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Receptive Ecumenism—“An Exchange of Gifts”

Dr. Eduardo Echeverria’s most recent book seeks to promote mutual and improved understanding between Roman Catholicism and Evangelical Protestantism

by Casey McCorry

Dr. Eduardo Echeverria’s new book, Are We Together?: A Roman Catholic Analyzes Evangelical Protestants, asks the question—are Roman Catholics and Evangelical Protestants united in a common faith in Jesus Christ? It explores the answer to this question by poring through the teachings of the Second Vatican Council and the writings of some Evangelical Protestants, such as Francis A. Schaeffer and R. C. Sproul, and more recently Gregg Allison and Leonardo De Chirico.

What inspired you to write about the common theological heritage between Catholics and evangelical protestants?

The biblical inspiration for engaging in ecumenical dialogue and theology is twofold. One, is the imperative of John 17:21: “That they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they may also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.” Two, 1 Cor 1:10: “I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you may agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment.” In this light, I raised the question for myself that John Paul II rightly asked: “How is it possible to remain divided, if we have been ‘buried’ through Baptism in the Lord’s death, in the very act by which God, through the death of his Son, has broken down the walls of division?” 

What is your background in studying Evangelical Ecumenism? What inspires you to write about this topic?

I was raised Roman Catholic and attended Catholic primary and secondary schools in the Bronx, NY, but I did not respond to the Gospel in a Catholic context. It was at L’Abri Fellowship, an Evangelical Protestant community, Huémoz sur Ollon, Switzerland, more than half a century ago in the summer of 1970 that I first committed my life to Christ as Lord and Savior, “the Way, the Truth, and the Life” (Jn. 14:6). L’Abri Fellowship, a community where people live, study, and work, was founded by Francis A. Schaeffer (1912-1984), along with his wife Edith (1918-2013), more than a half century ago. 

I learned three essential things at L'Abri Fellowship. One, the main reason to be a Christian is because the Christian faith is true, and I am rationally justified in holding Christian beliefs to be true. Two, Jesus Christ is the answer to the question that is every human life; and three, Jesus is Lord of my whole life. Thus, it was at L’Abri that I began to understand the Christian faith as a way of life rooted in the truth about reality, about the meaning of life, and communion with God the Father, in Christ, and through the power of the Holy Spirit. It was also at L’Abri that I began to understand that living under the Lordship of Jesus Christ entailed the sanctification of the whole of life, including the life of culture, particularly the intellectual life. 

Now, this understanding of the Christian life, which I first learned at L’Abri Fellowship, was deepened in the paths I took on my journey ahead to full communion with the Catholic Church in 1992. One path was the Augustinian and Reformed or Dutch neo-Calvinist tradition of historic Christianity. Another path, which deepened my understanding of the historic Christian faith, especially the antiquity of the Church, of the liturgy, of the sacramental life of grace in Christ, particularly of baptism and the Eucharist, the Church Fathers, and the idea of doctrinal development, I found in the writings of not only John Henry Newman but also John Paul II. I went ahead into full communion with Mother Church, the Catholic Church—twenty years after discovering Christ, by grace, the Lord Jesus led me to rediscover his Church.   

At the start of my journey, however, the path that played a defining role in my understanding of the Christian faith, and has been a central interlocutor in many of my published writings, including this book, is the Reformed tradition of historic Christianity. In other words, that version of confessional Protestant Christianity arising from the Calvinist Reformation in sixteenth-century Europe, in particular, Dutch neo-Calvinism, which refers to a movement within the Augustinian and Reformed tradition that stems from the nineteenth-century Dutch educator, theologian, church leader, and politician, in short, public intellectual, Abraham Kuyper (1837-1920). Besides Kuyper, other genial spirits within this intellectual milieu that profoundly influenced my walk with the Lord include Herman Bavinck (1845-1921), Gerritt C. Berkouwer (1903-1996), and Herman Dooyeweerd (1894-1977). All that is good in the neo-Calvinist Reformed tradition—its doctrines of creation, fall into sin, and redemption, its understanding of the relation between nature, sin and grace, the Lordship of Christ over the whole spectrum of life, the idea and practice of Christian scholarship, its cultural, social and political theology and philosophy, and so much more—deepened my understanding of, commitment to, and practice of the Christian faith.

Who did you write this book for—Roman Catholics, Evangelical Protestants, both? How do you think an evangelical protestant reading this book would respond to the claims?

Although I am a committed Catholic theologian doing theology within the normative tradition of confessional Catholicism, and thus in the light of Catholic teaching, my writings, including this study, are ecumenical works, indeed, a work in receptive ecumenism, and hence I am listening attentively to the writings of fellow Christian theologians from other traditions of reflection and argument. Receptive Ecumenism means, according to John Paul II: “Dialogue is not simply an exchange of ideas. In some way it is always an ‘exchange of gifts’. . . . Dialogue does not extend exclusively to matters of doctrine but engages the whole person; it is also a dialogue of love.”

There is an ecclesial and philosophical foundation for engaging in the practice of receptive ecumenism. What is the ecclesiological starting point for ecumenical dialogue, according to the Second Vatican Council? Consider briefly the ecclesiological question concerning the unity of the Church, namely, ecclesial unity and diversity within the one Church, the Catholic Church. Catholic ecclesiology rejects the following dilemma:

  • either correctly affirming that the Church of Christ fully and totally subsists alone in its own right in the Catholic Church, existing uniquely and incommunicably in this concrete Church, because the entire fullness of the means of salvation are present in her, and then implausibly denying that Orthodoxy and the historic churches of the Reformation are churches in any real sense whatsoever, such that there exists an ecclesial wasteland or emptiness outside the Church’s visible boundaries. 

  • or rightly affirming that they are churches in some sense, in a lesser or greater degree to the extent that there exist ecclesial elements of truth and sanctification in them, but then wrongly accepting ecclesiological relativism or pluralism—meaning thereby that the one Church of Christ Jesus subsists in many churches, with the Catholic Church being merely one among many churches.

Regarding the question of ecclesial unity and diversity, unity is a given, a gift, existing already in the Catholic Church, rather than something we strive after from the starting point of ecclesial diversity of Christian confessions. Yves Congar rightly insists, “For its part, a Catholic ecumenism cannot forget that the church of Christ and the apostles exists. Therefore, the point of departure for Catholic ecumenism is this existing church, and its goal is to strengthen within the church the sources of catholicity that it seeks to integrate and to respect all their legitimate differences.” Of course, what has been called the scandal of ecclesiological particularity in this concrete Church, the Catholic Church, Cardinal Kasper rightly states, “provokes opposition in other churches and church communities.”

Furthermore, philosophically speaking, the practice of receptive ecumenism presupposes the distinction between propositional truths of faith and their formulations in reflecting on the sense in which a doctrine, already confirmed and defined, is more fully known and deeply understood by another Christian tradition. John XXIII drew this distinction in his opening address at the Second Vatican Council: 

For the deposit of faith, the truths contained in our venerable doctrine, are one thing; the fashion in which they are expressed, but with the same meaning and the same judgment [eodem sensu eademque sententia], is another thing.

The subordinate clause, which I have cited in its Latin original, is part of a larger passage from the First Vatican Council’s Dogmatic Constitution on Faith and Reason, Dei Filius (1869–1870). The phrase is earlier invoked by Pope Pius IX in the bull of 1854, Ineffabilis Deus, and also cited by Pope Leo XIII in his 1899 encyclical letter, Testem benevolentiae Nostrae. And this formula in Dei Filius is itself taken from the Commonitorium of St. Vincent of Lérins (445 AD), a Gallic monk, and the chief theologian of the Abbey of Lérins: “Therefore, let there be growth and abundant progress in understanding, knowledge, and wisdom, in each and all, in individuals and in the whole Church, at all times and in the progress of ages, but only within the proper limits, i.e., within the same dogma, the same meaning, the same judgment” [in eodem scilicet dogmate, eodem sensu eademque sententia].” This italicized phrase means to say that the truth of a proposition is inextricably connected with its meaning. As to meaning, the way things are is what makes “meaning” true or false. Therefore, a proposition is true if what it says corresponds to the way objective reality is; otherwise, it is false. In the words of Bernard Lonergan, “Meaning of its nature is related to a ‘meant,’ and what is meant may or may not correspond to what is so. If it corresponds, the meaning is true. If it does not correspond, the meaning is false.” Thus, a dogma’s meaning is unchangeable because that meaning is true. The truths of faith are, if true, always and everywhere true; the different way of expressing these truths may vary in our attempts to communicate revealed truths more clearly and accurately, but these various linguistic expressions do not affect the truth of the propositions. 

John XXIII intuitively understood that propositions—contents of thought that are true or false, expressible in various languages, but more than mere words, expressing possible, and if true, actual states of affairs—do not vary as the language in which they are expressed varies. He speaks of immutable or unalterable truths, suggesting that truths of faith are more than their linguistic expression. What, then, is the ecumenical import of this distinction for understanding the continuity and material identity of dogma between Roman Catholicism and Evangelical Protestantism? I develop an answer to this important question in all of my published works, including Revelation, History, and Truth: A Hermeneutics of Dogma, Dialogue of Love: Confessions of an Evangelical Catholic Ecumenist, and Divine Election: A Catholic Orientation in Dogmatic and Ecumenical Perspective. Hence, all of these works have been written for both Roman Catholics and Evangelical Protestants.

Your book explores the common theological heritage Catholics and Evangelical Protestants have. Tell us more about your interest in this and what your hope is for this book.

My book, Are We Together? A Roman Catholic Analyzes Evangelical Protestants is not merely about uncovering the common theological heritage between Catholics and Evangelical Protestants. Still, ecumenical dialogue is not just about having a discussion regarding questions where there exists a common basis of discussion. We must pursue discussion on issues for which the common basis is lacking. Furthermore, although exposing differences between Roman Catholicism and Evangelical Protestantism is important, that is not “for the sole purpose of ‘listening’ to each other,” as Charles Cardinal Journet rightly states. In this connection, I shall distinguish three dimensions in the work of ecumenism following the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in its “Doctrinal Note on Some Aspects of Evangelization.” This Doctrinal Note states: “Above all, there is [1] listening, as a fundamental condition for any dialogue, then, [2] theological discussion, in which, by seeking to understand the beliefs, traditions and convictions of others, agreement can be found, at times hidden under disagreement.” This second dimension includes ecumenical apologetics. Such apologetics and receptive ecumenism are not at odds. It is best illustrated in a book such as Matthew Levering’s Mary’s Bodily Assumption. “Inseparably united with this second dimension is another essential [3] dimension of the ecumenical commitment: witness and proclamation of elements which are not particular traditions or theological subtleties, but which belong rather to the Tradition of the faith itself.”

Finally, receptive ecumenism as an exchange of gifts presupposes an ecumenism of penitence. The latter is an interior conversion of the heart, indeed, repentance, which is required as a precondition for engaging in ecumenical dialogue. Why this summons to conversion? “Christian unity is possible,” says John Paul, “provided that we are humbly conscious of having sinned against unity and are convinced of our need for conversion.” In this light, we can understand why an examination of conscience is required for authentic dialogue; confessing our sins, repentance, putting ourselves, by God’s grace, in that “interior space where Christ, the source of the Church’s unity, can effectively act, with all the power of his Spirit, the Paraclete.” The journey of ecumenical dialogue is thus an ongoing “dialogue of conversion,” on both sides, trusting in the reconciling power of the truth that is Christ, to overcome the obstacles to unity.

What do you think are the biggest challenges to staying “together” for Roman Catholics and Evangelical Protestants?

Sometimes ecumenical dialogue is made more difficult, indeed, impossible, when our words, judgments, and actions manifest a failure to deal with each other with understanding, truthfully, and fairly. “When undertaking dialogue, each side must presuppose in the other a desire for reconciliation, for unity in truth.” Indeed, as John Paul II adds, “Authentic ecumenism is a gift at the service of truth.” Therefore, a necessary sign of this encounter is that we have passed from “antagonism and conflict to a situation where each party recognizes the other as a partner.” “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Gal 5:14), and in St. Paul’s words, “especially those who are of the household of faith” (Gal 6:10).

by Casey McCorry

Casey McCorry

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Sacred Heart Major Seminary is a Christ-centered Catholic community of faith and higher learning committed to forming leaders who will proclaim the good news of Christ to the people of our time. As a leading center of the New Evangelization, Sacred Heart serves the needs of the Archdiocese of Detroit and contributes to the mission of the universal Church.