The Second Vatican Council’s Decree on Ecumenism had several important things to say to the Catholic community. However, the most important things about the decree were that it was written, it was overwhelmingly approved and it called for dialogue among separated Christians.
In its opening paragraph, the decree (Unitatis Redintegratio – The Restoration of Unity) states that a divided Christian Church “openly contradicts the will of Christ, scandalizes the world, and damages the holy cause of preaching the Gospel to every creature.”
It might also have added that such disunity, especially in the Western Church, has given a major impetus to a secularism which seeks to push all religion out of the conversation of public issues.
In his 1965 book The Dividing of Christendom, the Catholic historian Christopher Dawson maintains that the Catholic and Protestant worlds have been so divided from each other by centuries of war and power politics that they no longer share a common social experience.
Their division was more than a matter of theological disagreement; it evolved into a cultural estrangement among those of the same religious family.
When the Western and Eastern churches agreed to reunite in 1453 after nearly 400 years of separation, Byzantine Christians rejected that union, saying they preferred Turkish rule to a union with the papacy. Doctrine was not the problem; culture was.
CNS FILE PHOTO
Pope Paul VI, right, greets Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras of Constantinople during the pontiff's 1964 trip to the Holy Land.
With that historical background, it is instructive to see the sad result when the Catholic and Protestant worlds came together such as happened with the mass immigration of Irish Catholics to North America in the mid-19th century. For a long time afterward, there was deep-seated prejudice with Catholics and Protestants living in two solitudes.
As the Irish eventually gained acceptance into mainstream society, it was only because both Catholics and Protestants tacitly agreed to park their faith at the door. The most overt example of this was the speech by John Kennedy, the U.S. Democratic presidential candidate, to the Houston Ministerial Association in 1960. Kennedy said that he would take no orders from the pope and, if his faith and his allegiance to his country came into conflict, he would put his country first and his faith second.
That speech made a major contribution to Kennedy being elected president; it also contributed mightily – and not just in the U.S. – to the notion that religion is solely a private concern and should not be a factor in setting the direction of society.
From there, it was a short step to establishing society’s moral consensus, not on the basis of, say the Ten Commandments, but on a strictly secular foundation – which rapidly proved to be no foundation at all.
The common culture that includes both Catholics and Protestants is a recent derivation and this culture is a secular one. Writes Dawson: “One of the reasons that it is so completely secular is that there has been this complete cleavage of spiritual tradition and absence of intellectual contact between Catholics and Protestants.”
Moreover, since at least the 1960s, the drift of mainline Protestant churches has been toward a secular rights-based stance that is at odds with traditional Protestantism. Vatican II’s call for ecumenical dialogue came 50 to 100 years too late for Christians to form a united bulwark against secularism.
Despite that, dialogue is necessary to overcome caricatures of the beliefs of other Christians and to move towards a greater unity among the churches. Dialogue helps us to understand what others truly believe as well as to explain our own beliefs more clearly.
Twelve times the Decree on Ecumenism refers to dialogue. The ultimate goal of dialogue is, of course, the re-establishment of full and visible union among all Christian churches.
That would overcome the scandal of separation, show that the churches are subservient to the will of Jesus Christ and enable the Gospel to be preached with one voice.
Dialogue, however, serves a purpose along the way to that destination. Even if Christians are not yet fully united, dialogue enables us to see that we share much in common and that, whatever our disagreements, we must maintain a united front in saving a place for the Gospel in the public square.