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Clarifying Kasper on Ecumenism

November 28, 2006

In a thread from an earlier post, one of our readers posted two isolated quotes from speeches given by Cardinal Walter Kasper, the Prefect of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity. An interesting discussion ensued over these quotes and their possible misconstrual and misinterpretation by Catholics. Here are the quotes:

“Today we no longer understand ecumenism in the sense of a return, by which the others would ‘be converted’ and return to being ‘catholics.’ This was expressly abandoned by Vatican II.”

“The Catholic commitment to ecumenism is not based on wanting to draw all Christians into the Catholic fold, nor does it seek to create a new church, drawing on the best of each of the ecumenical partners.”

Whenever we seek to understand the context of a quote, we situate it within its greater context by looking to the entire speech from which the quote is taken. This is a basic hermeneutical principle that no one will dispute. However, when we are dealing with speeches as opposed to articles or books, we must also look to the context in which the speech is given. Otherwise, we risk attributing to the speaker a universal intent when, perhaps, the speaker was responding to a particular issue, in a particular setting in the presence of a particular audience. In the case of Cardinal Kasper, the first quote cited came from an address given at Ushaw College. Now, anyone who has attended a lecture delivered by a scholar in a university context knows that the setting tends to permit a highly intellectual level of discourse where the speaker is at liberty to assume that his audience is familiar enough with the terms of the issue. Thus, we must be cautious when extracting a single quote from a university address lest we give the impression that the speech was intended for all people to hear and scandel arise.

The second of Kasper’s two quotes interests me most, as it did my interlocutors in the discussion over Kasper’s intent, clarity and even orthodoxy. The quote comes from a public Italian periodical, which means Kasper’s comments would be immediately accessible to the general public. Thus, it is important that we seek to understand the meaning behind Kasper’s words before hastily castigating the Cardinal for what we may perceive to be ambiguous or possibly heretical language.

One of the contributors to the discussion stated that this quote may imply universalism. We can rule that out immediately as nonsense. The limit of the quote is clearly Protestant and Orthodox Christianity, so even if Kasper were admitting that non-Catholic Christians can be saved by means of their own traditions, he is not stating anything about the salvific efficacy of non-Christian religions. Universalism, roughly speaking, is the idea that all religions are salvific by their own merits and on their own terms. Because Kasper relays nothing about other religions but confines his comment to Christianity, there is absolutely no reason to suggest that the Cardinal implies universalism or that his words lend themselves to such an interpretation. Rather, to suggest that this quote can be construed as universalism is an indictment, not on Kasper, but on the individual who is so uninformed and doctrinally inept that any suggestion of merit in regard to non-Catholic Christianity reeks of universalism. Such a person may want to consider enrolling in catechesis.

There is also the delicate question, frequently addressed by Kasper, on the relationship of the Jews to the Catholic Church. Kasper has described the Jewish faith as “salvific” on several occassions. Regrettably, many Catholics have misread these statements–likely due to having little theological reading under their belt–and contorted them into suggesting that the Jews can be saved simply by being Jewish. But such an interpretation is far to heavy for Kasper’s words to bear. The covenants of God with Israel are stages in “salvation history,” which means that each covenant reveals or discloses the salvific plan of God for humanity, sanctifying those with him the covenant is made. That said, Kasper’s use of “salvific” is really quite simple: the Jews already participate in salvation history by means of their covenants with God (cf. Romans 9-11). Salvation history does not begin with Jesus, yet it is fulfilled with Jesus. Thus, Jews, by virtue of their covenants with God, participate in the salvific plan for humanity in a way wholly unlike any other non-Christian faith. The Jews are already “on the way” to Christ, so to speak, and so evangelization of the Jews is an altogether different affair than evangelization of other faiths. However, the covenants of Israel coallese and culminate in Jesus, so salvation is a full reality only through faith in Jesus the Christ. The chosen people of God, the Jews, are predisposed as a people for receiving Christ as their Messiah. But that final step of faith into the fulfilled covenant of the blood of God is still necessary.

Okay, so Kasper is not a universalist and is has never once opened himself up to being labeled as one. For those still with a conscious (or even unconscious) suspicion of all things Kasper, I refer them to his writings, which are the best guide to his thought. On the issue of ecumenism, get it straight from the horse’s mouth and read the highly engaging, highly accessible That they All May Be One: The Call to Unity.

Let’s return to that second quote once more. When Kasper informs us that “ecumenism is not based on wanting to draw all Christians into the Catholic fold,” is Kasper undermining the call to conversion? Isn’t conversion the entire basis for ecumenism? Is Kasper denying this? Yes, he is, though not directly. For Kasper, ecumenism is not founded on the desire to convert others to Catholicism. This is in harmony with the teaching of the Catholic Church. But how?

It’s important, essential even, to be clear and precise with our ecclesial language. Kasper, despite allegations to the contrary, is typically precise and unambiguous in his use of ecclesial terminology. Ecumenism and evangelization are not the same, and we must make that distinction. While evangelization may certainly accompany ecumenism and even guide and follow it, evangelization is not coextensive with ecumenism, and the Cardinal is clear on this.

The basis of evangelization is desire to convert others–conversion to Christ, conversion to his Church, conversion to God. The basis of ecumenism, however, is something else. Consider the words of the Second Vatican Council:

“The term ‘ecumenical movement’ indicates the iniatives and activities encouraged and organized, according to the various needs of the Church and as opportunities to offer, to promote Christian unity. These are: first, every effort to avoid expressions, judgments and actions which do not represent the condition of our separated brethern with truth and fairness and so make mutual relations with them more difficult. Then, ‘dialogue’ between competent experts from different Churches and communities; in their meetings, which are organized in a religious spirit, each explains the teaching of his communion in greater depth and brings out clearly its distinctive features. Through such dialogue everyone gains a truer knowledge and more just appreciation of the teaching and religious life of both communions. In addition, these communions engage in that more intensive cooperation in carrying out any duties for the common good of humanity which are demanded by every Christian conscience. They also come together for common prayer, where this is permitted. Finally, all are led to examine their own faithfulness to Christ’s will for the Church and, wherever necessary, undertake vigor the task of renewal and reform.”

“The results will be that, little by little, as the obstacles to perfect ecclesiastical commuion are overcome, all Christians will be gathered, in a common celebration of the Eucharist, into the unity of the one and only Church, which Christ bestowed on his Church from the beginning. “

“In ecumenical work, Catholics must assuredly be concerned for their separated brethern, praying for them, keeping them informed about the Church, making the first approaches toward them. But their primary duty is to make a careful and honest appraisal of whatever needs to be renewed and done in the Catholic household itself, in order that its life may bear witness more clearly and faithfully to the teachings and institutions which have been handed down from Christ through the apostles.” (Decree on Ecumenism, Unitatis Redintegratio, no. 4).

For those who find the official position of the magisterium obtuse or esoteric, perhaps the Catechism of the Catholic Church‘s summary of the magisterial position may be more palatable:
“Christ always gives his Chruch the gift of unity, but the Church must always pray and work to maintain, reinforce, and perfect the unity that Christ wills for her. . . . The desire to recover the unity of all Christians is a gift of Christ and a call of the Holy Spirit.

Certain things are required in order to respond adequately to this call:

a permanent renewal of the Church. . .; conversion of heart. . .; prayer in common. . .; fraternal knowledge of each other. . .; ecumenical formation. . .; dialogue. . .; collaboration among Christians. . .” (CCC, nos. 820-21).

And so when Cardinal Kasper informs us that “ecumenism is not based on wanting to draw all Christians into the Catholic fold”, he is accurately describing what ecumenism is not. Ecumenism has as its basis the desire for unity and as its practice the removal of obstacles to that unity. It seeks not to convert those who are already converted to Christ. Rather, in nuanced fashion, ecumenism seeks to renew the Catholic Church from within so that it may be a sacrament of Christ’s love, to dialogue with other Christians in order to educate and correct each party involved, and to work together to transform the world. Ecumenism seeks to understand, not to convert.

Perhaps one can say that the drive for unity is the drive for conversion in a very loose sense, but such is not the manner in which the Catholic Church has portrayed ecumenism. The drive behind ecumenism is not to draw Protestants and Orthodox into the Catholic Church. The drive is to remove the obstacles to unity so that Protestants and Orthodox have no reason to remain divided or alienated from the fullness of the Church of which they are already a part, albeit imperfectly. And this includes the humble housekeeping within the Catholic Church so that it is truly an example of holiness and a worthy recipient of the esteem of other Christians.

This is why the Catholic Church shapes ecumenism only in terms of non-Catholic Christian communions. We do not speak of ecumenism with non-Christian faiths. Rather, we speak of evangelization; hence, the Second Vatican Council devoted one decree specifically to ecumenism (Unitatis redintegratio) and two separate decrees to evangelization of other religions (Nostra aetate and Ad gentes divinitus). Why? Why doesn’t the Church speak of evangelizing or converting other Christians in the same way as she does for non-Christians? I reply with some of my earlier comments:

Protestantism is not like any other religion whereby Catholics must convert their adherents to an entirely new understanding of divinity. As Kasper rightly notes (and he has written extensively on ecumenism), Protestantism is a peculiar challenge to Catholicism today. In the days of Trent, the bishops felt that the phenomenon of Protestantism would be short-lived once it was kicked in the pants by a nice anathema. Today, however, we understand that Protestantism is stronger than ever. Most Protestants and most Protestant denominations, as Kasper frequently notes and so does the Second Vatican Council, were never Catholic to begin with. Hence, there would be no return to Catholicism for them. Protestants, as even the illustrious Pope Pius XII noted in his glorious encyclical Mystici Corporis, which has a basis for Vatican II’s Lumen Gentium (to which Kasper often refers), may be part of the mystical body that is the Church, albeit in a deficient and incomplete way.

Thus, anyone who has actually read Kasper’s books on ecclesiology and ecumenism knows that what Kasper means by “Today we no longer understand ecumenism in the sense of a return, by which the others would ‘be converted’ and return to being ‘catholics'” is that Catholics themselves can adapt to certain trends in Protestantism that had been neglected for hundreds of years (e.g. services in the venacular, good preaching, dedication to Scripture study). Think of how much converts such as Richard Neuhaus, Scott Hahn and Avery Dulles have changed the way Catholics think about their own traditions! At the same, the Catholic can help build on the foundations that a Protestant already holds (e.g. Jesus the Christ and Scripture), allowing the Protestant to see that the fullness of Christ’s truth subsists within the Catholic Church.

What Kasper means is that there is no “conversion” (turning from) to Christ necessary for most Protestants as there is for adherents of other religions. What Kasper has continually stressed is that Protestants need to undergo a deepening in understanding of the reality of Christ and his Church. Thus, we do not speak of a Protestant “converting” in the same sense as, say, a Hindu or a Muslim. As Pius XII and Vatican II have stated, and Kasper reiterates, many Protestants are joined mystically to the Body of Christ in a deficient and incomplete manner by virtue of their baptism in Christ. This is why we do not re-baptize Protestants when they enter into full communion with the Catholic Church unless they have not already been baptized properly. They are already baptized into the death of Christ and hold faith in him. Catholic evangelization to Protestants does not attempt to convert them to a Christ in whom they already believe, but attempts to deepen their understanding of Christ and his Church, which prompts their desire to enter into full communion with the Church.


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