I was just a kid when the Second Vatican Council was brewing. It was called an ecumenical council; that is, a council meant to be universal in scope. The ecumenism that was of specific interest to the council was focused on communicating with non-Catholics; that is, there was interest in reducing unnecessary friction between religions, with particular interest in smothering the flames of dispute between Catholic and Protestant camps. And therein lies a problem, for smother them we did. It’s unfortunate that some of those flames were the flames of truth.
If you’re writing anything vaguely resembling Catholic apologetics and you want to be sure not to be published, just say something—anything—that can be construed as casting a bad light on Protestant underpinnings and you shall remain largely unread. We don’t want to foster a competitive atmosphere. The important thing, we’re told, is that people believe in Christ.
But is it that simple? Quickness, accuracy, and keenness of judgment or insight—that’s how the dictionary defines the word acumen. Has our ecumenism lost its acumen? (Sorry—couldn’t resist the wordplay). Perhaps the better question is, did it ever have any? And if not, what is the price for that?
The Lambeth Conference is a decennial assembly of bishops of the Anglican Communion convened by the Archbishop of Canterbury. At the 1920 conference, the bishops declared:
We utter an emphatic warning against the use of unnatural means for the avoidance of conception, together with the grave dangers—physical, moral and religious—thereby incurred, and against the evils with which the extension of such use threatens the race. In opposition to the teaching which, under the name of science and religion, encourages married people in the deliberate cultivation of sexual union as an end in itself, we steadfastly uphold what must always be regarded as the governing considerations of Christian marriage. One is the primary purpose for which marriage exists, namely the continuation of the race through the gift and heritage of children; the other is the paramount importance in married life of deliberate and thoughtful self-control.
Sounds almost Catholic, doesn’t it? This declaration came as no surprise to anyone. The entire Christian world was united in its opposition to contraception. In fact, it was illegal in all forty-eight states. But one decade later, the Lambeth Conference would reverse their opinion and be the first to step boldly upon the slippery slope, writing that “in those cases where there is such a clearly felt moral obligation to limit or avoid parenthood, and where there is a morally sound reason for avoiding complete abstinence, the Conference agrees that other methods may be used, provided that this is done in the light of the same Christian principles.”
And what are those “morally sound reasons”? What are those “Christian principles”? Weren’t the principles declared at the conference ten years earlier Christian principles? The important thing about the term “Christian principles” is the modifier: Christian. The principles can’t change because the modifier can’t change—Christ is unchangeable.
And what does this have to do with ecumenism? Absolutely everything. If you are a bishop today who is sixty-five years old, you were born in 1955 and came to manhood in the early 1970s. By that time, Protestants had been flying the birth control flag for decades as sect after sect gave up orthodoxy and went with the flow. Many Catholic bishops and theologians attending the second Vatican Council were certain the Council would lead the faithful to the promised land of so-called sexual freedom alongside our Protestant brothers and sisters. And though Pope St. Paul VI and the Holy Spirit stood in the way and Catholic dogma didn’t go there—because it can’t by definition—minds and hearts went there on their own. The Faith became weakened and compromised.
Ecumenism is another name for universalism, but the neo-ecumenism that largely owns the day is universal nicety and little more—it is Christian political correctness. We are told that we need to concentrate on our commonalities, not on what divides us. That concentration has a natural end—death to what differentiates us; death to the flames of truth. True ecumenism focuses on the differentiation and attempts to reach agreement, without which it cannot honestly be called ecumenical. In the words of Chesterton, “The aim of argument is differing in order to agree; the failure of argument is when you agree to differ.”
Statistically, we have become a Church of wet blankets. The 1930 Lambeth principle—“in those cases where there is such a clearly felt moral obligation to limit or avoid parenthood, and where there is a morally sound reason for avoiding complete abstinence, the Conference agrees that other methods may be used…”—has become the mantra of our age. Our culture is formed by a principle that says that procreation is incidental to sex, and sex to procreation. Wet-blanket ecumenism has secured the place of this poison in the Catholic community. Wet-blanket ecumenism has formed many of our priests and bishops. For us married Catholics, it’s possible that—concerning the state of our Church, and, by extension, our world—the buck stops with us.
Four and a half months after the pro-contraceptive proclamation at the Lambeth Conference, Pope Pius XI issued the encyclical Casti Connubii (Of Chaste Wedlock). Casti Connubii condemned contraception, but the central theme of the encyclical was the defense of the indissolubility of marriage. Pius XI correctly saw the normalization of contraception for what it was: a death knell to marriage. In turn, he saw the death of indissoluble marriage as the death of the family, and the death of the family as the death of all that is decent and good—the death of civilization.
It should come as no surprise then that divorce among Catholics, while less common than among other sects, is still common. It should be noted that the 1930 Lambeth proclamation was not made in a vacuum. Quite the opposite: it was made under great pressure—the secular newspapers of the time condemned it saying, “If the churches are to become organizations for political and scientific propaganda, they should be honest and reject the Bible, scoff at Christ as an obsolete and unscientific teacher, and strike out boldly as champions of politics and science as modern substitutes for the old-time religion” (The Washington Post, March 24, 1931).
Unlike the secular press of our times, which daily enshrines politics and science as the ultimate truths, the secular press of 1930 saw and were dismayed by the complicity of religious sects in this regard. In our times, the secular watchdogs are, of course, nearly absent from the mainstream press—suffocated by wet-blanket nicety and replaced by rabid science-worshipers who know absolutely nothing about science.
In 1900, the U.S. had a divorce to marriage ratio of 7.5%. But the pressure was on. By 1930, it was 17.4%, and by 2010, 52.9%. In many secular minds, marriage is an obsolete institution. If they have their way, civilization will collapse.
The rebuilding of the Church, and in turn, the world, is up to us. Politics and science won’t do the job. We are not priests, but we raise priests, and friars, and sisters in our homes. We are not bishops, but the priests we raise will become bishops. It’s a slow process. The waxing and waning of orthodoxy has been termed the swing of the pendulum—it is a very slow pendulum precisely because it is a generational pendulum, or perhaps even a multi-generational pendulum. God is not unaware of our pain, just as He is not unaware of our guilt in this. Corruption breeds corruption. I shall certainly not cast the first stone, but I will not stop speaking the truth, or defending the Faith, or acting in love. God will supply the rest.
[Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons]