Congar suffered to put ecumenism on Catholic agenda

April 29, 2013

For the French Dominican theologian Yves Congar, the presentation of a schema on ecumenism on the floor of the Second Vatican Council must have seemed like a dream, one too good to be true.

In 1937, he published his book Divided Christendom, a far-from-radical account of the history of Christian disunity and the current state of the movement back to a united Church.

The book was almost immediately attacked in an anonymous article in the Vatican newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano. As well, his provincial superior was called to Rome to explain why the book had been allowed to be published.

After World War Two, which he spent in a Nazi prison camp, Congar published a second book, True and False Reform in the Church. Even the future Pope John XXIII wrote in his copy, “A reform of the Church – is it possible?” In 1953, Congar issued his third book, Lay People in the Church.

When he wrote an article supporting the worker-priest movement in Paris, the axe finally fell. Congar was forbidden from teaching, preaching and publishing, forbidden from even setting foot in any formation house of Dominican novices.

Eventually, he was exiled to a Dominican house at Cambridge University, an exile he regarded as worse than his five years in the prison camp.

Dominican Yves Congar was one of the leading theologians of the 20th century.


Dominican Yves Congar was one of the leading theologians of the 20th century.

Yet, Congar was rehabilitated in time for the council and he is widely regarded as the most influential theologian at Vatican II.

A poor text on ecumenism had been given to the council fathers in December 1962 and Cardinals Augustin Bea and Johannes Willebrands battled mightily over the next several months to get a better document. Even so, Congar felt the schema that came to the council floor in November 1963 was “a fairly mediocre text,” which had “no ecumenical soul.”

Attending the council alongside the bishops and other council fathers were 66 “observers” representing other Christian churches. They felt the new text on ecumenism was vastly improved over the one from a year earlier. But at a meeting at the Vatican’s Secretariat for Christian Unity, they offered some strong criticisms.


They doubted that the Catholic Church could ever see Christian unity in any terms other than non-Catholics returning to Rome. They also doubted that the Catholic Church could see the Reformation churches had an ecclesial character of their own.

George Lindbeck, a leading American Lutheran theologian, said the schema assumed that the Catholic Church is “the exclusive possessor of the fullness of unity.”

Striking a different note, however, was the venerable Karl Barth, the leading Protestant theologian of the 20th century and one who had a well-earned reputation as an anti-Catholic. Reflecting on Vatican II, Barth was most positive, writing, “I gained a close acquaintance with a church and a theology which have begun a movement, the results of which are incalculable and slow but clearly genuine and irreversible.”

On the council floor, two divergent perspectives were expressed. Some bishops spoke of the need for a common witness among all Christians and maintained that some religious truths are more central than others. On the other side were those still locked in fighting the Counter-Reformation.

Chief among the latter was Sicilian Cardinal Ernesto Ruffini. Ruffini said the schema troubled him and he wanted to emphasize that Christ founded only one Church, the Catholic Church, which can neither sin nor be led astray and which has the successor of Peter as its foundation and head. Second, he said the Church itself does not sin, only its members do.

Third, to leave the Church because its members are sinful is itself a sin. Fourth, the Catholic Church ardently desires that Protestants return to the fold. Fifth, ecumenical dialogue is helpful only if it is done according to rules set down by Rome.

Ruffini’s speech stood in sharp contrast to the speech Pope Paul VI had given to the ecumenical observers on Oct. 19. The pope had said it was time to stop focusing on past battles – except to ask for forgiveness for one’s own part in fomenting division – and to look to the future.


Ruffini was not wrong so much as tendentious. Even Congar had no expectation that Catholics and Protestants would be visibly united in one Church. “Vast changes” would be required before that could happen.

Congar, however, did expect that one day there would be complete reunion with the Eastern Orthodox and that there was a remote possibility of a union with the Anglicans.

The dim prospects for reunion with the Western churches did not, in his opinion, make ecumenical dialogue a futile project. People on both sides have many prejudices to overcome and can greatly benefit from understanding the truths that others hold in their effort to be in union with Christ.

(Information for this article came from Twentieth-Century Catholic Theologians by Fergus Kerr, My Journal of the Council by Yves Congar, and volumes two and three of History of Vatican II, edited by Giuseppe Alberigo and Joseph Komonchak.)