Council fathers turn their attention to ecumenism

April 22, 2013

On Nov. 18, 1963, Vatican II's proposed document on ecumenism reached the floor of the council. One of the main reasons Pope John XXIII had called the Second Vatican Council was to further the quest for Church unity and so this was an historic day.

In many minds, it also represented a turning point in the Church's nearly 450-year battle with Protestantism and 900-year estrangement from the Eastern Orthodox. The Catholic Church was finally joining the ecumenical movement, which was seen as having begun at the 1910 World Missionary Conference in Edinburgh.

The reality, however, was not quite so clear cut. To be sure, three papal encyclicals over the previous 70 years had opposed the ecumenical movement. Pope Leo XIII's encyclicals on the Reunion of Christendom (1894) and The Unity of the Church (1896) were committed to "bring back to the fold . . . sheep that have strayed."

Yet, as noted ecumenist Michael Root pointed out, even these encyclicals so trenchantly opposed to ecumenism referred to the Eastern Orthodox as "separated members" of the Body of Christ, terminology that went even further than anything at Vatican II.

The best-known ecumenical document prior to the council was Pope Pius XI's 1928 encyclical Mortalium Animos, which Root rightly described as "unremittingly negative" to ecumenism.

Pope Pius insisted that Church unity must be based on the acceptance of Christ's entire revelation, the impossibility of doctrinal compromise and that Christ's Church cannot be a federation of independent churches that hold contradictory doctrines.

Pope Pius XI's encyclical on ecumenism, Mortalium Animos, was unremittingly negative.


Pope Pius XI's encyclical on ecumenism, Mortalium Animos, was unremittingly negative.

He forbade Catholics from diverging from those three tenets. Also forbidden was any Catholic participation in meetings attended by "both infidels of every kind, and Christians, even those who have unhappily fallen away from Christ or who with obstinacy and pertinacity deny his divine nature and mission."


Root points out, however, that Pope Pius' fears about an ecumenism based on indifference to doctrine had a reasonable basis. Some of those who attended the landmark 1925 Life and Work conference in Stockholm did not believe in the Trinity. Calling such people "infidels" might sound harsh to our 21st century ears, but they were not Christians in any normal sense of the word.

By the time Catholic theologian Yves Congar published his book Divided Christendom in 1937, the ecumenical movement had already changed from the situation faced by Pius XI. No longer dominated by missionaries whose main, if not only, goal was to eliminate hard feelings and fierce competition in mission lands, the movement was now led by theologians who were far from indifferent to doctrine.

However, if the situation had changed, the doctrinal judgments of the pope remained the same. Root says that Mortalium Animos maintained that the unity of the Church already exists and that it is not an ideal to be striven toward as some Protestant theologians contended. As well, the one Church is united in doctrine and united in governance. Finally, the existing unity of the Church is found in the Catholic Church.

On this understanding, visible Church unity among today's divided Christians could only come about through a return to Rome.

Root also draws attention to an almost-forgotten 1949 document of the Vatican's Holy Office (now the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith). That document described the ecumenical movement as occurring through the influence of the Holy Spirit – a startling admission in those pre-Vatican II days. Moreover, Catholics attending meetings with other Christians could now feel free to pray the Lord's Prayer in union with them.


In Root's analysis, the Catholic Church's doctrinal judgments related to ecumenism remain consistent right through to this day. But the context in which those judgments are applied keeps changing.

Vatican II did not use the word "return," but Root maintains there will always be some aspect of return in the Catholic understanding of the move toward visible Church unity. Nevertheless, the council had a more positive tone, a change that came in part from changes in the ecumenical movement but also from a Catholic theology that now saw the communion of the Church as rooted in Baptism rather than in a more institutional model.

In this new theology, all the baptized have the right to be called Christians. No longer is there the Catholic Church on one hand and "the outer darkness" on the other. As well, non-Catholic "ecclesial communities" engender a life of grace and are capable of leading their members to salvation.


Still, even if some Church documents had opened the door a crack to ecumenical dialogue prior to Vatican II, little, if any, of this had reached diocesan bishops, let alone the ordinary Catholic. At the grassroots level, the ecumenical climate was still decidedly chilly.

It took Pope John, the former Vatican diplomat formed by decades in the Orthodox countries of Bulgaria, Greece and Turkey, to throw the door wide open to ecumenical dialogue. Next week's article will begin to examine how the fathers of Vatican II faced the challenge the late pope had given them.

(Much of the content of this article is based on Michael Root's Sept. 28, 2012 talk on the Decree on Ecumenism at the conference Reform and Renewal: Vatican II After Fifty Years at the Catholic University of America. Some came from the article on the Ecumenical Movement in the New Catholic Encyclopedia.)