Ecumenism, the promotion of inter-faith harmony, has not been a dominant feature in the history of religions. Pogroms, persecutions, Crusades, Wars of Religion, social discrimination, economic exclusion and exploitation – believers, and former believers like me, have all not only learned about but witnessed, experienced and perhaps even practised one or another form of the opposite of ecumenism.
Yesterday, November 29, 2014, fifty years after the Vatican Council and its explicit appeal for ecumenism between Christian churches and with non-Christian religions, saw Pope Frank the First, along with both the local Imam and the head of the Orthodox Church, in prudently “silent adoration” in the principal mosque of Istanbul. Is this good or bad news for atheists ? Should we fear that this joining of ranks will strengthen the cause of the First Cause and reinforce religion around the world ? I think not. Rather than a union and consolidation of belief systems, it is at best a belated admission on the part, exclusively in my mind, of the Catholic Church of its wretched historical record of refusing respect for and denying the validity of any religion but its own : “Extra Ecclesiam, nulla salus” (“Outside the Church, no salvation”). (I have not noticed “non-Catholics” beating their breasts and muttering “mea culpa” vis-à-vis Catholicism.)
But the spectacle of ecumenical reconciliation is something of a trompe-l’oeil. Yesterday we saw the Imam in his mosque pointing out to the Pope – for the cameras – verses from the Koran, presumably to underline the faith they pretend to share. Not only would such verses have to have been carefully selected to avoid the Koran’s many embarrassing indictments of Christianity, but there is very little if any hope (or danger …) that Christianity and Islam will ever see eye to theological eye. It’s hard enough to pull off those inter-faith celebrations and prayer-fests with Protestants who deny the Real Presence, with the Orthodox who deny the Pope’s supreme authority, and with the Jews who deny Jesus’ divinity and messiahship. Catholicism can only pretend to agree with anti-Christian Islam.
At the end of the day, going forward, when all is said and done and if truth be told (wait for it !), I would like to believe that the ecumenical movement is a last-ditch effort to shore up the Catholic Church’s dykes against an unlikely coming atheist tsunami. It is no such thing. It is evidence only of an overdue admission of a Catholic collective guilty conscience. It is a minor blip on the religious radar screen. Its principal value is to keep the Church in the news and the charismatic, popular Pope on the world’s TV screens. In a word, it is – different from its exploitation of pie in the sky – pretty harmless. The French would call it a “pet de nonne”, which has nothing to do with dogs and cats.