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Hopes and Misgivings for Dialogue 1

John Courtney Murray, S.J.

With the Second Vatican Council on the horizon, America elicited eight Protestant and Catholic evaluations of ecumenism. Murray's was the most skeptical response. Note the centrality of reasoning for the two areas that Murray discusses—Editor.

[p. 459]

There are two possible areas of dialogue. In the first area the general issue would be the bearing of religious faith on "public affairs" in the widest sense—the matters that concern the commonwealth, whether as problems in public policy or as more theoretical problems in the public philosophy. In the second area the general issue would be the analogous relationship between the religious faiths themselves, to be discerned through direct confrontation on the properly theological level. In both areas there are grave difficulties.

In the second area the major difficulty has long been known. There is not much use in arguing the question of whether Protestant and Catholic hold in common certain articles of the traditional Christian creed, at least in some analogous fashion, when both parties to the dialogue must admit that they differ radically about the meaning of the word with which the traditional creed begins, "Credo," "I believe." On this antecedent issue the two universes of theological discourse part company, each to assume its own irreducibly different style and content. At that, there would be value in having it made clear, in argument, that the two universes do thus differ. This achievement would at least eliminate one of the possible dangers—that of a false irenicism.

For the rest, there might be some hope of reciprocally useful confrontation, if the issues on the table concerned biblical themes, to be discussed under strict regard both

[p. 460]

for their properly exegetical content and for the distinctively biblical mode of conception and statement in which the themes are cast. It is sufficiently evident today that in the field of biblical scholarship the possibilities of agreement between Protestant and Catholic are considerable. The two roads diverge in the yellow wood only when the question rises as to whether it be legitimate to transpose the "functional theology" of Scripture (as it is sometimes called today) into the conciliar "metaphysical" mode of conception and statement.

The Catholic moves easily from the New Testament to Nicaea and Chalcedon, knowing that he has not added to his faith, but only altered and improved his mode of understanding it. To the Protestant, however, Nicaea and Chalcedon are still at bottom "Hellenization," a deformation of the Christian faith itself, whose final mode of statement must always remain scriptural. In this divergence of view the ancient—and to the Catholic—false dilemma, "Holy Writ or Holy Church," makes itself most sharply felt today. At that, there would be value in experiencing, in argument, the sharpness of the divergence.

In the first area of possible dialogue, mentioned above, the difficulties are likewise formidable. One might perhaps best plumb their depths by contrasting, in content and especially in style of construction, all that a Catholic means by a rational ethic and all that Protestant means by a biblical ethic. The real argument here concerns the value of reason, and its limits, as the force directive of public affairs. The Catholic assumes that "religion," for all its indispensability as the basic energy of civilization, is not a force directive of public affairs, except in so far as its truths and imperatives are transmitted to society and to the state through the medium of the public philosophy that has been elaborated by human reason over centuries of reflection and experience. The Protestant does not seem to share this assumption. Nor does he seem to regard the concept of the public philosophy as even theoretically valid. Thus, in the absence of common premises, dialogue on the deeper aspects of public affairs proves desultory.

(1)Originally published as 1961c: "Hopes and Misgivings for Dialogue." America 104 (January 14, 1961): 459–60.