The word ecumenism is used everywhere these days. And most often it is used absolutely incorrectly. Ecumenism does not mean, “I’m okay, you’re okay, there’s no reason to bother ourselves about our differences, no need to examine what we teach or what we mean when we teach it…” Ecumenism, properly considered, is not pluralism. There are not many gods (though there are many ways man has thought about God and tried to reach up to Him). There are not many churches founded by many Christs, which would be pluralism. There is only one Christ and He founded one Church, praying to His Father in Heaven that His followers would all be one as He is one with Him.
Many Catholics become upset when they hear talk of ecumenism, thinking, mistakenly, that the speaker is implying that all religions are one, all the same, all equally true, all headed in the same direction and toward the same goal, with equal assurance of arriving there. And the speaker may, indeed, think that. But that is not what ecumenism means. I can tell you that, as a former practicing Buddhist, Catholicism and Buddhism are not the same at all, though there are a few similarities. But altogether too much has been made of these few similarities over these last few years, all too often ignoring the very large and very important differences.
I’ll be writing more about this topic in the coming days. If you’re interested in what our current pope, Pope Benedict XVI, thinks about the subject, you might want to read his book Truth and Tolerance: Christian Belief and World Religions.
What the Catholic Church teaches about Ecumenism
From the documents of Vatican II: Decree on Ecumenism (Unitatis Redintegratio)
1. 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) Such division openly contradicts the will of Christ, scandalizes the world, and damages the holy cause of preaching the Gospel to every creature.
But the Lord of Ages wisely and patiently follows out the plan of grace on our behalf, sinners that we are. In recent times more than ever before, He has been rousing divided Christians to remorse over their divisions and to a longing for unity. Everywhere large numbers have felt the impulse of this grace, and among our separated brethren also there increases from day to day the movement, fostered by the grace of the Holy Spirit, for the restoration of unity among all Christians.
This movement toward unity is called “ecumenical.” Those belong to it who invoke the Triune God and confess Jesus as Lord and Savior, doing this not merely as individuals but also as corporate bodies. For almost everyone regards the body in which he has heard the Gospel as his Church and indeed, God’s Church. All however, though in different ways, long for the one visible Church of God, a Church truly universal and set forth into the world that the world may be converted to the Gospel and so be saved, to the glory of God.
The Sacred Council gladly notes all this. It has already declared its teaching on the Church, and now, moved by a desire for the restoration of unity among all the followers of Christ, it wishes to set before all Catholics the ways and means by which they too can respond to this grace and to this divine call.
What Pope Benedict wrote about ecumenism in Truth and Tolerance
Is truth knowable? If we know the truth, must we hide it in the name of tolerance? Cardinal Ratzinger engages the problem of truth, tolerance, religion and culture in the modern world. Describing the vast array of world religions, Ratzinger embraces the difficult challenge of meeting diverse understandings of spiritual truth while defending the Catholic teaching of salvation through Jesus Christ.