Friday, August 11, 2006

Ecumenism and Catechesis: God's Plan for Unity

Ecumenism and Catechesis


I remember a time not too long ago in which I boldly declared that ecumenism was nothing more than repackaged indifferentism. It was due to this thinking that I wound up outside of Holy Mother Church, in schism, for quite some time. By the grace of God, and through our Lady’s intercession, I came to my senses and returned home to Rome. So the topic of ecumenism is of much interest to me. I spent many long hours devoting my time to studying Vatican II’s understanding of true ecumenism, drawn out most clearly in its Decree Unitatis Redintegratio, and Pope John Paul II’s encyclical Ut Unum Sint. Enlightened by the Spirit of truth, I came to realize that ecumenism, far from being a hindrance to my spiritual growth, was actually a blessed gift graciously given to the Church by God as a means of unification for Christians worldwide.

Catechesis is something which has been dear to my heart since I was first evangelized several years ago. Upon first receiving Christ into my heart, I immediately sought the need and developed the zeal to learn more about Him. The Catechism of the Catholic Church, in this regard, became my best friend. Reading it alongside Sacred Scripture, I came to meet and experience Jesus Christ and His teachings in a very deep and profound way. The more I learned, the more my mind and heart thirst for more. Catechesis had such a profound impact in my life that I now volunteer a great majority of my time to teaching it at my local parish. I am convinced that good catechesis helps the believer to cherish our glorious faith even more. Of all the recent conciliar decrees dealing with catechesis, the two which to me stand out the most in magnificence are Pope Paul VI’s Evangelii Nutiandi and Pope John Paul II’s Catechesi Tradendae.

Understood correctly, catechesis serves ecumenism, and in turn ecumenism helps foster newer and fresher avenues of catechesis. The two are great helps to each other and, when utilized properly, form a tremendous tag team for evangelism. Evangelization is summed up in four words: winning souls for Christ. It is a tragic and unfortunate reality that in our world today division exists amongst those who call themselves Christian. This in turn becomes a stumbling block to global evangelization, which is what the Church has been calling all of us to more and more since Vatican II. Ecumenism and catechesis, then, offer a needed component. The purpose of the Church entering into the ecumenical movement is precisely to help foster unity and, in turn, greater advancements in evangelization. But ecumenism will only work to its full potential when Catholics begin realizing who is at the center of catechesis (Jesus Christ). When this is realized in the mind and heart, non-Catholic Christians, who typically stress the absolute importance of having a faith which is centered wholly and entirely on Christ alone, will realize that Christ Himself is the very center, heart, head, and foundation of Catholicism and all its doctrines.

In order for ecumenism and catechesis to serve their full purpose and reach their desired end in helping bring about world evangelization, we must first explore the definition of each so that no ambiguity or misunderstanding may cloud our perspective on what we are called to do as disciples of Christ. Only then can we more coherently put a structure together which demonstrates the harmony between the two.

What is ecumenism?

For a Catholic to understand the necessity of ecumenism in the life of the Church, one must first understand that Christian division is absolutely intolerable. It is not merely just a bad situation which we must put up with; it is literally something we can not tolerate as Christians. St. Paul is very clear to the Christians in his day that there must exist no divisions among them, and that they should be united in the same mind and the same purpose.[1] Jesus, in His prayer to the Father on the night before He dies, prays for unity among His followers; this unity, in the mind of Jesus, must be so well-knit that He equates it to the unity shared between Father and Son, who are one in nature.[2] Christians, then, must not only be one in purpose, but as St. Paul says they must be one in mind, and as Jesus stresses they must be one in their very nature. Jesus says that when this is achieved, the world will know that the Father sent Him. It is due to this modern day division that the plan of God to draw all men to Himself is frustrated.

Pope John Paul II, echoing the Second Vatican Council, notes that division openly contradicts the will of Christ (His will for unity is manifest in His prayer to the Father), provides a stumbling block to the world, and inflicts damage on proclaiming the gospel.[3] How then does the Church, as the voice and Body of Christ on this earth, respond to this present reality of division? If we assume that the Body of Christ only exists in her visible elements which manifest themselves in Catholicism, then we will be blinded to the division which permeates the world. While the fullness of truth subsists with the Catholic Church, we also recognize that non-Catholic Christian communities are also ordered to the Body in some way, most evidently through the invisible elements which bind Christians together: faith, hope, and love. As such, the Church has both a visible and invisible element. Christians exist all over the world who are truly baptized Christians (and as such are united with us in some way), yet remain outside the visible confines of “the pillar and foundation of truth.”[4] While imperfect communion exists due to elements of sanctification and truth found in non-Catholic ecclesial communities,[5] it is nevertheless imperfect, and thus not the communion desired by Christ and urged by St. Paul. Communion with the Holy Pontiff and Rome is essential for full and visible communion.[6]

The Church’s response to the current division is her involvement with the ecumenical movement. Ecumenism, properly defined, is the movement promoting Christian unity.[7] Ecumenism is directed towards making partial communion grow towards full communion in truth and charity.[8] The Second Vatican Council made it clear that separated communities can be means of salvation[9]; even so, we can not remain divided. We must profess together the same truth about the cross,[10] for only then will the world believe that the Father sent the Son. All Catholics must be committed to the work of ecumenism in their daily lives. Committing ourselves to ecumenism does not mean compromising the faith, but rather articulating it in a way that reaches the hearts of those who have given their lives to Christ and yet still remain separated visibly from His Body. One of the great fruits of the ecumenical venture since Vatican II has been the realization of how much treasure we Catholics share with our separated brothers and sisters. This became very real to me recently in a History course I took at a local college. Our teacher (an ex-Catholic) was an avowed modernist and agnostic. He spent the better part of the semester trying to convince my fellow classmates the absurdity of clinging to any “organized religion,” most especially Christianity. Our classes eventually became sparring bouts between me and our professor. Midway through the semester, another classmate began backing me up and questioning our teacher as well. It was clear to the class that we were both an evangelistic tag-team. It was only after the semester had ended when I realized this classmate was a Protestant Christian, and he realized I was a Catholic Christian. We shared theological differences, but we had spent half a semester in full agreement on everything ranging from the person of Christ, monotheism, a personal God who is triune in nature, absolute morality, and the inspiration of Sacred Scripture. What united us was far greater than what divided us. This common ground then allowed both of us to delve deeper into those areas where we had disagreement. But with the foundation of unity and charity having already been laid, we were able to engage in positive dialogue as to our divisions. A bridge had been built, and we both knew whole heartedly that it was Christ who built it.

Ecumenism, then, is based on the realization that: 1. Christ desires unity; 2. the truth is what sets us free; 3. what we share in truth is immense and a gift of God; 4. love for truth is the deepest dimension of any quest for communion[11]; 5. we must dialogue with each other, asking for God’s assistance in bringing about full and uncompromised unity in those areas which separate us.

Our involvement in the ecumenical movement is thus grounded in the initial point: namely, that Christ desires unity… so we should desire it as well. Pope John Paul II stated it so well when he wrote, “To believe in Christ means to desire unity; to desire unity means to desire the Church; to desire the Church means to desire the communion of grace which corresponds to the Father’s plan from all eternity. Such is the meaning of Christ’s prayer: Ut Unum Sint (That they may be one).”[12]

What is catechesis?

The glossary of the Catechism of the Catholic Church defines catechesis as, “An education of children, young people, and adults in the faith of the Church through the teaching of Christian doctrine in an organic and systematic way to make them disciples of Jesus Christ.” Catechesis is best understood in its relationship to evangelization. The two work together but are distinct, for one flows from the other. Evangelization is the spreading of the gospel of Jesus Christ. The “gospel” can be best understood with this acronym: God’s Only Son Provides Eternal Life. This is the amazing proclamation of Christianity, which we are called to share with all who have ears to hear. What evangelization does to the heart, catechesis in turn does to the mind. But the more we learn about Christ, the more we are able to love Him. As such, catechesis also plays a role in affecting the heart as well. Evangelization proclaims the Gospel; catechesis seeks to explain it and make it understandable, in the effort to make the Gospel message grow and become even more alive in our hearts. Good catechesis will always make that glorious Gospel message ever fresh and ever new.
Pope Paul VI notes, “The intelligence… needs to learn through systematic religious instruction the fundamental teachings, the living content of the truth which God has wished to convey to us.”[13] In demonstrating the importance of catechesis in relation to evangelization, Frank Sheed makes some great insights: “While it is obvious that an ignorant man can be virtuous, it is equally obvious that ignorance is not a virtue; men have been martyred who could not have stated a doctrine of the Church correctly, and martyrdom is the supreme proof of love. Yet with more knowledge of God they would have loved him more still… each new thing learned and meditated about God is a new reason for loving him.”[14]

The definitive aim of catechesis is to put us in intimate communion with our Lord and Savior.[15] It is imperative that we realize what catechesis is and is not: it is the transmission and education, in a systematic way, of the person of Jesus Christ, and as such knows its boundaries and limits lie in everything He taught, and nothing less; it is not a platform for us to advance our own thoughts, ideas, or suggestions. Jesus Christ is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, and as God it is against His very nature to lie.[16] Thus, everything He taught us forms the whole content of true catechesis. When we begin to mix in His infallible instruction with our feeble ideas, we no longer serve the role of catechesis but rather do immense damage to it. We dare not transmit our own teaching in catechesis, but rather we teach and proclaim the teaching of Jesus Christ.[17]

Pope John Paul II notes that the specific aim of catechesis is, “Developing understanding of the mystery of Christ in light of God’s word… the aim of catechesis is to be the teaching and maturating stage.” In other words, the Christian who has now accepted Christ into his heart now seeks to know more about Him, so that his life can continue to be transformed.[18] Catechesis is vital to the life of the Church. Indeed, the entire Catechism is a testament to the fruit of Spirit-guided catechesis throughout the 2,000 year history of the Church. To get to heaven, we are told that we must know, love, and serve God in this life. Thus, the more we know about Jesus, the more we love Him. As such, our initial encounter with Christ in our hearts through faith, and that amazing honeymoon stage that every believer experiences as a result, is made more full and complete as we continue to learn more about the God who suffered and died for our sins so that we might have eternal life. The more we fall in love with Christ, the more effective we will be in spreading the gospel to all nations.

Ecumenism and Catechesis: God’s Plan for Unity

As has already been stated, the goal of ecumenism is the unity of all Christians currently separated from Holy Mother Church visibly. The aim of catechesis is to teach Jesus Christ in a systematic way so that our hearts may long to be united to His even more. In the process of learning more about Christ, we encounter the Lord during His agony in the garden, in which He pleads with the Father that His followers may all be one. Catechesis, particularly the light it shines in regards to that dark night Christ suffered through, leads us to desire all that Christ desires, and He desires unity. A solid catechesis, then, will drive believers to make ecumenism central in their lives as His disciples. Catechesis serves ecumenism, since the more we learn about faith, the more capable we will be of sharing it and making it more understandable to Christians who are not in full communion with us. Many Christians leave the Catholic faith due to misunderstandings of what the Church teaches. Catechesis is a great tool in helping correct this situation.

Dr. Peter Kreeft, however, offers the greatest insight into how ecumenism and catechesis complement each other and work together to produce unity. He writes, “Our divisions will be undone only if sin is conquered. And only Christ can conquer sin. Reunion will come when all Christians put Christ’s will above their own. Only when all the musicians follow the conductor’s baton does the orchestra play in harmony. The key to ecumenism is the same as the key to all Catholic ideas: the lordship of Christ.”[19]

According to Dr. Kreeft, the key to unlocking the dividing puzzle is precisely He who brings about unity in place of division[20]: Jesus Christ. Sound simple? Yet how many of us have actually thought this through and all the implications attached to it? Bringing about unity will ultimately have nothing to do with our efforts, but will only occur once we give it up to Christ alone. How is He the key in accomplishing the goal of ecumenism, and how does the Church’s understand of catechesis play a role? Non-Catholic Christians typically oppose the Catholic Church because they sincerely believe that Catholicism has unnecessarily added to the “simple” gospel; they believe that Catholicism really does not depend on Christ alone. Many non-Catholic Christians realize that Christ alone suffices. They see the Mass, the Sacraments, Marian devotion, purgatory, etc. as subtracting from the one Mediator[21], and they challenge Catholics to shift their whole focus back to Christ alone.

The interesting thing is that non-Catholic Christians are exactly correct in their understanding: our faith must be centered on Christ alone. However, what most non-Catholic Christians do not realize is that no church on this planet believes or teaches that more forcefully than the Catholic Church. Once non-Catholic Christians are able to see this, it will be the key which removes their major stumbling block. Why do Catholics go to Mass? Because they believe it is the closest way to encounter Christ. Why do we receive the Sacraments? Because we believe they dispose us to the life of Christ. Why do we pray to Mary and the saints? Because their prayers lead us closer to Christ. This is where catechesis plays a very crucial role, and where it becomes the greatest servant to ecumenism. Catholics must not subtract anything from their faith; rather, they must learn to define it properly. Once they do, our separated brethren will be able to more clearly see that the only possible way for a Christian to consistently believe in sola Christus is to become Catholic.

In conclusion, I quote Pope John Paul II who sums this up more brilliantly than I ever could: “At the heart of catechesis we find, in essence, a Person, the Person of Jesus of Nazareth… The primary and essential object of catechesis is, to use an expression dear to St. Paul and also to contemporary theology, “the mystery of Christ”… it is therefore to reveal in the Person of Christ the whole of God’s eternal design reaching fulfillment in that Person.”[22] Once we understood Who the object of catechesis is, we will then discover the key which unlocks the dividing walls of Christianity. Christ is the heart of catechesis, and as such in our ecumenical efforts with non-Catholic Christians, let us preach to them a Catholicism which they never knew but which has always existed: a Catholicism rooted in, sustained by, founded on, and strengthened through the Word made flesh, Jesus Christ. Amen.
[1] 1 Corinthians 1:10, Philippians 2:2
[2] John 17:21
[3] Encyclical Ut Unum Sint, sec. 6; Unitatis Redintegratio, sec. 1
[4] 1 Timothy 3:15
[5] Ut Unum Sint, sec. 11
[6] ibid., sec. 97
[7] ibid., sec. 20
[8] ibid., sec. 14
[9] Unitatis Redintegratio, sec. 3
[10] Ut Unum Sint, sec. 1
[11] ibid., sec. 36
[12] ibid., sec. 9
[13] Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Nutiandi, sec. 44
[14] Frank Sheed, Theology for Beginners, pg. 5
[15] Apostolic Exhortation Catechesi Tradendae, sec. 5
[16] John 14:6, Titus 1:2
[17] Catechesi Tradendae, sec. 6
[18] ibid., sec. 20
[19] Dr. Peter Kreeft, Catholic Christianity, pg. 111
[20] Ephesians 2:14-16
[21] 1 Timothy 2:5
[22] Catechesi Tradendae, sec. 5