Cardinal Bourne on Ecumenism
The following is the Lenten pastoral letter of Francis Cardinal Bourne, Archbishop of Westminster from 1924.
The discussions which have taken place since the beginning of this year on the question of the union of Christendom, so long broken by heresy and schism, have been of special interest to those who as members of the Catholic Church see clearly how such union can be accomplished. They have noted with thanksgiving to God that on all sides there is a renewed and intensified longing for such union, and a keen realisation that disunion is evidently contrary to the declared will of Our Lord and Saviour and the cause of untold harm to men.
At the same time it is clear that on the part of our fellow-countrymen who do not accept the authority of the Holy See there is almost complete misapprehension of the sole basis of union which is in conformity with the will of Christ — namely, the frank and complete acceptance of divinely revealed truth.
In the letter issued from Lambeth in 1920 the following words occur, taken from a report of 1908, and they are quoted also in the recent letter of his Grace the Archbishop of Canterbury: —
“There can be no fulfillment of the divine purpose in any scheme of re-union which does not ultimately include the great Latin Church of the West, with which our history has been so closely associated in the past, and to which we are still bound by many ties of common faith and tradition.”
It is fitting, therefore, that we who today in England represent that Latin Church, which was from the early preaching of Christianity until the 16th century the only Church known to and accepted by the English people — to which we alone now stand in a relation of unbroken continuity — should make quite plain our attitude towards the desires and suggestions for reunion which meet us on every side.
In the first place, our attitude is and must be one of intense sympathy manifested both in constant and more fervent prayer for the restoration of England to the unity of Christendom which it once enjoyed and so highly honoured and in a readiness to explain and elucidate in every way those teachings of the Catholic Church which are still so often misunderstood and misrepresented by our fellow countrymen. Our clergy and people have not been wanting to this double duty in the past, but we could never give too much attention to it.
Unfortunately there are some who, separated from us, are apparently not prepared to give us credit for this sympathetic attitude. Not long ago the following words from the pen of a well-known Anglican appeared in the “Church Times” — “It (the dispatch in ‘The Times’ of January 1) also shows with equal clearness that the English Roman Catholics, whose position always leads them to make the worst of us and to prevent any rapprochement between Romanism and Anglicanism, have again intervened at Rome with a certain amount of success.”
His statement is without foundation or justification. It is a repetition of the equally baseless and uncharitable statements emanating from similar sources in 1896, of which there has been some re-echo in connection with the conversations held at Malines. How little do the writers or utterers of such things realise what we feel with regard to the restoration of England and to the unity of Christendom — how there is no sacrifice of place or position that we are not prepared to make in order to attain so great an end. How there is not a bishop among us who would not gladly resign his see and retire into complete obscurity if thereby England could again be Catholic. The Catholic Church is used to sacrifice for principle or for the common good.
We may now pass to the consideration of those principles the acceptance of which is essential to the union of Christendom. Such union must be based on absolute truth and sincerity. There can be no question of a compromise built up on the acceptance or rejection or mere toleration of a certain numbers of religious opinions. It can come only from the whole-hearted and sincere acceptance of certain Divinely revealed truths first. In this order of ideas there must be the acceptance of the fact that there can be but one Church — the pillar and ground of truth — the truth which is one on its very essence. As soon as we pass from the realm of etymology to that of exact theology the word “Church” can have but one meaning — namely, the great world-wide organisation created by Jesus Christ Himself to teach unerringly what He taught and to perpetuate unfalteringly that teaching among men until the end of time. This is the fundamental doctrine of the Catholic Church, and all discussions are useless and mere waste of time until this doctrine is accepted. For no man can be a Catholic until, guided and enlightened by the Holy Ghost, he is able to accept it.
The multiplied criticisms passed by non-Catholic writers on the published account of conversations at Malines have brought out very clearly the fundamental difference that there is between the point of view of those who accept the supreme authority of the Holy See as an essential fact of the Divine revelation and the outlook of those who reject that authority. The latter have apparently lost all perception of the Catholic idea of “Faith”. All, ultimately, is reduced to a question of more or less certain religious opinions in which there can be adjustments, concessions, compromises, arrangements. To a Catholic such a position is impossible — nay, repellant. He accepts with unhesitating faith what he is convinced to be the truth of God Himself, which it is not his to barter, to compromise, to give away. For the same reason he finds it is impossible to take part in those “united” services which are now so frequent and seemingly so dear to our fellow countrymen.