Spurred by the optimism of the early 1960s, the major denominations of Western Christendom have spent half a century being exquisitely polite to one another, setting aside a history of strife in the name of greater Christian unity.
This ecumenical era has borne real theological fruit, especially on issues that divided Catholics and Protestants during the Reformation. But what began as a daring experiment has decayed into bureaucratized complacency — a dull round of interdenominational statements on global warming and Third World debt, only tenuously connected to the Gospel.
This is, again, a popular trope -- and again, bad history. In fact, the modern ecumenical movement began (half a century before Vatican II and the "optimism of the early 60s," by the way) with the deliberate effort of Protestant missionaries to coordinate their efforts and approaches, rather than competing. It expanded into something much greater, a sweeping re-evaluation of the separation between churches, studied both with regard to their faith and order and to their life and work.
Along the way, there were certainly some public statements on subjects which may not have seemed like the work of the church. We think, for instance, of the call for Sunday School curricula dealing with birth control and sex education, delivered by the Council of Christian Churches in the USA -- back in the 1930s.
But in fact, the more serious products of the ecumenical movement have been just the sort of consolidation that Douthat imagines Benedict to be proposing: both institutional mergers that created "uniting churches" in India and the Americas, as well as agreements of "full communion" between historically-rooted partner churches (such as the Lutheran-Reformed Leuenberg Agreement in 1973, and many others since then, including the recent agreement between Lutherans and Methodists in the US). It is such agreements, in which divided churches recognize in one another the elements of a common faith, which have slowly begun to forge a common witness.
Roman Catholic participation has been a tricky thing. After a long period of utter indifference, came another -- roughly 1964 to 1978 -- during which it seemed to lead the way. Since then, we have seen some fits and starts, and in fact Roman Catholic ecumenical efforts have often seemed to focus on good works rather than common faith, meaning, for instance, that they offered significant leadership on the very campaign against third-world debt that Douthat derides. In discussion of doctrinal matters, and in the difficult work of hammering out agreements, Rome has largely ceded leadership to another late-in-the-day entrant in the ecumenical sweepstakes, worldwide Lutheranism.
There is one significant exception to that remark, however, and it is massively significant: the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification, signed by Roman Catholics and Lutherans in 1999, and by Methodists in 2006. In the realm of faith and order, this may well be the crowning achievement of the ecumenical movement to date, and it is a far cry from the sort of politically correct bureaucratic exercise Douthat imagines. It is a doctrinal statement, growing out of prolonged encounter between two deeply estranged communities, which identifies the common foundation of their faith and points the way toward a recognition of their unity in Christ. If you are looking for the base upon which to erect a common Christian witness, both against secularism and against Islam, you will find it in JDDJ -- and not in a ham-handed effort to meddle in Anglican affairs.
Douthat wants readers to believe that the "personal ordinariate" is a bold effort by Pope Benedict XVI to clean up the messy house of Western Christianity, and rescue it from threats inside and out. He has no evidence to support this, and the claims he makes are false. If he wants to speak publicly about the complex affairs of the church, he should stop reading First Things and start reading church history.