Reflections on the goal of the ecumenical movement from a Catholic perspective

Statement at the plenary on “Christian Unity” at the Lambeth Conference
London, 4 August 2022



This Lambeth Conference would have been held on the centenary of the 1920 Lambeth Conference’s Appeal to All Christian People, a charter for the Anglican Communion’s ecumenical efforts and a landmark moment for the whole Ecumenical Movement. It is a movement that the Catholic Church proved reluctant to join. But when we did join you in seeking to overcome the divisions among the Christians, our own foundational ecumenical declaration, Unitatis redintegratio, echoed many of the convictions already set out in the Appeal:

  • That all Christians are bound to one another through baptism and through the fundamentals of faith and tradition that all share and which are articulated in the scriptures and the ancient creeds.
  • That division is caused by sin and that Christians are therefore called to acknowledge guilt for the sins that cause division and to do penance.
  • That God intends his Church to be a sign for the world, and that its unity must therefore be visible

Unitatis redintegratio echoes all of these convictions and so the centenary of the Appeal seems an appropriate moment to say we are sorry for being so late to join the ecumenical movement but we thank you for showing us the way.

The bishops of the 1920 Lambeth Conference described themselves as being “inspired by the vision and hope of a visible unity of the whole Church”. They described the goal of ecumenism as a “Church, genuinely Catholic, loyal to all truth, and gathering into its fellowship all ‘who profess and call themselves Christians,’ within whose visible unity all the treasures of faith and order, bequeathed as a heritage by the past to the present, shall be possessed in common.” The citation brings us neatly to the theme of Cardinal Koch’s address.


Kurt Cardinal Koch

1. “We need a ‘common vision’ because we shall grow further apart if we do not aim towards a common goal. If we have conflicting views of this goal, we shall, if we are consistent, move in opposite directions.”[1] These are the words of With these words from the document, published in by the Lutheran-Roman Catholic Unity Commission in its 1980 document “Ways to Community”. Even after over forty years these words have lost none of their relevance.  The danger diagnosed here has not decreased in past decades, since it has so far not been possible for the various churches and ecclesial communities to achieve a really stable agreement on the goal of the ecumenical movement, and earlier partial consensual agreements have been called into question again.

That brings the main difficulty of the present ecumenical situation to light. On the one hand, it was possible in previous phases of the ecumenical movement to reach an extensive and pleasing consensus on many hitherto controversial individual questions around the understanding of faith and the theological structure of the church. On the other hand, most of the still existing points of difference continue to make themselves felt in the differing understanding of the ecumenical unity of the church. In this double context, I perceive the most elementary challenge in the ecumenical situation today as being what the late bishop of Würzburg and eminent ecumenist Paul-Werner Scheele diagnosed as follows: “Regarding unity, we agree that we want unity but not on what kind.”[2]


2. This diagnosis impels us to inquire about the reasons for this difficult situation. I would like to illustrate one of the basic reasons with a practical example. Konrad Raiser, a former general secretary of the World Council of Churches, used to stress that strongly insisting on unity ran a risk of endangering the unity itself, which is why he recommended doing without the category of unity altogether: “Again and again during the history of the church, those with other ideas have been excluded or suffered violent persecution in the name of ‘church unity’. Indeed, you can argue that most divisions in church history were the consequence of an overstated idea of unity; in any case, diversity only becomes a problem when it is measured against a normative form of unity. So the question is whether the ecumenical discussion should not refrain from using the notion of the ‘unity’ of the church due to the misleading and static, even abstract character of this concept.”[3]

With these critical statements, Konrad Raiser certainly also, and probably primarily, had the Catholic Church in mind, which to this day holds to the originally common goal of visible unity in faith, in the sacraments and in church ministries. This strong insistence on visible church unity is certainly also founded in the fact that the Catholic Church – as a world faith community living in interaction between the plurality of local churches and the unity of the universal church – strives to regain unity in its own sphere of life and thus to transfer the Catholic ideal of unity onto the level of the goal of the ecumenical movement.

On the other hand, we can only understand the sharpness of Konrad Raiser’s judgement of the Catholic view of the ecumenical goal if we note the alternative he postulates. By contrast with the earlier paradigm, which was, he says, “unashamedly vertical in its talk of church unity”, now a “horizontal understanding of unity” should assert itself, along the lines of “mediating between differing traditions and positions”, so that “reconciliation, the balance of diversities between the church traditions, [is] realistically the maximum of ecumenical unity that can be achieved”.[4] If you contemplate this definition of the goal of the ecumenical movement you will quickly discover that it is not neutral, any more than the Catholic one is, but clearly reflects the history of Protestantism. This is because the great schisms in the Western Church in the 16th century always led to further divisions, so that the churches and ecclesial communities that emerged from the 16th century Reformations have developed into a pluralist universe that is anything but straightforward.

It is probably due to these historical developments that quite a number of the churches and ecclesial communities that arose during the Reformations strongly promote diversity and difference, and consequently have largely abandoned the original common goal of visible unity in faith, the sacraments and church ministries, replacing it with the postulate of mutual recognition of the varied church realities as churches and thus as parts of the one Church of Jesus Christ. That is not, on principle, postulating the invisibility of church unity; visible unity, however, merely consists largely in the sum of all available church realities..


3. This example was intended to make clear that asking questions about the goal of the ecumenical movement, and consequently of a more precise understanding of church unity, cannot simply be done in an abstract, neutral way – this questioning is always directed and informed by prior ecclesiological decisions of a confessional nature. The reason for the different ecumenical goals is that the differing ecumenical arguments are more in favour either of unity – on the Catholic side – or of plurality - on the Protestant side. As every church and ecclesial community has, and practises, its specific idea of its ‘being church’ and its unity, and so aspires to transfer this confessional conception onto the level of the ecumenical movement as well, there are basically as many different ecumenical goals as there are confessional ecclesiologies. This means that the still largely lacking agreement on the goal of the ecumenical movement is rooted in a still largely lacking ecumenical agreement on the nature of the Church and its unity.


4. We find a helpful way forward to a deeper common understanding of the Church and its unity in the study of the Commission for Faith and Order of the World Council of Churches, entitled “The Church. Towards a Common Vision”.[5] This study aspires to an ecumenical view of the nature, definition and mission of the Church, and it can therefore be regarded as a step on the way and a valuable ecclesiological statement from an ecumenical viewpoint. However, this certainly creditable study is not able to take most of the hitherto controversial topics on ecclesiology and the theology of ministry beyond the framing of further open questions. Consequently, there is more work to do in this direction, with the basic questions of what, who and where the Church is, and what absolutely pertains to its unity, being the main items on the present and future ecumenical agenda.


5. In its endeavour to regain the unity of the Church, ecumenism today faces another great challenge, about which we cannot keep silent. In the pluralist and relativist Zeitgeist that is so widespread nowadays it is running into a strong headwind. The reason is that, by contrast with traditional Christian thinking which, in accordance with the axiom ens et unum convertuntur [being and one are convertible], has regarded unity as the meaning and reason for ‘being’ at all, pluralism has today become the decisive term for designating what is called the “postmodern” experience of reality.

To quote the famous essay by Jean-Francois Lyotard, postmodernism means admitting and favouring the plural, as a matter of principle, and being suspicious of every singular, also as a matter of principle. The basic conviction of the postmodern mentality says that there is no thinking backwards from the plurality of reality, and we must not do so if we don’t want to expose ourselves to the suspicion of a totalitarian approach. Instead, plurality is said to be the only way to reflect the whole of reality, as far as this is possible at all. It is therefore characteristic of postmodernism to abandon unitary thinking on principle, which means not only tolerating and accepting pluralism but fundamentally opting for it. With this postmodern mindset, any quest for unity seems premodern and antiquated.

We have to note that the postmodern mentality is effective in present-day ecumenical thinking as well. It is expressed in an ecclesiological pluralism that has become plausible to a large extent, according to which precisely having multiple, diverse churches is regarded as positive reality and any attempt to regain the unity of the Church appears suspicious. It appears that people have not only learned to live with the historical and present pluralism but also basically welcome it, so that the ecumenical search for a way to restore church unity appears unrealistic and is regarded as undesirable.


6. This conviction is mostly expressed by using the phrase “reconciled diversity” to describe the current ecumenical situation. From a Catholic angle, too, there is a positive point to using this phrase; however, it is understood as defining the goal of the ecumenical pathway on which we seek the unity to reconcile differences that are no longer church-dividing. Hence, again and again the question arises as to how much unity is necessary and how much diversity is possible and desired. The French thinker Blaise Pascal helpfully showed the way in his Pensées – unity that does not depend on plurality is dictatorship and plurality that does not depend on unity is anarchy. In ecumenism, too, we have to constantly seek and take a middle way between dictatorship and anarchy.

If we orient our ecumenical efforts to Jesus’ High Priestly Prayer, in which he prayed for the unity of his disciples, the search for unity belongs to the essence of Christian faith, as is expressed with desirable clarity in the letter of the Apostle Paul to the Ephesians: “There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all” (Eph 4:4-6). Since unity is and remains a basic category of Christian faith, we Christians must have the courage and humility to face up to the still existing offence of a divided Christianity and, gently but firmly, keep the question about unity on the agenda.


7. The theme of the Lambeth Conference, “God’s Church for God’s World”, motivates us to do just that. This motto can only be true to its meaning if the Church can undertake its global mission in reconciled form, in the way that Jesus prayed for the unity of his disciples in his High Priestly Prayer, with the specific intention: “So that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me” (John 17:23). This final sentence – “so that” – expresses the fact that the unity among the disciples is not an end in itself. Rather it serves the credibility of the mission of Jesus Christ and his Church in the world and represents the indispensable precondition for a credible witness in the world.

The first World Mission Conference in 1910 recalled this goal of the ecumenical quest for church unity in a special way, back in the last century in Edinburgh. The participants at this conference were bothered by the fact that the different Christian churches and church communities were competing with one another in mission work and thereby harming the credible proclamation of the gospel of Jesus Christ, above all in distant continents, because – together with the gospel – they also took European church divisions into other cultures. For this reason they had become painfully aware that the lack of unity among Christians was threatening the credibility of Christian witness in the world.

The divisions in Christianity then turned out to be a strong barrier to evangelization. And this is still true, as Pope Francis recalls in clear terms in his Apostolic Exhortation “Evangelii gaudium”: “Given the seriousness of the counter-witness of division among Christians, particularly in Asia and Africa, the search for paths to unity becomes all the more urgent. The missionaries in those continents often mention the criticisms, complaints and ridicule to which the scandal of divided Christians gives rise.” Consequently, in the eyes of Pope Francis, “commitment to a unity which helps them to accept Jesus Christ can no longer be a matter of mere diplomacy or forced compliance, but rather an indispensable path to evangelization.”[6]

This ecumenical emergency implies that a sincere and thus common ecumenical witness to Jesus Christ in the present world is only possible when the Christian churches overcome their divisions and can live in unity in reconciled diversity. Ecumenism and mission belong inseparably together since that is the only way in which “God´s Church” really is “for God´s World”. It is my wish for you, dear Archbishop Justin Welby and esteemed bishops, that this theme of the Anglican Communion may not only give orientation at this conference but also accompany you into a beneficial future. The delegates of the Catholic Church join me in this wish, and we will be glad to include it in our prayers.



[1]  Roman Catholic – Lutheran Joint Commission, Ways to Community, in: Harding Meyer and Lukas Vischer (eds), Growth in Agreement: Reports and Agreed Statements of Ecumenical Conversations on a World Level (New York – Geneva, 1984), 215-240, cit. n. 2.

[2]  P.-W. Scheele, Ökumene wohin? Unterschiedliche Konzepte kirchlicher Einheit im Vergleich, in: St. Ley / I. Proft/ M. Schulze (Hrsg.), Welt vor Gott. Für George Augustin (Freiburg i. Br. 2016) 165-179, cit. 165.

[3]  K. Raiser, Ökumene im Übergang. Paradigmenwechsel in der ökumenischen Bewegung (München, 1989), 120. Original publication: Ecumenism in Transition. A Paradigm Shift in the Ecumenical Movement, WCC (Geneva, 1996).

[4]  Ibid., 119f.

[5]  The Church: Towards a Common Vision. Faith and Order Paper No. 214. WCC (Geneva, 2014).

[6]  Francis, Evangelii gaudium, No. 246.