In several recent church papers have appeared several interesting “footnotes” to various ecumenical endeavors. These footnotes more than the items which capture the headlines in the ecclesiastical press show the supreme folly of much of modern and liberal ecumenicity.
Tensions in the Roman Catholic Church continue unabated. These tensions revolve around strong liberal men in the Romish hierarchy who are intent upon leading the Church into new paths and a conservative pope who is trying to hold the line against all but irresistible pressures.
There is the matter of birth control, far from settled. Pope Paul has insisted on the traditional stand of the Romish Church. In his recent encyclical, he has made all artificial methods of birth control illegal under canon law. Only the rhythm method is approved. While some bishops, especially in this country, are trying hard to suppress opposition to the pope’s stand, criticism is freely made in this country and abroad by priests and higher-echelon clergy. Many clerics have been disciplined for their refusal to bow before papal edict. And the people themselves simply go their own way practicing birth control as they always have. Although the pope has made several impassioned pleas for support of his stand, his word goes unheeded in many parts of the Church.
But tension in doctrinal matters is also increasing. Throughout the Church there are many who no longer are willing to accept traditional Romish doctrine. They are intent on going the way of Protestant liberal thought and are challenging the Church’s right to dictate doctrine. An example of this is a new catechism book published about a year ago by the Romish hierarchy in the Netherlands. In this book several important doctrines of the Church have been denied. One such doctrine is the truth of the virgin birth of Christ. High Vatican officials have, several times, warned the Dutch hierarchy to conform to official Church teaching. But the clerics in the Netherlands have steadfastly refused.Newsweek commented on this in a recent issue:
Looking wan and worried, Pope Paul VI used a general audience at the Vatican last week to criticize dissenting priests—and liberal bishops—who, he said, are duty-bound to defend the letter of the church’s doctrines. “Who today speaks of hell?” he asked in a poignant departure from his prepared text. “This is not liked and not discussed. Everyone chooses the truths he likes.”
The Pope’s complaint came only five days after a commission of six cardinals had issued a public demand to the liberal Dutch hierarchy to revise its controversial catechism for adults. After a year of squabbling with conservative Vatican representatives, the Dutch still refuse to alter certain passages that leave such beliefs as the virgin birth of Jesus open to further doctrinal development.
Pope Paul, it seems, sees no room for such reinterpretation. In his speech, he unambiguously affirmed his own belief that Catholic doctrine must be understood precisely as it has been explained in the past. “The very formulas in which doctrine has been thoughtfully and authoritatively defined cannot be given up,” he warned. “When it comes to its own teaching, the church is intransigent and dogmatic—at any cost.”
The issue more and more revolves around the question of the supreme authority of the pope. And all this has important implications for the ecumenical movement. On the one hand, the Romish Church is about finished with an infallible pope who speaks ex cathedra, who, as the infallible mouthpiece of Christ is able to pronounce infallible doctrine. And, in connection with this, the Church is about finished with a supreme authority in the pope who can impose his will absolutely on the rest of the Church. The movement is towards freedom of thought and ethics and the movement is not going to be stopped by such a conservative as Paul VI and his curia. The pope’s latest speeches have sounded more and more plaintive—as if he himself realizes he is fighting a losing battle. And surely he is. He may be able to stem the tide a bit. But it is only a matter of time and the forces of change will have swept over the Vatican as well as other citadels of Romish power.
But on the other hand, Protestantism is eager to seek union with Rome and bring both ecclesiastical branches of the church together again. One big barricade is papal authority. If present trends continue and the authority of the pope is sufficiently eroded to enable freedom of thought and ethics, the major obstacle to reunion with Rome will have been removed. Much of Protestantism is willing to accept a pope as a sort of moral and spiritual head of Christendom; one who speaks for the Church (rather than to it) and represents, in a figurehead, the unity of the whole church. There is evidence of this even in Reformed circles. A plea was made a short time ago by Prof. J. Plomp of the Gereformeerde Kerken for apastor pastorum. On the occasion of his inauguration into the chair of Church Polity at Kampen he delivered an address in which he asked for an element of episcopalianism into the Reformed Churches. Particularly he wanted a Synodical bishop which he considered to be a desirable thing. This is not far removed from a pope who has no judicial authority in the Church but does have moral authority.
And so, gradually, the way is being smoothed towards merger.
It was reported in these columns some time ago that COCU (Consultations on Church Union) had decided to proceed with union without a formal plan of union. Ten denominations are participating in these talks and the leaders envision a future denomination numbering in excess of 30,000,000 people. The idea behind such “de facto merger” is to merge now and decide later the basis for merger. Some preliminary work was done and a small book was published entitled “Principles of Church Union” in which certain aspects of a basis for the new denomination were adopted. But the whole thing ran into several snags and some opposition. Hence, leaders are afraid that if the movement waits until a detailed plan of merger is drawn up, a plan which can serve as a confessional, doctrinal, church political and liturgical basis for the super denomination, that merger will be put off indefinitely. So the thing to do is to merge first and gradually (perhaps over a period of several decades) settle the differences in doctrine, church polity and liturgy. The hope is that a basis for union will gradually evolve. This is ecumenism with a vengeance.
Plans are proceeding well along these lines. Recently a report was made to COCU leaders on the progress of de facto union. The report provided information of merger on local, regional, national and international levels. Many examples were cited of cooperation between participating churches in the areas of “united ministry in local church situations to ecumenical cooperation in Christian education, theological education, and in urban and overseas mission work.” (Quoted from the Presbyterian Journal) The report also spoke of the fact that in some of these areas of cooperation, Roman Catholic and Jewish groups were participating.
Certainly this is evidence of the contention that has repeatedly been made that the unity of the body of Christ is something with which these men are not in the least concerned. They want unity for unity’s sake. They are willing to merge without any agreement in doctrine or church polity or liturgy. Institutional unity is the only thing which interests them. Such a unity can surely never reflect the unity of the Church which belongs to our Lord Jesus Christ.
The role of the negro church in ecumenical affairs is increasingly capturing the attention of church leaders. Here too there is not complete agreement on the best way to go about this. On the one hand, white Protestantism feels the pressing need of bringing negro churches into the ecumenical movement. But, on the other hand, there is a growing feeling among negro church leaders that the time has come to express their racial consciousness and culture in ecclesiastical affairs as well as elsewhere.
The Presbyterian Journal has reported on a meeting of the National Committee of Negro Churchmen. Iii this report several interesting developments were mentioned.
The Committee of Negro Churchmen met to discuss the problem of maintaining a unique black tradition within the Church. The meeting had the approval of the United Presbyterian Council on Church and Race. This committee of the UPUSA is quoted by thePresbyterian Journal as saying that “the formation of all-black action groups is one of the most hopeful signs to emerge in the midst of the chaos of the present. . . . This movement holds great promise for the development of. . . a genuine and creative black theology.”
The conference of Negro Churchmen heard an invocation which went like this:
Unite our hearts, our spirits and our guts in the Third World and make it a world of revolution. In the name of Jesus, of Martin (Luther King) and of Malcolm (X), we raise Our prayer to thee.
The last night of the conference the delegates became angry with the cashier at the St. Louis Gateway Hotel where they were meeting for their conference. They insisted that the cashier and several others of the help had made certain insulting remarks to them. The whole delegation decided to hold a sit-in in the lobby of the hotel which lasted until 3:30 A.M. At that time they left to stay elsewhere. The next day, they decided to leave the hotel without paying their bills. The money to cover the cost of their meeting was placed in escrow until the hotel met several demands which the Conference made.
That various ecclesiastical groups can engage in such blasphemous prayers and unethical action is not necessarily surprising. That the United Presbyterian Church through one of its committees can put its approval on such outrageous conduct is an indication of how far from Scripture the ecumenical movement has drifted.
For several years talks have been going on between Lutherans in this country in an effort to forge a united Lutheran Church. The talks have involved chiefly the American Lutheran Church (ALC) and the Lutheran Church of America (LCA). The ALC has been taking the initiative in these talks and is waiting for the approval of’ the LCA. But now the ALC has also reached out a welcoming hand to the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod. This latter group is one of the more conservative Lutheran Churches. (Although it is not as conservative as the Lutheran Church—Wisconsin Synod which broke ties with the Missouri Synod Lutherans some time ago because of liberal tendencies in the Missouri Synod.) And a paper entitled Lutheran News spends a great share of its time exposing liberalism in this denomination.) The question of merger is a burning issue at present among Lutherans of the Missouri Synod. The issue will be decided next year. The conservatives are, quite naturally, opposed to merger. They are aware of the fact that liberalism has grown to considerable proportions among Missouri Synod Lutherans, but they hope that a reformation can be effected in the Church. If the merger goes through however, the conservatives see no hope at all for reformation. If all three Churches would unite, the result would be a denomination of nearly 9 million people.