Friday, 15 July 2011

What IS ecumenism actually? What does the word mean?

Some people may have read the comment on the right from a contemporary mystic and been puzzled about the use of the word ecumenical. How can the Heart of Christ be described as "ecumenical"?

The word has various roots. To begin with we have the Latin, oecumenicus (general or universal). Then we have the Greek, oikoumenikos which comes from two words, oikein meaning "to inhabit", and oikos meaning "house", Both of these words have the sense of "family" - and can be used to refer to an extensive family. From these two roots we can see that, to begin with, the word "ecumenical" does not refer to Christian unity, but to the unity of humanity.

Obviously we also judge the meaning of a word according to its use, so it cannot be denied that the most common usage today clearly relates to Christian unity, or the move towards that. Nevertheless, the initial meaning should not be forgotten. Ultimately, Christian unity is about the unity of all God's children. The process is called "ecumenical" and has to do with fostering and maintaining good relations between Christians of different denominations and by extension, good relations with those of other faiths. Does this mean that all humanity must necessarily accept Jesus Christ as the one Saviour of the world? Certainly, Christians must necessarily teach that He is, and must hold that, as He said, "No one can come to the Father except through" Him. Similarly, however this may be defined, because Christ founded His Church for the purpose of the saving of souls, there is no salvation outside the Church. What does that mean? This is an ongoing discussion. St. Augustine, for example, had a view of the Church that goes against a Catholic fundamentalist approach to this question. In short, only God can see the REAL Church (in the sense of His real family) and we really do not know who belongs to that Church. Since the Church consists of three parts; the Church Militant (those on earth) the Church Triumphant (those in Heaven) and the Church Suffering (in Purgatory) we, on earth, cannot see who is in and who is out. We cannot even see who belongs to the Church on earth because we cannot see into individual hearts, and since the Church teaches baptism by desire (and even that may be extended) we simply do not know who is a member and who is not. It is entirely possible that a Mass-going Catholic may end up in Hell whilst a non-churchgoer who is apparently not attached to any denomination may end up in Heaven. Only God can see the individual soul.

This leads on to an interesting discussion as to how ecumenism should proceed. One thing is sure, it is not, and cannot be, simply a matter of ushering everyone into the Roman Catholic Church - at least in a narrow sense. From a Catholic point of view (and I would argue that this is the true point of view) it must mean working and praying to bring, as far as possible, everyone into union with the Pope. I need to explain this. Union with the Pope does not mean - in all cases - that one becomes a so-called "card-carrying" member of the Roman Catholic Church in the sense of belonging to a "denomination". For a Christian it does mean becoming a Catholic Christian, but we have to see that as extra-denominational. How else can we understand the Ordinariate, where members are allowed and even encouraged to think of themselves as "Anglicans in union with Rome"? It is not accurate to simply call them "Roman Catholics" because they were not so much converted from Anglicanism to Roman Catholicism but found their true "Anglicanism" in union with Peter.
This is my understanding of what has happened. If I am wrong I will certainly accept correction. But we need also say that Eastern or Greek Catholics are actually not "Roman Catholics" because they do not follow the Roman Rite. They may be bound by the same Canon Law (with perhaps, a few additions) but this means that they are in union with Peter. It does not mean that they are designated "Roman Catholics" though they are certainly Catholics. In the past, Byzantine-Rite Christians who accepted union with Rome were given the name Uniates - they are not called Roman Catholics.

What about non-Christians? This matter has already been alluded to above, but there is more to say on this. It is - for more than one reason - a bit more complex and another post is needed to do it justice.


  1. Card Carrying Cradle Catholic15 July 2011 at 10:22

    This is a very helpful post.

    Its inclusivity is one reason wny I read your blog. You manage to be of the "traditionalist" mould but do not display the fear of those, including some priests, who limit the mystery of God's love, who hold a very closed concept of salvation.

    You write:
    "It is entirely possible that a Mass-going Catholic may end up in Hell whilst a non-churchgoer who is apparently not attached to any denomination may end up in Heaven. Only God can see the individual soul."

    The parable of the Good Samaritan is surely all about this.

    Somebody said the saints are quite surprised at who, seemingly virtuous on earth, perhaps even "card-carrying Catholics" are NOT to be found in Heaven when they look around!

    "Not every one that saith to me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven: but he that doth the will of my Father who is in heaven, he shall enter into the kingdom of heaven."
    Matthew 7:21

    Douay-Rheims Bible

  2. 'What IS ecumenism actually? What does the word mean?'

    Loving each other as Jesus does to the best of our ability.