Ecumenists pine for reunion. I notice that Catholic convert Bryan Cross has a "Week of Prayer for Christian Unity" over at Called to Confusion. Evidently, he has a deep emotional investment in this issue. Does he lie in bed, staring at the ceiling, as he contemplates the plight of his "separated brethren"? Is that a cause for insomnia?
Now, an interesting but unexplored question that ecumenism raises is what reunion with Rome actually requires. Before Vatican II, the answer was clearcut. To join the Roman Church, you had to renounce your Protestant theology and adopt Catholic theology. You had to submit to the Roman Magisterium.
But let's consider two examples. Archbishop Lefebvre was finally excommunicated. But to my knowledge, he was excommunicated, not because of what he believed, and not because of what he said, but because of what he did. He wasn't excommunicated for denying the authority of Vatican II. Rather, he was excommunicated because his actions were deemed to be schismatic, by consecrating breakaway bishops.
Then there's the case of Hans Küng. Although he's a notorious gadfly, he hasn't been formally excommunicated. He hasn't even been defrocked. Although it's possible for a Catholic to incur automatic excommunication, to my knowledge there's no indication that Rome thinks Küng ever crossed that line. Indeed, he's on friendly terms with Pope Francis. In fact, he even remains on amicable terms with archrival Joseph Ratzinger (aka Pope Benedict XVI).
That raises some interesting questions about Catholic identity in relation to Protestant identity. Suppose I'm born into a pious Catholic family. I'm diligently catechized. My family takes me to Mass every Sunday.
Suppose, in my teens, after conducting my own studies, I change my theological beliefs. I adopt classic Protestant beliefs.
Am I still Catholic? From a Protestant perspective, I'm not longer Catholic. But from an official Catholic perspective, am I still Catholic? Or have I incurred automatic excommunication?
Given the current state of Catholic theology, it's possible, from what I can tell, to be simultaneously Catholic and Protestant. I can be Catholic without sacrificing any of my Protestant beliefs. I didn't step on any tripwires by changing my beliefs.
If so, then joining the church of Rome wouldn't require me to leave my Protestant faith behind. Traditionally, for a Protestant to become Catholic involves conversion from one to the other. By becoming Catholic, you cease to be Protestant. But is that still the case? Or can you now be both at the same time?
Suppose there hadn't been a Protestant Reformation. Suppose you didn't have that formal break. Suppose, instead, some cradle Catholics developed Protestant beliefs. They might be considered dissenters, like Küng. But given how tolerant Rome has become regarding theological dissenters within its ranks, even in the episcopate, it seems as though Protestants could just be another theological faction under the big tent to Roman Catholicism. Consider the two synods which took place under the auspices of Pope Francis. You had German bishops who publicly opposed the status quo. They weren't relieved of duty for insubordination. If anything, it was the old guard that was sidelined.
Even Dominus Iesus referred to Protestant denominations as "ecclesial communities". And Pope Francis might well take a softer line than Ratzinger.
The upshot is to explore the hollowness of what reunion with Rome amounts to these days. If my analysis is correct, Protestants could reunite with Rome without recanting or modifying any classic Protestant beliefs. They could return to Mother Church with their traditional theology entirely intact.
There is, of course, something manifestly absurd about that hypothetical prospect, yet that's consistent with post-Vatican II trajectories. So ironically, if the dream of ecumenists like Bryan Cross came true, that change would be utterly superficial. There'd be no substantive change in Protestant theology. You needn't even meet Rome halfway. The theological boundaries of Rome have become so fuzzy that it's like Hinduism.