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Alarms sound over latest blow to ecumenism

It’s a safe bet that most Catholics have never heard of the Consultation on Common Texts, an ecumenical forum for specialists in the arcane discipline of liturgical translation. Hence when veteran Presbyterian liturgist Horace Allen says, as reported on Page 7, that this sort of dialogue is “finished, dead, done,” it may seem a minor concern.

It’s not.

Any blow to ecumenical progress, whether real or perceived, merits serious attention. The quest for Christian unity is not, as Pope John Paul made clear in his 1995 encyclical Ut Unum Sint, “some sort of ‘appendix’ that is added to the church’s traditional activity.” Rather, the pope wrote, “ecumenism is an organic part of her life and work, and consequently must pervade all that she is and does.”

Moreover, the Consultation on Common Texts has produced real breakthroughs -- above all, the Revised Common Lectionary, a collection of scripture readings modeled on the Catholic Lectionary that is now used by 70 percent of Protestants in the English-speaking world. It means that Catholics and Protestants are, for the first time since the 16th-century Reformation, hearing the same scriptures proclaimed on Sunday, a stunning historical achievement.

The details of these liturgical debates, which NCR has tracked closely over recent years, can seem obscure to the uninitiated. But as the success of the Revised Common Lectionary makes clear, liturgical reform reaches down into the faith experience of hundreds of millions of believers, both in and out of the Catholic church.

It may be that Allen and other critics of Liturgiam Authenticam, a May 2001 Vatican document that called for a more traditional approach to translation, are overreacting. Msgr. James Moroney, the U.S. bishops’ chief expert on liturgy, told NCR that the Catholic church remains “unequivocally committed” to ecumenical collaboration. If anything, Moroney said, Liturgiam Authenticam actually boosts ecumenical work by insisting it be carried out by bishops’ conferences rather than other groups acting in their name, such as the International Commission on English in the Liturgy.

Moroney’s is the most benign spin, however, on a Vatican march to undo liturgical reform that had begun to take hold during the past three decades. The movement, young by any Catholic church measure, was never allowed to mature through its mistakes and miscues. Instead, those most deeply engaged in liturgical reform and translation issues had to spend most of their time in recent years fending off attacks from curial officials appointed during this papal regime.

Yet the fact that several longstanding conversation partners of the Catholic church are alarmed should tell us something. It’s not just Horace Allen. We reported March 15 that Anglican liturgist David Holeton, another participant in the Consultation on Common Texts, has called Liturgiam Authenticam a “disabling blow” to ecumenical cooperation.

As Lutheran scholar David Yeago wrote in a recent essay on Ut Unum Sint, it is always the best friends of the Catholic church in the Protestant world who are most committed to the ecumenical conversation. They are “most likely to be orthodox moderates with a keen sense of the centrifugal forces threatening their own communions,” Yeago wrote, “and a high appreciation of the role an ecumenically renewed papacy could play in strengthening the pull of the apostolic center in all the churches.”

When such friends of longstanding, people such as Horace Allen and David Holeton, set off alarm bells, we all would do well to listen.

National Catholic Reporter, May 24, 2002