There are few lies among ecumenists more irritating than that we really don’t disagree, that we’re just saying the same thing in different ways. This is such a pervasive lie among certain well-groomed leaders that it has in the last decades ruined the name of ecumenism.
Yet because there is truth everywhere we must acknowledge the central insight: If only sometimes, we are not separated by doctrines but by liturgical language. Case in point: When attending the ordinations for a religious order, there was a great deal to admire in the pomp and ceremony, which contributes to what gets called the extrinsic merit of the Mass. (This is as opposed to the intrinsic merit of the Mass, which is Christ’s one sacrifice on Calvary.) However, when the women in choir came up in cassock and surplice, I was flabbergasted. This is a parish noted for fidelity to Catholic teaching and identity, and a religious order relatively unscathed by the insane 1960s. What do they think they’re doing?
Thing of it is that cassock and surplice worn by women here means something other than what I’m used to, and so my reaction is my problem, not theirs. Here, a woman in a cassock is not active dissent in favor of the ontological impossibility of womenpriests. Here it just means choir dress; here, choir dress just means what the choir wears. There may be something to be said about the appropriateness of cassock and surplice for seminarians and the ordained and there may not. Casting aspersions from assumptions will not get us to understanding.
This observation is only useful in a limited way, naturally. It does not discern truth. Its sole function is to sift away ambiguities. We may still be intractably different, but at least this way we know, clearly, why. We must learn to build bridges between ourselves and all comers, learning what people mean with what they say. Only then can we begin to honestly disagree. After all, human words are not the Immaculate Word, and so sometimes these lesser words get in the way of what the speakers mean.
Now, radicals could steal this idea of “liturgical language” to declare that modern Catholics have lost the language of their fathers, that today the liturgical worship has been so debased that folks, even if well-meaning, speak only pidgin. Whether modern liturgical worship is a kind of creole is beyond the competency of this blog, but even if true this does not mean it reflects an illegitimate love of God behind that creole, or an illegitimate hunger for the truth. Just as God can work through the heretics and pagans and Protestants and apostasists, God can work through Catholics disconnected from the patrimony of the Church. It is a kind of divine prerogative, after all, to use the “stone the builders rejected.” By the grace of God, even false languages of worship grow roots; this new mode of worship became, or will soon become, a genuine mode of worship.
In other words, even if folks find themselves stuck in a muddy dialect, we still need to learn how they speak to bring them to truth. It is our job, not theirs, to come down to them and show them the way up.** It is our job, not theirs, to learn to speak a new language.
* Now, understanding is not the goal. Truth is. But the personal means to truth is at least partially communication, and understanding is necessary for communication.
** How this is applied to genuine ecumenism is left as an exercise to the Attentive Reader.