Did the Synod Endorse “Lifestyle Ecumenism”?

I would like to suggest to you that so-called “lifestyle ecumenism” helps us see ecumenism for what it really is. You see, in my Anglican days, I used to think I was more catholic than the Catholics. I believed that “spiritual unity,” and maybe also a loose agreement on central doctrines, sufficed. As a Catholic, I now believe that all who profess Christian faith are called into a single, visible organization, through union with the holy Roman Catholic Church. I’ve been trying to find ways of sharing the truth of catholicity, and the deception of ecumenism, and John Allen’s article “Lifestyle ecumenism may be the real break through at 2014 synod”  just made it easier. Lifestyle ecumenism helps us see ecumenism afresh.

[Note: this essay was first published by Crisis Magazine and is reprinted with permission.]

Lifestyle Ecumenism

What is “lifestyle ecumenism”? To find out, John Allen takes us back to the Second Vatican Council. One of the main achievements of the Council, he says, was to find a “theological logic for the widespread popular desire to break down the walls between the various Christian churches, and to usher in a new era of dialogue and partnership that’s come to be known as ‘ecumenism.’” The Council elaborated a “new theology” that non-Catholics deserve honor and respect. Since then, Catholics have been pouring into Protestant churches, ushering in one of “the most stunningly successful Christian movements of the late twentieth century.”

Something similar, we are told, may be happening at the 2014 Synod of Bishops on the family. You see, in the past the Church used the rhetoric of “living in sin” to describe cohabitating couples, gays and lesbians, people who are divorced and remarried outside the Church, and so on. But now, it is suggested, we are in the midst of a Copernican revolution! Now “the synod has clearly rejected that sort of barb,” which may “augur a new era of what might be called ‘lifestyle ecumenism,’ in which the church approaches people living outside its ideal for marriage with friendship rather than condemnation.” Here, “ecumenism” means dialogue and friendship, and “lifestyle” means anything the Church once cruelly called sin. The article ends with a bang:

Lifestyle ecumenism, in other words, may well be the real theological breakthrough at the 2014 Synod of Bishops. If so, it would be a fitting evolution under Pope Francis, the pope whose most famous sound-bite is, “Who am I to judge?”

Now, John Allen is an accomplished journalist and author who specializes in coverage of the Vatican and the Catholic Church, so I do not want to misrepresent him. Perhaps I have misunderstood his recent article and phrase “lifestyle ecumenism.” Perhaps he does not mean to suggest that calling sin “sin” is a barb, a nasty rhetoric that should be discontinued. Perhaps he does not mean to suggest that “lifestyles” like cohabiting and homosexuality should be embraced in the spirit of friendship and, at least tacitly, affirmed. Nonetheless, without overdramatizing things, the posturing of this particular article seems to be anything but inspired. Overlook for a moment how this article misrepresents the Second Vatican Council, how it misrepresents the 2014 Synod, and zoom in with me on how it misrepresents the Gospel itself. It joins the chorus of those who sing John 8:10, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” but leave out the final line in 8:11: “Go, and sin no more.” If it weren’t for those nasty Catholic redactors, maybe the exchange between Jesus and the woman caught in adultery would read this way:

Jesus asked her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?”

“No one,” she said.

“Then neither do I condemn you,” Jesus declared. “Go and sin no more.”

“Ugh,” the woman said, recoiling. “Can’t you drop all that Catholic rhetoric about ‘irregular’ folks ‘living in sin,’ and be more ‘welcoming home’?”

Jesus paused. “Good point,” he said. “Perhaps I should see the positive value in allrelationships.”

“Yes,” she said, brightening. “I knew you weren’t a Pharisee!”

“You know, for the sake of dialogue I probably should not have used the word ‘sin.’ There are, after all, pieces of truth and holiness outside Catholic marriage in all sorts of other relationships. We need to transform the way Catholicism engages the outside world. Besides, there is a widely held hunger at the grassroots for a new way of relating to people in unconventional family situations.”

“Lifestyle ecumenism, if you will” she said.

“Exactly,” Jesus replied.

For God so loved the world that he sent his only-begotten Son that whoever believes in him should not feel discriminated against but feel good. Jesus is not so much a “Savior” (it’s not like our carefully groomed sexual identities are one last waltz on the Titanic!) as he is our Friend. What was it that St. Peter said, in Acts 2:37, when the crowd was cut to the heart? “Keep an open mind, every one of you, reject the rhetoric of sin, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” St. James gives us the key to lifestyle ecumenism: “Don’t you know that friendship with the world means friendship with God?” (James 4:4). Sing heavenly muse … that we may justify the ways of man to God!

“Lifestyle ecumenism” is just a fancy way of saying—without having really to say—anything goes. It’s moral pluralism. True, lifestyle ecumenists are not exactly saying that any given “lifestyle” (homosexuality, “re-marriage,” or cohabitation) is not a sin. But neither are they saying that it is. Under the blue skies of “ecumenism,” there is no discrimination.

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Although the Synod does not augur a new era in which the rhetoric of “living in sin” is replaced with openness and dialogue, the new phrase “lifestyle ecumenism” does (unwittingly) expose what ecumenism really is, and the wrongness of ecumenism is the real subject of this essay. For I would like to suggest that ecumenism is no substitute for catholicity, and that there is no catholicity apart from the Pope—but I am jumping ahead.

Lifestyle ecumenism accommodates immorality as ecumenism accommodates heresy. But the lifestyle ecumenists go one step further. Where ecumenists claim that schism is not sin, lifestyle ecumenists claim sin is not sin. This way, everyone’s right, and no one’s wrong. No one’s feelings get hurt.

Ecumenism’s one premise is that talking about why we are not united is to be united. The questions are more important than the answers. Again and again, ecumenists shrug and repeat with Pontius Pilate the defining question of ecumenism: “What is truth?” Taking their cue from the ecumenists, lifestyle ecumenists shrug and ask: “What is right?” For while lifestyle ecumenists are pluralists when it comes to morality, ecumenists are pluralists when it comes to truth.

Quid est Veritas?

Again, I would like to suggest to you that lifestyle ecumenism helps us see ecumenism for what it really is.

Like I said, in my Anglican days, I thought I was more catholic than the Catholics. I was ecumenical. From some great Olympian height I saw the Pope go too far to the right and a Reformer go too far to the left. I surveyed all customs, all pieties, all spiritualities within “the catholica” and I divined the essence. To a Catholic I would say that only the Bible is infallible. To a Baptist I would say that we need more than the Bible, we need Tradition. To a traditionalist I would say we ought to be open to the Holy Spirit doing “a new thing.” With the Vincentian Canon in my back pocket, I was so “catholic” I made Catholics look like Protestants. I was an ecumenist.

If someone pointed out that schism is sin, I replied: “We’re all one in Christ.” By this, I meant that Christ is one. Everyone who is baptized is in Christ. Therefore, even though schism looks like disunity, it’s only a surface illusion. Deep down, we are all one in Christ—regardless of what extra-Church “communion” we are in.

But let’s apply my ecumenism logic to “lifestyle ecumenism.” What if someone were to point out that, say, adultery is sin, and I were to reply: “We’re all righteous in Christ”? By this, I would mean that Christ is righteous. Everyone who is baptized is in Christ. Therefore, even though adultery looks like sin, it’s only a surface illusion. Deep down, we are all righteous in Christ—regardless of what extra-marital “relationship” we are in. After all, we are in the “already/not yet” of the Kingdom. Did you catch that? Not yet.

Can you see how the ecumenical logic of schism and sin misses the point? It takes truths about Christ and Baptism and uses them to justify human behaviors that are anti-Christ. Christ prayed that his Church would be one? I do not need to repent and return to the Church he built on the rock that is Peter because, well, Christ is one! Christ told the woman caught in adultery to go and sin no more? I do not need to repent and return to my marriage bed because, well, Christ is righteous! Ecumenical logic misses the point because by the power of the Holy Spirit the Church is called to realize Christ, to give actual physical, personal and social form to the ascended Christ on earth, to be a city on a hill. Here and now, we are meant to imitate Christ. And for Christ, truth is a means to unity.

To the ecumenist, however, truth is an obstacle to unity. For as soon as you claim a to be true, you “discriminate against” b and c—and that closes dialogue and hurts feelings. In turn, for the ecumenist, unity is reduced to an abstraction, and for the lifestyle ecumenist, right and wrong are reduced to abstractions. Morality is reduced to feelings, and feelings are mistaken for truth. In the end, truth is just a fun game of semantics, and the tenured, John 8:10-reciting Scrabble buffs always seem to win.

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Where have we seen ecumenism before? It was the sign hung outside Dante’s Limbo, technically the first circle of Hell, that pub where milquetoast intellectuals go to talk and talk and talk, “always learning but never able to come to a knowledge of the truth” (2 Tim. 3:7). Over shouts for “more listening!” and “more dialogue!” one can hear, as if at the Inn of the Prancing Pony, a Sauron-like voice—the only voice that’s really seeking the truth … only to kill it—whispering: “Be open-minded. We don’t need to agree. We only need to work together.”

But where do ships go when there is no captain, no compass, no rules, no protocol, no agreed upon destination, nothing but endless chatter about whether or not everyone feels good? They go the way of the Titanic, as the lifeboats slowly disappear into the horizon, everyman raising his own Holy Spirit-guided interpretation of Scripture like a flag of surrender: “Looks like we’re in the already/not yet of the Kingdom!”

The Truth Will Set You Free

Sin leads to schism, and schism leads to sin. Ubi divisio ibi peccatum. The devil is diabolical; that is, he rips things apart. By accommodating sin, the lifestyle ecumenists will not make more Catholics. They will only make more ecumenists, more ecumenical dialogues, more ecumenical lifestyles, until everyone who is wise in their own eyes has happily signed up for the very polite, very nice conference to be held on the ground level of the building with the infamous sign: “Abandon All Hope Ye Who Enter Here.” Hans Urs von Balthasar puts it this way:

Of course, there is a difference between schisms within the Church and the ultimate schism that separates people from the unity of the institutional Church. But there can be no doubt that the former were the cause of the latter. Sin in the Church is the origin of the (equally sinful) separation from the Church. The process can last for hundreds of years within the Church—think of the long prelude to the schism with the East and to the Reformation—but it can always be traced back.

What was it Jesus said? “The truth will set you free” (John 8:32). He promised to build his Church on the rock that is Peter, gave him the keys to bind and loose, and assured us that the gates of Hell would not prevail against it (Matt. 17:16-19). He guaranteed that the Holy Spirit would lead his Church into all truth (John 16:13), and then he prayed to his Father: “protect them by the power of your name, the name you gave me, so that they may be one as we are one” (John 17:11).

Like righteousness, unity is not a theatrical background, a tone, an atmosphere. It is a reality. You are either living it, or you are not. The emotional, subjective, therapeutic clamor of ecumenism is no substitute for the heart-awakening, objective, cruciform call of the holy Roman Catholic Church. In his speech at the conclusion of the Synod, Pope Francis put it this way:

So, the duty of the Pope is that of guaranteeing the unity of the Church; it is that of reminding the faithful of their duty to faithfully follow the Gospel of Christ; it is that of reminding the pastors that their first duty is to nourish the flock—to nourish the flock—that the Lord has entrusted to them, and to seek to welcome—with fatherly care and mercy, and without false fears—the lost sheep … to go out and find them.

The program of the ecumenists, university degrees coming out of their ears, demands unity without truth, truth without morality, morality without “discrimination.” But the Church Christ founded on the rock that is Peter is, like Christ himself, discriminating. She reminds us that all have sinned, all have fallen short of the glory of God, and all are in need of a Savior. Like her Husband and Head, she demands unity in truth, truth with morality, and morality that brings glory to the Father in Heaven from whom comes every good and perfect gift.

While every ecumenist is slapping his newspaper and wishing the holy Roman Catholic Church would catch up to whatever it is he’s found in there, the Church is joining Christ in his suffering, his oblation, his proclamation of life brim-full. But it begins with repentance. For a lot of us, it must continue with conversion. The Church’s arms, like Christ’s on the Cross, are wide open. Pope Francis put it this way:

This is the Church, the vineyard of the Lord, the fertile Mother and the caring Teacher, who is not afraid to roll up her sleeves to pour oil and wine on people’s wound; who doesn’t see humanity as a house of glass to judge or categorize people. This is the Church, One, Holy, Catholic, Apostolic and composed of sinners, needful of God’s mercy. This is the Church, the true bride of Christ, who seeks to be faithful to her spouse and to her doctrine. It is the Church that is not afraid to eat and drink with prostitutes and publicans. The Church that has the doors wide open to receive the needy, the penitent, and not only the just or those who believe they are perfect! The Church that is not ashamed of the fallen brother and pretends not to see him, but on the contrary feels involved and almost obliged to lift him up and to encourage him to take up the journey again and accompany him toward a definitive encounter with her Spouse, in the heavenly Jerusalem.

[S]he is the Church, our Mother! And when the Church, in the variety of her charisms, expresses herself in communion, she cannot err: it is the beauty and the strength of the sensus fidei, of that supernatural sense of the faith which is bestowed by the Holy Spirit so that, together, we can all enter into the heart of the Gospel and learn to follow Jesus in our life.

Read it in Crisis Magazine.

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