Academic journal article Journal of Ecumenical Studies

New Maps for the Journey: Metaphoric Process in Ecumenical Theology

Academic journal article Journal of Ecumenical Studies

New Maps for the Journey: Metaphoric Process in Ecumenical Theology

Article excerpt

The ecumenical movement is in crisis. This observation has been so widely noted that the claim very nearly has become cliched. Among the first to observe the crisis in ecumenism was Cardinal Walter Kasper, currently president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity. The euphoria that pervaded ecumenical dialogues following the Second Vatican Council and the accompanying expectation of soon-to-emerge rapprochement between divided churches, he says, has now been replaced with "fatigue, disillusionment, and stagnation." (1) Indeed, Kasper has been pressing this concern since the early 1990's, when he described the ecumenical movement as a stalemate, or perhaps worse, as "leading to a state of peaceful coexistence rather than to a peace treaty." (2) Countless rounds of dialogues have been completed in the past forty-plus years, reporting remarkable convergence and consensus, yet in spite of these agreements the churches remain divided, which is perhaps most painfully evident in our continuing separation at the Lord's Table. This leads one to wonder if there is a dynamic present in the dialogical methodology itself that makes stalemate a predictable outcome rather than a disappointing surprise. An examination of one particular bilateral dialogue--namely, the U.S. Lutheran-Roman Catholic dialogue--may indicate if this is so and, if so, what steps might be taken to respond to the crisis.

The report of the first round of the U.S. Lutheran-Roman Catholic dialogue (3) begins with a quiet observation:

   The coming together of Lutheran and Roman Catholic theologians in
   the City of Baltimore, Maryland, on July 6-7, 1965, for the first
   of a series of theological dialogues, may be considered as
   something of an ecumenical milestone in the relationships between
   these two communions in the United States. To the best of our
   knowledge this was the first occasion upon which representatives
   officially designated by agencies of their respective church bodies
   convened to examine systematically their distinctive understandings
   of basic elements of the Christian faith.

Nearly forty-five years later, one may feel compelled to ask, "So what?" That there has been an increase in good will between Catholics and Lutherans is undeniable. It is clear that fundamental agreement has been identified and that differentiated consensus has been described on a number of significant doctrines, such as baptism, justification, and the eucharist. That our two churches are any closer to a relationship of full ecclesial communion, however, seems dubious. This was most surprisingly revealed when Kasper, commenting on what keeps our churches apart, observed:

   We are dealing with diverse ecclesiologies that lead to different
   conceptions of the same ecumenical goal to which we strive. In
   turn, these conceptions raise different expectations that, by their
   very nature, lead to disappointment on the part of one or other of
   the partners due to the very fact that one is not responding to the
   other's expectations, or cannot respond due to a different concept
   of the ecumenical goal. Such a situation has led in part to a sort
   of stalemate that makes substantial progress impossible. (4)

If almost forty-five years of intense dialogue have done little to bridge these differing ecclesial conceptions of the same ecumenical goal, perhaps it is because we are asking the right questions, but in the wrong way. The passage from the Foreword to the Round I text of the U.S. dialogue was cited above because I believe it may hold the key to perceiving this problem. It was observed, in a matter-of-fact way, that the dialogue was convened "to examine systematically their distinctive understandings of basic elements of the Christian faith." (5) This belies a fundamental inclination that may perhaps impede ecumenical progress, namely, the willingness and ease with which we focus on that which divides rather than on the far greater number of doctrinal issues that unite our churches. …

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