Notes on the Talk Given by Fr. Richard John Neuhaus on June 6, 2008,
St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary,
By The Rev. Leander S. Harding, Ph.D.
Fr. John Neuhaus is one of the most well-known Roman Catholic priests in the country. He was for many years an equally well-known inner-city Lutheran pastor and civil rights activist who marched with Martin Luther King. Some of his old friends from the 1960s find his conversion to Roman Catholicism and his neo-conservative politics hard to fathom. His most famous book is a protest against militant secularism in public life, called The Naked Public Square. Fr. Neuhaus has been very active in ecumenical affairs for many years and is one of the organizers with Charles Colson and J.I. Packer of Evangelicals and Catholics together, a group which has made some important statements on ethics and American life.
Fr. Neuhaus began with a phrase that he repeated throughout his talk that reconciliation between East and West is an eschatological hope in that it can only come by God’s grace and in God’s time and it would seem by some dramatic intervention of God, but nevertheless at the same time we maintain unity between East and West as an eschatological hope we should also pursue it with a sense of temporal urgency.
Fr. Neuhaus gave thanks for his affiliation with St. Vladimir’s over the years and said that the seminary was holy ground to him because of the wonderful ecumenical conversations in which he had participated on the seminary grounds. He made special reference to his friendship with the late Dean of the seminary Alexander Schmemann whose mennshlichkeit Fr. Neuhaus well remembers.
Fr. Neuhaus stated that the Roman Catholic Church is irrevocably committed to reunion and cited official Vatican documents and the letters and speeches of both the most recent and the current Pope in evidence. He stated that hope for unity with the churches coming out of the Reformation seems to be receding as never before and that the unity of all Christians is vastly impaired by the proliferation of Christian communities especially in the Global South. There is a special closeness between East and West and reunion here is the most feasible front for ecumenical progress. “The wounds in the body of Christ began the rift between East and West and the healing should begin there as well.” “In Ecumenism readiness is all and faithfulness is all.”
Fr. Neuhaus reported a conversation with John Paul II in the 1990’s in which he asked the Pope what one thing he wanted to achieve in his pontificate and the answer came, “Christian unity.” The Pope hoped that the healing could begin where the division had begun.
Fr. Neuhaus criticized the idea that Roman Catholic interest in ecumenism expressed any sort of imperial agenda. “The dynamic that drives R.C. ecumenism is not power but weakness. The Catholic Church cannot be what she claims to be apart from other Christians, especially the Orthodox, and Anglicans until recently, as we witness the destruction of that hope once held so fervently.”
Fr. Neuhaus said that the newer churches in the Global South don’t see unity as necessary to being the church but for Roman Catholics the Church is, “the apostolically ordered Body of Christ through time.” Catholics and Orthodox who see themselves as the one true church without a need for reunion have unwittingly adopted a Protestant view of the church because the Church must be a visible unity to be a proper witness to God’s salvation. “Divisions are scandalous and ecumenism requires conversion.”
Fr. Neuhaus said that ecumenical dialogue needs to be a dialogue of conversion. There needs to be a vertical aspect of dialogue, “an acknowledgement that we have sinned.” “This creates the space where Christ can act.”
He referred to John Paul II’s invitation to redefine Peter’s office while not denying the essence of its mission. Neuhaus regretted the relative lack of response to this invitation. He quoted the Orthodox theologian, Myendorf who also regretted that the Orthodox had found no way to respond. Neuhaus approved of the response to the question in the ARCIC(Anglican Roman Catholic International Commission) documents but questioned the degree to which ARCIC was truly reflective of Anglican identity.
Fr. Neuhaus quotes a French theologian. I am not sure I got the name correctly but I think it was Claimont, who thought that the truth that the primacy of Peter was to be exercised in a concilliar way was lost in Vatican I but regained in Vatican II. This theologian was critical of the direction in Orthodoxy toward autocephalous national churches and was also critical of what he called the reductive episcopalianism of Patriarch Bartholomew and Zizioulas. This is the communio ecclesiology that finds the fundamental identity of the church in the Eucharistic fellowship of the local bishop.
Fr. Neuhaus pointed out that full reunion will require essential dogmatic agreement and the acceptance of each other’s dogmas as de fide. He thought there was no essential dogmatic disagreement on the procession of the Spirit.
He suggested that, “It is possible in God’s plan that we are the early church. Therefore eschatological hope is reason for temporal urgency and our response to the quest for reconciliation matters eternally.”
Fr. Neuhaus ended by making reference to the changes in American culture and church life to which he has been a witness. He spoke of the ecumenical movement of the 1960’s and 70’s which was driven by the ecumenical liberal Protestantism. He found it remarkable that this institution which he likened to the American Medical Association or to the Ivy League universities had “destroyed itself” and ceased to have meaningful cultural influence. The old ecumenical movement in this country, which was perhaps superficial, has collapsed with the self-destruction of the Mainline churches. “Ecumenism must be reconstituted on a drive to go deeper and only the Orthodox and the Roman Catholics can do this.”