Ecumenism according to Ratzinger: Pluriform unity

 — Feb. 23, 201523 févr. 2015
by Andrea Tornielli for Vatican Insider

In a speech delivered in 1993, the then Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith talked about the path toward unity between the Churches and about possible “intermediate solutions” before full communion could be achieved: “There is a duty to let oneself be purified and enriched by the other.”

The “ultimate aim” of the ecumenical journey, “is obviously the unity of the churches in the one Church”. “This does not mean uniformity” but “unity in pluriformity”. The “Orthodox Churches should not change much in their internal structure, almost nothing in fact, if they unite themselves with Rome”. The then cardinal Joseph Ratzinger pronounced these words on 29 January 1993 during a public conversation with Waldesian professor Paolo Ricca held at the evangelical cultural centre.

Pope Francis took these considerations further during his visit to the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople last November, when he said that in its efforts to achieve full unity with Orthodox Christians, the Catholic Church “does not intend to impose any conditions except that of the shared profession of faith”.

Speaking about ecumenism during his meeting with the Waldesian community, Ratzinger wished to distinguish between “two phases”: the final aim and the “models” for the in-between waiting period before unity is achieved. The future Pope saw the former as “the real force and the main motivating factor behind our ecumenism”. He explained that “the unity of churches within the Church” does not imply “uniformity”, but “unity in pluriformity”. “It seems to me,” the then cardinal added, “that the ancient Church can be taken as something of a model. The ancient Church was united on three fundamental elements: Holy Scripture, regula fidei, the sacramental structure of the Church. But, for the rest, it was a Church of very many forms, as we all know. There were the churches of Semitic regions or language, the Egyptian Coptic Church, and here were the Greek Churches of the Byzantine empire, the other Greek Churches, the Latin Churches featuring great diversities between the Church in Ireland, for example, and the Church of Rome.”

“In other words, there was a Church united on the essential but featuring very many forms. Of course, we cannot recuperate the forms of the ancient Church but we can draw inspiration from them in our attempt to compose unity and plurality of form.” But the then Prefect of the former Holy Office recalled that the “ultimate aim of ecumenism, is not something we can pursue all by ourselves. We must commit ourselves with all our hearts but we must recognize that ultimately, this unity is a gift of God because the Church belongs to Him, not to us. Any unity built by us alone in a political or intellectual way would only be capable of creating our kind of unity mediate period.”

Ratzinger therefore suggested “some models” for the in-between phase, before the final aim became a reality. “For a true ecumenism to exist it is important to recognise the supremacy of divine action and there are two consequences to this attitude. The first is that ecumenism requires patience, the real success of ecumenism” does not consist in constantly reaching new agreements, in new “contracts” on different aspects of the separation. It “consists in perseverance, walking together, in the humility which respects the others, even where we have not yet achieved a compatibility in church doctrine or practice; it consists in the willingness to learn from each other and to accept each other’s corrections, in joy and thanksgiving for each one’s spiritual treasures, in a permanent essentialization of one’s own faith, doctrine and practice, which must be continually purified and nourished by Scripture, while we keep our eyes fixed on the Lord.”

“In consists in one’s willingness to forgive and begin afresh in one’s search for unity and finally, collaborating together in works of charity and in bearing witness to God who revealed himself to the world… In other words, ecumenism is above all an essential attitude, a way of living Christianity.” Perhaps, Ratzinger observed, “not all of us are ready yet for unity, and we need a sort of thorn in our side, provided by the diversity of the other, to awaken us from a divided and splintered Christianity. Perhaps it is our duty to be a thorn in each other’s side. There is a duty to let oneself be purified and enriched by the other… Perhaps listening, humbly one in the other in our diversity would be of more help to us than a superficial type of unity.” The cardinal presented the model of “reconciled diversity”: Even at this moment in time when God is still not giving us perfect unity we each acknowledge the other as our Christian brother, we acknowledge the sister Churches, we love each other’s communities, we meet together in a process of divine education in which the Lord uses the different communities, one for the sake of the other, to render us capable and worthy of definitive unity”.

Finally, regarding the papacy and the mission of the Bishop of Rome for the universal Church, Ratzinger added: “Another aspect of this model is a dynamic vision of the development, not only of unity but also of the organs of unity. History teaches us that the ministry of unity, which according to our faith is entrusted to Peter and to his successors, can he realized in very many ways. History provides examples for us but it cannot, obviously, be reproduced. It inspires us but we must respond to new situations. For the moment I would not venture to suggest concrete, possible and thinkable forms for the future.”

Two years after this conference, in his encyclical “Ut unum sint” John Paul II asked for help to find a “way of exercising the Primacy, open to new situations but without renouncing anything essential to its mission.” And so he prayed that the Holy Spirit may “shine his light upon us, enlightening all the Pastors and theologians of our Churches, that we may seek—together, of course—the forms in which this ministry (the Pope’s Ed.) may accomplish a service of love recognized by all concerned”

Pope Francis picked up on these words in the “Evangelii Gaudium”: “Since I am called to put into practice what I ask of others, I too must think about a conversion of the papacy. It is my duty, as the Bishop of Rome, to be open to suggestions which can help make the exercise of my ministry more faithful to the meaning which Jesus Christ wished to give it and to the present needs of evangelization.”

Posted: Feb. 23, 2015 • Permanent link:
Categories: OpinionIn this article: Christian unity, ecumenism, John Paul II, Joseph Ratzinger
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