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February 11, 2010
‘Ecumenical Catechism’: A Jungle Book of an Idea
By Louie Verrecchio *

By Louie Verrecchio *

 “Look for the bare necessities. The simple bare necessities. Forget about your worries and your strife...”

If you’re forty-five years of age or older, the catchy little tune that accompanies these playful lyrics is undoubtedly already playing in your head while the image of a dancing Baloo is flashing through your mind’s eye. As for you younger folk, the above quote is taken from the lyrics to a hit song, “The Bare Necessities,” that comes from the soundtrack to the 1967 animated Disney classic, “The Jungle Book.” It was sung by one of the movie’s leading characters, Baloo – a lovably lazy bear – and it’s definitely on the childhood Top 10 list for my generation.

That oldie-but-goodie hadn’t played in my own head for a very long time; that is, until around 6:15 this morning when I read a Catholic News Service story saying that Cardinal Walter Kasper, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, had suggested “an ecumenical catechism that would be written in consultation with our [Anglican, Lutheran, Methodist, etc.] partners.”   

An “ecumenical catechism” such as this would be intended to meet what Cardinal Kasper dubbed “the need for an ecumenism of basics that identifies, reinforces, and deepens the common foundation.”

“Look for the bare necessities. The simple bare necessities. Forget about your worries and your strife...”

In an address delivered at the opening to a three-day ecumenical symposium at the Vatican on February 8th, Cardinal Kasper told representatives of the various ecclesial communities present, “We have affirmed our common foundation in Jesus Christ and the Holy Trinity as expressed in our common creed and in the doctrine of the first ecumenical councils,” and he underscored the importance of “keeping alive the memory of our achievements.”    

Not to rain on the Cardinal’s parade here, but isn’t faith in Jesus Christ and the doctrine of the Holy Trinity – along with Baptism, of course - the rock-bottom requirement for those who dare to claim the noble name of “Christian?” In other words, isn’t this really just the price of admission for a seat at the ecumenical table, for crying out loud?

At any rate, if this is the sort of “achievement” that one might expect to find enshrined in an “ecumenical catechism,” the notion that such a publication might one day be issued by “the competent Catholic authority,” as Cardinal Kasper envisions, strikes me as fanciful at best.

With all due respect, coming as this suggestion does, on the heels of his recently published memoir-style book (of which John Allen of NCR reported, “Vatican sources say the primary reason the book came out under Kasper’s name was to short-circuit the normal lengthy review process for official Vatican texts,”) I’m beginning to sense a near Clintonesque concern for legacy as the Cardinal’s retirement date draws near.

How else can one explain a Prince of the Church suggesting such an idea as an “ecumenical catechism?” It really is downright embarrassing.  

The Second Vatican Council’s Decree on Ecumenism, Unitatis Redintegratio, offers some sober words of caution that seem to be going unnoticed:

“It is, of course, essential that the doctrine should be clearly presented in its entirety. Nothing is so foreign to the spirit of ecumenism as a false irenicism, in which the purity of Catholic doctrine suffers loss and its genuine and certain meaning is clouded” (UR 11).

Pope Pius XII offered much the same warning more than a decade earlier in the Encyclical, Humani Generis:

"Another danger is perceived which is all the more serious because it is more concealed beneath the mask of virtue. There are many who, deploring disagreement among men and intellectual confusion, through an imprudent zeal for souls, are urged by a great and ardent desire to do away with the barrier that divides good and honest men; these advocate an ‘eirenism’ according to which, by setting aside the questions which divide men, they aim not only at joining forces to repel the attacks of atheism, but also at reconciling things opposed to one another in the field of dogma." (HG 11)

Codifying a whittled-down version of the faith in a so-called “ecumenical catechism” – in this case, beneath the mask of “achievement” - is exactly the sort of danger of which Pius XII warned. And the potential pitfalls are substantial.

It seems to me that a little worry and strife should accompany separation from Holy Mother Church, no? Yet needless to say, such frivolity as an “ecumenical catechism” would be a great disservice to those non-Catholics, who finding the differences ignored therein, might be lulled into a false sense of unity that will breed complacency. There’s no telling how many souls might otherwise continue to labor in true ecumenical dialogue with the Church only to one day embrace “a complete profession of faith, complete incorporation in the system of salvation such as Christ willed it to be, and finally complete ingrafting in Eucharistic communion” (UR 22).

A danger also exists for those who are already part of the Church’s visible structure in that some will no doubt be tempted to treat an “ecumenical catechism” as a meal ticket to the express lane at the Catholic Café; an “official” manifesto for a faith of bare necessities.

I can almost see the sign in front of the Frank Lloyd Wright style church now: “Welcome to the Catholic Community of Baloo.”

Cardinal Kasper, no doubt meaning well, expressed concern for the future of the ecumenical movement should the members of ecclesial communities fail to hold firmly to the shared basics of Christian faith (presumably the content of his proposed “catechism”) at which point the dialogue cannot move forward. 

Fair enough, but I have a better idea:

How about providing both marginal Catholics and members of ecclesial communities alike with a copy of the Catechism of the Catholic Church and a highlighter, inviting each to mark the tenets they already accept. That way, not only will they know what we hold in common; but just as importantly, they will know how far they’ve still to travel.

Author and speaker Louie Verrecchio was a columnist for Catholic News Agency from April 2009 to 2013. His work, which includes Year of Faith resources like the Harvesting the Fruit of Vatican II Faith Formation Series, has been endorsed by Cardinal George Pell of Sydney, Australia; Bishop Emeritus Patrick O’Donoghue of Lancaster, England; Bishop R. Walker Nickless of Sioux City, IA, USA and others. For more information please visit: www.harvestingthefruit.com

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