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Secularization and a renewal of ecumenical dialogue

Editor’s note: This is the fifth in a series of posts reflecting (1) on Covenant’s recent seminar in Rome on Catholic ecclesiology and ecumenism, and (2) fresh approaches to, and promises of, Christian unity in our own time. See the ecumenism tag for more.

Ecumenism has long been an integral part of my spiritual life, as one who grew up Roman Catholic in very non-Catholic East Tennessee. Ecumenical dialogue in the halls of William Blount High School was a constant for this self-identified Papist dwelling among the Baptists, the Methodists, and an Episcopalian or two.

The content of our dialogue, although absent of deep inquiry, tended to be about points of theological controversy: Why do Catholics pray to Mary? Why do Methodists consume grape juice and not wine? Why don’t Roman Catholics pray the Doxology at the end of the Our Father outside of Mass? Why couldn’t my friends receive the Eucharist when they attended that very Roman Catholic-named parish, Our Lady of Fatima (frequently pronounced as Our Lady of Fah-teem-eh)? These conversations were never simply game theory. Instead, they were informal occasions to hope for the unity to which Christ has called the Church.

As I began my theological career at the University of Notre Dame, I noticed that the dialogues among Roman Catholics and other Christians were a far more sophisticated version of my secondary school ecumenism. Theologians addressed common and distinct points of doctrine and polity. One dialogue would awaken these ecumenists to a new area of inquiry. Through this dialogue, hope remained that, because of such inquiry and thus developing friendships, we might once again be one.

In recent years, I have begun to wonder if this approach to ecumenism is fruitful in today’s context. If we are to be frank, there are points of doctrinal disunity and ministerial practice that are at odds. A dialogue about women priests conducted between Anglicans and Roman Catholics will yield little fruit, except for a deeper sense that we do not share a theology of ordination in common. At all. Further, this approach to ecumenism tends to assume that having robust conversations among theologians will function as a salve for healing the disunity of the body of Christ. Yet professional theologians (happily, for the sake of all) make up a rather minuscule number of those who call themselves Christians. Such dialogue ends up releasing document after document that goes unknown by assembly after assembly, all the while piling up question after question that must be considered in some future dialogue. In saecula saeculorum. Amen.

An alternative approach to this kind of ecumenical dialogue may be working on common theological, pastoral, and social concerns. For example, secularization is a sociological reality that harms each one of our ecclesial communions. The media has frequently addressed the decline of membership among Anglicans and Episcopalians in the United Kingdom and the United States. Yet the Roman Catholic Church in the United States is also experiencing significant declines, worthy of attending to. Between 2010 and 2015, Roman Catholic parishes have experienced a 14 percent decline in infant baptisms, a 6 percent decline in confirmations, a 10 percent decline in first Communions, and an 11 percent decline in marriages.

While 24 percent of Catholics attended Mass weekly in 2015, this number (based upon decreased infant baptisms and marriages) will likely not hold steady in future years. Something is happening right now in the United States that will have a deleterious effect upon the robustness of Christianity among all of us.

For this reason, is secularization not something that all of us could work on together? How would such a dialogue unfold? Over the next year in Covenant, I hope to sketch out an approach to ecumenical dialogue among Roman Catholics and Episcopalians/Anglicans relative to secularization. But before proceeding, it would be wise to describe what secularization consists of.

Secularization is not fundamentally about the separation of church and state. It is not the disappearance of religion from human consciousness. It is not even, as Charles Taylor argues in A Secular Age, an experience of disorientation that every person must face while abiding in an age when unbelieving is a legitimate option. For even if Taylor is right (and I believe he is), one must still discern why “not believing” is the sexier option.

According to Daniélè Hervieu-Léger, secularization is fundamentally about a break in the chain of memory. Religion, for said sociologist, depends upon the flourishing of memory:

In the case of religious memory, the normativity of collective memory is reinforced by the fact of the group’s defining itself … as a lineage of belief. And so its formation and reproductiveness spring entirely from the efforts of memory feeding this self-definition. At the source of all religious belief … there is belief in the continuity of the lineage of believers. This continuity transcends history. It is affirmed and manifested in the essentially religious act of recalling a past which gives meaning to the present and contains the future.[1]

A break in the chain of memory means that a religious body cannot construct a self-understanding that is robust enough to make sense of reality in a particular age. In late modernity, religious people are left with fragments to construct an identity in an age when religious practice is simply one option among many.

In this sense, an ecumenical dialogue designed to deal with a common problem would ask questions: what within our tradition is part of our forgotten memory? Where are there absences in this chain of memory that would need to be reconstructed? What liturgical, catechetical, and pastoral strategies might we discern in reconstructing this chain of memory? Can we share some of these strategies in common?

An ecumenical dialogue around the problem of secularization would still deal with substantive theological, pastoral, and ministerial distinctions. It would not be an ecumenism of tolerance, in which we simply pass over distinctions. It would be an ecumenism that focused on a common project to spread the gospel to every corner of the world rather than to produce documents that sit on the shelves of scholars. It would be an ecumenism that would be, to some extent, okay with our lack of oneness, aware that “becoming one” is a project not simply for us but the Triune God who draws us ever closer to the new Jerusalem.

In the next year at Covenant, I will suggest three areas of forgotten memory that might be studied by Roman Catholics and Anglicans alike: scriptural exegesis, liturgical-sacramental prayer, and a mystical approach to the ethical life. In each case, I will deal with both forgotten memories and pastoral strategies for the Church in a secular age. I will do so primarily from the Roman Catholic side, hoping that a colleague from this very publication will develop a similar series from within the Episcopal/Anglican tradition.


[1] Daniélè Hervieu-Léger, Religion as a Chain of Memory, trans. Simon Lee (Rutgers University Press, 2000), p. 125.



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