A Paradox Epistemology Won’t Solve

Once upon a time Andrew Sullivan edited The New Republic. Once before that time, Sullivan was a graduate student in political theory at Harvard. He was and still is a practicing Roman Catholic. He is also of English descent and gay. Those may be reasons why he spotted way back when he was a graduate student what many contemporary converts never seem to contemplate — namely, that being American and Roman Catholic are incompatible identities. The same goes for Reformed Protestants, though you’d never know about any tension between church and nation — unless the nation is blowing it — from the every-square-inchers, the neo-Confederates, or the God-and-country Calvinists who dominate mainline and sideline Presbyterian churches. But Roman Catholicism comes to the U.S. table with different bags and Sullivan understood why thirty years ago:

There was a moment on the pope’s recent visit to Chile that still lingers in the mind. Tear gas was fired into the crowd in Santiago, Rioting broke out within a stone’s throw of the altar. And John Paul II knelt to pray. Faces were turned toward him, looked up to him to take sides; and instead he proceeded to pray. The act was moving, but more important it was ambiguous. The pope’s presence alone was to measure the extent of his commitment.

Political explanations for the pope’s behavior—the advice of local bishops, his personal experience in Poland, the dangers of encouraging violence—have been offered, but they fail to capture the drama of what was really happening in Santiago. It would be better to ask why the pope was there at all. The answer is simple: the Second Vatican Council. That event, decades distant, contains the clue to the pope’s predicament. After over 20 years, the Council’s most enduring effect has been to have removed the possibility of a complete separation between the Church and the modern world
(a separation represented perhaps most clearly by the late 19th-century papacy). For the Vatican, a political engagement with the world, a compromising commitment, is in full swing. It was such an engagement that was articulated in Santiago, where the ironies implicit in living the apostolic life in the modern world were bluntly revealed.

The Second Vatican Council was aware of the risks of opening a dialogue with the modern world, though the text of its proceedings breathes an optimism now quaintly anachronistic. In its mass of documents issues were grasped with unnerving directness. Pope John XXIII’s opening address to the Council was the first papal document addressed not merely to the faithful, but to “all men of good will,” He reached out even to the Communist world, by drawing a distinction between the systems of belief that it represented and the men and structures that enforced these beliefs, “Besides,” he continued, “who can deny that those movements, insofar as they conform to the dictates of right reason and are interpreters of the lawful aspirations of the human person, contain elements that are positive and deserving of approval?”

More significant, though less noticed, was the peace that the address made with liberalism. As Reinhold Niebuhr pointed out at the time. It rather easily laid to rest the long-standing confrontation between natural rights and natural law, by conflating the two. John XXIII both asserted the necessity For “freedom” and attempted to make it compatible with the moral strictures with which natural law constrained us. Catholics had a natural right to freedom, but they were not entitled to use that right for any ends they chose. Catholics were not “free” to accumulate wealth without
limit, nor to exploit, nor to commit adultery, nor indeed to commit any sin. Yet the admonishing rhetoric deliberately suggested that they were still “free” in a modern and politically charged sense of that word. It was, it is, an explosive mix.

These overtures made sense within the historicism of the documents, especially Pacem in Terris. It talked of a “new order” in which “the conviction that all men are equal by reason of their natural dignity has been generally accepted.” This was an order as inevitable as it was largely unsubstantiated in the text. It presented an opportunity for the Church to assist in the creation of a universal common good by which nations could address one another. A notion of progress had entered the spirit of the Church, bound up with particular political structures and ideas. And yet at the same time the Church was to maintain an independence from them. In subsequent years that independence proved rather paradoxical. . . .

. . . it is argument, not assertion, that is needed for the discussion inaugurated by the Vatican Council. That discussion can no longer be wished away. And that discussion will go nowhere fast unless it acknowledges the contradictory nature of Catholicism in the modern world. This Weigel, the happy synthesizer, does not do. By declaring natural law to be compatible with America, by making the solution so comprehensive and so simple, by articulating a theory that will banish all the complexities, Weigel misses something essential in the fate of the modern Church: its uncertainty. History has not provided the Church with a comfortably Hegelian purpose by which everything has been, or will be, resolved. It has instead presented faith with a moral challenge, with a choice that includes both good and evil. Far from showing the inevitable triumph of natural law, modernity has
seen the destruction of even the concepts that make natural law thinkable again. Weigel’s confidence misses the depth of this crisis, and its consequence for Christianity. Modernity leaves Christians with a challenge to gamble. We do not know whether alliance or attack is the safest option. But we do know that escape, or a cozy coincidence of philosophical and political opposites, is no longer possible.

Weigel’s book represents just such an escape from the dilemma that Hanson’s book describes. The escape is certainly coherent; but its coherence is its flaw, since it transforms the risk of faith into a safe bet. In so doing, it obscures the essence of the Christian calling: to act in radical doubt, in the knowledge that any action, even the best intended, can be a manifestation of evil. This is the risk for the Catholic Church in world politics. It is this uncertainty that explains the anguished expression on John Paul’s face as he knelt to pray in Santiago. And it goes some way, at least, toward explaining the contemporary challenge, even in America, of the cross to which he turned.

How After Looked to Before

Rorate Caeli observes a curious aspect of Roman Catholic history from the 1960s. Even after Vatican II had opened the church to the modern world, Alfredo Cardinal Ottaviani, the last Secretary of the Holy Office (1959 – 1965) and Pro-Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith from 1965 until January 1968 was around to try to curb such openness. Ottaviani was, as any fan of John Courtney Murray will recall, the person in the Vatican who pressured Murray to go silent during the 1950s for his efforts to justify the American founding on natural law grounds. Ottaviani (and his sources in the United States) heard Murray as just another version of Americanism, a heresy condemned in 1898 by Leo XIII. In other words, Ottaviani represented the pre-Vatican II order and he observed the post-Vatican II church. He didn’t see much continuity:

Since the recent successful conclusion of the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, many wise Documents have been promulgated, both in doctrinal and disciplinary matters, in order to efficaciously promote the life of the Church. All of the people of God are bound by the grave duty to strive with all diligence to put into effect all that has been solemnly proposed or decreed, under the influence of the Holy Spirit, by the universal assembly of the bishops presided over by the Supreme Pontiff.

It is the right and duty of the Hierarchy to monitor, guide, and promote the movement of renewal begun by the Council, so that the conciliar Documents and Decrees are properly interpreted and implemented with the utmost fidelity to their merit and their spirit. This doctrine, in fact, must be defended by the bishops, since they, with Peter as their Head, have the duty to teach with authority. Many Pastors have admirably already begun to explain the relevance of the doctrine of the Council.

Nevertheless, it must be acknowledged with sorrow that unfortunate news has been reported from various areas about abuses regarding the interpretation of the conciliar doctrine that are taking hold, as well as some brazen opinions circulating here and there causing great disturbance among the faithful. The studies and efforts to investigate the truth more profoundly are praiseworthy, especially when distinguishing honestly between that which is central to the faith and that which is open to opinion. But some of the documents examined by this Sacred Congregation contain affirmations which easily go beyond the limits of hypothesis or simple opinion, appearing to raise certain questions regarding the dogmas and fundamentals of the faith.

It is worthwhile to draw attention to some examples of these opinions and errors that have arisen both from the reports of competent persons and in published writings.

1) First of all regarding Sacred Revelation itself: There are some, in fact, who appeal to Sacred Scripture while deliberately leaving aside Tradition. But they then restrict the role and the strength of biblical inspiration and its inerrancy, abandoning a just notion of the true value of the historical texts.

2) In regards to the doctrine of the faith, some affirm that dogmatic formulas are subject to historical evolution even to the point that their objective meaning is susceptible to change.

3) The ordinary Magisterium of the Church, particularly that of the Roman Pontiff, is sometimes neglected and diminished, until it is relegated almost to the sphere of a mere opinion.

4) Some almost refuse to acknowledge truth that is objective, absolute, stable, and immutable, submitting everything to a certain relativism, with the pretext that every truth necessarily follows an evolutionary rhythm according to conscience and history.

5) The venerated Person of Our Lord Jesus Christ is called into question when, in the elaboration of the doctrines of Christology, certain concepts are used to describe his nature and his person though they are difficult to reconcile with that which has been dogmatically defined. A certain Christological humanism is twisted such that Christ is reduced to the condition of an ordinary man who, at a certain point, acquired a consciousness of his divinity as Son of God. The virginal birth, miracles, and the resurrection itself are admitted only as concepts, reduced to a purely natural order.

6) Similarly in sacramental theology, some elements are either ignored or are not taken into account, especially with regard to the Eucharist. There are some who talk about the real presence of Christ under the species of bread and wine as a kind of exaggerated symbolism, as though, the power of transubstantiation does not change the bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Our Lord Jesus Christ, but simply invests them with a determined significance. There are those who, when considering the Mass, insist too much on the concept of agape love at the expense of the concept of Sacrifice.

7) Some would explain the Sacrament of Penance as a means of reconciliation with the Church, not expressing sufficiently the concept of reconciliation with God who has been offended. They affirm simply that in the celebration of this Sacrament it is not necessary to accuse oneself of sin, striving to express only the social function of reconciliation with the Church.

8) Some consider of little account the doctrine of the Council of Trent regarding original sin, or explain it in a way that at least obfuscates the original fault of Adam and the transmission of his sin.

9) The errors in the field of moral theology are no less trivial. Some, in fact, dare to reject the objective criteria of morality, while others do not acknowledge the natural law, preferring instead to advocate for the legitimacy of so-called situational ethics. Deleterious opinions are spread about morality and responsibility in the areas of sexuality and marriage.

10) In addition, it is necessary to comment about ecumenism. The Apostolic See praises, undoubtedly, those who promote initiatives, in the spirit of the conciliar Decree on Ecumenism, that foster charity toward our separated brothers and to draw them to unity in the Church. However, it is regrettable that some interpret the conciliar Decree in their own terms, proposing an ecumenical action that offends the truth about the unity of the faith and of the Church, fostering a pernicious irenicism [the error of creating a false unity among different Churches] and an indifferentism entirely alien to the mind of the Council.

These pernicious errors, scattered variously throughout the world, are recounted in this letter only in summary form for the local Ordinaries so that each one, according to his function and office, can strive to eradicate or hinder them.

This Sacred Dicastery fervently urges the same Ordinaries, gathered in their Episcopal Conferences, to take up this point of discussion and report back to the Holy See as appropriate, sending their own opinions before Christmas of this year.

The Ordinaries as well as those others who they reasonably choose to consult regarding this letter, are to keep it strictly confidential, since obvious reasons of prudence discourage its publication.

Rome, July 24, 1966.

Did Ottaviani succeed?

Signed only 7 months after the end of Vatican II … [Cum Oecumenicum Concilium] demonstrates the rapidity with which open heresy spread even more in the Church in the immediate aftermath of the Council. This is the last document from the Holy See to speak of heresies as “pernicious errors”, and one of the last to bluntly call upon the bishops to “eradicate” these.

By January 1968 Cardinal Ottaviani was gone; with his retirement the old fighting spirit of the Holy Office was irrevocably lost. The gentle and at times almost apologetic “notifications” of succeeding Prefects against individual heretics do not represent quite the same ethos; not without reason have they been ridiculed as mere “bad book reviews”.

Do converts care?

Those Were the Days (again)

When considering the development of doctrine, do not discount that winners make the final decision. Even legitimate councils that rescue the papacy can be found to be in discontinuity:

Once again, Christendom found itself split, but if the concilarist theologians had prevailed at the time of the Great Schism, in this phase the Pope was sustained by a great theologian: the Spanish Dominican, Juan de Torquemada (1388-1468) (not to be confused with the Inquisitor of the same name). Torquemada decorated by Eugene IV with the title Defensor fidei, is author of a Summa de Ecclesia, wherein he affirms with vigour the primacy of the Pope and his infallibilitas. In this work, he dissipates with great precision the ambiguities that had been created in the 14th century starting with the hypothesis of a heretic Pope. This case, according to the Spanish theologian, is concretely possible, but the solution to the problem should not be sought in any way in concilarism, which negates pontifical supremacy. The possibility of heresy in the Pope, does not compromise the dogma of infallibility, as even if he wanted to define a heresy ex cathedra, his office would be lost at that very same moment. (Pacifico Massi, Magistero infallibile del Papa nella teologia di Giovanni de Torquemada, Marietti, Torino 1957, pp. 117-122). Torquemada’s theses were developed the following century by one of his Italian confreres, Cardinal Cajetan.

The Council of Florence was very important as, on July 6th 1439, it promulgated the decree Laetentur Coeli et exultet terra, which brought the Eastern Schism to an end, but principally because it condemned concilarism definitively, by confirming the doctrine of the Pope’s supreme authority over the Church. On September 4th 1439, Eugene IV, defined solemnly: “We likewise define that the holy Apostolic See, and the Roman Pontiff, hold the primacy throughout the entire world; and that the Roman Pontiff himself is the successor of blessed Peter, the chief of the Apostles, and the true vicar of Christ, and that he is the head of the entire Church, and the father and teacher of all Christians; and that full power was given to him in blessed Peter by our Lord Jesus Christ, to feed, rule, and govern the universal Church, as is attested also in the acts of ecumenical councils and the holy canons.” (Denz-H, n. 1307).

In the letter, Etsi dubitemus, of April 21st 1441, Eugene IV condemned the heretics of Basel and the “diabolical founders” of the ‘conciliarism’ doctrine: Marsilius of Padua, Jean of Jandun and William of Ockham (Epistolae pontificiae ad Concilium Florentinum spectantes, Pontificio Istituto Orientale, Roma 1946, p. 28, 24-35), but towards Haec Sancta he held a hesitant stance, proposing what in modern terms might be defined as a “hermeneutic of continuity”. In the decree of September 4th 1439, Eugene IV states that the superiority of Councils over the Pope, asserted by the Basel Fathers on the basis of Haec Sancta, is “a bad interpretation given by the Basel Fathers themselves, which de facto is revealed as contrary to the genuine sense of the Sacred Scriptures, of the Holy Fathers, and of the Council of Constance itself.” (Decreto del 4 settembre 1439, in Conciliorum Oecumenicorum Decreta, EDB, Bologna 2002. p. 533). Eugenio IV himself, ratified the Council of Constance as a whole and in its decrees, excluded: “any prejudice to the rights, dignity and pre-eminence of the Apostolic See” as he writes to his legate on July 22nd 1446.

The hermeneutic of “continuity” thesis between Haec Sancta and the Tradition of the Church was soon abandoned. Haec Sancta is certainly the authentic act of a legitimate ecumenical Council, ratified by three Popes, but this is not enough to render binding on the doctrinal level a Magisterial document which is posed in contrast with the perennial teaching of the Church. Today we regard that only those documents, which do not damage the rights of the Papacy and do not contrast with the Tradition of the Church can be accepted from the Council of Constance. These documents do not include Haec Sancta, which is a formally heretical conciliar act.

Instead of scripture, tradition and magisterium, it should be beware the fine print.

If You Think Universities are Too Western, You’re Right

Students at Seattle University, a Jesuit institution, have successfully forced a controversial dean to resign. Jodi Kelly, dean of the university’s Matteo Ricci College, drew fire from students when she used the n-word in an email to a student. That the word was also the title of a book by an African-American author didn’t matter to students:

in a discussion with a student who wanted to better understand the experiences of members of minority groups, Kelly suggested Nigger, the autobiography of Dick Gregory, the civil rights activist. Among those who defended Kelly on her recommending the book by name was Gregory himself, who wrote an essay for Inside Higher Ed about the debate at Seattle.

Even as attention on the N-word receded, the debate about Kelly and the college she led only grew. Kelly’s critics and supporters agree that she is a proponent of a rigorous humanities curriculum — such as that offered by the college — built around the Western classics. To the protesting students, that was a big part of the problem.

But universities are supposed to be Western. It’s what they do:

Universities are one of the few institutions that are a direct contribution of medieval Latin Christendom to contemporary Western civilization. Being an export wherever else they are found, they are also unique to Western culture. To be sure, all cultures have had their intellectuals: those men and women whose task it has been to learn, to know, and to teach. But only in Latin Christendom were scholars — the company of masters and students — gathered together into the universitas whose entire purpose was to develop and disseminate knowledge in a continuous and systematic fashion with little regard for the consequences of their activities. When professors and students today study and write about universities, they are therefore engaged in more than group therapy in the midst of troubled times for what is now ambiguously called “higher education.” They are analyzing an essential element in the culture that has come to dominate the entire globe. (James M. Kittelson, “The Durability of the Universities of Old Europe”)

In other words, if you want to speak truth to power, don’t go to university. If you do, you join the system of oppression.

Make It Stop

Yet another press release on evangelicals who have found a home that is sweet and located in Rome. And once again, the great appeal is authority (papal, infallible, audacious?):

What I came to realize is that little progress will be made on the major issues (or many secondary issues) of theology until one settles the issue of religious authority. That single concern is related to numerous key facets of the Christian faith, the most impactful of which were the canon of Scripture and its orthodox interpretation.

The canon of Scripture (the books included in the Bible) is a huge issue for anyone who considers the Bible to be the Word of God and the authority for one’s faith. If one thinks the early Church went astray somehow, it becomes a very difficult problem because the biblical collection itself was not settled until centuries after the apostles died. If the Church was in error by then, how can the “Bible-Only Christian” be sure he really has the inspired Word of God? And if the Church was kept from error while it determined the canon, why was it not likewise kept from error during the councils and creeds it produced at the same time? As I looked at the major alternate theories of canonization, I discovered the historical truth that the Church is ultimately the standard.

This was also the case with doctrine. It is well known that there is rampant disagreement among the various sects, denominations, and cults of Christianity—but where is the line drawn? Christians often speak of “orthodoxy,” “heresy,” “essentials,” and “fundamentals”—but by what authority are these words defined, and doctrines labelled? For the Christian who denies that the Church is the standard, there seemed to be no non-circular means of doing so.

I’ve asked before and no one answered. So I’ll ask again. With all that authority, how do you explain the bad stuff? What about Marquette University? What are the bishops doing? Pope Francis? The converts?

Working in my Marquette office one afternoon in the spring of 2010, I heard unusual sounds coming from the normally quiet lawns outside my window. I was surprised to see a modest assembly of students and professors preparing to march in protest. Against what? Minutes later, an email arrived informing me that the university’s then-president, Robert Wild, S.J., had voided a contract extended to Jodi O’Brien to join us as Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. Though the contract had already been signed, Fr. Wild—perhaps under external pressure—decided that O’Brien, a partnered lesbian whose research included queer studies, was not an appropriate choice to represent our mission and identity.

Although an ordinary person with a passing knowledge of the moral teachings of the Catholic Church would think such a decision obvious, the department chairs in the college soon gathered and voted almost unanimously to censure Wild’s decision. The press, meanwhile, demanded an explanation. On the ­defensive, the university allegedly paid a considerable sum in order to break the contract. Officials were soon exercising themselves to demonstrate their concern for equitable treatment of gays and lesbians. The university would initiate projects, courses, conferences, and the like to explore issues of sex and gender! The clear implication was that change would come, though slowly. Marquette would get with the sexual-liberation program so that something like the O’Brien affair would never happen again.

Since 2010, the campaign for sexual diversity at Marquette has advanced rapidly. Last year, the university announced the expansion of the former Gender and Sexuality Resource Center (established in the wake of the O’Brien dustup) into two new initiatives: a Center for Gender and Sexualities Studies and an LGBTQ Resource Center. How much funding has been increased has not been disclosed. We also now have an Office of Institutional Diversity and Inclusion, which offers faculty and staff awards for excellence in, yes, “diversity and inclusion.” Again, how much this will cost hasn’t been revealed. We do know, however, that funds have been promised to support the development of new courses that advance the cause. A faculty fellows program in diversity is also in the works.

The whole article is worth reading, but this paragraph is particularly telling:

For the last two generations, American Catholic ­theology departments have been at the forefront of a campaign of dissent against Catholic sexual morality. This campaign has often been led by Jesuits and Jesuit universities. Unlike attempts to attract more minority students, or programs to empower students from disadvantaged backgrounds—efforts in full accord with Catholic social teaching—this campaign of dissent has sometimes been underhanded, even dishonest. It has also been ruthless, working hard to suppress and punish any who speak up for the Church’s teaching. The way Marquette has adopted and promoted the mishmash of LGBTQ ideology over the last few years is consistent with that tradition of dissent.

So why don’t the converts ever include these developments in their touting of Rome’s authority and certainty? Are they unaware?

Whatever the reason, the Marquette situation may explain Rachel Lu’s counsel (which doesn’t say much about the hierarchy that is supposed to keep everything neat and orthodox):

In that spirit, try not to pay too much attention to Church politics. Catholic politics is, well, politics. Unless your profession requires it, you probably don’t need to obsess about it, and there are much more edifying ways to immerse yourself in the faith. But whatever you do, don’t trust journalists to educate you about Catholicism.

What Must I Do To Be Married?

It used to be that Hebrews were the forerunners of the church. Just look at what Jesus says to his disciples on the road to Emmaus. Turns out Bible readers were wrong. It was the Stoics who prepared the way for Christianity:

The Stoics actually lived lives full of joy, peace, and meaning. Though bereft of God’s divine revelation in the Old and New Covenants, they stretched their God-given powers of reason to the limit, reaching many of the same conclusions that Christians came to regarding life, liberty, and love. . . .

How close were they to divine truth? Musonius Rufus is considered one of the first pro-life philosophers. He praised large families, extolled fidelity in marriage, argued against abortion and contraception, and connected the purpose of marriage to procreation and the unitive value between husband and wife. Quite astounding for someone who was born a few decades before Jesus Christ.

The Stoic philosophers were not interested in pie-in-the-sky theorizing. Rather, they focused on eminently practical topics like: should a child obey his parents? How should we dress ourselves? What is the meaning of pain and hardship? Must we learn what is good and follow it?

Nor were they interested in sin, damnation, sacrifice or expiation.

Kevin Devin Rose left Protestantism for this?

Prexit

State sovereignty goes hand in hand with ecclesiastical sovereignty, or it sure looks like it.

Michael Lind explains the phenomenon of Trump and what it means for Democrats and Republicans:

The culture war and partisan realignment are over; the policy realignment and “border war” — a clash between nationalists, mostly on the right, and multicultural globalists, mostly on the left — have just begun.

***

For the nationalists, the most important dividing line is that between American citizens and everyone else—symbolized by Trump’s proposal for a Mexican border wall. On the right, American nationalism is tainted by strains of white racial and religious nationalism and nativism, reinforced by Trump’s incendiary language about Mexicans and his proposed temporary ban on Muslims entering the U.S.

But while there is overlap between nationalists and racists, the two are not the same thing. The most extreme white nationalists don’t advocate nationalism as a governing philosophy in our multiracial country; they hope to withdraw from American life and create a white homeland within the nation-state. Nationalism is different than white nationalism, and a populist American nationalism untainted by vestiges of racial bigotry might have transracial appeal, like versions of national populism in Latin America.

The rise of populist nationalism on the right is paralleled by the rise of multicultural globalism on the center-left.

For multicultural globalists, national boundaries are increasingly obsolete and perhaps even immoral. According to the emerging progressive orthodoxy, the identities that count are subnational (race, gender, orientation) and supranational (citizenship of the world). While not necessarily representative of Democratic voters, progressive pundits and journalists increasingly speak a dialect of ethical cosmopolitanism or globalism — the idea that it is unjust to discriminate in favor of one’s fellow nationals against citizens of foreign countries.

Now watch (thanks to our W. Michigan correspondent) how church affairs line up with temporal politics, with ecumenists (globalists) on the left opposing the constraints of denominationalists (nationalists) on the right:

Many who witnessed the continuing denominational imprisonment of the Lord’s body and blood experienced ecumenical agony. The late Emilio Castro, the WCC general secretary who hired me, was a Methodist pastor who yearned for eucharistic sharing. He would say, “I’m not even asking the Catholics (or Orthodox) to recognize the validity of the Lord’s Supper that we Methodists celebrate. I’m simply asking them to accept that I see the body and blood of Jesus Christ fully present in their Eucharist.”

In spring 1994 I sat in a restaurant with Castro and his longtime Orthodox friend and WCC colleague Ion Bria, a priest in the Romanian Orthodox Church. The two lifted their wine glasses and said to each other with tears in their eyes, “Someday, before we die, we shall be able to share the body and blood together, with our churches’ blessings.” But they never did. Nor, if they were still living, could they do so today.

So I returned to ecclesiastical disobedience. That became more complicated once I was elected general secretary of the Reformed Church in America. When I assumed that post, I didn’t know all that would be demanded of me as general secretary, but I knew I couldn’t go forward without retreating. I knew I needed regular times away, with a spiritual director, and the nourishment of Christ’s body and blood. A Carmelite retreat center near my home in New Jersey provided all this.

As a church official, I wanted more than ever to show absolute respect for my Catholic hosts. But their invitation to receive at the table was unambiguous. On my retreat days, I’d often be invited to read one of the scriptures at their eucharistic service.

Indifference to church polity and theology like this is why confessional Protestants exited from the modern ecumenical movement.

Arguably the most astounding aspect of contemporary ecumenical discussions is that the leader of the only true church is also apparently indifferent to ecclesiastical laws:

This tension in how we understand the Eucharist is one that, remarkably, Pope Francis himself has acknowledged. Last November he met with a Lutheran congregation in Rome and responded to one member, Anke de Bernardinis, who is married to a Catholic and who asked what it would take for them to receive the Eucharist together. The pope’s spontaneous ten-minute answer was revealing, unprecedented, and even stunning.

Francis said, “I ask myself the question. To share the Lord’s banquet: is it the goal of the path, or is it a viaticum (food or provision accompanying one on a journey) for walking together?” He posed that question rather than give the doctrinal response—that she could either become Catholic or continue to pray with her husband over the pain of a divided church.

Pope Francis went on to focus on baptism. “I ask myself. But don’t we have the same baptism? If we have the same baptism, shouldn’t we be walking together?” Then he went further. “The supper? There are questions that only if one is sincere with one’s self and the little theological light that one has, must be responded to on one’s own. See for yourself. This is my body. This is my blood. Do this in remembrance of me—this is a viaticum that helps us to journey on.”

And Francis didn’t stop there, going on to address the classic dividing line over the meaning of Christ’s “real presence.” The pope recalled a Protestant pastor and friend who told him, “We believe that the Lord is present there.” So he said to the Lutheran woman, “You believe that the Lord is present. And what’s the difference? There are explanations and interpretations, but life is bigger than explanations and interpretations.”

Having noted the trademark tension between official policy and actual practice, Pope Francis concluded by saying he would not “dare to give permission to do this” but then repeated, “One Lord, one faith, one baptism. Talk to the Lord, and then go forward. And I wouldn’t dare—I don’t dare say anything more.”

In ecumenism, as in diplomacy, ambiguity can be a helpful tool, allowing room for movement on issues where formal agreement is not yet possible. Pope Francis opened the door more than a crack.