Oh Those Painful Joints
Throughout his pontificate, Pope John Paul II has attempted to build ecumenical bridges between the Church and other faiths. He has encouraged dialogue among Catholics, Jews, Lutherans, Evangelical Protestants, Greek Orthodox and others in the interest of overcoming the divisions that separate us. All of this is good, no doubt. Discussion fosters understanding, and we should all be in search of truth. What I don�t understand, however, is the current conventional wisdom that each dialogue must culminate in a �Joint Statement.�
A joint statement is what�s left after everything we don�t agree on is stripped away. I can appreciate the benefit of searching for common ground in dialogue with an adversary. It can make for a much more pleasant conversation. Most Christians, at least, share a belief in a God-inspired Bible. There is common a ground and a good base for discussion. But Christian theological interpretation can be extremely diverse. In hammering out the joint statement, I suspect much time is wasted determining how much each side can bend without breaking. The result is often a long sentence that dances awkwardly around the critical issues. In the end, what has been gained?
In 1999, Lutherans and Catholics issued a joint statement attempting to find common ground in the topic of justification, a major area of disagreement since the Protestant revolt. Lutherans believe we are justified by faith alone. Catholics believe we are justified by grace alone, which we gain through faith and good works. The joint statement says, �By grace alone, in faith in Christ�s saving work and not because of any merit on our part, we are accepted by God and receive the Holy Spirit, who renews our hearts while equipping and calling us to good works.� Both Lutherans and Catholics can speak this sentence without choking. Does that mean both faiths now teach the same doctrine on justification? Not really.
Of course, joint statements can serve useful purposes when issued by diverse groups seeking a common goal. The problem occurs when the joint statement IS the common goal. If true Christian unity is the ultimate objective, we must go beyond mere discovery of commonalities. Rather, let us expose what causes our division.
What makes progress so difficult in such discussion is that compromise is generally not an option. When truth is at stake, there can be no compromise. Truth is the goal. If one has it, one shouldn�t try to change it. When we engage our separated brothers on the hot topics (the Real Presence, infant baptism, justification, Marian doctrines, and so forth), we have to be ready to go toe-to-toe. That is not to say we should engage in battle. Peter, our first Pope, (yeah I know, that�s another hot topic!) said, �Always be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope, but do it with gentleness and reverence . . . .�(1 Peter 3:15 NAB).
Our best hope for unity is to keep talking as Peter would have us do, but we must go beyond the joint statement to serious debate. The one who wins the debate, however, is not necessarily the one with the correct answer. We have to be well prepared. This requires education, study, persistence, and prayer. Unfortunately, some Catholics are not willing to put in the time. Their knowledge of God stagnated at an elementary grade level. When confronted by those who are better educated, they can be easily led astray. The results can be tragic. More about that later.