Praying with other Christians: a response to @trcthoughts

Frequent readers of these pages know that I am a traditional Catholic; I therefore find myself, more often than not, in accord with Jeff (of Traditional Roman Catholic Thoughts; twitter: @trcthoughts) on many issues. He has even been kind enough to retweet one of my own articles on how, contrary to popular belief, the Council of Trent did not mandate a restoration of the permanent diaconate— and I was very grateful for the retweet. I’ve given a shoutout to Jeff in my now-somewhat-well-known poem Apologia pro fide mea in the heptametric line: “A Minnesota man with whom I readily agree”. Nevertheless, no two traditional Catholics are ever completely the same, and now I feel that a little fraternal correction— in all charity, of course— might be in order.

His recent post at TRC, “Praying with Other Christians“, caught my eye. In it, Jeff comments on some of Pope Francis’ remarks to the annual convocation of Rinnovamento nello Spirito (“renewal in the Spirit”; henceforth RnS according to standard Italian convention) which took place 3 July 2015 in St. Peter’s Square. Jeff writes, “This group is a Catholic charismatic group consisting of Lutherans, Anglicans, Orthodox, and Catholics.” We should first clarify that RnS is a Catholic organization in Italy, and that the other Christians present at this particular meeting in Rome are not part of RnS but were invited to take part in ecumenical prayer in conjunction with the RnS convocation. This is ultimately a minor detail which barely touches Jeff’s main points, but for the sake of precision, I think it necessary to establish that the RnS is a Catholic organization with an exclusively Catholic membership.

Proceeding to more substantive issues: Jeff takes Pope Francis to task for a part of his speech in which he says that we must indeed pray with other Christians for the unity of the Church. On basis of Pius XI’s 1928 encyclical Mortalium animos (on religious unity), Jeff concludes that the Church has in fact prohibited Catholics from praying with Protestants; therefore, by promoting interdenominational prayer, Francis has “utter[ed] falsities” and acted in a manner which “demeans the authority of the papacy, as well as the Magisterium of the Church,” since “the Church has forbidden” such prayer. This is indeed a bold claim which demands scrutiny.

A brief note on encyclicals

Before examining the text of Mortalium animos [Latin; English], I want to set the stage with some preliminary thoughts on encyclicals in general.

Anybody who has read a fair share of encyclicals from various eras of Church history can attest that there are certain differences of form which, generally speaking, distinguish the encyclicals written before the Second Vatican Council from their more recent counterparts. Older encyclicals tended to be written like personal letters. They often do not boast of a pre-defined structure or a systematic outline; each paragraph flows from one to the next in a more natural, conversational and/or hortatory manner. As a result, these encyclicals are often shorter and have fewer footnotes, if any; if citations are indeed present, they generally come only from Scripture. Individual paragraphs are numbered mainly for ease of citation. Mortalium animos is such an encyclical.

The force of these older encyclicals arises primarily from the fact that the Pope promulgated it, and secondarily from the strength of argument expressed in the text. This is not to say that older encyclicals are lacking in their arguments; quite the contrary, they often state clearly and unequivocally what they intend to express. I only mean that, in an era when deference to the Roman Pontiff was stronger that it is in our day, the stamp of the Holy See— an argument from authority— was often compelling enough to elicit the faithful’s obsequium religiosum.

One of the many unfortunate side effects of Vatican II was the resulting decline in papal prestige even among Catholics; thus the argument from authority implicit in the mere promulgation of pontifical documents lost much of its force. As a result, the Church went to greater lengths to assert the strength of argument, and thus newer encyclicals have tended to look more like Apostolic or Dogmatic Constitutions— texts divided into entire chapters containing thorough explanations of sub-themes which support the document’s overall purpose. Because the text delves deeper into the issues it wants to address, it often contains very many citations, not just from Scripture, but from sources across Catholic culture. Consequently, encyclicals have exploded in size (see Redemptor hominisEvangelium vitaeEcclesia de Eucharistia, Ut unum sint, Deus Caritas est, Caritas in VeritateSpe salviLaudato si’, and many other encyclicals of the post-conciliar age). Yet, despite the drastic increase in length, finding citations for particular themes in recent encyclicals has become easier, thanks to the compartmentalization of ideas into distinct chapters; all quotes relevant to a single idea are generally close to each other, often in the same chapter or paragraph.

By contrast, due to flowing form of older encyclicals, an idea in a later paragraph may hearken to something expressed in a completely different part of the text. Distinguishing remote context from proximate context is difficult; in fact, the entire text in a sense becomes proximate context. We find no strict, rigid order which guides us through the course of the document. One must therefore be highly attentive; in newer encyclicals one can extract tight support for an idea in a single section or paragraph, and one is even more likely to get away with reading only the relevant section, independent of the entire document. Parsing an older encyclical, on the other hand, absolutely requires the reader to very carefully (and slowly, I would say) read the whole text. While basic charity demands that any would-be commentators should always read an entire document before formulating a response, this is especially true when analyzing the more freely-composed older encyclicals.

Mortalium animos & the speech to RnS

Jeff’s point of contention is the following quote from Pope Francis’ address to RnS; while Jeff cited a Catholic News Service article which in turn paraphrased the Pope’s words, I cite, as I often do, from the Italian text (the Holy See has not produced an English rendering) while producing my own English translation.

L’unità dei cristiani è opera dello Spirito Santo e dobbiamo pregare insieme. L’ecumenismo spirituale, l’ecumenismo della preghiera. “Ma, padre, io posso pregare con un evangelico, con un ortodosso, con un luterano?”— Devi, devi! Avete ricevuto lo stesso Battesimo. Tutti noi abbiamo ricevuto lo stesso battesimo, tutti noi andiamo sulla strada di Gesù, vogliamo Gesù.

The unity of Christians is the work of the Holy Spirit and we must pray together. Spiritual ecumenism, ecumenism of prayer. “But, Father, can I pray with an Evangelical, with an Orthodox, with a Lutheran?”— You must, you must! You have received the same Baptism. We have all received the same Baptism, and we all go forth on the path of Jesus, we want Jesus.

Jeff finds this exhortation to interdenominational prayer opposed to the proscriptions of Mortalium animos, which says the following in paragraph 7 (note: the Holy See website erroneously numbers this as paragraph 8 in the English rendering; according to the official publication of the Acta Apostolicae Sedis 20 [1928], the following quote is found in the seventh paragraph):

Quae cum ita se habeant, manifesto patet, nec eorum conventus Apostolicam Sedem ullo patto participare posse, nec allo pacto catholicis licere talibus inceptis vel suffragari vel operam dare suam; quod si facerent, falsae cuidam christianae religioni auctoritatem adiungerent, ab una Christi Ecclesia admodum alienae.

This being so, it is clear that the Apostolic See cannot on any terms take part in their assemblies, nor is it anyway lawful for Catholics either to support or to work for such enterprises; for if they do so they will be giving countenance to a false Christianity, quite alien to the one Church of Christ.

I was surprised that Jeff didn’t include in his quotations what appears to be a more sweeping statement from paragraph 9; after paragraph 8’s hefty reaffirmation of various dogmatic and sacramental truths, followed by a condemnation of relativism in theology, paragraph 9 begins:

Itaque, Venerabiles Fratres, planum est cur haec Apostolica Sedes numquam siverit suos acatholicorum interesse conventibus: christianorum enim coniunctionem haud aliter foveri licet, quam fovendo dissidentium ad unam veram Christi Ecelesiam reditu, quandoquidem olim ab ea infeliciter descivere.

So, Venerable Brethren, it is clear why this Apostolic See has never allowed its subjects to take part in the assemblies of non-Catholics: for the union of Christians can only be promoted by promoting the return to the one true Church of Christ of those who are separated from it, for in the past they have unhappily left it.

Of course, without context, one is obliged to ask, “whose assemblies (who is ‘they’)?” and “what ‘assemblies’ or ‘enterprises’?”. What is such a conventus that Pius XI condemns? Mortalium animos indeed gives the answer, but as we noted in the case of pre-conciliar encyclicals, we find it not in a terse, succinct citation, but in statements distributed throughout the text. And while these two statements from the encyclical are indeed strong and unequivocal, do they really impose a blanket prohibition on Catholics from praying with Protestants?

Whose assemblies?

The simple answer to the question “whose assemblies?” refers to those qui panchristiani vocantur, or “who are called pan-Christians” (§3, §8). But what are the marks of these panchristiani? The encyclical describes them throughout the text. Pan-Christians make several fundamental assumptions, for example:

  1. they hold “that false opinion which considers all religions to be more or less good and praiseworthy” (§2);
  2. they “deny that the Church of Christ must be visible and apparent” (§6);
  3. “they understand a visible Church as nothing else than a federation, composed of various communities of Christians, even though they adhere to different doctrines, which may even be incompatible one with another” (§6);
  4. they hold that the “manifold churches or communities, if united in some kind of universal federation, would then be in a position to oppose strongly and with success the progress of irreligion” (§6);
  5. they would not “submit to and obey the Vicar of Jesus Christ either in His capacity as a teacher or as a governor,” but “would willingly treat with the Church of Rome, but on equal terms, that is as equals with an equal” (§6);
  6. “they are of the opinion that the unity of faith and government, which is a note of the one true Church of Christ, has hardly up to the present time existed, and does not to-day exist” (§6);
  7. they readily conceive of “a Christian Federation, the members of which retain each his own opinions and private judgment, even in matters which concern the object of faith, even though they be repugnant to the opinions of the rest” (§8).

Within its historical context, Mortalium animos is firstly a response to such pan-Christianism which characterized the first ecumenical movements of the early 20th century; these movements in turn grew out of the liberal Protestant theology influenced by Schleiermacher and Harnack. At the time, this movement was a largely Protestant phenomenon, a fact which Pius XI acknowledges in §6 (…in societates coiverint late diffusas, quas plerumque acatholici homines moderantur). He is most likely referring to the various “Life and Work” conferences organized by Nathan Söderblom, reformed Archbishop of Uppsala, head of the Lutheran Church in Sweden. The 1925 Life and Work Conference in Stockholm was a truly global council (with representatives of Protestants from 37 nations) and a watershed moment for the fledgling ecumenical movement; annual “continuation councils” designed to keep the spirit of Stockholm alive took place from 1926 to 1930, halted only by the Great Depression. In any case, it’s no wonder that Mortalium animos came about in 1928, in the time when the Söderblom project was in full bloom in the wake of the Stockholm conference.

While the Stockholm conference exhibited some laudable aspects, its theological approach to unity was sorely lacking in many respects. Some have aptly called its approach to Christian unity “least-common denominator ecumenism”, or a reduction of unity to the beliefs already shared by various Christian denominations— an idea common in our own day. It applies a relativistic hermeneutic to ecclesiology which would ultimately call into question the decisiveness and normative nature of the Incarnation, the Paschal Mystery, and Divine Revelation itself. It would deprive all Christians of a definitive authority to interpret the teaching of Christ and deny the necessarily and concretely ecclesial form of faith. Mortalium animos justly condemns those who accept this type of ecumenism as having fallen into “pernicious error”.

What “assemblies” or “enterprises”?

What the official English translation calls “assemblies” is signified by the Latin conventus, often synonymous with other words such as conciliumcomitiacongregatio, and congressio, thus signifying a gathering of a formal nature with a shared purpose or program. Conventus is also, obviously, the source of our English word “convention”, also implying a formal agreement.

Conventus appears (in various declensions) several times in Mortalium animos, clarifying the exact nature of the “assemblies” which Pius mentions. The first instance is in paragraph 2, where Pius XI indirectly acknowledges the the aforementioned pan-Christian ecumenical gatherings of the early 20th century:

conventions, meetings, and addresses [conventus, coetus, contiones] are frequently arranged by these persons [pan-Christians], at which a large number of listeners are present, and at which all without distinction are invited to join in the discussion, both infidels of every kind, and Christians, even those who have unhappily fallen away from Christ or who with obstinacy and pertinacity deny His divine nature and mission.

Another instance is in paragraph 7, where Pius acknowledges that, although certain non-Christian groups might be willing to accept the Roman Pontiff as primus inter pares (but without true jurisdictional supremacy),

it does not seem open to doubt that any pact [pactum conventum] into which they might enter would not compel them to turn from those opinions which are still the reason why they err and stray from the one fold of Christ.

Of course, there is the quotation already cited by Jeff (§7) which states that “the Apostolic See cannot on any terms take part in their assemblies” (nec eorum conventus Apostolicam Sedem ullo patto participare posse), as well as the line from §9 which says that “the Apostolic See has never allowed its subjects to take part in the assemblies of non-Catholics” (Apostolica Sedes numquam siverit suos acatholicorum interesse conventibus).

What is evidently clear from the deliberate use of the word conventus is that Pius XI was not referring to any mere gathering of non-Catholics; he was first and foremost concerned with the formal conferences of the early ecumenical movement, wary of the grave ecclesiological problems they raised. He rightly noted that the Apostolic See cannot participate in conventibus talibus, for to do so would imply that the Church accepts their pan-Christian assumptions. The purpose behind the proscription against “supporting or working for such enterprises [inceptis]” now comes into relief. Catholics are forbidden from taking part and joining such official pan-Christian conferences (like the 1925 Stockholm conference) for doing so would be tantamount to formal support for an unorthodox ecclesiology (and therefore a defective theology of revelation), thus “giving countenance to a false Christianity”.

This teaching was reaffirmed by the Magisterium of Pius XII through an instruction De motione oecumenica of the Holy Office, dated 20 December 1949, approved by the Holy Father and signed by Francesco Cardinal Marchetti-Selvaggiani (for the official Latin version, see Acta Apostolicae Sedis 42 [1950], pp. 142-147; click here for a decent English rendering). It begins:

Ecclesia Catholica, etsi congressibus ceterisque conventibus “oecumenicis” non intervenit, nunquam tamen destitit, ut ex pluribus documentis Pontificiis colligitur, neque unquam in posterum desistei intensissimis studiis prosequi assiduisque ad Deum precibus fovere omnes conatus ad illud obtinendum, quod tantopere Christo Domino cordi est, videlicet ut omnes, qui credunt in Ipsum, “sint consummati in unum”.

The Catholic Church, although she does not intervene in “ecumenical” congresses and other conventions, she has never ceased, as is clear from many Pontifical documents, nor will she henceforth ever cease, to follow with the most intense study and to promote through ardent prayers to God, the obtainment of that which is so close to the heart of Christ the Lord, namely, that all who believe in Him “may be perfectly united into one.”

In this citation and throughout the instruction, the word conventus is also used in the same way that Mortalium animos uses it— that is, to denote official conferences and worship services, not simple gatherings for prayer.

In a very significant way, the Catholic Church has been faithful to Mortalium animos by maintaining a critical distance from contemporary ecumenical movements and institutions. Specifically, she has consistently declined to become a member of the World Council of Churches (WCC), the world’s largest ecumenical organization, in order to prevent entanglements with the pan-Christian tendencies (see “confessional diversity” in the 1950 Toronto Statement) which have marked the WCC’s history.

In any case, while the prohibitions in Mortalium animos indeed require Catholics to abstain from actively participating in the formal meetings (conventus) and enterprises (inceptis) of pan-Christian ecumenism, the encyclical says absolutely nothing about the simple act of praying with a non-Catholic Christian.

Even if we consider the RnS convocation in Rome a conventus analagous to a WCC meeting or the 1925 Stockholm conference (and it is not), the presence of Protestants at RnS would still not be a matter of Catholics joining some conventus eorum, as is prohibited by Mortalium animos; rather, it would be a matter of Protestants attending a conventus nostrum, a possibility acknowledged by the aforementioned 1949 Holy Office instruction, although under strict conditions (see the instruction’s section III on mixtos in specie catholicorum cum acatholicis conventus et collationes; indeed, the instruction notes approvingly that such meetings between Catholics and Protestants had already been occurring). None of that ultimately matters, however, because as stated before, engaging in simple prayer does not constitute active participation in a conventus.

Examples of interdenominational prayer

Perhaps the simplest manner to indicate the outright absurdity of prohibiting Catholics from praying with Protestants is through real world examples. While such examples could be multiplied ad infinitum, I will mention only two.

Since the restoration of the Catholic ecclesiastical hierarchy in England in 1850, Catholic prelates have been prominent attendees at British royal events, including coronations and weddings. Such rites are the highest functions of both church and state in England, where American-style disestablishment is a foreign concept. At such events, English Catholics (illustrious prelates and noble recusants included!) have begged God’s blessing upon the royal family and sung their national anthem— a hymn extolling a monarch whose line embodies the bloody legacy of Henry’s Reformation— in an abbey violently usurped from the Church of Rome. Such prayers take place in the presence of high Catholic Church officials; for example, Cardinal Griffin and the apostolic nuncio Fernando Cento attended the coronation of Elizabeth II. Archbishop (later Cardinal) Godfrey and Cardinal Pacelli (who would later take a higher post) looked on likewise as Elizabeth’s father, George VI, received the Crown with the prayers of Catholics and Anglicans alike. And yet, I ask (rhetorically), has anybody ever condemned that Cardinal-Secretary of State for supposedly contravening his boss— the author of Mortalium animos— by his public participation at the highest of Anglican rites, and perhaps “giving countenance to a false Christianity” with invalid orders?

On a more personal note, having been a United States Army officer for a few years now, I have been part of countless civil and military ceremonies of varying solemnity, most of which still include an invocation and a benediction. These prayers, which open and close the ceremonies, are led by military chaplains, the vast majority of whom are Protestant (although in Afghanistan, I was fortunate to have a traditionally-minded Catholic priest as my unit chaplain). In any case, these prayers invariably address the Judeo-Christian God, and the chaplains often conclude by asking “in Jesus’ name,” “in Your name,” or with some other variant that boasts of an obviously Christian form. While servicemembers are in no way obliged to participate in the prayer, most will indeed remove their hats, close their eyes, and bow their heads.

In light of all this, I would ask (again, rhetorically): was it wrong for my Catholic chaplain to lead troops of other denominations in prayer?

Should I not have prayed with my non-Catholic soldiers prior to executing combat missions in Afghanistan?

Does Mortalium animos really forbid me from saying requiem aeternam at a fallen comrade’s memorial ceremony or funeral if Protestants are present?

Final thoughts

When Pope Francis encouraged Catholics at the RnS convovation to pray with other Christians, Jeff’s reaction was blunt and fiery:

No, the Catholic Church has condemned this act that you are trying to push forth. Those people who don’t pray with other Christians do so because the Church has forbidden it.

The reasoning here is gravely problematic. As I have shown, analysis of the Latin conventus reveals that the proscription against Catholic participation in such official pan-Christian conventions and congresses has nothing to do with the simple act of praying with Protestants. It does not necessarily follow (non sequitur) that the prohibitions mentioned in Mortalium animos also apply to prayer meetings in general. To the best of my knowledge (and I do have a habit of frequently consulting my handy electronic copies of Denzinger and the Acta Apostolicae Sedis), no pronouncement from the Holy See has ever forbidden a Catholic from simply praying with a Protestant. Of course, proving a negative is a logically impossible task which I have the luxury of refusing; nevertheless, the burden of positively producing an ecclesial condemnation of interdenominational prayer lies squarely with those who purport that such a condemnation exists.

The claim that the Church has “forbidden” and “condemned” interdenominational prayer is a relatively simple matter to discuss and debate (even if the claim is based on a faulty analysis of one encyclical). But to obstinately hold that claim while deliberately disregarding another encyclical— namely, John Paul II’s Ut unum sint and its praise of common Christian prayer (paragraphs 21-27)— evinces a relativistic attitude which, to use the famous words of Cardinal Ratzinger, “leaves one’s own ego and its desires as the final standard” (che lascia come ultima misura solo il proprio io e le sue voglie). To be clear: there is absolutely no contradiction between Mortalium animos and Ut unum sint on common Christian prayer because the former text does not address that issue; in any case, to put one encyclical on a pedestal while ignoring the other is to introduce an anachronism and an unwarranted false dichotomy into the discussion.

When Francis says that “Christian unity is the work of the Holy Spirit” and that we should engage in “the ecumenism of prayer,” Jeff dismisses this as “nothing but error”. To support this thesis, he produces a text written by the martyred St. Maximilian Maria Kolbe.

Only until all schismatics and Protestants profess the Catholic Creed with conviction, when all Jews voluntarily ask for Holy Baptism – only then will the Immaculata have reached its goals. …In other words there is no greater enemy of the Immaculata and her Knighthood than today’s ecumenism, which every Knight must not only fight against, but also neutralize through diametrically opposed action and ultimately destroy. We must realize the goal of the Militia Immaculata as quickly as possible: that is, to conquer the whole world, and every individual soul which exists today or will exist until the end of the world, for the Immaculata, and through her for the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus.

This is taken from a diary entry dated 23 April 1933; thus the text arose from the same millieu that produced Mortalium animos. Again, like Pius XI’s encyclical, Kolbe’s words are a strong affirmation of the Church’s unique and exclusive salvific role. Important is the emphasis on the phrase “today’s ecumenism” (“today” meaning 1933); the saint rightly condemns the pan-Christian ecumenical efforts of the interwar period, just as Pius XI did.

While I love the evangelical fervor of these words from Kolbe (who prayed and sang hymns with Auschwitz Jews in his final days, by the way), I fail to see the quote’s relevance to the issue of Christians praying together. It is another non sequitur to say that (paraphrasing Kolbe) “all people should be reconciled to the Catholic Church,” and from this, deduce that “Catholics cannot pray with other Christians”. There is a gaping disconnect between the major premise and the conclusion, and no minor premise is offered to connect the two. On the contrary, one can indeed hold that authentic ecumenism consists exclusively in reconciling with the Catholic Church cum et sub Petro, while at the same time admitting common Christian prayer as a legitimate practice. The two points are not mutually exclusive.

Interestingly, Jeff concludes his post by saying, “Fortunately, [Francis] was not speaking ex cathedra,” as if the Pope’s statement can now be rejected, since the speech at RnS wasn’t an expression of extraordinary magisterium protected by the charism of infallibility. For now, let’s leave aside the glaringly obvious fact that Pius XI likewise did not make an ex cathedra proclamation in Mortalium animos (nota bene: there have only been two ex cathedra statements in the last 200 years, and none came from Pius XI). The fundamental problem of this manner of reasoning is that it anachronistically reduces the form of ecclesial authority to a singular type of positive dogmatic formulation; this method, as a young Professor Ratzinger wrote back in the mid-1960s, “turns the history of dogma upside down and attributes absoluteness to a mode of exercising the teaching function only in regular use since Vatican I”. Those who dare to play the “It’s Not Dogma” Card™ (usually wielded by liberal Catholics but brandished here by Jeff) do so at their own peril, for it blazes a trail toward a selective, relativistic consideration of most other magisterial pronouncements. It would open to rejection not only the RnS speech, but also those solemn affirmations of traditional doctrine like Ordinatio sacerdotalisMulieris dignitatemHumanae vitae— and Mortalium animos— all of which are not ex cathedra proclamations.

Mortalium animos does not prohibit Catholics from praying with non-Catholic Christians. No reputable theologian or prelate since the encyclical’s promulgation has ever construed the text in this manner. Pope Francis is not “trying to push forth” interdenominational prayer sua sponte; he is merely following a path laid by his predecessors starting with Pius XII. I have never been shy about expressing my profound concerns and doubts about the path of the current papacy, and I will continue to scrutinize it with a sharply critical lens. But on the matter of common Christian prayer, the Holy Father is not in error. Rather, the only error in the present discussion is the unfortunately flawed reading of Mortalium animos. But if we carefully parse the encyclical, unpack its Latin text, account for its historical context, and examine other ecclesiastical sources, we discover that joining in prayer with other Christians is not only permissible, but a legitimate and praiseworthy endeavor on the road toward reconciliation of all Christians to the divine and Catholic faith.

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply