Trying to assess the character of the current Protestant-Catholic dialogue, we are almost forced to make a comparison between the present efforts at understanding and those of the sixteenth century. For example, we may recall the conference at Regensburg in 1541 at which the doctrine of justification was the nub of the conversation. There was a moment at Regensburg when mutual understanding and rapprochement broke through, enough to cause Contarini to send a message to Rome saying that, God be thanked, both sides had united on the dogma of justification. But the Council of Trent, which opened soon afterward, drew the curtain on this dialogue by anathematizing what it judged to be the Protestant doctrine of justification by faith alone.
The question now is whether, since the Reformation and since Trent, a real dialogue is either necessary or possible. After all these years, is not the issue crystal clear? Need we do more than say again what was said in the sixteenth century? The word “dialogue” suggests that those who enter it have something new to learn from each other, that a new listening as well as a new talking is needed. It suggests that we are no longer dealing with clear and unmistakable assertions that have been repeated from our respective rostrums time and again. But is this really so? Have we not clearly understood each other in the past?
We also face the question of whether Rome has changed and whether, if it has, it has changed in ways that open up new possibilities for ecumenical dialogue. Is it true that if Rome changes, it can change only on the fringes, that change at the center is per se impossible? After all, it is part of the very essence of Rome to claim that it has the infallible and unchangeable truth, thanks to the assistance of the Holy Spirit. Does not this pretension mean that so long as Rome is Rome, it cannot really change?
No one will suggest that the processes of change have made a complete detour around the Catholic Church. All kinds of persistent questions have dented its armor. Anyone who can read is able to see the enormous differences between the official decisions of the Biblical Commission of 1902–1915 against biblical criticism and the current statements coming from today’s Catholic biblical studies. The fact that the problem of evolution has haunted the Catholic Church is well known to everyone who has even heard of Pope Pius’s encyclical, Humani Generis. But this is not all. Even the church’s doctrinal definitions are now recognized as affected by the grinding wheels of history. Catholic thinkers are deeply impressed today with the fact that the church’s statements of faith were made in a context of limited understanding and knowledge.
A New Phase Of Catholic Theology
Roman Catholic theology has entered what we may call an interpretative phase. By this we mean that today, in connection with a great new Catholic biblical impetus, scholars are attempting to get at the church’s deepest intent and purpose in its specific doctrinal definitions. The church, it is suppposed, was infallibly led by the spirit in its deepest intents to confess the faith, even while it was affected by various circumstantial factors in its terminology and concepts. Clearly, if this latter phase dominates, the dogma of infallibility and unchangeability allows for more latitude in the dialogue than has been known since the Reformation. Everything about the church’s dogma has become less transparent and self-evident.
With this too, there comes on reflection an awareness that the dialogue is not only a confrontation but also a discovery that Protestants and Catholics have common problems. Almost every issue on the Protestant agenda has its counterpart within Catholicism—biblical inspiration, evolution, miracles, supernaturalism, demythologizing, and ethical questions as well. This discovery has a definite influence on the dialogue.
All this touches the nature of the church. And it was no accident that the doctrine of the church was a crucial point on the agenda of the Second Vatican Council. At the First Vatican, the church was spoken of with a certain pretension, as though it were the most self-evident and uncontroversial of subjects. The church, according to the First Vatican, was the motive for faith (motivum credibilitatis). That is to say, the church as it existed in its present form, in its holiness and its extension, provided solid grounds for believing the Gospel. Hence, the church was obviously a basis for faith.
This is no longer accepted. The existence of the church as evidence for the truth of Christ is now seen more as a challenge than as a fact: it is understood in a dynamic rather than in a static sense. The church is called to demonstrate that it really is the Church of Christ. And the actual church is summoned to confession of guilt, of failure, and of imperfection in the light of its calling to be evidence of the truth. The awareness of this calling among Catholics takes the form of anti-triumphalism, a movement that has had tremendous influence in many Catholic circles. It is not merely a changed theological notion; this new attitude is expressed in a new posture toward non-Roman Catholic churches.
Who Are Outside?
The problem of those outside the Roman church has become terribly acute within Catholicism. Time was when it was perfectly clear who was outside the church: Jews and heathen, schismatics and heretics (Council of Florence). But it is no longer clear. An appreciation of the commonality of faith and love among Christians was markedly present at the Second Vatican Council. This came out in many reports and discussions in which a new attitude toward “the others” was reflected time and again. Those outside Rome were no longer classified in a black-white category; they were talked about in terms of a fellowship in Christ that embraced many outside the walls of Rome.
For this reason, Catholics today speak of the end of the Counter-Reformation. They choose instead to talk of the need for a “common Reformation” in view of the calling of the church to make its inner reality apparent in this secularized age. I do not know what the other contributors to this issue think of the dialogue, but I am personally impressed with a new sense of responsibility for the whole church among today’s Roman Catholics. This does not mean that the controversy has lost its character as controversy, or that it has become less important. But it does mean that it has been set in a new light. Both sides enter the dialogue aware that they are involved in a common confrontation with the life-and-death issues of belief and unbelief, as well as with the challenges to faith from science and culture.
The controversy between Rome and the Reformation is not about to sink into the morass of vague and simplistic ecumenicity. We may be sure that Rome is not of a mind to seek this sentimental sort of escape from its problems. That it is not of such a mind is evident in discussions among all the wings of Catholicism. A simplistic, common-denominator ecumenicity would be a denial of the very seriousness of the questions that are currently being faced within Catholicism, questions like the relation between the office of Peter and the hierarchy, the nature of the church, and Mariology. But the overshadowing question is that of the division of the churches.
The question of the divided church includes the divisions of the non-Catholic churches as well as the division between Rome and the others. The division among the observers at the Vatican Council was never explicitly mentioned in the discussions, but the fact that Protestants were there as representatives of separated groups was a shadow hanging over them as they listened together to Catholics discussing the relation of Rome to the other churches. It reminded all of them that we are all on the way toward the future in which everything will be made clear, a future that challenges us all—together with Rome—to be intensely occupied with our common calling to be obedient to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Each church is influenced deeply by distinct traditions. And all of us are tempted to absolutize our own traditions in a very unhistorical way. The question that faces us all today is whether we are able to let the light of the Gospel judge our own traditions.
Speaking from a Reformed perspective of the dialogue, I find myself unable to define a uniquely “Reformed view” of what is taking place. All I can do is ask about the power of the Gospel, the strength of the Sword of the Spirit, the Word of God, in our time. The “Reformed view” of the dialogue cannot be deduced from a set of principles discovered in some textbook; it can come only from a living encounter with the Gospel. In touch with the Gospel at every point, we are kept from being monologists speaking from a rostrum of self-sufficiency. A dialogue implies that the parties enter with a readiness for self-criticism as well as for criticism of others; and the Gospel demands that we, along with our traditions, be open to criticism—and thus ready for dialogue.
Scripture does not offer us a handy text for putting the dialogues to a touchstone. But First Peter 4:17 is most relevant, for here Peter reminds us that judgment shall begin at the house of God. Rome has real trouble with this text and has tended to apply it to individual believers rather than to the church as a whole. But now Catholics are deeply aware that the judgment of God rests upon the church itself. And this change of mind is of incalculable importance for members of the church that has thought of itself as the infallible custodian of the truth. When churches are aware of this biblical reality, they are ready to enter into serious dialogue. When one knows that his church and its tradition is exposed to judgment, he cannot assume the self-sufficient posture of the monologist. The New Testament warns the church by way of Israel’s example (1 Cor. 10, Rom. 9–11), a fact that many Catholic exegetes have been underscoring. And as Catholics become ever more impressed that the Roman church with all others lies under the possibility of divine judgment, their part in the dialogue will increase in earnestness. We can be sure that they will not enter the dialogue intoxicated with nai¨ve irenicism or romantic ecumenism. But we have reason to believe that they are deeply concerned with the fact that the Holy Spirit has placed the church before more urgent responsibilities today than he has ever done before.
The same urgency will doubtless lead non-Catholics closer together as they seek to understand the Gospel in a common front against the challenges of our time. The dialogue with Rome has led non-Catholics to be more alert to their own internal differences. But the dialogue has also brought non-Catholics closer together. This was felt especially among the Reformed and certain Lutheran observers at the council.
No one can foresee what fruits the Second Vatican Council will finally produce. But one thing is clear. Everything, including the church, is undergoing enormous change: even the church that has long prized its own unchangeability realizes this. We must hope that everyone on both sides of the dialogue will be burdened by the great responsibilities that the churches bear. New light coming from the Gospel is testing the traditions of every church. We are called to let the Word of Christ’s Gospel, with its normative and saving power, function freely within the dialogue. And where the Gospel is at work, no one from any tradition will be able to excuse himself from participation; no one will be able to say with the unemployed man of the parable, “No one has hired us.”
Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.