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Hello from the Other Side of Christian Unity

I recently received the latest issue of Marquette’s journal Philosophy & Theology. In coordination with the Karl Rahner Theological Society, every other issue features a series of Rahner papers. This issue, the papers focus upon ecumenical relations and church unity. Many revisit Unity of the Churches: An Actual Possibility, a book co-authored by Karl Rahner and Heinrich Fries and originally published just before Rahner’s death in 1984. There are several significant contributions in this volume, the first of which was written by Catherine E. Clifford, who teaches systematic and historical theology at St. Paul University in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. She writes:

The Rahner-Fries proposal was not aimed principally at [Pentecostals and Evangelicals], but focused more on the Catholic and classical Reformation churches—Anglican, Lutheran, and Reformed. Rahner and Fries were pitching to the “still separated mainline churches” (Fries and Rahner 1983, II.v,36). If their proposal were to be received today—and I believe there may be good reasons to do so—it might potentially bring about a more radical unity of the classical creedal and liturgical churches of Christianity, revealing more sharply the contrasting cultures of Orthodox-Catholic and classical Protestant Christianity versus the expanding third wave. In my view, the future shape of Christianity will be determined by a confrontation—one hopes in the context of a respectful dialogical encounter—between these broad movements. Indeed, the tensions inherent in the encounter of these ecclesial cultures are increasingly experienced within the mainline churches themselves today. Consider the rendering of the Anglican Communion, or the growing influence of evangelizing movements within Catholicism. What is at stake is the continuing claim of the churches to an uninterrupted embodiment of the apostolic witness and adherence to the fundamental truths at the heart of the early creeds. Any temptation to embark upon a polarization between those movements which would juxtapose orthodoxy and orthopraxy would risk causing a serious fragmentation of the ecumenical movement. The Rahner-Fries proposal, together with Rahner’s many writings on ecumenical theology, far from accepting such tension as inevitable, still has the potential to serve as a resource for considering how to hold together in right balance the churches’ responsibility to give common witness in a divided world, while at the same time attending to the serious work of giving an account of their common hope in theological, doctrinal, liturgical, and socio-structural form. Neither a comprehensive doctrinal unity nor a full expression of common witness has yet fully been achieved. Future progress on either count depends upon the churches’ willingness to move forward boldly in faith along the path to full communion. Qui n’avance pas recule! (Who does not advance, retreats).

— Catherine E. Clifford, “Christian Unity: A Real Possibility in the 21st Century?” Philosophy & Theology Volume 27 Number 2 (2015): 472–473

As mainline churches such as the Presbyterian Church (USA) continue to hemorrhage members, I wonder what their response will be. Large churches such as these often seek social influence as a way to deliver their message and make an impact. When the numbers continue to slide, some may seek an ecumenical means of remaining significant. It seems they would be much more motivated to unite than they were thirty years ago.

Something along the lines of what Clifford proposes might be a solution for many in the mainline Presbyterian Church. No doubt there are deep conflicts between Catholic social thought and the trends accelerating their numeric slip in mainline churches, but such a union is at least orbiting within the realm of possibility. If Clifford’s anticipated conflict occurs, ecclesial life on the other side may look vastly different. Previously insurmountable obstacles may one day be resolved through an appeal to principles such as the sensus fidei/fideliumleading to what would indeed be a “more radical unity.”


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