What Can We Reasonably Hope For?

First Things, January 2000.

Anyone gazing into a crystal ball with the aim of divining the future of relations among members of different religious communities in the new millennium would do well to remember how things appeared as recently as 1965. In the euphoria occasioned by the Second Vatican Council, observers looked forward to a flowering of ecumenism and perhaps even the reunification of the Christian Church. Official interfaith commissions were formed to reexamine issues that had historically divided Eastern and Western Christians, Protestants and Catholics, Christians and Jews. Denominational leaders sought opportunities for interfaith cooperation, and theologians explored possible compromises and new understandings to overcome differences in areas of doctrine, discipline, and authority.

One thing seemed certain: the ecumenical action would be on the left wing of the various religious communities, not on the right. Traditional Catholics, conservative Protestants, and observant Jews were viewed as part of the problem, not part of the ecumenical solution. After all, interfaith dialogue would require “flexibility,” “openness,” “tolerance””virtues of the religious and sociopolitical left (it was supposed), not the right. Indeed, the “rigidity,” “dogmatism,” and “authoritarianism” of conservative religious believers would (it was thought) make them obstacles to the dialogical enterprise. Ecumenism would have to proceed despite anticipated conservative resistance.

Then came the culture war….

First Things