Friday, January 13, 2006

ethical issues make the road to unity a bit more difficult

William Cardinal Kasper of Germany keenly pointed out that the divergent views held by various Christian communities out there on ethical issues make the goal of Christian unity much more difficult to achieve.

He said this at an international ecumenical conference today at Ushaw College, a Catholic seminary in Durham, England.

Although these ethical and moral issues (contraception, euthanasia, capital punishment, gay unions among others) are not way up there in the hierarchy of truths, they are nonetheless important. Why? Because they touch on an essential character of any Christian community: the journey to holiness. This is how he unpacked this:

Kasper said that differences in ethical approaches among Christian communities “are...not secondary or irrelevant for an understanding of the nature of the church," Kasper said.

This is because these ethical issues deal with the practicalities of living those truths and doctrines high up in the hierarchy of truths (such as the Trinity, the virgin birth, the Sacraments, and so on). These ethical and moral teachings show how to live a life of holiness. That’s what the Church’s ethical norms are all about.

And so Kasper astutely says, "In touching on holiness, they [these ethical teachings] touch on the essential nature of the church itself."

Therefore we shouldn’t just brush over them in an effort to achieve a shallow kind of unity without resolving remaining issues.

Why is that? Well, the divisions within Christendom are sad and a scandal. But the reasons behind them remain important and crucial.

As a short illustration of this, one of my seminary teachers once told me a story of this Lutheran guy who argued with him before Mass because he was informed that he couldn’t receive communion. The Lutheran was told this only in response to his own question prior to Mass. Insistent that he should receive communion, he asked why my seminary prof's mind was so closed. Meekly, my teacher finally told him, “Well, sir, I am merely honoring your Reformation.”

The remaining issues blocking the road to complete unity are still important. Working on these issues and grappling with them show a respect and a recognition of their importance. A mere "show" of unity would only be a parody.

Kasper then went on to say that some Christian communities have ordained women to the priesthood or have decided to bless homosexual unions out of a belief that they are exercising a prophetic role in society and demonstrating God's love, acceptance, and call to all people.

His response: "We should not imagine that we possess more of the Holy Spirit today than the church of the early church fathers and the great theologians of the Middle Ages.” Nicely said.

I had dinner with a history professor from this parish recently and the word she used for this was “conceit.” It is conceit she said to think that we somehow have more wisdom and discernment today than the wise people of the past.

One of the reasons why the Catholic Church is truly catholic is because she draws from the philosophical and theological wisdom and insights of the past in order to inform her today. She doesn't just chuck them away, thinking they're now worthless because we now have something more concrete and empirical.....such as, oh I don't know, such as science, technology, or modern psychology. Rather she draws from the richness of all human achievements, past and present.

Think of the Church as a structure, like a cathedral, and its spires and buttresses of today must be in harmony and in line with the foundations of old.

Kasper articulated therefore what he sees as the goal of ecumenism: “a spiritually renewed church, in which the church in its concrete form becomes to the fullest degree that which in its undeveloped nature it always has been and always remains: the one, holy church we profess together in the Apostles' Creed."

Read this report here.

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