Chapter Twelve


I The Circles of Dialogue

The adjustments in the thinking of the faithful, which we have so far been looking at, have had to do with the Church and its internal life. The next three concern the meaning and mission of the Church in relation to the rest of mankind, to its history, and to creation as a whole.

The long centuries during which Christendom had had to defend itself from outside attack, whether from Vikings, Arabs, Mongols or Turks, followed by the period of Catholic-Protestant conflict, and after that by the struggle to preserve the Catholic character of Catholic Europe against the assaults of organised unbelief, had inclined many of the faithful to see the Church and the rest of mankind as two opposed blocks, which if not permanently at war with each other must at best live in a state of armed neutrality. Religiously, people outside the Church were seen either as objects of missionary effort or adversaries of some kind, all in a darkness sufficiently deep for variations and degrees not to matter much.

It was an attitude not unlike that of the Old-Testament Jews towards the Gentiles. It was also a simplification or rather a caricature of the great St. Augustine's doctrine of the "two cities", a doctrine enshrined in his master­piece The City of God, the first theology of human history.

In St. Augustine's doctrine, the heart of human history is a spiritual contest between the forces of good and evil, involving individuals and nations and lasting till the end of time, in which the headquarters and higher generalship on both sides are out of sight, and the central issue is the salvation or loss of souls, with the creation, the fall, the life, death and resurrection of Christ and the last judgement as the decisive moments.

What a man loves will determine to which city he belongs. There are only two loves that really matter. The first puts God and neighbour before self. The second puts self before God and neighbour. The first is essentially a social love. The second is individualistic and anti-social; it sees everyone and everything as existing solely or mainly to minister to its pleasures, pride and lust for domination. Abel and Cain are the prototypes of these two loves. Those moved by the first kind of love belong to, or are at least potential members of, the city of God, those moved by the second belong to the city of  the world or the evil one, the world in this context meaning men in so far as they are organised in opposition to God, or living as though he did not exist. It is in this sense that "the things men hold in honour are an abomination in the sight of God".

However, with most men, neither love predominates absolutely. Therefore in this world the boundary between the two cities is not always clearly discernible and the struggle is a confused one. The contending troops frequently change sides, work a bit in both causes simultaneously, fraternise with each other, or sit down and do nothing. This applies inside as well as outside the Church. So while the Church on earth can rightly be seen as the advance headquarters of the City of God, everyone and everything outside the Church does not constitute the City of the World or the Evil One, governments included. The opposition is not between Church and State. For St. Augustine, states and governments are necessary because of original sin, even if he sometimes castigated them as groups of robbers. Without government, things would be far worse. Therefore, unlike the City of God, the city of the world has no permanent visible centre on earth, however much certain governments, political parties or ideological movements may have seemed at times to be competing for the title.

From this it will be seen how St. Augustine’s view of the relationship of the members of the Church to the rest of mankind differs from the caricature just mentioned. Once again it was a question of half-conscious attitudes and unthought-out assumptions rather than of consciously held beliefs, and they were beginning to dissolve. But no adequate alternative had replaced them. Where they did survive they were responsible for the combative mentality described earlier.

The reformers had two remedies, one practical, the other theoretical. The practical remedy was the use of dialogue or friendly discussion as the best way of spreading the faith. Dialogue should replace apologetics, controversy or polemics. They regarded controversy and polemics as mostly an obstacle to understanding. They can obscure the real issues. Dialogue, on the other hand, by dissolving prejudice and breaking down unnecessary distrust, enables opponents to see better where the real areas of agreement and disagreement lie. This was especially true today. To go on addressing other Christians, non-Christians or unbelievers, whether in official or unofficial writings, as though they were all lapsed French, Spanish or Italian Catholics who ought to know better, was self-defeating. Apologetics, controversy or polemics presume an audience that is at least paying attention. But modern man is just not listening. So the first thing to do was to stimulate interest by getting him talking.

The theoretical remedy was what Pope Paul in his encyclical Ecclesiam Suam called "the circles of dialogue". 1

As a way of looking at the Church in relation to the rest of mankind, the circles of dialogue emphasise what Catholics have in common with their fellow men rather than what distinguishes or separates them. In the words of the Council, constantly repeated by John Paul II, Christ, in taking a human nature, "has in a certain sense united himself to every man". There is no qualification to his injunction,"if you did it unto one of these the least of my brethren, you did it unto me". Before helping a beggar or prisoner, we do not first ask whether he is a Christian.

With this as our starting point, we are then asked to envisage the Church as the religious centre of mankind with the rest of humanity ranged round her in a series of concentric rings. Those having most in common with her (other Christians) will be in the innermost rings, those having least (unbelievers) in the outermost. But all are in some way related to her because all are made in the "image and likeness of God"; all are potentially redeemed even if all have not taken advantage of their redemption by implicit or explicit acceptance of Christ; and, all can be presumed to have some glimmering of truth.

St. Augustine's teaching about the "two Cities" and Paul VI's about the "circles of dialogue" should be seen as complementary, not contradictory doctrines. The "two cities" is concerned primarily with the state of men's hearts; how far as individuals are they turned towards or away from God? The "circles of dialogue" concentrates on their beliefs or philosophical views as groups and collectivities in order to show how much or little they contain of natural and revealed truth. It tells us little or nothing about how near or far from God they are or how close to the Church as individuals. A Muslim believing in one God is neither more nor less likely to become a Christian than a Hindu believing in many. The Church is at any time as accessible to members of the outermost circle as to the innermost.

However, the boundary between Catholics and other Christians is clearly different from the boundary separating Catholics and other Christians from the rest of mankind, so I will look at this relationship first. How does what the Church is now saying about her relationship to other Christians harmonise with what she has previously said; and why was there not a movement for Christian unity sooner?

Again a little history will throw light on the question.

11 Christian Unity and Disunity

The Aas of the Apostles tell us that immediately after Pentecost, the baptised were all "of one mind and heart". Christ had given the apostles with St. Peter at their head, authority to teach, rule and sanctify his people; and his people, responding to grace, believed what they were taught and obeyed the apostles' instructions. The three basic requirements for unity were fulfilled: fullness of belief, baptism and obedience to the apostolic authority. So, ideally, things should have remained.

But God did not take away free will. So almost from the start we find groups of the baptised leaving the unity of the Church and setting up rival communities, each claiming that it, and only it, gave the true teaching. For Catholics, therefore, not only has the oneness willed by God always existed (in the Catholic Church), so too have groups of Christians separated from that oneness.

Moreover, these departures have always taken one of two forms. Either the seceding body wants to alter belief, or, going to the opposite extreme, it repudiates the Church's right to make practical changes — it refuses to obey rather than refusing to believe. People leave, one could say, by opposite doors: the first by the door of doctrinal innovation or heresy, the second by the door of excessive attachment to custom, ending in schism.

From this we can, I think, see better what ecumenism is and is not about, or should and should not mean. Since neither theological jugglery nor ecclesiastical engineering are capable of ensuring that Christians will agree or be obedient for evermore, the object must be to enable as many men and women as possible to find the source and centre of unity.

If there is not a centre of unity where belief in the entire revelation has been preserved, with authority to settle disputes about its meaning, unity must always be ephemeral. What is agreed today can be undonc tomorrow. Either the oneness willed by God has always existed, or it can never exist.

Over the course of the centuries, groups and even large bodies of separated Christians did from time to time rediscover the centre of unity. By the end of the eighth century, most of the Arians of Italy and Spain had found their way back. Efforts to heal the breach between Rome and Constantinople went on throughout the middle ages. But the circumstances of the past slow travel, rudimentary postal services, cultural and political isolation made contacts and understanding difficult. Moreover, the separated Christians, like the Catholics, held two perfectly sound ideas. The truth revealed by God at such great cost (the passion and death of his Son) could not possibly have been lost. On the  other hand, only one of the versions of that truth could be completely true. By the beginning of this century, however, these certainties were being shaken in the mainline Protestant churches. Doubts about the reliability of the Bible, experiences in mission lands (where their missionaries found themselves competing not only with Catholic missionaries but with each other), and the chill winds of the on-coming religious ice age, inclined growing numbers of mainline Protestants to look at each other more sympathetically. The age-old question re-presented itself ever more insistently: is my version of Christ's message really the authentic one?

The result was the modern movement for Christian reunion, which started with the Protestant World Missionary Conference in 1910, and can be seen as a reversal of the trend towards increasing fragmentation set in motion at the reformation by private interpretation of the Bible. The movement's underlying idea was that no one has the whole truth. There is no centre of unity.

Unity has been lost. This approach had already given rise to the branch theory of the Church. Each church, possessing part of the truth, is no more than a limb. By corning together the branches can bring the tree back to life even though the trunk has disappeared. Very quietly, however, two conflicting tendencies appeared. Traditional Protestants, who continued to regard the Bible as a reliable source of knowledge, were not willing to purchase unity, however important, by watering down the word of God as they understood it. Beliefs still mattered. Unity meant in the first place agreement about belief. The rest gave first place to "Christian action". (Among intellectually sophisticated Protestants modernism was already widespread). No longer believing in a trustworthy source of revelation, they saw joint action, joint worship, baptism and the love of men as the only practicable bases for unity. In regard to belief, it was enough for a man or woman to affirm that "Jesus Christ is God and Saviour". This was not explicitly stated, but increasingly became the accepted view. Moreover, as certainty about Christ's divinity waned, the more ambiguous "Jesus Christ is Lord and Saviour" was put forward as an alternative basic affirmation.

These conflicting approaches were reflected in the movement's two original organised bodies: the Faith and Order Movement started by thc U.S. Episcopalian Bishop Brent, and the Life and Work Movement founded by the Swedish Lutheran Archbishop Soderblom, which held their first major assemblies in 1925 and 1927.

To begin with, they were more or less evenly balanced, or if there was an imbalance it was in favour of the traditional Protestants. But as the century wore on and agreement about belief seemed as far away as ever, the drive for unity came more from the modernist or semi-modernist side, with the traditional Protestants putting on the brakes. Various eastern-rite churches and bishops also took part, but it was a cautious part because they did not believe the truth in its fullness had been lost. Bible-based Protestant sects usually held aloof from the movement altogether. It is worth noting that the failure of the participating bodies to reach agreement over the fifty year period from 1910 to 1960 had nothing to do with "Roman intransigence". Rome at this time was not a party to the movement. Theoretically there was nothing to prevent the Protestant members uniting. Yet with all that they had in common, they found it impossible.

Meanwhile, Rome watched the movement grow, allowed some unofficial contacts, took some initiatives of her own, but played no official part in the movement which, up to 1960 remained a mainly Protestant enterprise. The Church's caution was not motivated by pride, indifference or ill-will, however much individuals may have sinned in those regards. She had a more difficult course to steer. Public participation in the movement might be misunderstood as acceptance of the underlying idea (that there is no centre of unity where fullness of belief has been preserved) and therefore as implying doubts about her own claims. She also had to consider the faith of her children.

However Pope John considered the time had come for a change of policy, and for closer Catholic participation in the movement. As we have seen, he regarded Christian unity as one of the prerequisites for a successful apostolate to the modern world. Any risks would therefore be outweighed by the advantages. His first interest was reunion with the Orthodox. Between 1934 and 1944 he had been a papal diplomat in Greece and Turkey.

III The New Policy

The handling of the new policy naturally fell to the ecumenists in the reform party, who, in addition to practical initiatives, wanted a theological re-thinking of the relationship between the Church and other Christians. During the 1930s, '40s and '50s, Catholic ecumenists had produced a considerable litera­ture on the subject. Among the best known, we can name Frs, Karl Adam, Lambert Beauduin, Max Pribilla,Augustin Bia, Georges Tavard, Louis Bouyer. But as in ecclesiology and the theology of the laity, Fr. Congar was again destined to play the leading role. His two books Chrétiens désunis, Paris 1937 (Divided Christendom, London 1939) and Vraie et fausse réforme dans l'église, Paris, 1950, gave the most wide-ranging treatment of the problems.

His first concern was to show that the separated Christians are in some way attached to the Church, if not in the full sense members. This meant shifting the emphasis from what the Church regards as their material errors to the implications of their baptism when those errors are held in good faith.

Since at least the third century, the Church has regarded the baptism of separated churches and bodies as valid, and when valid, its effects, with one exception, though a crucial one, are the same for all. "When baptism is duly conferred and accepted with the right dispositions it really incorporates a man in Christ", says the Council. But for full membership of the Church he must also make, or have made for him by a godparent, a full profession of faith. "In itself baptism is oriented to the complete profession of faith." "Only those are to be accounted really members of the Church who have been regenerated in the waters of baptism and profess the true faith." (Pius XII, Mystici Corporis Christi, art. 21).2

So the non-Catholic Christian, without being a full member of the Church is somehow linked to Christ in a way that only a deliberate rejection of Christ will break. But his defective or incomplete knowledge cannot constitute such a rejection because he has never recognised the Church as speaking in the name of Christ. It is assumed that without an additional grace enabling him to see the Church in this light, such things as training, custom, habit or cultural and psychological factors, for the time being, form obstacles to full belief for which he is not to blame. 3

On the other hand, a man who has once freely recognised the truth of the Church's claims and beliefs cannot go back on them without separating himself from Christ and the Church. "The brethren born and baptised outside the Catholic Church are to be carefully distinguished from those who, though baptised in the Catholic Church, have knowingly and publicly abjured her faith" (Ecumenical Directory, Part I). A Lutheran and a lapsed Catholic could hold identical beliefs, but while the former (through his baptism and good faith) would be "in Christ", the later (because of his infidelity) would not.

This difference was first explicitly acknowledged in the early 19th century when, at the request of the English convert Fr. Ignatius Spencer (a collateral of Winston Churchill), the Holy See ceased to refer to Protestants in its official documents as heretici and substituted the word a-catholici. In doing so, it was recognising the difference between those who knowingly start a heresy and those who, as it were, inherit it. Those whom the Church is forced at the start of a heresy or schism to regard as "wolves" (her own apostate children), with the passage of time produce spiritual descendants who are innocent sheep. That is why the Church can today say of separated Christians, “The separated Christians who already belong in some way to God's Church ought to have full incorporation in it.” As long as they fail to recognise the truth of the Catholic Church's claims, they enjoy some kind of associate membership of a kind not yet clearly determined.

But what about the status of the separated Christians as independent churches and communities? From the outset, the ecumenical movement has been concerned almost by definition with bringing together groups and collectivities rather than individuals. Here the Council was more guarded. This was partly perhaps to avoid hurting feelings. In the Catholic Church's eyes, a separated church or community with validly ordained bishops and priests and valid sacraments can more truly be considered a detached "piece" of the Church than can communities lacking them. “Although these churches and communities are defective, they are not without significance in the mystery of salvation . . . some, even very many, of the most significant elements and endowments which together go to build up and give life to the Church itself, can exist outside the boundaries of the Catholic Church." The elements mentioned are Scripture, the gifts and graces of the Holy Spirit and certain "visible elements". This is Fr. Congar's doctrine of vestigiae ecclesiae or elements of "churchness" existing outside the Catholic Church's boundaries. But disagreements about doctrine and discipline provide "impediments" and "serious obstacles" in the way of full membership of the Church.

Perhaps the best way to understand the import of the Council's teaching is to picture the Church as a sun surrounded at different distances by planets and clouds of star dust detached from it in the past by a succession of historical and spiritual calamities, but still drawing what light and strength they have from the sun, and being held within its orbit by the same gravitational pull. Somehow they have to be drawn back to form with the sun one single heavenly body. The attractive power of the sun is the holiness of Christ and his Church radiating from the centre. The factors weakening its gravitational pull are the lack of holiness in many of the atoms forming the sun's outer layers (us), and the centrifugal force imparted to the separated churches and communities by those who originally pulled them away from the sun.

However, by the end of the Council, large numbers of Catholic ecumenists had apparently adopted modernist-Protestant ideas about unity.

They had apparently decided that disagreements about doctrine and discipline should not be considered serious obstacles to unity, or even obstacles at all. Christians are already united in all that matters; baptism and belief in Christ as "Lord and Saviour". Catholics and other Christians should therefore be allowed to receive communion in each other's Churches instantly.

Differences of belief can be ironed out later or tolerated as expressions of legitimate pluralism within an already existing one Christian Church.

Reunion with the Orthodox, on the other hand, should be put on the back burner, since an influx of Eastern Christians into the Catholic Church would reinforce the very beliefs and viewpoints which the theological revolutionaries were anxious to expel.

Notes to Chapter Twelve

1. For "circles of dialogue", see: Lumen Gentium, arts. 15. 16; Ecclesium Suam, arts. 96.97.

2. Fr. Congar was not an enthusiast for the encyclical. "I naturally situate what is called the magisterium in its due place. I can't be accused of having neglected that, but it expresses itself in history: O bull Unam Sanctam! O Syllabus! O encyclical Mystici corporis! . . ." (Address to a conference celebrating the anniversary of founding of Concilium, Cambridge 1981. Text in possession of the author). Fr. Congar did not want the boundaries of full or "real" membership of the Church so clearly drawn. In a conversation with him after the conference, he told me that  he had been responsible for the use of the word "subsists" in the decree on ecumenism in the passage which states that "the unity . . . which Christ bestowed on his Church from the beginning . . . subsists in the Catholic Church as something she can never lose". (Art. 4) The term "subsists in" has a certain indefiniteness. It could mean that the one Church of Christ subsists elsewhere as well. He also said that the Anglicans would have to be allowed into the Church without being required to accept the doctrines of the Immaculate Conception and Assumption. "Why?" I asked. "Because", he replied, "they had no part in defining them. they would therefore never accept them." "But of course they won't accept them as long as they remain Anglicans:*1 said, "I didn't. They haven't yet received the fullness of the gift of faith". "Ah," he said, "our experiences have been different. In his last years, disenchanted with developments within Protestantism. he pinned most of his hopes on reunion with the Orthodox. In his ideal Church there would be patriarchs over each region under a papacy much diminished in authority. General Councils in which the Orthodox had had no part (that is since Constantinople IV, 869-870) he regarded as regional councils of the Latin Church. As a theologian he did undoubted services to the Church and shortly before his death John Paul II made him a cardinal. But for many years his attitude towards Rome had been that of a grumpy old family servant, who, even in front of guests, doesn't bother to hide his dissatisfaction and discontent with the way the house is being run. I think it fair to say that this attitude after the Council did great harm.

3. Whether in particular cases an individual has received such a grace and failed to respond to it, only God knows. The Church simply says, “they could not be saved who, knowing the Catholic Church was founded as necessary by God through Christ, would refuse either to enter it, or to remain in it”. (Decree on the Church, art. 14; Decree on the Missions, art. 7).

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Copyright © Phillip Trower 2003, 2017

Version: 15th June 2017

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