Ecumenical Meditations: Accidental What?

by Andrew Simmons                                                                           Thursday,  Mar 13

“Baptism therefore establishes a sacramental bond of unity which links all who have been reborn by it.” – Unitatis Redintegratio par. 22

In the wake of Vatican II, perhaps no topic has been more contentious than that of ecumenism. Perhaps the main reason for this contention within the Catholic Church is the lukewarm manner in which ecumenism is conducted. To better explain what I mean by “lukewarm”, I basically mean that the community does not reach any sort of resolution other than the bastardization of everyone’s teachings. There is a reason why the Joint Declaration by Lutherans and Catholics was not accepted by most Lutherans and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI.  While attending an ecumenical lecture by Dr. Eduardo J. Echeverria (with a response from a Reformed theologian) at Hope College, I witnessed one major obstacle to ecumenism: misunderstanding. While I personally was left wanting, this is not meant to be a jab at Dr. Echeverria who clearly earned his great reputation. But, something must be said about the crux of the lecture which is a distinction between “essential” and “accidental” Protestantism. As a convert from Protestantism to Catholicism, the distinction was unsatisfactory, but, hopefully, I can provide an alternative that is more fulfilling and beneficial for dialogue.

Now, while the distinction was central to a significant amount of lecture, Dr. Echeverria started with the premise that ecumenical dialogue should never be one based on compromising principles. One should never enter in a discussion less than what they are. The initial steps towards unity must be taken with honesty and frankness. I fundamentally agree with this position. In addition, Echeverria focused on the common necessity for love within these dialogues. Ecumenism should not be predicated on a will to power. This is meant to be a dialogue not a recreation of the 1970’s film “The Last Valley”.

the last valley

Ecumenism via pike and shot. Yes, that is a younger Michael Caine

The problem with the lecture started when Dr. Echeverria relied on a distinction between essential and accidental Protestants. This distinction is from the works of Reinhard Hutter who converted to Catholicism from Lutheranism. Essential Protestants are those who derive their identity from its active “protesting” against Catholicism. They essentially require Catholicism to be that historically antagonistic “other”, and can only validate their identity in this great dialectical struggle with Catholicism. Accidental Protestants, which I assume refers to the philosophical principle of accidents and substance (as both Dr. Echeverria and Dr. Hutter have an extensive academic background in philosophy), are protestants who rely upon themselves for their identity without the great struggle with Catholicism. The fundamental issue I had with this distinction is the terminology. Referring to the terminology of accidents and substance, one would have to assume that Protestantism is something accidental to a Christian substance. It is something present that modifies, but does not alter the substance of their Christianity. This appears to connote that Protestantism is external to their Christianity rather than the prism in which the entirety of Christian history and doctrine are viewed differently. Distinctions between essential and accidental Protestantism breaks down when it becomes clear that both are substantially the same thing. While the distinction is marred by improper terminology, there is a lot that can be said about the distinction between Protestants who are for and against a dialectical struggle with Catholicism.

In order to provide the simplest terminology possible for this distinction, I will use primarily two terms: Protestants and Ecclesial Communities. While both substantially hold onto the same principles, both differ in that one holds onto a meta-narrative of “protesting”. Even with a doctrinal difference, there are a significant number of Protestants who frankly do not require Catholics to be their dialectical other to validate their existence. And, no, I am not interested in engaging in a semantic struggle to assert that they are in fact protesting (unless I wanted to also claim that doctrinal difference make the Eastern Orthodox as univocally “protestant”). The signifier “Protestant” only finds meaning insomuch as one is actively “protesting”. As Leithart eloquently states it in his “End of Protestantism”, the mentality that “whatever Catholics say or do, the Protestant does and says as close to the opposite as he can,” is ending. Trying to state that he simply means essential Protestantism ignores the fact that the text as a whole is striking at the protesting meta-narrative explicitly. Now, in ecumenical texts such as Unitatis Redintegratio, the term “ecclesial communities” is used quite regularly. For my argument, ecclesial assembly is perhaps the best connotation for a Protestant community who know longer participates in protest. Most importantly, the use of the word “ecclesial” designates an affiliation with the Church proper. Unitatis Redintegratio clearly asserts that the unitive power of Christianity is found with baptism. The sacrament of baptism allows one to be “honored by the title of Christian” (UR par. 3). In the same manner that a Catholic would not treat their Catholicity as accidental to a baptismal substance, it would not be prudent to do the same to other non-Catholic Christians.

Andrew Simmons is a graduate from Aquinas College. He studied  for a double major in History and Theology with a minor in Catholic Studies. In 2010, during his freshman year, he converted to Catholicism. He also enjoys books written by Jesuits and long walks on the beach. 

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