Why the ecumenical movement is a historical event on par with the Reformation

Thomas Reece vigano

A hundred years ago, Catholics were not interested in celebrating the 400th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, except to remember how a bunch of reformers led people astray.

How times have changed!

This year, Catholics, led by Pope Francis, are celebrating the Reformation with their fellow Christians.

However, it is important that we not simply look at it through rosy glasses.

The division of Christianity led to warfare and bloodshed on a par with the conflicts between the Sunnis and Shiites in the Muslim community.

It was not pretty.

We Christians cannot look down our noses at Muslims as if we have not also killed our brothers and sisters.

Although the fighting and bloodshed eventually tapered off, antagonism and prejudice between Catholics and Protestants (and among Protestants) lasted well into the 20th century.

It was not until the 20th century that progressive Protestant churches initiated the ecumenical movement. Conservative Protestants and Catholics held back, seeing ecumenism as giving in to relativism.

Two world wars fostered ecumenism in foxholes where soldiers of different faiths got to know and respect each other. The wars also made the churches realize they needed to put aside their squabbles to work for peace.

To Catholics growing up in the 1950s, Protestants were heretics outside the true church, although Protestants might be forgiven for their “ignorance.” In school and at home, Catholics heard stories of prejudice and discrimination from the WASP establishment.

We were reminded that the three groups most hated by the KKK were blacks, Jews and Catholics. Our American history books had photos of signs saying “Irish need not apply.”

The 1960 election proved that anti-Catholicism was still alive and flourishing. In polling, John Kennedy’s religion was singled out as an extremely important variable in the election.

Ecumenism was still a dirty word until the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), whose document on ecumenism allowed Catholics to jump in with both feet. And jump we did. Catholics are now dialoguing with everybody. Continue reading

  • Fr Thomas Reese SJ is Senior Analyst @RNS. Previously with @NCRonline & @Americamag, author of Inside the Vatican, and a member of @USCIRF.

Image: PBS

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