helped unite these factions is secularism. Evangelicals, despite a historic animosity toward Catholicism and the papacy, appear to believe that any form of traditional Christianity is preferable to the hedonism, materialism and moral relativism overtaking the West.
The incentive for Protestants is strength in numbers. They see that in order to “fix” the culture around them, it is expedient to join those who share their most pressing concerns. Religious activist Gary Bauer put this new phenomenon in context: “When John F. Kennedy made his famous speech that the Vatican would not tell him what to do, evangelicals and Southern Baptists breathed a sigh of relief. But today evangelicals and Southern Baptists are hoping that the Vatican will tell Catholic politicians what to do” (USA Today).
Rome has traditionally avoided full official involvement in ecumenical groups. They did not establish relations with the WCC, founded in 1948, until 1965, after Vatican II. At that point, they still declined membership, choosing rather to form a Joint Working Group as a means of contact at arm’s length.
However, in November 2004, U.S. Catholic bishops meeting in Washington voted to join the CCT, marking “the first time in American history that you have Catholic bishops joining an ecumenical organization with Protestants and Orthodox” (Christianity Today).
An evangelical minister commented, “I believe one of the reasons Catholics were comfortable joining this was because of the presence of evangelicals. The same was true of the Orthodox” (ibid.).
Along with interfaith dialogue, marriage and the sanctity of life will be prominent in Benedict’s papacy. Both themes are very important to evangelicals.
While many mainstream Protestant denominations change with the times, Catholic stability creates a clear contrast that will serve Rome’s purpose well.
The Church of England, also called the Anglican Communion, encompasses the Episcopal Church in the United States, and claims 77 million adherents. This denomination was established in 1536 by King Henry VIII. Similar to the Orthodox, the Anglicans have held on to much Catholic form and ceremony: “Among those [groups springing from the Reformation] in which Catholic traditions and institutions in part continue to exist, the Anglican Communion occupies a special place” (Unitatis Redintegratio).
Referring to the mother of Jesus Christ, Pope John Paul II called England “Mary’s dowry” in an address at London’s Wembley Stadium in 1982, to the enthusiastic cheers of the crowd. In retrospect, this seemed to foreshadow a recent cooperative step. On May 16, 2005, the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission (ARCIC) released a document titled “Mary: Grace and Hope in Christ.” It concludes that Anglican doctrine is compatible with Catholic dogma on the Immaculate Conception, which declares that Mary was born unstained by “original sin,” and the Assumption of Mary, the belief that Mary ascended bodily to heaven.
Scripture does not teach either of these doctrines, and the Anglican Church had historically rejected them. However, in a press conference to mark the event, the Anglican Abbey Canon Nicholas Sagovsky stated, “As Anglicans and Roman Catholics, we believe that through our baptism into Christ we already share a deep unity and we look forward in prayer and hope to the day when we shall no longer be separated at the Eucharist” (AnglicanCommunion.org). This document will be reviewed by Vatican and Anglican officials.
The Church of England is not alone in its reassessment of Mary’s place in modern Christianity. Many Protestants are inching toward a more Catholic view of this New Testament figure.
In some cases, an increased focus on Mary in American Protestant churches is a result of, or a response to, an influx of Hispanics into the pews, most of whom have a Catholic family heritage. A recent Time magazine cover story on the subject includes the following account: “A man stands at the lectern at the El Amor de Dios Church on Chicago’s South Side reading in Spanish, tears streaming down his cheeks. His text is a treatment of the Virgin Mary from one of the Bible’s apocryphal books. Another congregant follows, reciting his own verses to the Virgin…Flanking the altar are two Mary statues…hanging from the hands of the baby Jesus is a Rosary. The altar cover presents the church’s most stunning image: Mary again, this time totally surrounded by a multi-colored halo, in the traditional iconography of the Our Lady of Guadalupe. The church is Methodist.”
One hundred years ago, this scene would have shocked the typical Methodist, as the avoidance of “Mariolatry” in part distinguished the Protestant world from Catholicism. Increasingly, this distinction is being blurred.
Also, certain theologians have appealed to feminist sensibilities, which encourage conjecture about women in the Bible. They use this approach to introduce themes such as Mary as Christ’s first disciple, as an “activist” who bucks the patriarchal culture of her time, and even as a prophetess. One Protestant author, reflecting on the Mexican Catholic interpretation of Mary as “Our Lady of Guadalupe,” concludes that future study of Mary should “come from a feminist liberative perspective that promotes freedom and espouses a holistic life for Mexican and Mexican-American women” (Blessed One: Protestant Perspectives on Mary, Gaventa and Rigby, eds.).
Interestingly, the Protestant Mary has been reconfigured to appeal to women and Hispanics—both seen as key voting blocs in the current “red-blue” cultural battle.
Meanwhile, in the Catholic fold, millions of lay members and hundreds of clergy have signed a petition to declare Mary the co-redemptrix (meaning that she cooperates with Jesus in redeeming humanity).
Of course, this idea is utterly unscriptural.
To be considered a traditional Christian church, a denomination must affirm belief in the trinity and accept the divinity of Christ. These two elements also seem to form the minimum criteria for membership in some ecumenist organizations.
The Catholic Church stresses the importance of other elements: The receiving of communion (Eucharist) and baptism. “Furthermore, the Sacrament of Baptism, which we have in common, represents ‘a sacramental bond of unity linking all who have been reborn by means of it’…Although this sacrament of itself is ‘only a beginning, a point of departure’, it is ‘oriented towards a complete profession of faith, a complete incorporation into the system of salvation such as Christ himself willed it to be, and finally, towards a complete participation in Eucharistic communion’” (Ut Unum Sint).
If a church possesses these characteristics, Catholics consider them “separated brethren”—a middle ground between true believers and heretics. Orthodox Christians categorize Catholics and Protestants as heterodox (“other believing”) rather than heretic (“other choosing”).
There is a sharp contrast between the Catholic and Orthodox viewpoint, and that of the typical Protestant, in entering ecumenical dialogue. Protestants focus on finding common ground, on compromise between doctrinal positions, finding the lowest common denominators in order to work together, and sharing with the Catholics or Orthodox “new elements” of Christianity from the Reformation heritage.
However, the Catholic and Orthodox concepts of ecumenism have one goal in mind: Persuasion of separated brethren to traditional teaching and correction of Reformation-era error—in other words, conversion.
If Vatican II slightly softened the tone of Catholic pronouncements toward those outside the fold, its conclusions were still uncompromising:
“This Sacred Council exhorts the faithful…[that] their ecumenical action must be fully and sincerely Catholic…faithful to the truth which we have received from the apostles and Fathers of the Church, in harmony with the faith which the Catholic Church has always professed” (Unitatis Redintegratio).
“This is the one Church of Christ…professed as one, holy, catholic and apostolic, which our Saviour, after His Resurrection, commissioned Peter to shepherd, and him and the other apostles to extend and direct with authority, which He erected for all ages as ‘the pillar and mainstay of the truth’. This Church constituted and organized in the world as a society, subsists in the Catholic Church, which is governed by the successor of Peter and by the Bishops in communion with him, although many elements of sanctification and of truth are found outside of its visible structure. These elements, as gifts belonging to the Church of Christ, are forces impelling toward catholic unity” (Lumen Gentium).
Conciliatory rhetoric notwithstanding, Rome is not interested in conceding doctrinal ground, or backing away from its claim to be the only true Church, and therefore the only path to salvation. They desire unity of all believers, but not at the expense of established doctrine or papal authority. While Protestant denominations allow latitude for disagreement, Rome never loses sight of its goal of complete conformity. The official Catholic position is that one cannot openly contradict Catholic teaching and remain a member in good standing.
Overall, the drift of modern ecumenism is toward Rome, reversing the objectives of the Reformation. There is less focus on merging Protestant organizations, and more focus on Protestant churches doctrinally gravitating toward Catholicism.
Even in the midst of outreach efforts, Catholic doctrine is not changing. For example, John Paul II had increasingly stressed the importance of indulgences (pardon from punishment for sins in return for payment or “pious” actions), and Benedict has authorized “plenary indulgences” to any who participate in World Youth Day in Cologne, Germany. This is significant, since this practice was one that outraged Martin Luther and helped spark the Reformation. For some years after Vatican II, indulgences were downplayed.
Ironically, the Greek word oikoumene, mentioned earlier, was often used to refer to the Roman Empire. This is what the Vatican has in mind—all ecumenical roads leading to Rome!
The Eastern Orthodox and the various Protestant denominations have certain doctrines or practices that currently prevent full unity with the Vatican.
Protestants generally reject Catholic use of religious icons such as statues, the veneration of “saints,” and the Catholic position that church tradition overrides Scripture. There are certain specific doctrines that vary, such as the Lutherans’ “consubstantiation” contrasting with Catholic “transubstantiation.”
In the case of the Orthodox, the main obstacle is their acceptance of the Patriarch of Constantinople as the human leader of the Church rather than the bishop of Rome, as well as the doctrine of papal infallibility.
The Church of England capitulating to Rome would involve a compromise of national sovereignty, as the Anglican leader, the Archbishop of Canterbury, is nominated by Britain’s queen. In addition, Anglican female priests began to be ordained in 1994, which contradicts Catholic teaching.
There is also alarm on the part of some Protestant leaders. For example, a Southern Baptist theologian characterized the recent increased focus on Mary as “the Reformation in reverse” (Time magazine). Others point to a document written in September 2000 by then-Cardinal Ratzinger. Dominus Iesus provoked anger with its references to the “defects” of Protestant churches and its insistence that salvation is available only through the Roman Church. Some viewed this work as negating the more inclusive tone of Vatican II.
The process of integration, while steadily gaining momentum, is still a cumbersome, inefficient process, hindered by the layers of bureaucracy in each of the churches involved.
Although Benedict is very interested in the full and visible unity of all professing Christians, he has limited expectations for mere human efforts to accomplish this: “[Benedict] has also emphasized that the way toward unity is not a matter of our programs and schedules but of faithful waiting upon a new initiative of the Holy Spirit which we can neither control nor anticipate” (Zenit News Agency).
Indeed, to expedite the ecumenical process, a catalyst far beyond rhetoric, diplomacy and dialogue is needed.
History shows, and human nature dictates, that decisive action taken by large numbers is typically sparked by crisis, and facilitated by a strong central figure—a leader who can offer the masses what they long for, whether it is prosperity and prestige, freedom from oppression, deliverance from suffering or a bolstering of collective pride and resolve.
An address published in 1950 states, “The Catholic Church…embraces with truly maternal affection all who return to her as the true Church of Christ” (“On the ‘Ecumenical Movement’ – An Instruction of the Holy Office”).
In Revelation 17, the apostle John describes a religious system pictured as a mother with daughters. This “woman” is called a harlot (vs. 5), in contrast to the true Church, which is symbolized as a virtuous woman in chapter 12. (Please read the article “What Did the New Testament Church Look Like?”, featured in this issue.)
This system is prophesied to grow very powerful one more time, but for a short time, only to have her reign end violently just prior to Christ’s Return.
We can expect the current drift toward the Catholic Church to continue and intensify in the years ahead, resulting in a final “family reunion” for professing Christianity! (To learn more, read our publication The White Horse – “Many Shall Come in My Name…”.)