It took decades of work, but Lutherans and Catholics have come to an important agreement on a doctrinal issue (justification by faith) that has divided them since the Reformation. This is the way the ecumenical movement was supposed to work: serious theological reflection in an attempt to approach religious truth thus leading to the elimination of unnecessary sources of division.
Consider the contrast with the National Council of Churches. Though it is celebrating its 50th anniversary next week, one wonders what its ecumenical mission has accomplished. Sadly, its initial promise has not paid off in the theological realm. Indeed, such efforts don't even seem to be on the agenda. Instead, its partisan political preoccupation has has managed to divide the religious community more than bring it together.
During the 80s and 90s, the religious right discovered the dangers associated with politicizing the gospel. It's public image suffered as its opponents scored debating points by asking such questions as: where does the Bible say that we should only vote for Republicans? Somehow, however, there is a double standard. The NCC is as politicized as the Moral Majority ever was and yet it has escape serious public scrutiny.
An example: one of the NCC's major projects in recent years has been to promote “eco-justice” in religious communities around the country. It urges pastors to sign its “Environmental Justice Covenant,” which includes the following statement: “...our congregation will witness to and participate in God's redemption of creation by supporting public efforts and policies which support vulnerable people and protect and restore the degraded earth.”
Does the organization really think that government policies are God's instrument in the redemption of creation? These are very strange formulations that have the vague feel of Christian spirituality but easily collapse into mere political positions.
The NCC aggressively takes positions on the issue of global warming and endorses the passage of the Kyoto Protocol. In fact, Rev. Joan Brown Campbell, the council's general secretary has said that the climate accords are “a litmus tests for the faith community”. For Rev. Campbell it is not the Council of Nicea or justification by faith, that forms the basis for Christian unity, but political issues on which Christians are entitled to have legitimate varying viewpoints. Isn't it possible to have legitimate differences on these issues without implying that those who disagree are heretics?
All of this is indistinguishable from the positions taken by any number of environmental organizations, and these positions have been countered by both scientists and theologians who have grave doubts about the merit of the Kyoto Protocol and the rest of this regulatory agenda. Besides, what has any of this do to with ecumenism?
Moving down the list of issues, the NCC also has a special program entitled “That All Might Have Healing.” Spiritual healing? Actually, no. The program is a lobbying effort on behalf of universal health care, with all the attendant demonization of HMOs and imaginings of a new utopia if only we spread the resources more thinly across the entire population. So it goes down the list of political issues: Cuba (victim of US aggression), foreign aid (increase it everywhere), church burnings (a consequence of an inherently racist society), communism (never heard of it), Clinton's AmeriCorp (needs more funding), and U.S. military (can do nothing right), and the list goes on.
The point isn't that every position that NCC takes is wrong. I agree with the organization that sanctions on Iraq and Cuba are creating undue hardship. But this is a matter for public debate, not doctrinaire policy pronouncement in the name of Christian ecumenism. It's fine, even essential, that religious organizations address the public life of a nations, but they need to do so modestly and to be alert to the distinctions between theology and politics.
Even in its membership, the organization is far from being inclusive of all strains of American Christianity. (The Roman Catholic Church has, wisely, never been a member) It formally represents only one-third of American church goers, a consequence of the rise of evangelical churches which are not members and the relative decline of mainline churches which are. It is doubtful that its extreme political positions genuinely represent those members who remain as a matter of custom and habit. And now, even this is coming under scrutiny.
On top of these ideological concerns, the fiscal instability of the NCC, has led to an immediate institutional crisis. In a dramatic move last month, the United Methodist Church suspended funding to the NCC due to “questions related to past and future fiscal policies and management.” A payment of more than $327,000 would not be delivered, not an insignificant loss for an organization with a $60 million annual budget.
The Rev. Bruce Robbins (a Methodist ecumenical officer) has even raised the question of whether the NCC is viable into the future, given an operating deficit of nearly $4 million this year. Thus, we see that while the NCC has been offering all kinds of moral and economic advice the world over, we discover that it has had difficulty managing its own assets.
Partisan politics, financial mismanagement, and a lack of internal reflection on the core of its mission are all indications of a institution in decline. All this is why the Institute for Religion and Democracy, a group made up of a spectrum of mainline church activists, has called for the 50th anniversary of the NCC to be a memorial service instead of a celebration. Amen.
Fr. Robert A. Sirico is president of the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty in Grand Rapids, Michigan.