The authentic definition of “ecumenical” has nothing to do with the modern understanding of “ecumenism,” which appears to be the willingness to dilute or delete doctrine in pursuit of a perceived unity among disparate groups of believers. Being ecumenical is being evangelical, whereas the new-fangled word ecumenism is the failure to evangelize.
It is important to have a clear understanding of the meaning of a word before we start to use it. The word ecumenical is a case in point. Throughout history, until very recently, its meaning was connected to its etymological roots in Greek (oikoumene), in which it means literally “the inhabited (world),” or more generally “the whole world” or, in any event, the whole civilized world, that part of the world which is encompassed by a common and universally accepted creed and culture. It was in this sense that it was used during the Roman Empire, in which it signified Roman civilization itself and the administration of it. This same sense of the word was inherited by the Roman Catholic Church, as the inheritor of baptized Roman civilization, in which it was used to signify Christendom and the administration of it; hence, an ecumenical council was a council convened by the authority of the Church to discuss and define disputed matters of doctrine, which would then be binding on all of Christendom. It can be said, therefore, that the dogmatically defined doctrines of the Church are ecumenical in this original sense of the word, which is to say that they are binding on the “whole inhabited world.” This authentic and linguistically rooted definition of ecumenical has nothing to do with the modern understanding of ecumenism which appears to be the willingness to dilute or delete doctrine in pursuit of a perceived unity among disparate groups of believers (irrespective of what they actually believe). Few will know, for instance, that “ecumenical” was only distorted into an “ism” in the past half century or so. Prior to 1950 there is no record of ecumenism as a word, and there is no entry for it in the 1964 edition of the Concise Oxford Dictionary.
Ecumenism, in the sense in which it appears to be understood, is not merely modern but modernist, which is to say that it is heretical. It is subjecting the objective truth, as taught and defined by the Church in the light of faith and reason, to the way that the world subjectively understands such truths, in the light (or darkness) of the world’s own transient beliefs, the latter of which are rooted in secular, i.e., worldly, criteria. St. Pius X, when he formally condemned modernism as a heresy, warned that its philosophical foundation was to be found in agnosticism. The Catholic Encyclopedia states that “modernism aims at that radical transformation of human thought in relation to God, man, the world, and life, here and hereafter, which was prepared by Humanism and eighteenth-century philosophy, and solemnly promulgated at the French Revolution.” Chesterton, who is said to have quipped that “we don’t want a Church that will move with the world but a Church that will move the world,” defended dogma, and the unity of faith and reason enshrined in doctrine, in an essay entitled “The Staleness of Modernism”:
Euclid does not save geometricians the trouble of thinking when he insists on absolute definitions and unalterable axioms. On the contrary, he gives them the great trouble of thinking logically. The dogma of the Church limits thought about as much as the dogma of the solar system limits physical science. It is not an arrest of thought, but a fertile basis and constant provocation of thought.
Chesterton would not have known the word ecumenism, which did not exist as a word when he was writing, but he would have seen the thing to which the word is now appended as being rooted in the relativism which disdains doctrinal definition. This was evident in his response to the relativism which is now called ecumenism of one of his contemporaries, Holbrook Jackson. “Theology and religion are not the same thing,” Jackson had claimed. “When the churches are controlled by the theologians religious people stay away.” Chesterton reacted to this mindless “ecumenism” by insisting that “theology is simply that part of religion that requires brains.”
When C.S. Lewis, a great admirer of Chesterton, had complained that the modernist dilution of doctrine was “Christianity and water,” he was not going far enough. Modernism, or ecumenism, is not merely dilution but pollution; it poisons the purity of the Gospel with the waywardness of the world. Lewis was more to the point when he condemned progressivism and modernism as the product of the sort of “chronological snobbery” which presumes that those who lived in the past are inherently inferior to those who live in the present. Such “snobs” abandon the “primitive” verities enshrined in doctrine for whatever is new or up-to-date. They abandon the Heilige Geist for the Zeitgeist, the Holy Spirit for the Spirit of the Age. They desert the Bridegroom for those claiming to be more “enlightened,” leaving the only One who truly loves them for the cads of cant (pun intended!) and their philandering philosophies.
Once we understand the new-fangled word ecumenism for the relativist and modernist thing that it is, we will see it as nothing less than the abandonment of the Faith in favour of the false gods of fashion. And once we see the thing for what it is, we will respond to the falsehoods of ecumenism with ecumenical truth. In this sense, we can see that being ecumenical is being evangelical, whereas ecumenism is the failure to evangelize. And in this sense, we can see and say that being truly ecumenical is to substitute ecumenism for you-come-in-ism.
Republished with gracious permission from Crisis Magazine.
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The featured image is “A Dispute Among the Doctors” (1654), possibly the four fathers of the church, by Pietro della Vecchia (1602/1603–1678) and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. It has been brightened for clarity.