Sunday, June 28, 2009

Catholic and Ecumenical: History and Hope: Why the Catholic Church is Ecumenical and What She is Doing About It

By Frederick M. Bliss, 185 pages, Rowman Littlefield.

“It is important to take from the scriptural and patristic evidence that diversity is not an end in itself, nor are all forms of diversification good and valid....[T]here is such a thing as illegitimate diversity.”

Catholic and Ecumenical calls for a mature ecumenism by avoiding easy answers. Bliss builds his case for real progress in Church unity through his historical perspective.

He begins by examining ancient Christian wisdom. How united was the religion in its first few centuries. Who were the troublemakers and who were the peacemakers and bridge builders? As usual, political leaders meddled in the Churches, though Christian leaders returned the favor.

The author believes that the Church fathers offer much wisdom for our own theologically-fractured times. For example, St. Augustine preferred to take a pastoral approach rather than a heavy-handed one over the disputed membership of those who had joined one heretical group known as the Donatists.

Bliss also deals frankly with the division between East and West Christians. Many people explain this division from the clause added in the eleventh century by Pope Benedict VIII to the Nicene Creed. The clause teaches that the Holy Spirit proceeds “from the Father and the Son” whereas the Eastern churches never changed their version, which states that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father alone. Bliss rightfully points out that the West had been using this newer version for hundreds of years before a pope finally made this practice official.

Yet some other divisions are more black and white. Bliss describes the disastrous fourth crusade in 1204:

After the crusaders were talked into joining the imperial ambitions of “an Alexius,” Constantinople “was sacked, the churches plundered, and Alexius made his way onto the throne. Soon murdered, he was replaced by a westerner, Baldwin of Flanders. Inevitably, a Latin patriarchate was set up and a heavy latinization program got under way. Western canon law, scholastic philosophy, and Roman rituals invaded the east, with a twofold negative effect: deep hurt to easterners and a denial of the experience of legitimate diversity to westerners.”

The strength of Catholic and Ecumenical rests on the fact that the author's strong statements and judgments about the Catholic Church and other ecumenical players do not sound bigoted or insensitive.

The fifth chapter, “Reform to Reformation,” quickly overviews the history and doctrine of the Protestant Reformation, and discusses later-developing churches like the Seventh Day Adventists and the Pentecostals.

Again, Bliss doesn't mince his words about the tensions between Pentecostals and Catholics, largely due to Pentecostal poaching of Catholics. This writing helps the reader understand why ecumenical progress in this case means “to promote mutual understanding and respect through acquaintance with each other's spiritualities and practices.”

Catholic and Ecumenical ends with a listing and short discussion of the various inter-church committees, rather than with a grand vision of Christian reconciliation and harmony, again reflecting Bliss' belief that ecumenism is a long, demanding journey.

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