Mary: Ecumenical "Third Rail"?

Published April 3, 2002

The Catholic Difference

Ever since the Catholic Church entered the modern ecumenical movement during the Second Vatican Council, Catholicism’s Marian piety and the doctrines of the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption have been regarded as the “third rail” of ecumenism: touch them, and the dialogue dies. Several prominent ecumenical thinkers, including Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn of Vienna and Swiss Protestant pastor Max Schoch, are now suggesting that Mary may not be the third rail after all. In fact, Mary may be the key to reopening ecumenical dialogues that have gotten stale and stalled.<msonormal$3>It’s no secret that we have reached an ecumenical plateau, forty years after Vatican II opened. A remarkable sense of Christian fraternity has been re-established after centuries of bloody-mindedness. Important doctrinal agreements have been reached. The Catholic Church annually sends a high-level delegation to the celebration of the Solemnity of St. Andrew led by the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople; the Patriarchate sends a high-level Orthodox delegation to the annual Roman celebration of the Solemnity of Saints Peter and Paul. Ecumenical services are a staple feature of Christian life throughout the world. All this is to the good.


<msonormal$3>Yet the classic goal of the ecumenical movement – a Church united around a common creed, a common ministry, and a common Eucharist – seems very far away. The Pope regularly and urgently pleads the cause of Christian unity; the response from Orthodox and Protestant Christians is friendly, but usually tepid. No great breakthroughs seem on the visible horizon. A sense of the static hangs over much of the ecumenical enterprise.<msonormal$3>In one sense this was entirely predictable. For Protestantism and Orthodoxy, the issues on the ecumenical table are now the tough ones: the nature of the Church, the ordained ministry, jurisdiction, and the Petrine primacy of the Bishop of Rome. No one should imagine there will be an easy resolution of these questions. But perhaps the questions could be refocused to pull us out of the present stall.<msonormal$3>Cardinal Schoenborn, Pastor Schoch , and others suggest that one way to do this is to tease out the ecumenical implications of Hans Urs von Balthasar’s richly symbolic theology of the Church. Balthasar, who died in 1988 (just before being created a cardinal), proposed that the Church is formed in the images of four great New Testament figures. The Church of proclamation is formed in the image of Paul, missionary to the world. The Church of contemplative love is formed in the image of John, who rested his head on the Master’s breast at the Last Supper. The Church of authority and jurisdiction is formed in the image of Peter, to whom Christ gave the keys. And the Church of discipleship – which is the basis of everything else – is formed in the image of Mary, whose “yes” to the angel makes possible God’s entry into history in the person of his son.

<msonormal$3>All four images are in play in the Church all the time. But because Mary is the pattern orprototype of all discipleship in the Church, and because discipleship is what the Church is for, what Balthasar called the “Marian Profile” has a certain priority over the others. Pope John Paul II agrees. In December 1987, he told the Roman Curia that Mary made sense, so to speak, out of Peter: what the Church of authority and jurisdiction did in the Vatican made sense only if it served the cause of discipleship.

<msonormal$3>Suppose the ecumenical dialogue were refocused, away from questions of power and authority and onto questions of discipleship? Would an ecumenical dialogue refocused on Mary’s lifelong openness to the will of God help move us beyond today’s plateau, by forcing all of us to ask how we are open to the Risen Lord in his presence to the Church today? Would an ecumenism that took Mary’s holiness as a pattern for all Christian holiness help us to become holier together: Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox? Would an ecumenical reflection on Mary’s last words in the New Testament, “Do whatever he tells you” (John 2.5), give us a renewed sense of urgency about Christ’s call to unity?

<msonormal$3>Mary: ecumenical third rail? Or breakthrough to a new understanding? The latter just might be the ecumenical future.

George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.

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