What is “Pelagian Ecumenism”?

Pelagian Ecumenism is the term I use to describe certain mistaken attempts at ecumenism. Now, the Catholic Church is irrevocably committed to ecumenism – the endeavor to achieve full and visible unity among all Christian communities.

But one mistakes this task if one thinks that it is in “tension” with the rigors of Catholicism. A Catholic is not ecumenical who wishes to shed or alter even the least dogma or divinely instituted sacrament, etc. Sometimes, mistaken zeal in pursuit of Christian unity may tempt someone to wish to shed or alter a dogma or sacrament. But usually the temptation is subtler.

There can be a temptation not to profess the fulness of truth. One can be tempted, seemingly out of love for one’s brother, not to state the full truth when it ought to be stated. (Of course, there are times when that fulness cannot be stated. One must use discretion at all times. This goes without saying.) I am referring, however, to a kind of collective and systematic tendency to omit one or more of the “hard truths”. One example might be our reticence in presenting and discussing the dogma that “outside the Catholic Church, there is no salvation.” This is a very hard truth. And yes, this truth admits of a subtle reading. But that subtlety does not take away the bite in the dogma. The bite is there – and all non-Catholics know it is there. (Or at least, they used to.) But when Catholics try to cover up a truth such as this, or, before a secular audience, the existence of hell and of the devil, etc., why do they do so? The thought may be that if we present only the easier truths, then someone will have an easier time of converting, either from Protestantism or secularism or Orthodoxy. (What! – Are we then going to spring all the ‘bad news’ on someone afterwards?) Or perhaps worse: Maybe we are embarrassed by the teaching.

In any case, what is going on is Pelagian Ecumenism. One is covering some part of the light of faith with a bushel. One is hiding the light under a bed. But the light should shine forth. It is meant for those God loves. It is meant for the very brother whom we want to love. If we hide its light, perhaps our brother will be judged less harshly than we, who are withholding from him what God has given.

Why is this mistaken kind of ecumenism “Pelagian”? Pelagianism is a heresy according to which I can achieve the divine result without God’s help. For instance, I can achieve salvation without God’s help. And we must say more. Pelagianism denies that God is the primary cause of my salvation. Finally, we must say one last thing. Pelagianism denies that God must take the first initiative: That all my cooperation – which for all that is real – is itself dependent on God’s initiative and primary causality. This brand of ecumenism finds the goal of ecumenism – return of non-Catholic churches and communities to the one true fold – too difficult to bear. Therefore, it despairs and attempts to set the bar lower.

What is the solution to this lack of faith – this Pelagian Ecumenism? The solution is extremism. Being extreme in faith, hope, and love. We must be extremists in our hearts. For one cannot trust God too much. He has the power and the will to achieve the result. He will not achieve it through a falsification of the goal. Consequently, we must not soften faith with a supposed love. We must be zealous for all three theological virtues. Then our brother will see this and respect us. We let him know the truth, at the right time, in the right way. Then we let God and him work it out. We don’t impose. Nor do we fail to disclose!