In the preface of Reshaping Ecumenical Theology, Paul Avis strikes a somber note regarding the present state of the ecumenical movement. Even though the last century of ecumenical endeavor “has seen many gains and achievements, under God… there is at the present time,” Avis notes, “much uncertainty, doubt and heart-searching about the future of ecumenism, the search for visible unity” (vii). Avis’ diagnosis is not the idiosyncratic viewpoint of a pessimist, but is shared by many leaders within the ecumenical movement. In February of this year, Cardinal Walter Kasper, the then president for the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, told a group of ecumenical consultants, “[I]t is fair to ask whether fruition or harvest are actually convincing or appropriate metaphors for ecumenical achievement in the present. Many have come to view the current time as a sort of ecumenical winter, in which past convergence on doctrinal and sacramental issues has been overshadowed by the emergence of controversies over women’s ordination and human sexuality.” Given the wintry conditions currently plaguing the ecumenical movement, are there any reasons for those who are still involved in the movement to maintain hope for future ecumenical fruits?
In Avis’ mind, there is. In fact, after his introductory remarks about the decrepit state of the movement, the dominant thematic undercurrent throughout the rest of the work is one of hope. Avis’ hopefulness, it should be noted, does not rest upon an inflated sense of how far the ecumenical movement has come, but is the byproduct of his call for “Rethinking Ecumenical Theology” (the title of chapter 2). As Avis sees things, “A fresh vision is now clearly needed and ecumenical theology needs to be reconstructed.” This reconstruction will involve a “greater realism about the enduring importance of the ecclesial identity of the churches that are active in the ecumenical movement” (22), as well as a renewed appreciation for the “intrinsic connection between mission and unity” (23). The centerpiece for ecumenical dialogue, then, has to be the conviction that our Lord desires all Christians to be one, “so that the world might believe” (John 17:20). One way of thawing the ecumenical movement, Avis seems to be suggesting, is to gain a deeper realization of just how scandalous Christian disunity is to non-Christians.
Overall, Avis’ book is an impressive contribution to the field. Avis brings to the table both a strong command of the history of the ecumenical movement and also an inspiring vision of where the movement needs to go. Furthermore, he appears to possess good instincts about when to operate at a theoretical level and when to adopt a more pragmatic approach (chapter 3, “New Paths in Ecumenical Method,” is a great example of the latter). From a Catholic perspective, one weakness in the work is Avis’ insistence that all of the Christian communions are only “partial expression[s] of the Church” (93). In other words, Avis assumes that the various Christian “churches” together comprise the one Church and, thus, takes umbrage with the Roman Communion’s assertion that “the unique Church of Christ…, constituted and organized in the world as a society, subsists in the Catholic Church, which is governed by the successor of Peter and by the bishops in union with that successor” (Lumen Gentium, no. 8).
On one level, it’s easy to understand why the Roman Catholic Church’s claim to be the Church rubs Protestant ecumenists the wrong way. Nevertheless, it’s difficult to see how the Roman Catholic Church could forfeit this claim without abdicating an essential aspect of its historic identity. Moreover, the Catholic Church’s continued insistence upon this identity need not be seen as a wrench in the cogs of the ecumenical endeavor. The Roman Catholic vision of Christians around the world united through their local bishop under the primatial governance of the See of Rome moves ecumenism away from striving after an undefined unity off in the future towards a concrete path for restoring full communion. Obviously, the journey down this path cannot be a one-sided affair, and Roman Catholics will have to be just as open as their Protestant counterparts to the conversion of heart that remains so crucial the ecumenical task. What I am suggesting, though, is that the Roman Communion’s insistence that “that the Church of Christ... continues to exist fully only in the Catholic Church” (Dominus Iesus, no. 16) represents not a hinderance to the ecumenical movement, but instead a helpful starting point for framing the path towards reunification between divided communities. Paul Avis, as we have seen, disagrees, but he also refuses to allow this disagreement with Roman Catholic ecclesiology to cloud his hope for a future ecumenical harvest. In writing Reshaping Ecumenical Theology, he has offered a significant contribution towards making this harvest a reality.