“[T]oo often in the ecumenical context,” Paul Murray writes, “the default instinct is to lead with some such question as: ‘What do our various others first need to learn from us if we are to get ecumenically serious and make any real progress?’” The better question, however, should be, “’What can we learn, or receive, with integrity from our various others in order to facilitate our own growth together into deepened communion in Christ and the Spirit?’” Following this latter directive, Receptive Ecumenism and the Call to Catholic Learning is the result of a collaborative research project facilitated by the staff of the Department of Theology and Religion at Durham University and of St. Cuthbert’s Seminary, Ushaw College. It is a substantive and engaging resource accessible to those Roman Catholics already active in ecumenical work as well as those interested in entering into this sometimes intimidating and often frustrating (but always transforming) subject.
Divided into five parts over the course of 464 pages—not counting an extensive bibliography and index—Receptive Ecumenism is made up of contributions from over thirty-one authors ranging from distinguished theologians to dedicated pastors in the field. Some notable names include, for example, Walter Kasper, Margaret O’Gara, Ladislas Orsy, William Rusch, Nicholas Lash, Denis Edwards, Philip Endean and Paul Lakeland.
The material considered is extensive. Part I sets forth the vision and principles of “receptive ecumenism” beginning with the agenda, search for appropriate criteria and ending the section with hermeneutical reflections. Part II asks what Roman Catholics have learned and still have to learn from various other Christian faith traditions, specifically Anglican, Methodist, Lutheran and Orthodox, but mentioning less main-line denominations along the way. Part III takes on the somewhat more contentious issue of how Roman Catholic church governance might be affected by the approach of “receptive ecumenism,” for example with regard to collegiality, lay participation and episcopal accountability. Part IV turns towards the pragmatic, branching out from dialog between Christian traditions to how receptive ecumenism engages and is engaged by other (non-religious) factors such as the civil, psychoanalytic, sociological and organizational. Finally, Part V provides a retrospective—incorporating responses by scholars from the non-Roman Catholic traditions considered earlier in Part II—and looking forward to the prospects of receptive ecumenism, including, as Daniel Hardy puts it, “learning by engagement.”
As substantial as this work is, it is engaging from end to end. Cardinal Walter Kasper, in his essay, “‘Credo Unam Sanctam Ecclesiam’ – The Relationship Between the Catholic and the Protestant Principles in Fundamental Ecclesiology,” [pp.78-88] asserts that the unity emerging from the “exchange of gifts” in ecumenical dialog is “symphonic.” This analogy is a good one for Receptive Ecumenism and the Call to Catholic Learning. Like a symphony, Receptive Ecumenism organizes a diversity of voices and perspectives into a harmonic narrative that moves from possibility to possibility, stimulating the imagination at every turn and ending with a transformed sense of what is possible.
This symphony begins with a unique re-tuning: “what if we turn the ecumenical question around”? The melodies issuing forth from this allow for some interesting inter-play, moving from the darker third movement which takes on issues of church order (the challenge to Roman Catholicism’s hierarchical way of doing things generated by listening to other Christian traditions) to the more eclectic fourth movement, which includes a somewhat humorous piece by journalist Thomas Reese, SJ, who pokes at the specific ways in which that same Roman Catholic church order— from “people in the pews” to priests, theologians, bishops, bishops’ conferences and, last but certainly not least, the Vatican—keep the Roman Catholic church from receiving or learning from others. He starts out by saying that he has been given the unpleasant task of discussing “organizational factors militating against receptive ecumenical learning within Roman Catholicism.” “In other words, I have been asked to throw cold water in the face of ecumenical hope and optimism. … As a social scientist and journalist I am a congenial cynic and pessimist, even though as a Christian one has to be a born-again optimist.”
Reese’s optimism is in fact revealed at the end of his essay, which brings the movement to a close, with his insight that, “In the past, we used to see reform of the Roman Catholic Church as essential to ecumenical progress. Today, the reverse is also true: ecumenism is an essential path to church reform.”
The “reform” Reese talks about is Kasper’s symphonic unity—unity in diversity—which, at the heart of the ecumenical endeavor, is eucharistic communion, and this is the very end to which Receptive Ecumenism and the Call to Catholic Learning is directed. Reversing the question of “what we offer the other” to “what we can receive” has the possibility for high yield indeed.