Scholarship, Ecumenism, and The Regensburg Forum

by Trevor Anderson

A look at our writers page makes clear that our site is not composed of contributors who hold positions of ecclesiastical authority in the Roman Catholic Church. Thus, none of our contributors are in a position to effect visible unity of any kind between various Christian communions that are not currently united (viz., Catholic and Protestant communions). As our readers will recall from previous posts which laid out our vision for Catholics & Calvinists (now, of course, The Regensburg Forum), the goal of our site has not been the promotion of such visible unity: we are not attempting to encourage conversions (a form of increasing visible communion, albeit by co-option), nor are we putting forward suggestions or hypothetical proposals for visible communion between the Catholic Church and our Reformed brothers and sisters. This was true of Catholics & Calvinists, and will be true of The Regensburg Forum as long as it is operational.

Rather, our goal here has been to promote increased knowledge of and interaction among various Christian traditions. Of course we, as individuals, desire that Christ’s Church be unified. But humans, and the works they produce, are multi-faceted things. It is possible to have a personal desire that does not properly enter into a project, given the nature of that project. It is a basic mark of human maturity to order one’s goals and desires in such a way that they do not improperly impinge on one another. For instance, a school classroom is not the place to catechize – not because catechesis is wrong, but because the project of schooling is different from catechesis. One fulfills one’s desire to catechize by teaching Sunday School, not by slipping creedal instruction into math class. Or again, perhaps one is taking a language course (say Greek) in order to more effectively study theology or philosophy. The desire to (a) learn Greek in order to (b) theologize better is legitimate. But even if that is one’s motivation, one would not want to begin theologizing in Greek class, because Greek class is for learning the language, not for theologizing.

Now, to apply this analysis to The Regensburg Forum and the problematic concept of “ecumenism.” The main writers for this site believe that the desire for the visible, united communion of Christ’s Church is a legitimate one (a sentiment shared, mutatis mutandis, by Christians like Bavinck, Barth, and Berkouwer). While we know some disagree, this does not seem a prima facie unreasonable desire to have.

If many of our writers have this desire, how can The Regensburg Forum be anything other than a site designed to aid in effecting the visible unity of Christ’s Church – namely, under the Bishop of Rome? There seem to be two tests it would need to pass to clear itself of this charge: first, it would need to be theoretically possible for an “ecumenical venture” to exist that did not have as its goal the visible unity of the Church. This, we realize, does not seem possible at first glance. If such a project, however, were possible, then there would be a second test: those undertaking it would need to have motives proper to that purity of intention.

We believe it is possible to pass both tests, and our sincere intention and hope is that our Forum qualifies as such a project. To state unequivocally what we will try to explain in detail:

Our purpose at The Regensburg Forum is to engage in and encourage a scholarly dialogue between Roman Catholic and Reformed Protestant traditions, based on the assumption that Christians who, among other things, affirm the Nicene Creed and have a deep respect for the Augustinian legacy can learn from one another.

Test 1: A Conversation with Integrity

First, let us examine the first test: is it theoretically possible that an “ecumenical” project exist that does not have as its goal the visible unity of the Church? If so, why call it “ecumenical”?

To take the questions in reverse order: We do not think that using the term “ecumenism” to refer to scholarly discussion between Christian traditions is inappropriate, since it is consonant with how the Second Vatican Council’s decree on ecumenism, Unitatis Redintegratio, discusses “ecumenical movements.” The document seems to have in mind more official activities than sites like The Regensburg Forum, but the principles laid out are ones we seek to adhere to in our own project. Such initiatives and activities, says the Council, should be defined by these features:

[F]irst, every effort to avoid expressions, judgments and actions which do not represent the condition of our separated brethren with truth and fairness and so make mutual relations with them more difficult; then, “dialogue” between competent experts from different Churches and Communities.

Now, although we are certainly not theological “experts,” we do strive to make The Regensburg Forum a place of competent and well-researched engagement. Unitatis Redintegratio continues:

At these meetings, which are organized in a religious spirit, each explains the teaching of his Communion in greater depth and brings out clearly its distinctive features. In such dialogue, everyone gains a truer knowledge and more just appreciation of the teaching and religious life of both Communions.

Important for our purposes, this sort of engagement is explicitly distinguished from the activity of catechizing and converting:

 [I]t is evident that, when individuals wish for full Catholic communion, their preparation and reconciliation is an undertaking which of its nature is distinct from ecumenical action. (UR, para. 4)

The phrase “of its nature” is not a throw-away line. According to the Council, what characterizes ecumenical work as distinct from the act of bringing converts into the Church is that ecumenical work is primarily about self-examination and renewal based on the filial critique of other Christians:

[The] primary duty [of Catholics engaged in dialogue] is to make a careful and honest appraisal of whatever needs to be done or renewed in the Catholic household itself, in order that its life may bear witness more clearly and faithfully to the teachings and institutions which have come to it from Christ through the Apostles. (Ibid.)

So then, the two activities are portrayed as distinct; but if the one (dialogue) is seemingly ordered toward the other (conversion), then perhaps this is simply a distinction without a difference. According to this (problematic) model, partners in dialogue explain, they clear away misunderstandings, they learn; then they fulfill the purpose of all those activities by bringing their conversation partners into the Catholic Church. And, if they’re unable to do that, then their project has been a “failure.”

We do not, however, think this is in fact the case. The first reason we think so is because the task of pursuing conceptual clarification and theological knowledge is worth performing for its own sake; it has what philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre would call an “internal good,” apart from external effects it might (or might not) produce. Thus, from a Protestant’s perspective, even if the Catholic Church is utterly wrong, it is worth having a conversation to learn more thoroughly about its errors (a view we have neither ignored, nor dismissed out of hand). If, though, the Catholic Church is right about some things, it will be beneficial to learn from the Church. Either way an internal good is achieved. And of course, from the Catholic’s perspective, the directive of his or her Church authorities is clear: Catholics not only can, but ought to learn from the insights of Protestant traditions. All of this is true even if visible communion never occurs. Thus, the two activities cannot be identical, since one (dialogue) can exist while the other (communion) does not, and may never, exist.

Second, and entailed in the first point, a Protestant could, theoretically, actively disagree that Christ’s Church ought to be institutionally united, and yet participate in a conversation about differing theologies (viz., Protestant and Roman Catholic ones). That this is a possible option means the two activities must not be the same thing. Of course, such participation would imply some sort of “unity,” because if two (or more) people come to a common understanding on some point, say of history or theology or philosophy, they are “unified” in their understanding of that point. But that sort of unity might have nothing to do with ecclesial unity, which may or may not come about. Were it to come about, it would be the result of sentiments and efforts external to the conversation itself. Certainly such external results do often come about, given the fact that Christians are so often agreed on many points that are external to the ones they might be discussing at a given time. If, however, they are not so agreed, these external effects would not need to come about – and that would be all right.

Test 2: Conversationalists with Integrity

Very well – what about the second test? Given the theoretical possibility, is such a project feasible in fact – and is The Regensburg Forum such an endeavor?

First, as we have stated in no uncertain terms, the purpose of this site is to engage in the work of scholarly conversation, not conversion. Second, we believe that thus far we have manifested this purpose with integrity: none of our interviews or posts have suggested anything whatsoever about steps we could take toward visible communion, nor will they begin to do so. As mentioned, we do not have the authority to make such proposals, and, regardless, that is not what we are interested in here. Third, the very nature of a website necessitates that we would prioritize the informational and conceptual aspect of “ecumenism” over the physical (visibly unitive) aspects.

It would of course be false to say that the main writers of The Regensburg Forum do not desire visible communion in any way. Pope John Paul II has said, “At the Second Vatican Council, the Catholic Church committed herself irrevocably to following the path of the ecumenical venture” (para. 3), and Catholics ought to heed that. So then, we have ecumenical desires – not only as regards conversation, but also as regards visible unity. And our style of engagement and posture toward our project has indeed been inspired by mentors and interlocutors (both Catholic and Protestant!) with similar sentiments. But let us grant this, and admit further that in our “perfect world” Protestant churches would be in some form of communion with the Bishop of Rome. Even given that fact, we do not consider encouraging Protestant conversions (whether of individuals or churches) to be a proper goal of our project here.

This is because we must take into account Cardinal Ratzinger’s statement that “the Catholic Church has no right to absorb the other Churches. The Church has not yet prepared for them a place of their own, but this they are legitimately entitled to” (p. 73). There are two things to note here: (1) “a place of their own” does not secretly mean “a place not of their own.” Absorption implies a stripping of identity and personality; Ratzinger thinks this is wrong. He envisions a unity that would allow Protestants to maintain the integrity of their faith and their churches. Perhaps he is delusional and this is impossible, but that at least is his thought. (2) He says the Catholic Church is not yet prepared to extend a sweeping welcome to Protestant churches, not necessarily because of their shortcomings, but because of the Catholic Church’s own shortcomings.

In other words, we are quite willing to acknowledge our own ecumenical desires while disagreeing that this entails the conclusions that seem to inevitably follow. The thought goes that a personal desire for unity must entail either (1) apologetics and proselytization (if you are doing ecumenism, then fine – be friendly and convert people!) or (2) disingenuousness (if you are Catholic, then just convert people to Catholicism – don’t give us these contortions and hairsplits).

We disagree with this line of reasoning. First, it is no trickery nor is it disingenuous to admit that one’s own Church is not perfect, and that it would be improper to pursue a goal out of its season. Second, even if the goal were in season, this would not mean our project must lose its original integrity and internal goodness. Third, desires that pertain to one sphere of life can be legitimately kept out of other spheres without self-betrayal or bad faith. This does not seem any more duplicitous than a professor refraining from proselytization in the classroom, even while teaching theology.


Catholics & Calvinists first presented itself as an “ecumenical” project. Though it now has a different name, it remains so, in precisely the manner articulated above. We acknowledge that we perhaps could have articulated the limited scope of our “ecumenical” endeavors more clearly, even granting our previous posts that attempted to address this point. We truly appreciate and have sincerely enjoyed the engagement from our readers thus far, and this post is an effort to respond to you and to continue this conversation with integrity. Perhaps the word “ecumenical” continues to irk some readers. We regret this, but hope we have made a fair case for our use of the term in the sense in which we’ve defined it. We have tried to start this conversation, and it falls to us to see that we carry it on responsibly. Such are our thoughts, and we continue to value yours. “Gentles, do not reprehend: / If you pardon, we will mend.”

2 thoughts on “Scholarship, Ecumenism, and The Regensburg Forum

  1. I just want to say that I appreciate your project. This post (as well as the announcement on the new name) helped clarify some of the questions and concerns I have had. I’ll admit that my personal bias probably wouldn’t allow for me to engage these topics with the type of genuine, non-proselytizing, dialogue you suggest. I am the theoretical Protestant reader you mention that doesn’t currently see institutional unity as a valid goal… And yet I absolutely love reading your site and find that I gain much from the dialogue.

    For visible unity to be possible we have to come to agreement about soteriology and ecclesiology in the present time. I’m perhaps skeptical that such a present unity could be found in the historic stances of the church, and I’m likewise skeptical of such a unity happening under the Bishop of Rome…. but I’m fascinated at the exploration of the topic. Please keep writing.

  2. Andrew,

    Thanks for your kind words, and for following along. Rest assured that we’ll heed your request to continue the project!

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