When council spoke of Church unity, it was looking East

May 27, 2013

When Catholics in the Western world think of ecumenism and full Church unity, our natural tendency is to think first of healing the breach of the 16th century Reformation.

It is Anglicans and Protestants with whom we most often rub shoulders in daily life and it is their culture that seems to be closest to ours.

The churches of the Orthodox East, in contrast, may seem to be culturally far removed from contemporary Western reality. Their Church culture seems to be even more male and hierarchical than that of the Catholic Church, and their priests and patriarchs with their long beards and ancient garb present an image quite different from our experience.

Yet, there is little question that the fathers of the Second Vatican Council were quite hopeful about reunion with the Orthodox and pessimistic about reuniting Catholics and Protestants.

In its section on “the separated churches and ecclesial communities in the West,” the council’s Decree on Ecumenism (Unitatis Redintegratio) said the “holy objective” of reuniting all Christians “transcends human powers and gifts” (UR 24). Translation: It will take a miracle.

In its earlier section on “the special position of the Eastern churches,” the decree says that if Catholics and Orthodox wholeheartedly engage in “close relations” and “friendly collaboration,” there is genuine hope of “the removal of the wall dividing the Eastern and Western Church” (UR 18). Translation: With a concerted effort, we can reunite the Church.

There is more like this.

Pope John Paul II greets Ecumenical Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew in 2002. The pope and patriarch were both champions of full unity between Eastern and Western churches.


Pope John Paul II greets Ecumenical Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew in 2002. The pope and patriarch were both champions of full unity between Eastern and Western churches.

On matters of liturgy, tradition, doctrine and even Church law, the decree says, “From their very origins the churches of the East have had a treasury from which the Church of the West has drawn” (UR 14).

In contrast, on the same topic, the decree says that, with regard to the separated “churches and ecclesial communities” of the West, “there are very weighty differences not only of a historical, sociological, psychological and cultural character, but especially in the interpretation of revealed truth” (UR 19).

One could belabour this with more examples, but the point is clear: The council was hopeful of reunion with the Orthodox and skeptical of reunion with the Protestant world.

However, it must be noted that Vatican II did tear down many barriers between Catholics and Protestants and did launch and encourage dialogues not only among theologians, but also among the faithful of the Western churches. Such dialogues have certainly been fruitful for the Catholic Church, and we trust they also have been enriching for Anglicans and Protestants.

Despite our great differences, we already enjoy a measure of unity. That partial unity is, according to the decree, rooted in our common faith in Jesus Christ, our shared reverence for Scripture and the unity among all the baptized.

It is, however, our relations with the Orthodox that have been coloured with the most eager anticipation over the last 50 years. Blessed John Paul II had hoped to see the reunion of East and West in his lifetime, a hope that sadly was not realized.

In his 1995 encyclical, Ut Unum Sint (That All May Be One), the pope stated frankly, “The Catholic Church desires nothing less than full communion between East and West” (61).


And in a special apostolic exhortation – Orientale Lumen (Light of the East) – issued a month prior to the encyclical, Pope John Paul was effusive in his praise of the Eastern churches.

In particular, he drew attention to Eastern monasticism, its emphasis on tradition and expectation, and its liturgy which involves the whole person as strengths from which the Catholic Church can draw.

Pope John Paul often said the Church needs to breathe with both lungs – those of both East and West – to bring the Gospel to the world. In Orientale Lumen, he lamented, “Christ cries out, but man finds it hard to hear his voice because we fail to speak with one accord” (28).


It was as if the pope believed that once Catholics and Orthodox were reunited, the blessed wholeness of this full unity would somehow also lead to the eventual union of all Christians.

There is little that separates Catholics and Orthodox on a doctrinal level. Indeed, East and West were in union for 1,000 years, and it was not doctrinal differences that led to the schism. Rather, the schism arose out of misunderstandings and rivalries, differences that require dialogue, repentance and renewed cooperation to heal.

This reunion also calls for the action of the Holy Spirit; it is not a purely human endeavour. However, unity is not far beyond our grasp. The Spirit will act if the separated parties desire full unity enough to work and pray for its realization.