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The Ecumenical Fallacy

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I have been in a discussion for a few years with a friend and former student of mine about his desire to enter the Catholic Church. A few things are holding him back, including his ministry in a small Christian church he calls “On Eagle’s Wing.” He ministers to people who come in off the street and find comfort in food, music, and fellowship. He was generous enough to invite me to give a talk to his group.
At that time, twins were born to my middle son and his wife. I offered to talk about this blessed event, but my friend advised against it since it might offend the sensibilities of members of his congregation who were not quite comfortable with life issues. He also suggested that I avoid topics that related to saints or anything else that might seem “too Catholic.”
It was the “holiday season” and we agreed that talking about the joy of Christmas would be acceptable. My talk was pleasantly if not enthusiastically received, but I had the uncomfortable feeling that it was a disruption in the program that my listeners were obliged to tolerate.
“On Eagle’s Wing” is one of some 60,000 denominations of Protestantism. Now, I want to make it clear that ministering to people’s need for fellowship is certainly laudable and qualifies as a corporal work of mercy. But it does not represent the full-course meal that Catholicism has in store. We should not confuse the snack with the banquet, however delicious the snack might be. But a starting point is important and should not in any way be disparaged. My friend was performing a most admirable and self-sacrificing service to his fellow human beings.
Another friend and former student of mine, who is now a Catholic priest, tells his parishioners that Catholicism and all the innumerable Protestant branches all fit very nicely under the canopy of “Christian.” The important thing is to be a Christian and not necessarily belong to one brand or another. In this misguided spirit of ecumenism, he brought in a Protestant minister to reinforce his point. This minister, who had worked with five different denominations, rejected the notion that these churches were “Protestant.” For her, what was of essential importance is what all the Christian churches have in common: belief in Jesus who was born of Mary, and the call to express loving kindness to our neighbors. She went on to say that “theology” was not thought but “action.”
Theology, of course, is not “action.” It provides light for action. In the absence of moral theology, a Christian is without a reliable guide with respect to such vital issues as contraception, divorce, abortion, euthanasia, and same-sex marriage. The Protestant churches continue to splinter and divide precisely because they have no agreed-upon moral theology. Ecumenism cannot go very far if it is based solely upon what various Christian churches have in common.
It is taxonomically correct to divide animals into human beings and brutes. But taxonomy can be deceiving. Charles Darwin took this division far too seriously and as a result, lost sight of the critical difference between Homo sapiens and all the subhuman creatures that populate the animal kingdom. It is the distinctiveness of man that allows us to appreciate his essence, not what he has in common with antelopes and ants. Similarly, it is the distinctiveness of Catholicism that is critical, not what it has in common with “On Eagle’s Wing” and “The Association of Free Evangelical Congregations.”
The fallacy we often find in an approach to ecumenism is the notion that what various groups have in common is far more important than what makes them distinctive. Its danger lies in reducing Catholicism to Protestantism. God and man have something in common since man is created in the image of God. But God is the Creator, man is the created. Man worships God, and not the other way around.
Despite her good intentions, the guest minister who arbitrarily redefined theology and protested against her Protestant label, reinforced in my mind the crucial difference between Catholicism and the myriad of Protestant groups. The Catholic Church is the only Christian Church founded by Christ. This is a point of distinction that carries immense weight and should not be swept under the rug. How far should ecumenism go? Christians have much in common with atheists. But it is not their commonality, but their distinctiveness that gives them their identity. Ecumenism on any level should not reduce one group to another. It should be fruitful and offer to another something that the other lacks. Evangelization begins where ecumenism reaches its limit.

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(Donald DeMarco is a senior fellow of Human Life International. He is professor emeritus at St. Jerome’s University in Waterloo, Ontario, and an adjunct professor at Holy Apostles College and Seminary in Cromwell, Conn., and a regular columnist for St. Austin Review. Some of his recent writings may be found at Human Life International’s Truth & Charity Forum.)

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