By Adam DeVille
Thirty years ago this fall I began working for Christian unity when I attended a gathering of the Canadian Council of Churches in Quebec City for all those of us who were going to the seventh general assembly of the World Council of Churches in Canberra, Australia in February 1991. After that very memorable assembly I continued to travel around the world (eventually making it to five of seven continents) as moderator of the WCC’s Youth Working Group.
By the time I returned from teaching in Ukraine in 2001, where I encountered the personal pain of Orthodox-Catholic division first-hand and repeatedly, I knew that I wanted the ecumenical problem of papal authority to be the focus of my doctoral dissertation, and so it turned out to be, published a decade later by the University of Notre Dame Press as Orthodoxy and the Roman Papacy: Ut Unum Sint and the Prospects of East-West Unity.
I mention this history only to say that it has now been three decades since I first heard the phrase “ecumenical winter” and I thought I had seen the worst of it off. But perhaps not. Recent blasts of Catholic hatred towards fellow Christians have been almost demonic in their frigidity.
On the very eve of this year’s Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, online mobs of Catholics managed to make themselves so repellent that an invitation to use a Catholic church for an Episcopalian ordination collapsed. This “offer of hospitality” and “act of charity” extended by Bishop Barry Knestout of the Catholic Diocese of Richmond to his local Episcopalian colleagues ended up being refused by the Episcopalians who saw, rightly and sadly, that they had awakened such contempt in their Catholic brethren as to cause more problems and pain than the convenience of using their building was worth to anybody. What a splendid counter-witness on the eve of a week dedicated to Christians praying and working for unity!
My question for such Catholics as signed the online petition against use of a Catholic parish is this: whom do you think you have convinced to draw closer to Christ by your actions? Whose mind have you changed, encouraging a greater openness to Catholic Christianity? Has the countenance of the Catholic Church shone more brightly, clearly, and attractively as a result of your sanctimonious hostility that rendered even the use of a Catholic building for just a few hours so toxic?
Here I would like to tell these petitioners and bullies a story I tell every semester to my students, as I did just last week when my Prayer and Worship class began. I tell them of my maternal grandfather, in interwar Scotland, going to church as a very young man only to be regularly accosted, on the way out of his Protestant gospel tabernacle each Sunday evening, by a man who positioned himself at the doorway and fancied himself some kind of pugilistic pseudo-evangelist. This man regularly accosted my grandfather, grabbing him by the lapels and getting his contorted face into my grandfather’s with a snarling question: “Sonny! Have you been saved yet?”
My grandfather shook him off in silence for a couple of weeks before telling his father that either this man was told to back off or else the next time he did that my grandfather was going to punch him in the nose. Apparently my great-grandfather had a word with this man who backed off, sparing my grandfather the opportunity to indulge the boxing skills he would later hone in the Royal Air Force.
Which of you, I ask my students, would have found that man’s approach a convincing sales tactic? Would you want to buy even a stick of gum from such a man, never mind join his church? Who of you would want to find out more about this salvation and this savior at the hands of such a man as this? How many of you find such an approach an attractive invitation to a deeper exploration of Christianity?
No hands ever go up, so then I ask them this: how many of you find such an approach a disincentive to faith? How many of you find it would make you less interested in learning about Jesus Christ? How many of you can see how counter-productive this is? At this point all hands are in the air.
This ecumenical hostility was just a tempest in a local teacup compared to the fury awakened by the cardinal prefect of the Roman dicastery for liturgy and sacraments whose forthcoming book on the priesthood, with, apparently, some modest contributions from the retired bishop of Rome, has made clear the contempt of said prefect and a lot of other Roman Catholics for Eastern Orthodox Christians and Eastern Catholic Christians, and our practice of a married priesthood.
It is bad enough that Sarah continues propagating wholesale nonsense about an “ontological link” between celibacy and priesthood. (I deal with that rubbish in my forthcoming Married Catholic Priests, under contract with the University of Notre Dame Press and to appear in late 2020 or early 2021.) Sarah’s philosophical gibberish is a tendentious distortion of the Latin tradition itself.
But what is worse is that in excerpts of this book published in Le Figaro Sarah’s rant becomes ecumenically destructive as when, e.g., he denigrates married priests as second class and calls them, inter alia, a “a breach, a wound in the coherence of the priesthood.” Sarah’s hysterical and apocalyptic views are the true wounds here to the hearts and minds of thousands of Eastern Catholic clergy and their families and to any hopes for unity with the Orthodox.
And with what masterful timing all this has taken place! Masterful, that is, by our master below, the father of lies and hatred. For these things emerged, as I noted earlier, on the eve of the Week of Prayer for Christian unity. And what, pray tell, is this year’s theme? “They showed us unusual kindness” (Acts 28:2).
Of whom in the Catholic Church today could that be said? If we cannot be kind to even our fellow communicants and their diverse traditions—as between Latin and Eastern Catholics on married priesthood—nor kind to our fellow Christians, why should the world pay us the least attention? Do we not see how our rancor and disdain is a counter-evangelical witness, perverting the proclamation of the gospel? If we cannot be basically and simply (never mind “unusually”) kind towards one another, are we not sinning against the Holy Spirit, one of whose fruits is indeed kindness?
Associate professor and director of humanities at the University of Saint Francis, Ft. Wayne, IN.; and author of Everything Hidden Shall Be Revealed: Ridding the Church of Abuses of Sex and Power (Angelico Press, 2019)