Dr Brendan Comiskey’s address for Week of Prayer for Christian Unity

18 Jan 2001

Address by Dr Brendan Comiskey, at Church of Ireland Union, Kilscoran, for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity

18 January 2001

Two thousand years after his address to the Athenians St. Paul remains the great model of Christian ecumenism. In the first place, he acknowledged God’s grace already operating within his listeners. He did not tell them that they were deficient in the faith but that “in every way you are religious.”

The publication of the recent Vatican document, Dominus Jesus, has elicited much comment, mostly negative, often from surprising sources. Cardinal Edward Cassidy, who is President of the Vatican’s own Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, for example, stated that “neither the timing nor the language of the document were opportune”. The intervention of the Pope himself, so soon after the document’s publication, to assert that the document represented his thinking and that he was fully supportive of it, is enlightening in the sense that he – and many others – seemed to be taken by surprise by the reaction to the document and felt obliged to state what the document did not say.
It is necessary to state clearly that the document did not make any attempt to reverse the teaching of the Second Vatican Council and revert to the pre-conciliar claim that the Catholic Church is the one true church outside which there is no salvation.

Dominus Jesus does not say that the true church of Christ exists only in the Catholic church. What is teaches is that it is only in the Catholic church that it continues to exist fully. Fr Francis Sullivan, S.J., formerly professor of theology at the
Gregorianum in Rome, sees the difference between these two statements as being the difference between the teaching of
Pope Pius XII and that of the Second Vatican Council.

Likewise it is quite unfair and unecumenical to state, as some  of the document’s critics have done, that it consigns non-Catholics  to eternal perdition. On the contrary, it recognises that the various non-Catholic churches are, by the action of the Holy Spirit, instruments of salvation for their own members. In stating this, it remains faithful to the Vatican Council’s teaching that because Christ died for all, “the Holy Spirit offers to all the possibility of being made partners, in a way known to God, in the paschal mystery”.

The document has not been without its staunch supporters, some in surprising places. For example, the magazine Christianity Today, one of the leading voices of US Protestant Evangelicals, takes sharp issue with what it calls the “many left-of-centre ecumenists who have responded with outrage”. This magazine characterised the Vatican document as “a step forward, not backward, for Christian unity”. The magazine’s editor argues that Dominus Jesus does not slam the door on post Vatican II ecumenical efforts; it simply reminds readers that ecumenism isn’t done simply to be nice. It points out that the statement doesn’t call Protestants “gravely deficient” but has “merely re-iterated long-standing Roman Catholic beliefs”. Real unity, argues Christianity Today’s editor, “comes from an ecumenism of conviction, not an ecumenism of accommodation”. “Documents such as these are crucial for true ecumenism because there is danger of thinking that by coming up with language we can agree upon, we’ve agreed on what we mean by these words”. But the editor fails to mention who it is exactly who are thinking like this. Are these straw men?

Secondly, it was precisely on the issue of language – the other issue was timing – that Cardinal Cassidy and many others took issue with the document. Truth in the Christian sense is deeply personal and relational. Christian truth is, in fact, more than personal; it is a person, Jesus Christ himself, as is borne out by the theme chosen for this year’s Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, namely, “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life” (John 14:6). Truth, in this sense, is a matter of
dialogue, and as Pope John Paul II reminds us in Ut Unum Sint, his 1995 Encyclical Letter on Commitment to Ecumenism,
“dialogue is not simply an exchange of ideas. In some way it is always ‘an exchange of gifts'”. In the same letter
Pope John Paul repeats the teaching of the Second Vatican Council on the importance of “every effort to eliminate words,
judgments and actions which do not respond to the condition of separated brethren with truth and fairness and so make mutual relations between them more difficult”. By all means, the Pope says, again appealing to the Vatican Council, “the whole body of doctrine [should] be clearly presented. At the same time, it [the Second Vatican Council] asks that the manner and method of expounding the Catholic faith should not be a hindrance to dialogue with our brothers and sisters”.

However successful the document Dominus Jesus has proven to be in presenting clearly the doctrine of the Catholic church, it has been in the area of the manner and the method of its presentation that it has proved to be somewhat of a communications disaster. At best, it has not helped the ecumenical movement, and this for reasons that have little if anything to do with the articles of faith that it presents. It simply fails the criterion by which it and every other similar teaching must always be judged: “Does it communicate the kind of love and respect for others so evident in St. Paul’s approach?”

“If I have all the eloquence of men or of angels, but speak without love, I am simply a gong booming or a cymbal clashing. If I have the gift of prophecy, understanding all the mysteries there are, and knowing everything, and if I have faith in all its fulness, to move mountains, but without love, then I am nothing at all” [1 Corinthian 13:1,2].

In the torrent of controversy which followed publication of the document there were some criticisms that were plain silly, such as that of Magnus Linklater in the Times of 7 September 2000: “The Vatican’s latest declaration spells the end of the ecumenical era,” who went on to describe the document as “unrepentedly supremacist”. Others reactions were insightful and helpful and none more so than those of Fr. Michael Hurley, a giant of ecumenism here in Ireland and a blessing on all our churches and on all who work for Christian unity.

“For me it is deeds not words that matter most. Words can be an attempt to change reality, as I fear may be the case with regard to these documents. Mostly, however, words are an attempt to understand reality. In this, of course, words often fail to do justice to reality. They can exaggerate the reality. They can downgrade it. In either case, however, it is for me the reality itself that matters” [The Irish Times, 12 September 2000].

Ecumenical documents are essential and can themselves be very important instruments of reform and renewal but ecumenism of the heart is primary. Where genuine love of neighbour exists, words and ways will be found to overcome doctrinal differences. Where it is absent, people will always find reasons to remain apart.

For too many Christians, ecumenism remains an option or an annual outing to some ecumenical event. The dream of unity is a passion in the heart of God springing forth from the Son of God on the night before He died. The ecumenical movement finds its genesis in the priestly prayer of Jesus Christ, its driving force in the power of the Spirit, and its soul in prayer.

It is that church, that ecclesial community, which is not ecumenically minded, which does not share and strive to realise
God’s own passion for unity that is truly deficient. More, it is not Christian, for ecumenism is integral to the nature and mission of the Church. Every member within such a community shares and must shoulder an ecumenical responsibility by very reason of the name that he or she bears, that is, Christian. The responsibility of each may differ in kind; that does not mean that they differ in degree. Young children, for example, can often be the best of ecumenists through school and neighbourhood projects which often develop into lifelong love and friendship.

It is within the inter-church marriage that the pain of separation and the passion for unity can be such a bittersweet experience. These couples are the real victims of church disunity, the real longers after of Christian union. The churches owe these nothing less than total commitment in the area ecumenism and the greatest pastoral care for such marriages. Anything less would be a betrayal.

It is fashionable in some places to speak of our living in “a winter of ecumenism”. That is no reason for despair or discouragement for in winter, too, growth continues apace even if it is not readily seen or easily observed. There is no gain without pain and failure is just as real a part of all of our lives as is success.

So away with all talk of an end of ecumenism; such talk will prove as ephemeral as the “death of God” which was once so fashionable.

“With God on our side who can be against us? Since God did not spare his own Son, but gave him up to benefit us all, we may be certain, after such a gift, that he will not refuse anything he can give.”


Further information:
Fr Martin Clarke 087 220 8044
Ms Brenda Drumm 087 233 7797