What is God’s Plan for Ecumenism?

That was the title of the episode of Perspectives: The Weekly Edition, which aired Firday night on Salt + Light TV.  Host Pedro Guevera Mann invited some representatives of the Canadian Council of Churches’ Commission on Faith & Witness to discuss the topic, and I was privileged to be interviewed along with my colleagues Dr. Mary Marrocco, and the Rev. Dr. Gilles Mongeau, SJ.

It is a huge topic, and we didn’t have nearly enough time, but it is wonderful that Salt + Light TV is showing an interest in ecumenism and trying to generate some discussion among their largely Catholic audience.

There isn’t an overwhelming interest in ecumenism on the grassroots level these days.  It was interesting to hear about why this is the case in Catholic circles.   In spite of clear teaching from Vatican II and subsequent magisterial documents like John Paul II’s Ut Unum Sint, many Catholics are still under the impression that ecumenism means bringing protestants “back to Rome.”    On the protestant side it would seem as if Christians are becoming more “ecumenical” in that denominational differences are no longer as signficant as they used to be.  Many people don’t really care at all about what denomination they belong to, as long as they feel at home in their local congregation.  But I think that it is precisely this dismissal of the significance of denominational differences that can undermine serious discussion about Christian unity.  If our differences don’t matter at all, then there is no reason to try to overcome them!

Still, the current situation is preferable to the hostilities of past generations.  And even if there is not an overwhelming interest in “official ecumenism” via bodies like the Canadian Council of Churches, there is, it seems to me, a lot of interest in “informal ecumenism,” as seen in some current trends in worship and spirituality (such as the growing interest in spiritual direction among evangelicals).

Salt + Light decided to do a show on ecumenism because this is the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, which runs from January 18 to 25 each year.   This year, the week of prayer is focused on the church in Jerusalem, and the resources for the week (which can be found here) were prepared by Chrisitans from Jerusalem.   The theme is “One in the Apostles’ Teaching,” taken from Acts 2:42.

I’ll leave you with my favourite prayer from this year’s Week of Prayer service:

Merciful God,
may your life-giving Spirit
move in every human heart,
that the barriers that divide us may crumble,
suspicions disappear,
and hatreds cease,
and that, with divisions healed,
your people might live in justice and peace.
We pray to the Lord.

Typology of Views on Charismatic Movements: Conclusion

To recap, I’ve been presenting a series of posts on charismatic movements, outlining a typology of views, as follows:

  • Charismatic more fundamental than institutional (Leonardo Boff).

While this survey shows that there is a significant body of literature on the theology of charisms and charismatic movements (and a wide divergence of viewpoints), I would argue that numerous questions remain which need to be addressed.

Significantly, for the most part, the literature on charisms has not been significantly incorporated into discussions of unity and diversity.   Of course, Cullman’s argument attempts to do this, but I would argue that he has disassociated the biblical idea of charisms from its original vocational context and applied it too liberally to all confessions, thereby inappropriately justifying continued separation across the board.  Also, it is apparent throughout his argument that his major concerns are with the Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and magisterial protestant traditions, but he offers no criteria by which we should distinguish these separations as “legitimate” as compared with more recent protestant schisms.  Would he support, for example, the continual splintering of pentecostal and independent charismatic churches on the grounds of protecting their particular charism?

Further, his model suggests that there is a charismatic gift at the root of all church divisions.  While I believe there are many confessions or denominations in the Church today that began with such a misapprehension of charisms, this is certainly not the case in every situation.  It seems nonsensical to speak of the English reformation, for example, being rooted an unrecognized charism.  We might speak of Anglican charisms that developed in the subsequent history of Anglicanism, but if the separation of the Church of England from Rome was not rooted in a charism, we must question the validity of using such post-division gifts as a reason for continued structural separation.

Other uses of the idea of “gifts” as a way of discussing diversity in ecumenical documents have not delved into the biblical theology of charisms, nor asked questions about the appropriateness of applying the term to traditions / denominations / confessions.  Though the idea of “complementary gifts” has been a helpful way to build ecumenical bridges, it should not be used to construct a positive vision for ecclesial unity which justifies continued “separation.”

Where the idea of charisms has been incorporated in a more sustained way into a vision of the unity of the Church is in Catholic literature on the religious life, but little work has been done in attempting to apply the insights of this perspective to protestant reform movements. The comparison has sometimes been made, but not explored in much theological depth (See, for example, Outler’s remarks on Methodism as an “order,” in That the World may Believe, 54).

The weakness of some Catholic approaches, especially those which stress the complementarity of charism and institution, is that they are not helpful in interpreting the divisive history of renewal and reform movements in the life of the Church.  The question is of paramount importance, particularly for the many evangelical protestant denominations which began as reform, renewal, or missionary movements, with no intention of starting new “churches.”  In evangelical circles, partly because of the prevalence of free church ecclesiology, the tendency has been to emphasize the significance of the movements and downplay the importance of historical continuity.

All this is to say that I think significant work needs to be done on the topic of  “group” charisms, and how this concept  fits into the larger discussion about the limits of legitimate diversity in the Church.

Typology of Views of Charismatic Movements, Part 5 continued: Charismatic Enlivens Institutional

Within this perspective we can also include some of the literature on charisms and the religious life in the Roman Catholic tradition (a word of clarification for those who aren’t familiar with Catholic terminology: Catholics refer to the “orders” within Catholicism (Dominicans, Franciscans, Jesuits) as the “religious life”). Since Vatican II it has become increasingly common for religious to speak about their movements as having a particular charism which is to be preserved and cultivated for the good of the whole Church.  Vatican II didn’t specifically apply the term “charism” to religious life in this way, but Perfectae Caritatis §1 speaks of the various gifts (variis donis) that are evident in the variety of forms of religious life, and also exhorts the religious to preserve the “spirit of founders.” Subsequently, however, both Paul VI and John Paul II used the term specifically in relation to the religious life.  See Evangelica testificatio §11, 12; Mutuae relationes §11, 13; Redemptionis donum §15.

Surprisingly, there has been little in-depth critical theological reflection done on the implications of applying the biblical idea of charisms to religious life. The most extensive treatment can be found in a short book by John Lozano, a Claretian Father and theologian, entitled Foundresses, Founders, and their Religious Orders (1983). Lozano’s discussion of the role of religious life as charismatic reforming movement comports well with the more general framework provided by Snyder and Sullivan, that is, viewing charisms as an enlivening force which renews the institutional life of the Church, like “lava” pushing against the “hard crust” of established institutions.

But when these charisms erupt at the surface, from the interior where the Spirit of Pentecost is burning like lava, they must necessarily push against the hard crust which has been hardening for centuries.  The People of God are not just a charismatic reality (although they are a charismatic reality essentially), but also an institutional entity.  The Church has its firm structures and its ministers, people whom God certainly helps in their care for his people, but people who are likewise conditioned by a certain mentality (61).

However, Lozano specifically gives attention to how such charismatic activity becomes itself institutionalized in religious families, and specifically to the question of how a charism can be said to be “transmitted” via such an institution – a question which has not received sufficient attention. It should be noted, however, that Rahner does deal with this question in The Dynamic Element in the Church (58-62), as discussed in a previous post. Lozano argues that, strictly speaking, a charism cannot be transmitted, but must come directly from God.

The charism, as we have said, always comes directly from the Lord.  It is not given by the Church, by any member of the Church (including founders and foundresses), or by the religious community  The Lord, by means of his Spirit, gives it to each individual… (76)

In a broader sense, however, the charism is transmitted by the particular religious institute in that the community becomes a context where that particular charism is cultivated, deepened, and actualized by the stable structures (i.e., the rule, constitutions, spiritual theology and practices) of the institute.

The gift received by the father or mother, and directly from God by their followers, is collectively cultivated, proposed in spiritual doctrine to new generations, deepened and actualized.  Its principle elements, the aim of the Institute or the “primordial concern” of the community, are described in the Constitutions, the form of life and spiritual environment are also described in them, as a point of consideration and source of light and nourishment for successive generations.  In this less proper sense, the charism is transmitted (76).

Religious join a particular institute, then, “because we realize that our vocation essentially coincides with that of its members and with the aims which this institution pursues” (75).

The picture that emerges from this perspective, then, is that of a vocational diversity in the church, evidenced in the various movements of reform and renewal which have at their root a particular charism.  The fruitfulness, functionality, and vitality of the movements depends on their continual interpretation and actualization of that charism in their own institutional structures.

This in fact became the basis for a program of renewal of the religious life after Vatican II. Perfectae Caritatis §2b speaks of this in terms of “loyal recognition” and “safekeeping” of “the spirit of the founders,” which give the various communities “their own special character and purpose.” Elizabeth McDonough summarizes the relevant papal documents relating to this renewal, and drawing upon them, identifies a set of presuppositions which underlie this perspective. If religious communities are in fact based upon a particular charism given to the Church, then existing communities must ask themselves a) if they indeed have a charism; b) if they know what their charism is; and c) if they are prepared to strive to live accordingly.  If their answer to any of those questions is in the negative, the religious community will not survive. (McDonough, “Charisms and Religious Life,” in The Church and the Consecrated Life, 135).

How much of this thinking could be transferred to protestant reform movements?  Can we speak, for example, of  a Methodist charism, or a Salvation Army charism, or a Christian and Missionary Alliance charism?  I think, historically speaking, we can easily make the case that these movements all started out in a way similar to a Catholic order: they were not trying to be “churches,” but instead trying to live out a very specific vocation within the Church.   They brought their particular charism to the Church, and the reaction was, as Lozano describes it, somewhat volcanic.  But do these groups remain focused on their founding charism today?  Is this still a helpful way to understand their place in the universal Church?  To what extent can an independent protestant movement sustain a focus on a particular charism, once it starts to take on “churchly” functions (one or two generations down the road)?

Typology of Views of Charismatic Movements, Part 5: Charismatic Enlivens Institutional

A number of interpretations of charismatic movements centre around the idea of the enlivening effect of charisms on the institutional elements of the Church.  Such perspectives view both the established structures of the Church and the continued emergence of new reforming movements as normal and part of the Spirit’s work in the Church.

Along these lines, Howard Snyder attempts to provide what he calls a “mediating perspective” of church renewal, incorporating both the institutional and charismatic aspects of the Church.  Noting that institutional and charismatic views of the Church individually have their limitations, Snyder argues for a “a theory of church life and renewal which combines insights from both the institutional and charismatic views,” not seeking a middle ground but attempting to “incorporate the truth of both.” In his view both stable institutional structures and dynamic renewal movements are legitimate and in some sense normal aspects of the Church’s life in history, although the merits and faithfulness of individual movements and institutions could be debated” (Signs of the Spirit, 274-275).

The reform movements spring up within the institutional church, bringing new life and growth, analogous to a new sprout growing out of a stump which appears dead.  Snyder then offers what he considers to be the “marks” of this mediating model, which is based upon the idea of authentic reform coming through ecclesiolae in ecclesia – radical and more intimate expressions of the church which exist in the Church, for the good of the whole Church, maintaining some form of institutional ties with the larger body (Signs of the Spirit, 276-280).

Francis Sullivan, a Roman Catholic reflecting on the charismatic renewal movement in Catholicism, offers a similar view of the Church and the place of renewal movements in the Church’s life.  Sullivan speaks of the official sacramental ministries and charismatic movements as two “equally important” ways in which the Spirit gives life to the Church.

There are two distinct, but equally important, ways that the Holy Spirit breathes life into the body of Christ: on the one hand, by his covenant relationship with the church, guaranteeing the effectiveness of its sacraments and official ministries, and on the other, by his unpredictable and often surprising charismatic interventions (Charisms and Charismatic Renewal, 47).

The official ministries of the Church exist to safeguard and pass on the tradition, but charismatic movements are given “for the purpose of shaking the church out of the complacency and mediocrity that inevitably creep into any institution” (47).  Sullivan is comfortable speaking of the official structures of the Church as institutional, and of ascribing an inevitable stultifying character to those institutions, which puts him closer to someone like Snyder than to Rahner or Ratzinger.

In addition to Catholic religious orders, Sullivan also suggests that many movements that ended up becoming sects or separate church bodies began as charismatic movements within the Church.  Their separation indicates a failure to renew the Church, but it need not indicate that the separated movements were not in fact the work of the Spirit, because blame for separation often lies on both sides, and at times has been due to a resistance to reform on the part of the Church.

I certainly do not think that the fact of separation by itself is proof that the movement in question could never have been an authentic work of the Holy Spirit, because there is also the possibility that it was rather the refusal of the Church at that time to admit its need of reform and accept renewal that led to the alienation and eventual separation (49).

Without going into detail, Sullivan suggests that “the history of Western Christianity in the last four hundred years has been profoundly marked by alienations of this kind, whether from the Catholic Church in the sixteenth century, or from various Protestant bodies in the following centuries” (49).

Sullivan also notes that, while for much of this period, Catholics simply denied that the Holy Spirit was at work protestant bodies, Vatican II affirmed that the Spirit works not only in individuals but also through churches and ecclesial bodies outside of Catholicism. On this see Unitatis Redintegratio §§3 and 4.

Moreover, some and even very many of the significant elements and endowments which together go to build up and give life to the Church itself, can exist outside the visible boundaries of the Catholic Church: the written word of God; the life of grace; faith, hope and charity, with the other interior gifts of the Holy Spirit, and visible elements too. All of these, which come from Christ and lead back to Christ, belong by right to the one Church of Christ (§3).

…Catholics must gladly acknowledge and esteem the truly Christian endowments from our common heritage which are to be found among our separated brethren. It is right and salutary to recognize the riches of Christ and virtuous works in the lives of others who are bearing witness to Christ, sometimes even to the shedding of their blood…Nor should we forget that anything wrought by the grace of the Holy Spirit in the hearts of our separated brethren can be a help to our own edification. Whatever is truly Christian is never contrary to what genuinely belongs to the faith; indeed, it can always bring a deeper realization of the mystery of Christ and the Church (§4).

I’ll continue the discussion of this perspective with another post on Catholic literature about charisms and the religious life (religious orders, etc.).

Typology of Views of Charismatic Movements, Part 4: Charismatic Complementary to Institutional

Another approach to this question of the makeup of the primitive church attempts propose that the charismatic and the institutional aspects of the Church should be taken as complementary. In relation to the discussion of the constitution of the primitive Christian communities, Leonhard Goppelt was a particularly influential representative of this perspective, arguing that both charismatic gifts and offices were constitutive of the Church from the very beginning, strengthening his case by arguing that offices were both instituted by Christ and a functional necessity for the church as a historical reality (see Apostolic and Post-Apostolic Times, 1977).

The teaching on charisms in the documents of Vatican II presents a similar attempt at stressing the complementarity of the institutional and charismatic, speaking of the “hierarchical and charismatic” gifts through which the Spirit directs and equips the Church (Lumen Gentium, §4). A fundamental harmony between the charismatic and hierarchical gifts is presupposed here, in which the hierarchy “submits” to the working of the Spirit by endorsing and approving of those endowed with charismatic gifts.  The chapter of Lumen Gentium which deals with the religious life makes this clear:

“Submissively following the promptings of the Holy Spirit, the hierarchy also endorses rules formulated by eminent men and women, and authentically approves later modifications.  Moreover, by its watchful and shielding authority, the hierarchy keeps close to communities established far and wide for the upbuilding of Christ’s body, so that they can grow and flourish in accord with the spirit of the founders” (Lumen Gentium §45).

Shortly after the council, Gabriel Murphy, a Roman Catholic brother, completed a study of the theology of charisms, which included a chapter summarizing the use of the term at Vatican II (Charisms and Church Renewal, 1965).  His summary of Lumen Gentium’s teaching on charisms stresses how the Church is aided by “two forms of assistance,” hierarchical and charismatic gifts, both of which come from the Spirit (123).  The two kinds of gifts cannot be essentially divided or separated, but should rather be conceived of as “overlapping” and permeating each other.

“As we have seen, there is not and cannot be an essential division or separation between these two aspects.  There is rather an overlapping or permeation of one by the other.” (125)

The charisms then, far from being a minor aspect of ecclesiology, are “a structural element in the Church,” granted to all the faithful, and bringing about renewal (142). The complementarity in this case of course implies both that those in authority accept the Spirit’s work through the charismatic movements, and that the movements themselves accept that the hierarchy is also charismatically based. Murphy argues that this is what the sixteenth century reformers rejected – the charismatic nature of the hierarchy (30-31, 125).

A variation on this position comes from Joseph Ratzinger, who rejects the institutional-charismatic discussion as completely unhelpful in attempting to understand and explain the place of reform movements in the Church (I refer to the current Pope by his former name, as the text in question was written before he became Benedict XVI).  This is based not an objection to the theology of charisms but on his rejection of the category “institution,” because the Church’s official ministry is based fundamentally on the sacrament of orders, and by its very nature transcends the sociological category of “institution.”

He writes, “this “ministry” is a “sacrament,” and hence clearly transcends the usual sociological understanding of institutions.” (“The Ecclesial Movements: A Theological Reflection on their Place in the Church,” in Movements in the Church, 1999, 25).  To speak of the Church’s ministry as an institution implies, in Ratzinger’s view, that ministry is something which the Church “can dispose of herself” and “can be determined of her own imitative,” views which are clearly inadequate in light of the ministry’s sacramental character. He continues,

“Only secondarily is the sacrament realised through a call on the part of the Church. But primarily it comes into being by God’s call, that is to say, only at the charismatic and pneumatological level.  It can only be accepted and lived by virtue of the newness of the vocation and by the freedom of the pneuma.  Since that is so, and since the Church cannot simply appoint “officials” by herself, but must await the call from God… That is why it has been clear from the beginning that this ministry cannot be produced by the institution, but can only be invoked in prayer from God” (26).

The Church itself, then, including its enduring historical and ministry, is characterized as a charismatic entity, an “irruption of something else,” which is “intrinsically iuris divini” (27). While Ratzinger does allow that there are institutional elements in the Church which exist of purely human right,he will not allow that the Church’s ministry is one of these, and thus he rejects an approach to the question of movements in the church by way of an opposition between charism and institution.

He prefers therefore to discuss “movements” in the Church under the category of the Church’s universal apostolicity. Ratzinger is arguing that apostolicity has always had two aspects, the local and the universal, with the unpredictable reform movements identified as part of the church’s universal apostolic mission.  For Ratzinger this begins with the primitive Church, which had both local ministers and itinerant preachers (charismatics according to other perspectives).   He thus roughly follows Harnack’s interpretation of early Church structure here, arguing that in the second century the local apostolic ministries came to dominate the universal, though Ratzinger believes this was a necessary development.  The “universal” apostolicity of the Church has continually been present in various movements, such as monasticism, the mendicant orders, and the clerical and apostolic movements which emerged in the post-Reformation period (33-47).

Ratzinger’s perspective is therefore similar to Rahner’s, in that he insists on the charismatic nature of the church’s ministry, but Rahner is more willing to grant the tension between what he calls the two structures of the Church, and continues to view “institution” as a helpful category, so long as it is clear that the Church’s institutions are charismatic.  Ratzinger, on the other hand, essentially fuses institution and charism into one category, blurring what I think is a helpful distinction made by Rahner.   So, while I’m sympathetic to Ratzinger’s concern that we don’t treat the Church’s ministries as mere institutions, I think Rahner’s discussion of “institutional” vs. “non-institutional” charismata answers these concerns without losing the insights that we can gain by examining the stable structures of the Church as institutions.