Winning Souls, Not Arguments

10 Jan

ecumenismAfter our Christmas hiatus, we continue this series on the documents of Vatican II with some reflections on the 1964 Decree on Ecumenism (Unitatis Redintegratio, or “Restoration of Unity”).

Ecumenism, or the building of unity among Christians, was one of the pastoral priorities of Vatican II. It’s not surprising, then, that an entire conciliar document would be devoted to this topic. The emphasis on ecumenism is brought home in the opening paragraph of the Decree on Ecumenism:

“The restoration of unity among all Christians is one of the principal concerns of the Second Vatican Council. Christ the Lord founded one Church and one Church only. However, many Christian communions present themselves to men as the true inheritors of Jesus Christ; all indeed profess to be followers of the Lord but differ in mind and go their different ways, as if Christ Himself were divided (1 Cor. 1:13). Such division openly contradicts the will of Christ, scandalizes the world, and damages the holy cause of preaching the Gospel to every creature.”

Since Vatican II, Catholics at all levels have grown in our ecumenical sensibilities. As Blessed John Paul II noted in his 1995 encyclical on the subject (Ut Unum Sint, or “That They May Be One”), ecumenism “is not just some sort of ‘appendix’ which is added to the Church’s traditional activity,” but rather “an organic part of her life and work” that “must pervade all that she is and does” (Ut Unum Sint, no. 20).

I think most Catholics instinctively “get it,” but it doesn’t always play out very well in our encounters with non-Catholic Christians. There are a couple reasons for this.

First, in my opinion, we tend to treat ecumenism and apologetics (the art of explaining and defending the reasonableness of our faith) as mutually exclusive or even opposing disciplines. I’m sure we’ve encountered an approach to ecumenism that so emphasized principles such as “unity,” “charity,” and “communion” that real doctrinal differences were overlooked—either out of ignorance or to avoid perceived conflict.

We’ve also encountered an approach to apologetics that promoted doctrinal correctness in a harsh or unattractive way—hardly a recipe for “Christian unity.”

The problem is that we sometimes put too much emphasis on the argument rather than the person. When that occurs, apologetics is reduced to winning arguments and ecumenism is wrongly viewed as avoiding or even conceding arguments. Rather, the goal must always be to lead others in truth and charity into full communion in the Catholic Church, the Family of God.

Truth (apologetics) and charity (ecumenism) are opposite sides of the same coin!

Further, in his encyclical on ecumenism, Blessed John Paul II rejected doctrinal compromise as incompatible with fidelity to the Gospel. So clearly apologetics has its place, and its renewal in recent years has had a positive influence on the Church. Apologetics done appropriately advances authentic Catholic unity by (a) removing unnecessary stumbling blocks, (b) clarifying misconceptions, and (c) demonstrating the reasonableness and consistency of Church teaching (cf. 1 Pet. 3:15).

When it comes to both ecumenism and apologetics, we also tend to put too much emphasis on our own efforts. In ecumenical discussions, we implicitly think, “if only I’m nice enough, tolerant enough, or open-minded enough.” Meanwhile, in apologetic discussions, we implicitly think, “if only I’m smart enough, prepared enough, or convincing enough.”

The fact of the matter is that Christian unity, like faith itself, is mainly a matter of grace. For that reason, I want to leave readers with the following excerpts from the Decree on Ecumenism which stress our own personal renewal in Christ as the indispensable key to promoting Christian unity:

“There can be no ecumenism worthy of the name without a change of heart. For it is from renewal of the inner life of our minds (cf. Eph. 4:24), from self-denial and an unstinted love that desires of unity take their rise and develop in a mature way. We should therefore pray to the Holy Spirit for the grace to be genuinely self-denying, humble, gentle in the service of others, and to have an attitude of brotherly generosity towards them. . . .

“All the faithful should remember that the more effort they make to live holier lives according to the Gospel, the better will they further Christian unity and put it into practice. For the closer their union with the Father, the Word, and the Spirit, the more deeply and easily will they be able to grow in mutual brotherly love.

“This change of heart and holiness of life, along with public and private prayer for the unity of Christians, should be regarded as the soul of the whole ecumenical movement, and merits the name, ‘spiritual ecumenism’ (nos. 7-8).”

One Response to “Winning Souls, Not Arguments”

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  1. The Most Powerful Tool In Apologetics « Renovate - February 6, 2013

    […] Winning Souls, Not Arguments (archkckblog.wordpress.com) […]

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