Interview With Expert in Ecumenism

WASHINGTON, D.C., JULY 15, 2007 ( The recent document on the Church’s identity emphasizes the gifts Catholics offer to the quest for unity, says the director of the U.S. bishops’ Secretariat for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs.

The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith released “Responses to Some Questions Regarding Certain Aspects of the Doctrine of the Church” on June 29, and an accompanying “Commentary.”

In this interview with ZENIT, Father James Massa discusses what the document offers to ecumenism today, and considers reactions from Protestant communities.

Q: In your position as a leader in ecumenical and interreligious work, what is your assessment of the recent document from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith on the Catholic understanding of the Church?

Father Massa: I think it is a necessary and helpful clarification on how Catholics understand the nature of the Church. Jesus Christ founded the Church as a visible and unified society that would exist until his return. Catholics believe that this one Church of Christ exists in all its fullness in the Catholic Church alone.

That doesn’t mean the one Church is not also present and active in Orthodox churches and Protestant communities for the salvation of their members. In fact, in these Christian bodies we find genuine elements of truth and holiness that inspire us, draw us into ecumenical dialogue, and make us yearn even more for the unity for which Christ prayed. Properly understood, the “Clarification” can be a real inducement to deeper and more honest dialogue between Catholics and their ecumenical partners.

Q: What has your impression been of the reaction among Protestants and other non-Catholics to the document?

Father Massa: It’s clear that some prominent leaders in the Protestant world feel profoundly disappointed by the document. The Reverend Setri Nyomi, General Secretary of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, is quoted as saying that it contradicts the “spirit of our Christian calling toward oneness in Christ.” He and others wonder whether the Holy Father and the Catholic leadership are still serious about dialogue.

To my mind, this is an overreaction that misreads both the intended audience and substance of the document. The “Clarification” was directed at bishops and Catholic scholars, not our ecumenical partners. Secondly, it renounces none of the essential commitments that the Catholic Church has made since Vatican II to advance the cause of Christian unity.

Other reactions have been more positive. Ann Riggs of the Faith and Order USA Commission, for example, views the document as an invitation to a more sophisticated dialogue in which each side tries to understand the other’s statements as coming out of a distinct tradition of doctrinal expression.

Metropolitan Kirill of the Russian Orthodox Church called it “honest” and preferable to a diplomatic approach that dodges the tough issues. So the reaction has been mixed. But overall, I think its long term benefits for authentic ecumenism will outweigh any disadvantages.

Q: Why is this document needed now, at this moment in the journey toward full Christian unity?

Father Massa: Seven year after “Dominus Iesus,” we are still facing a problem with insufficient attention to the Catholic doctrine of the Church. Perhaps in an effort to underscore God’s saving work in other churches and Christian communities, some theologians have failed to make it clear that the one Church of Christ is uniquely identifiable with the Catholic Church. Other churches and communities welcome the saving presence of Christ into their midst, but only in the Catholic Church does the one Church subsist in fullness. Contrary to what some Catholic theologians have written, there are no other “subsistences.”

Taken out of context, the document’s position on what groups deserve to be called a “church” might also appear to be jarring. The Orthodox churches are rightly called such because they’ve retained the sacraments and the ministry that exists in apostolic succession. Protestant communities lack a certain ecclesial substance, namely, the sacraments and ministry that unite us as one in the Body of Christ. But even the Orthodox, though very close to us in faith and practice, are still “wounded” in their communion because they lack the Office of Peter, the Pope.

Q: What, if any, novelties are contained in the new document. Is this simply a restatement of Catholic teaching as articulated in other documents — if so, why the need? Or does it present new material — if so, what?

Father Massa: I don’t think there is anything substantially new here. But I do believe that the restatement of the Catholic position offers those of us involved in the dialogues to take more seriously what are the Catholic “gifts” that we bring to the table. Pope John Paul II said that ecumenism is less an exchange of ideas than an exchange of gifts. Eucharist-centered worship, episcopal ministry, and papal primacy are the unique Catholic gifts. They should never be placed “under a bushel basket.”

Q: The final paragraph of the Commentary on the Document, which was also released by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, quotes “Deus Caritas Est”: “Union with Christ is also union with all those to whom he gives himself. … Communion draws me out of myself towards him, and thus also toward unity with all Christians.” Do you think Benedict XVI will be a key element in achieving unity?

Father Massa: I do indeed believe that the present Holy Father is a credible ecumenist. He was such as an academician, as a bishop-prefect, and now as a Pope. But he also cautions us not to think that “unity” is something that we ourselves achieve by means of our theological cleverness or skills in diplomacy. Unity is and always will be a gift from the Lord, and therefore something that we must wait upon in prayer and while doing appropriate works of love with the other and on behalf of the other.

Q: On another front, there was also a stir in the media after Benedict XVI’s “Summorum Pontificum” was released July 7. Some said that document is anti-Semitic. What has given that impression? And how should the document be interpreted in the light of Catholic-Jewish relations?

In the Motu Proprio “Summorum Pontificum,” the Holy Father is merely extending permission for the wider pastoral application of the Missal of 1962 — the so-called Tridentine Mass. The 1962 “Missale Romanum” already reflected Blessed John XXIII’s revision of liturgical language often construed as anti-Semitic. In 1965, Vatican II’s “Nostra Aetate” — no. 4 — then repudiated all forms of anti-Semitism as having no place within Christian life. When the new Mass was published in 1969, the only prayer for the Jewish people on Good Friday completely reflects a renewed understanding of the Jews as God’s chosen people, “first to hear the word of God.”

Throughout his papacy, Pope John Paul II worked effectively to reconcile the Church with the Jewish people and to strengthen new bonds of friendship. Benedict XVI is continuing along the same lines. But keep in mind, in 1988 John Paul II himself gave permission for the missal of 1962 to be used as a pastoral provision to assist Catholics who remained attached to the previous rites, thereby hoping to develop closer bonds within the family of the Church.

The present Holy Father — and here I quote him — remains committed to “the need to overcome past prejudices, misunderstandings, indifference and the language of contempt and hostility (and to continue) the Jewish-Christian dialogue … to enrich and deepen the bonds of friendship which have developed” — Benedict XVI, On the occasion of the 40th anniversary of the promulgation of “Nostra Aetate,” Oct. 27, 2005.


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