It is sometimes alleged that Catholics claim that their church is the only real church, but this is not quite accurate. We certainly believe it is the Church Christ founded, but we believe that the Orthodox Church, although not in communion with us, is also a valid church; we believe that other Christian communities also have in them, to a greater or lesser extent, something of the true faith. The question of orthodoxy is one which has occupied the Church from the beginning. It is precisely what Apostles such as John, Paul and Jude, as well as St. Peter himself, concerned themselves with. Those who ‘preached another Gospel’ are not to be received. Even in Apostolic times, as we can see from St. John’s Epistles, it was not easy to assert authority or orthodoxy. One of the main themes of the history of the early Church is, as we have seen recently, the working out of this problem. This is why, to many of us, there is something of human arrogance and pride in the oft-heard view that each individual can use Scripture to interpret itself; if history teaches us anything, it is that this is not the case.
The notion that the early Church was somehow corrupted and lost its way not only contradicts Christ’s assurance that even the gates of hell would not prevail against it, it flies in the face of history. One of the earliest and most influential heretics was Marcion, whose money and intellect won him great influence in Rome in the second century. That notwithstanding these things, he was excommunicated, shows that there was a mechanism for determining authority; that there were still Marcionists a couple of centuries later, shows how difficult it was to maintain unity. It also bore witness to another theme of our history – the extreme difficulty of securing reunion once communion is broken. It is 1600 years since Chalcedon, and the distance between the Oriental Orthodox and the Catholic Church is not wide in theological terms; historically it is a chasm which is proving next to impossible to bridge. The two sets of Orthodox cannot agree, either. For all the efforts of the ecumenists, it is hard to point to a schism which has been healed.
It was to deal with such matters that the Ecumenical movement was formed. But it has tended to proceed on the assumption that the tent must be big enough and the compromises wide enough to comprehend just about everyone. In turn, that has led conservatives in all churches to regard ecumenism as a dirty word, synonymous with syncretism. The urge to find a common ground of agreement has too often led to a search for the lowest common denominator – and few will follow there.
Pope Benedict was a true ecumenist, he offered the olive branch to the SSPX, he made overtures to the Orthodox, and he established the Ordinariate. All of this was real ecumenism – offering those interested in the Church the chance to get to know it better, and, if possible to be fully part of it. The Pope is the one Bishop who, historically, has been recognised as the first among equals. Only Rome can offer a real ecumenism, and it behoves her to behave, as she did under the last Pope, in a manner which shows that the father always welcomes the prodigal home – and no fatted calf is safe when then happens.
One of the most common misunderstandings by those outside the Church concerns the degree to which the faithful can believe what the Church has not explicitly approved. Because of the ‘black legend’ and the nonsense propagated by those who do not even know they are influenced by it, there is a view which holds that unless the Church has explicitly approved a devotion or belief, Catholics cannot practice it. Exactly the opposite applies. Until and unless the Church explicitly disapproves a devotion or belief, the faithful are free to hold it. Those who see in ecumenism a deliberate attempt at syncretism are free to hold that belief, but it is not the teaching of the Church. The Church holds the fulness of the truth, but it does not own it, it is happy to share it with all who want to receive it; it is, after all, a Church and not a museum.