The Corner

The Pope’s Resounding Yes to Ecumenism

Pope Francis has given another interview. Kathryn has already pointed out, approvingly, that the pope is espousing the Christian proposition to a troubled world; and Andrew has pointed out, disapprovingly, that the pope falls somewhat short of Murray Rothbard on the anarcho-capitalist scale. I will now amaze readers by praising the pope’s comments on ecumenism and interreligious dialogue.

He said this:

Vatican II, inspired by Pope Paul VI and John [XXIII], decided to look to the future with a modern spirit and to be open to modern culture. The Council Fathers knew that being open to modern culture meant religious ecumenism and dialogue with non-believers. But afterwards very little was done in that direction. I have the humility and ambition to want to do something.

I think this is a remarkably full-throated endorsement of Vatican II’s opening to the world — the attitude that has been so widely praised (by liberals) and criticized (by conservatives) as “the spirit of Vatican II.” This latter phrase contrasts the “spirit” of the Council to “the letter” of the Council. One of the commonplaces of conservative Catholicism is the notion that liberals hijacked the Council in the postconciliar implementation stages, and imposed their views on the Church in the name of a “spirit” of Vatican II that was opposed to the “letter” of the Council, which reflected the actual intentions of the Council Fathers. (In some regards, particularly the liturgy, I believe that this conservative criticism was correct.)

Over the years, one pretty certain indication — a shibboleth, in the Biblical sense — of where a particular Catholic stood on the postconciliar controversies in the Church would have been his or her reaction to the following statement: “When it comes to ecumenism and interreligious dialogue, the Church after the Council hasn’t gone far enough.” But even in the wake of the highly controversial interreligious meetings hosted by Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI at Assisi, Pope Francis is still able to say that the Church did “very little” on these fronts.

I think this makes it clear where he stands on ecumenism and interreligious dialogue: Assisi for him is not an end point but a starting point. Because Catholicism over the past half-century has been a leader among the global faiths when it comes to promoting interreligious understanding, his redoubling of his Church’s commitment is a hugely positive development. His challenge will be to integrate this openness to people on the outside with a solicitude for the esprit de corps of people on the inside. (Their natural question being that of the older brother in the Parable of the Prodigal Son: If the Outsiders are okay, why go to the trouble of being an Insider?) Paul VI, in the 1970s, did not do very well in the latter regard.

There have been loud expressions of discontent after the first interview, and there are already murmurs in response to this new one. But I agree with Kathryn: The pope is on the right track, and focused on the right issues. His task is a difficult one, and whether he succeeds is an open question; I respect him immesely and wish him well in the effort.


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