Protestants will do well, in their concern for and preoccupation with ecumenism, to bear in mind that Roman Catholic thinkers are devoting the most serious thought to the means by which they can unify Christendom under the banner of Rome. There is of course a new effort to present the claims of the church in a “best foot forward” manner; but there are also deeper currents flowing in Romanism. Several of these merit our most careful consideration.

First, some of the younger Roman Catholic scholars are lifting into prominence the more ecumenical elements in the papal pronouncements of the past. There is a tendency, for example, to discover a change in attitude upon the part of the papacy, notably in the case of Leo XIII vis-à-vis the Eastern Orthodox Church. It is noted, further, that Pius XI, in his Rerum Orientalium, admitted that the Roman church shares in the responsibility for occurrence and for maintenance of the schism.

Expressive of this same spirit of humility is the willingness to recognize the extreme nature of some of the historic pronouncements, notably those made in the time of the Counter Reformation and in connection with the Vatican Council of the nineteenth century. Not all of these “explanations” are satisfactory; some impress the discerning Protestant as being simple disclaimers, designed to soothe the hearers. But the more capable writers in this field, such as Father Gregory Baum of Toronto, treat these problems with real candor.

Most of us have noted the manner in which such terms as “schismatics” and “heretics” have been replaced by the name “separated brethren.” Indeed, there has been little use of the term “heretic” for nearly a century now in responsible Roman Catholic circles, the milder adjectival form “heretical” taking its place. This reviewer has not discovered in the statements of any accredited Roman Catholic writer that the church is prepared to disavow the formula ex ecclesia nulla salus est. Perhaps this would be asking too much. But there is a tendency to soften the proclaimed danger which accrues to those remaining outside the Roman church by the statement that a Protestant may be such in good faith, as long as he does not knowingly reject the claims and authority of the church.

Another trend in Roman Catholic ecumenism is toward granting permission to more liberally minded men (as, for example, Father Hans Küng) to speak with considerable forthrightness in criticism of the churchly status quo. One is tempted to wonder whether a proposal, for example, to abandon the ante-nuptial agreement (which implies an insult of the most unpleasant sort to the non-Catholic party) will in reality be approved by the Holy Office. Similarly, the freedom with which certain Roman Catholic laymen in the medical profession write concerning family limitation and responsible parenthood leads the reader to wonder whether there may be coming a recognition, at the top, of a genuine problem in regard to world population within two generations or so.

Generally speaking, Roman Catholic ecumenism does not seek to achieve unity at the price of the obscuring of theological differences. Its writers make it clear that they are as aware as ever of the root differences between the teachings of the Roman church and those of much of Protestantism. They seek, rather, to expose the areas of vital opposition, to see whether these may be bridged. Incidentally, such writers respect least those Protestant ecumenists who try to minimize the importance of doctrine, and regard most highly those who are willing to face radical differences. The former they regard as religious traitors, the latter as worthy of recognition and respect.

Noticeable also is a desire upon the part of some Roman Catholic ecumenists to turn with new interest to the Scriptures. Recognizing that since the Counter Reformation the Bible has largely been used for proof-texts to support tradition, these younger writers seem intent upon making the Christian Scriptures more than a manual for supporting traditional doctrines of the church, or for refuting Protestant heresies. Father Baum, in his volume Progress and Perspectives, goes further. He demands (although without using Luther’s language) that the Gospel be preached as Good News, designed to “elicit from readers an act of faith which makes them cling to divine Truth as a source of eternal life.”

In all of this there appears to be a genuine concern for charity and integrity in dealing with opponents. The newer ecumenism seems to seek to understand the Protestant position, and even to appreciate the “Christian elements in it,” as one writer states it. If we understand its advocates correctly, we see that at least some of them recognize that the “separated brethren” can, insofar as they are sincerely devoted to Christ, derive from him faith, hope, and charity in a very real sense. Instead of taking the position that “we are the only true Church, and thus we possess the entire truth,” some of the younger writers appear to manifest a genuine willingness to look at opposing positions with fairness and charity. Such an exposure to Protestant doctrine would, at the very least, lead to a modification of the older fear of (and sometimes contempt for) non-Roman Catholic teaching.

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Finally, it needs to be noted with discernment that Roman Catholic ecumenism is relying heavily upon the growth of the liturgical movement in Protestantism to support the process of the return of Protestantism to Rome. That is to say, the growth of liturgy in Protestant churches is expected to bring their adherents to the point at which they will be prepared to accept the position that the Eucharist as solemnized by the Roman Catholic Church is an absolute necessity for the ongoing of the Christian life. Protestants should ponder this with the utmost seriousness.

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