And the Light shines in the darkness: the meaning of true ecumenism

And the Light shines in the darkness: the meaning of true ecumenism

Andrew Kania

Most first year philosophy students are introduced to the story from Plato's Republic (Book VII) of a group of prisoners locked in a cave together from childhood.

Chained facing one direction, the total gamut of their world has been the shadows cast upon a wall made from the combination of movement of statue-carriers above the prison confines and a fire that burns within the cave.

As best as they can the prisoners attempt to make sense of their world of shadows, totally unaware that what they consider to be reality is in fact an illusion. It is a frame of thought governed solely by a severely restricted vision of the world, sculptured by their incarcerators.

Plato goes on to extend this metaphor by posing the scenario of one of the prisoners being released from gaol, and then being brought into the world above. After so many years of darkness, Plato suggests that the individual in question would most likely be blinded physically by being introduced into a world lit by the sun.

Moreover, the emancipated man may indeed face another blindness, that caused by the shattering reality of his whole life, up until his new-found freedom, being nothing but an illusion, an existence, a mere crumb of Truth, but not the fullness of life.


The famous ecumenist, Cardinal Yves Congar once pointed out that the desire to seek unity with all Christians does not mitigate a Catholic's responsibility to preserve the truth of the Catholic Church. Congar wrote: 'One cannot conclude from this that these religions are divinely legitimated in themselves and as such. Their value derives from the persons who live them' (Flynn, 2005, p. 452).

In essence, what Congar was saying is that a non-Catholic Christian may quite possibly be a better follower of Christ than a Catholic, but this does not justify the acceptance of the entire tenets of that particular non-Catholic's denomination, nor justify the prevalence and existence of Christian communities struggling in opposition to one another.

Congar, developing from this theme in The Wide World My Parish of 1961, made the comment that one does not need to be a Catholic in order to achieve sanctity: 'While the Church is the sacrament of the reality, the presence, the clear promise of salvation, others can find in life an intimation of grace, an incipient salvation.

'Those people who walk in the way of salvation through an encounter with God of which the [Catholic] Church was not corporeally the minister, those who are at any rate 'related to the mystical Body', such are not strangers to her É The Spirit of grace and salvation is not confined within one religious history nor is it a sullen recluse in periods of time before or after Bethlehem. The Holy Spirit, 'dominating time as well as space', can be present to many people in many ways' (Flynn, 2005, p. 377).

Similarly a document released by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in July 2007 titled, Questions regarding Certain Aspects of the Doctrine on the Church, echoed many of Congar's sentiments when it stated: 'It is possible, according to Catholic doctrine, to affirm correctly that the Church of Christ is present and operative in the churches and ecclesial Communities not yet fully in communion with the Catholic Church, on account of the elements of sanctification and truth that are present in them.

'Nevertheless, the word 'subsists' can only be attributed to the Catholic Church alone precisely because it refers to the mark of unity that we profess in the symbols of the faith (I believe ... in the 'one' Church); and this 'one' Church subsists in the Catholic Church É

'It follows that these separated churches and communities, though we believe they suffer from defects, are deprived neither of significance nor importance in the mystery of salvation. In fact the Spirit of Christ has not refrained from using them as instruments of salvation, whose value derives from that fullness of grace and of truth which has been entrusted to the Catholic Church'.

However, such a mystical Church unity engendered by the power of the Holy Spirit, as Congar and the Congregation allude to, must be married to an earthly unity. Christ taught this when he spoke to his disciples: 'May they all be one, just as, Father, you are in me and I am in you, so that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe it was you who sent me' (John 17: 21, The New Jerusalem Bible).

Issues that divide

In Congar's summation, we must be careful not to dupe ourselves and one another in avoiding the issues that divide in order to achieve conviviality: 'What is today called 'ecumenism' is the introduction of a certain unitedness into an already existing diversity - oneness in multiplicity (die Einheit in der Mannigfaltigkeit), as Archbishop Söderblom called it: it is but a mirage of Catholicity (catholicité) for those who cannot recognise among 'the Churches' the Church of Jesus Christ, visibly one with that visible unity which Christ willed and prepared for her' (Congar, Divided Christendom, p. 101).

For a Catholic to believe ecumenism means forgetting the truth of Church teaching so as to be on good terms with all people is in fact a rejection of Vatican II's teaching, a Council so often misquoted and misinterpreted.

If we close our eyes to the truth of the Catholic Church in a 'spirit of ecumenism' we are in fact delaying any path to Christian unity by not addressing the hard and very real issues that divide the various Christian denominations from the Catholic Church, and we become useless to our Protestant brothers and sisters who cannot see what ground we actually stand on in order to open up a worthwhile ecumenical dialogue.

For this reason the outstanding Methodist theologian, Stanley Hauerwas (b. 1940), wrote in an article for the American Methodist Theologian (1990, p. 25): 'I want you to be Catholics. I also believe that there is nothing more important for the future of the unity of the Church than for you to be Catholic É You have been so anxious to be like us that you have failed in your ecumenical task to help us to see what it means for any of us to be faithful to the Gospel on which our unity depends'.

Hauerwas' words but echoed those of Pope Paul VI who in Ecclesiam Suam, cautioned: 'The desire to come together as brothers must not lead to a watering down or whittling away of truth. Our dialogue must not weaken our attachment to our faith. Our apostolate must not make vague compromises concerning the principles which regulate and govern the profession of the Christian faith both in theory and in practice' (Paul VI, 1964, Par. 88).

St Thomas Aquinas

The words of St Thomas Aquinas' hymn, Adoro Te Devote (translated by Gerard Manley Hopkins), are worth recalling in this regard:

'Seeing, touching, tasting are in thee deceived:
How says trusty hearing? That shall be believed;
What God's Son has told me, take for truth I do;
Truth himself speaks truly or there's nothing true

Essentially Aquinas reminds us that all in this life remain as shadows, all but for the Word of God, speaking through His Church, dispelling the darkness, and offering us, who are immersed in the pall, some surety by which to find meaning within our darkened confines and ignorance.

Thus Aquinas concludes his famous hymn:

'Jesu, whom I look at shrouded here below,
I beseech thee send me what I thirst for so,
Some day to gaze on thee face to face in light
And be blest for ever with thy glory's sight. Amen

Taking its mandate from Scripture, the Catholic Church offers the world a certitude that rests on the secure promise of Christ to his disciples, passed on down through the Church through the Ages. The difficulty in seeing the truth of the Catholic Church in today's world, in a post-Reformation world devoid of absolutes, is that the word 'truth' can be spoken and 'sold' by any individual. This multitude of 'truths' for purposes pragmatic are fathomed by the prospective 'buyer' as relative.

Added to this, some shadows retain appeal for individuals who were first introduced to them by their parents and loved ones. And so, even in the face of logic, they are embraced and cherished. Other shadows have appeal as they are simple to fathom; still others have appeal for want of an individual knowing anything but them; and yet still other shadows hold appeal for they do not challenge.

In a land so filled with so many well-worn and attractive shadows and 'truths', colours tend to fade into agreement, regardless of the actual disparity of the shape of the shadows or the diversity of 'truths', that surround us.

As for the Light that shines into the cave from above; because of the change that this Light demands of those in the shadowlands, it is often either avoided or ignored. Yet the Light can also be faced, but in that case, as with Plato's emancipated man from the cave, the truth, for so long hidden by the cave, can disturb, shatter or even blind.

Plato's question remains thus eternally valid: is it better for a man or even for a community of men to be happy in ignorance, or for them to be blinded, but yet knowing wisdom and truth in all its fullness?

Dr Andrew Kania is Director of Spirituality at Aquinas College, Perth. A Ukrainian Catholic, he received his doctorate in theology from the University of Uppsala. He is the author of numerous articles on religious topics and is currently studying at Oxford University.

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