The 2009 Annual Meeting of the North American Academy of Ecumenists, held September 25-27 at Washington (DC) Theological Union, was a most significant one, at which participants addressed "The Ethical Horizon from an Ecumenical Point of View."
Ethical issues have recently moved from the background to the foreground of ecumenical concern. Contentious moral issues seem to present an impasse to the movement toward full communion. As Dr. Michael Root notes in his essay which follows, there have been few in-depth discussions of moral method and of personal morality in the dialogues. I am cautious about presuming an impasse before there has been a thorough discussion of moral method and moral issues, l am reluctant to presume that the Holy Spirit will not act in the dialogues we will have with one another.
The essays that follow make a strong contribution to the emerging discussion. They provide an in-depth analysis of many dimensions of the moral horizon. They indicate areas for future discussion. Their footnotes provide a wealth of references to other important resources. These introductory comments can only highlight certain elements of these rich presentations. Each article is worth thorough study. Together they offer a tour of the horizon and a catalyst for personal reflection.
Root's "Ethics in Ecumenical Dialogues: A Survey and Analysis" is the best survey I have seen. He offers a comprehensive overview of all the dialogues. He shows that ethical matters have been discussed--but that in-depth discussions are infrequent. He begins by surveying "Dialogues that Deal with Ethics in General." He moves on to the "Dialogues that Deal with Specific Ethical Issues." Here he reviews eight issues--from marriage and divorce to the environment--that have been discussed. He then offers his conclusions, including a critique of Life in Christ: Morals, Communion, and the Church, the 1993 International Anglican-Roman Catholic Agreed Statement--which has been the most detailed agreement on morals. He challenges the key contention of the Agreed Statement that there is no "fundamental divergence" in general moral understanding. Root contends that "Commitments to... specific rules, virtues, and practices may be as important, both for moral reasoning and for ecclesial communion, as more general commitments."
The seasoned ecumenist Fr. Stanley S. Harakas's essay, "What Orthodox Christian Ethics Can Offer Ecumenism," calls for a "return to the original and primary purpose of the ecumenical movement--ecclesial unity." (2) He questions the turn toward "subjective ethical criteria as a tool of ecumenism." (3) He reminds us about the importance of outreach to others both within and outside the Christian community. He commends the light of our historic faith rooted in scripture and Holy Tradition. Both ethical reflection and norms need to be rooted in the Triune God
In "The Ethics of Peacemaking: The Genesis of Called Together to Be Peacemakers--Report of the International Mennonite-Catholic Dialogue (2004)," (4) Drew Christiansen, S.J., offers a participant's extended analysis of the implications of the report. He discusses Catholic and Mennonite reconciliation, shifts in thinking in recent decades, and other important questions. Many Catholics would not be aware of the shift in Catholic thinking toward the primacy of nonviolence--while not endorsing pacifism. One of Christiansen's intriguing references is to points for further study. These are neither convergences nor divergences. I would comment that full communion need not resolve every moral difference. Christian ethicists can study questions in coming decades and centuries. After full communion, church councils may resolve some ethical issues.
Dr. Timothy F. Sedgwick's essay, "Exploring the Great Divide: Sex, Ethics, and Ecumenism," offers a clear overview of the state of the question on sexual morality in the Western Christian traditions. There is plenty in this frank survey to make everyone a little uncomfortable. Sedgwick calls for concrete study "to clarify agreement and reasons for divergence." (5) He believes that there is need for a common framework for discussing sexual ethics, and Margaret Farley's book Just Love provides one possible framework. An interesting contribution of Sedgwick's essay is its focus on the churches. In a future dominated by transnational corporations, churches as national structures may fade away. The work of ecumenism could shift elsewhere--perhaps to ecumenically minded seminaries. His conclusion is stunning: "These conversations are now even more essential if ecumenism is not going to collapse into an increasing congregationalism." (6)
My own essay, "Prudence and the Future: An Ecumenically Shaped Ethic," continues my emphasis on virtue ethics as a dynamic and ecumenically sensitive moral system. Virtue ethics is a major school of thought that has advocates in many Christian traditions. I discuss the virtue of prudence, building on the classic work of Joseph Pieper in The Four Cardinal Virtues. "Wise moral decisionmaking is the provenance of the virtue of prudence." (7) The virtues are rooted in prayer. A central question for future investigation is where permanent ethical principles "end" and prudential judgment applies.
The conference was blessed in having articulate respondents to these papers. The first, Dr. Kristin Johnston Largen, is a systematic theologian. Her essay, "Response to 'The Ethical Horizon': Fidelity, Hospitality, and Justice," presents a detailed response under the three virtues. Her essay can stand on its own. She reminds us that ecumenical conversations "create unique opportunities for us to reexamine our own doctrinal convictions and practices in light of the doctrines and practices of another." (8) She concludes by calling all of us to "an ethic in the service of life" (9)--to a deeper mutual love.
The Rev. Thomas A. Prinz, Lutheran ecumenical officer and long-time member of the Academy, responds as a pastor. "The messy world of local communities of faith can be approached by commenting on three arenas of action-the world, the community, and the personal." (10) Two points struck me in particular. Prinz believes that church members' moral positions tend to be based on their personal sensitivities and are not systematically coherent. He believes that the theological resources and ecumenical structures that could provide this coherence have been neglected. Thus, pastors must minister to their people out of their own knowledge and judgment. Prinz mentions the need in Christian communities for moral teaching. This is important for pastors. Some of the primary moral teachers for the churches are women.
Sr. Lorelei Fuchs, the new Vice President of the Academy, presented reflections on our ecumenical foremothers in her banquet address. She "narrates their identity and contribution and the legacy left to those of us who in their stead engage in ecumenical dialogue and interchurch cooperation." (11) These women, of many gifts and from many continents, have changed the ecumenical horizon.
John W. Crossin
Washington Theological Union
(1) Michael Root, "Ethics in Ecumenical Dialogues: A Survey and Analysis," J.E.S. 45 (Summer, 2010): 369.
(2) Stanley S. Harakas, "What Orthodox Christian Ethics Can Offer Ecumenism," J.E.S. 45 (Summer, 2010): 384.
(3) Ibid., p. 378.
(4) J.E.S. 45 (Summer, 2010): 385-416.
(5) Timothy F. Sedgwick, "Exploring the Great Divide: Sex, Ethics, and Ecumenism," J.E.S. 45 (Summer, 2010): 422.
(6) Ibid., p. 425.
(7) John W. Crossin, "Prudence and the Future: An Ecumenically Shaped Ethic," J.E.S. 45 (Summer, 2010): 429.
(8) Kristin Johnston Largen, "'Response to "The Ethical Horizon" Fidelity, Hospitality, and Justice," J.E.S. 45 (Summer, 2010): 433.
(9) Ibid., p. 439, quoting Charles Harper, O Acompanhamento: Ecumenical Action for Human Rights in Latin America (Geneva: WCC Publications, 2006), p. 88.
(10) Thomas A. Prinz, "Reflections on Presentations," J.E.S. 45 (Summer, 2010): 440.
(11) Lorelei F. Fuchs, "'Ecumenical Foremothers: Commemorating, Celebrating, and Continuing Their Legacy," J.E.S. 45 (Summer, 2010): 443.…