The decree on Ecumenism called Unitatis Redintegratio was introduced to the world on Nov. 21, 1964. Rather than looking inward upon Herself, the Church through Unitatis Redintegratio looks outward upon the world and the diverse expressions of Christian witness and mission among our non-Catholic brothers and sisters in the Lord. This reflection by the Council Fathers (the bishops) resulted in the first Church document to date that promoted the most far-reaching bridge to Christian unity. This decree also defined the entire Council with its opening sentence which states: “The restoration of unity among all Christians is one of the principal concerns of the Second Vatican Council.”
As Pope Paul VI was promulgating this decree on that cool November Saturday in Rome, some 4,280 miles away on that same autumn day in New York, the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, connecting the boroughs of Staten Island and Brooklyn, was being opened to traffic for the very first time. Rather than digging inward, under the riverbed, like the previous Holland and Lincoln tunnel projects, construction above the water resulted in what would be the longest suspension bridge in the world.
Two important bridges inaugurated on the same day, one in Rome toward a future for the universal Church seeking genuine sharing and mutual respect with old suspicions and mutual charges of heresy left behind; the other in New York providing easier access to the same familiar (and now growing) neighborhoods that many called home and others their workplace.
Seventy years before, in his 1894 encyclical Praeclara Gratulationis Publicae, Pope Leo XIII sought to address ecumenism by invoking the “return to unity” theme. It unfortunately lacked the specific principles that would promote true Christian unity. In 1928 Pope Pius XI, in his encyclical Mortalium Animos, made a similar attempt but his approach, stating that dialogue with non-Catholic Christians was at best useless, and at worse dangerous, likewise failed to get traction. Both encyclicals were, in a word, “disappointing.”
Taking up the direct challenge of Jesus to “go into the whole world and proclaim the Gospel to every creature” (Mk 16:15), the new Vatican II Decree on Ecumenism sought to distance itself from previous Church documents that seemed critical of genuine ecumenical dialogue. While not wanting to dilute or abandon the mission of the Church, the decree likewise did not want to create a peripheral semblance of ecumenical unity. The words from the opening paragraph affirm its intention: “The Church established by Christ the Lord is one and unique … In recent times He has begun to bestow more generously upon divided Christians remorse over their divisions and longing for unity.”
What became apparent in this new Council decree is the shift in ecclesiology (the study of the theology of the Church). Whereas previous voices called for “heretics” and “schismatics” to return to the fold of the Catholic Church, the general tone of Vatican II focused on the whole People of God, including the separated “Christians,” to become unified in Christ.
Almost 50 years have passed and we continue to echo these sentiments. While recognizing the sad realization that, despite all our efforts as individuals and as the Mystical Body of Christ, the unity for which we yearn remains aloof. Dialogue has almost become pointless because mainline Protestant churches have lost their way and splintered into something different than what they were. Ironically, aside from baptism, Catholics presently have more in common with the Pentecostal and Mormon faiths than with the traditional Christian denominations. Yet, the mission continues. We seek the unity for which Jesus Himself prayed, at the hour of His Passion, “that they may all be one” (Jn 17:21).
What I found most fascinating about this Vatican II decree was the comment made by the Council Fathers in article 3 that “both sides were to blame” for serious dissensions and separation “from full communion with the Catholic Church.” Those “born into these (separated) communities and are instilled therein with Christ’s faith” are not guilty of the “sin of the separation” but in fact are to be accepted “with the respect and affection” as brothers and sisters in the Lord. Why? Because they “have been properly baptized” and “though imperfect,” they enjoy some “communion with the Catholic Church.” Although division, differences and major obstacles remain that prohibit full unity or communion, these separated brethren “have a right to be honored by title of Christian.” These sentiments offer much consolation for myself and others who enjoy the gift of life thanks to parents and grandparents with Protestant roots.
When the Council Fathers met in the early 1960’s, it is noteworthy that they relied heavily on representatives from the then 16-year-old World Council of Churches (WCC). Established in 1948 as a reputable organization embracing several mainline Protestant churches, the WCC included the merged “Faith and Order Movement” and “Life and Work Movement” of the 19th and 20th centuries. Reliance on these credible professionals may partly account for the approved vote of 2,137 to 11 by the bishops at the Council to pass the Decree on Ecumenism. Article 4 of the decree provides an outline for the work of ecumenism that is strikingly reminiscent of the WCC principles including: 1. Every effort to avoid expressions, judgments and actions which do not represent our separated brethren with truth and fairness. 2. Genuine “dialogue” between competent experts from different churches and communities to gain mutual knowledge and appreciation of the different churches. 3. Wherever possible, shared prayer and service to the human community. 4. Examination of one’s own faithfulness to Christ’s will for the Church with a commitment to renewal and reform.
Such core ideas marked a decisive turning point for Catholic participation in the Ecumenical movement. Once viewed with suspicion by Church officials, active observers rather than passive participants are now dispatched by the Church to the WCC. The “Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity” established by Pope John XXIII in 1960 as a temporary commission for the Second Vatican Council even receives permanent status in 1966. This is clearly the work of the Holy Spirit in the life of the Church (the Mystical Body of Christ) embracing the prophetic perspective of such figures as the 19th century Catholic-convert, Cardinal John Henry Newman, who taught that with time and prayer, the living theology and doctrine of the Church develops and does not remain static.
Many have credited Pope John XXIII with planting the seed that blossomed into the Ecumenical Movement. Like other initiatives in the Liturgy and ecclesiology, however, official Catholic interest in ecumenism began with Pope Pius XII, who planted the seed for authentic ecumenical reform. While Pope John XXIII brought the Council into being and defined its purpose, it is apparent, in retrospect, that Pope Pius XII had cooperated with the Holy Spirit in setting the stage for John XXIII who would cultivate the exceedingly good soil made possible by his predecessor. Those who prayed for a renewed Church would not be disappointed. Those who hoped for a new Church, however, would not see their hope realized. The best fruit of the Second Vatican Council would come over time in increments and not as one huge event.
The continued tension when considering the matter of ecumenism sparks several significant questions. What exactly defines the standard definition or major characteristics of the reality we call “church?” What is the desired outcome to dialogue and discussion? Is it one, undivided church united in full communion? Is it several independent communions cooperating in various matters of mutual interest but maintaining their own identities? In the end ecumenism is an ongoing adventure of building bridges … in cooperation with the chief engineer who is the Holy Spirit.
Father John G. Hillier, Ph.D. serves as Assistant Chancellor to the Bishop. To read his previous columns on Vatican II please visit www.diometuchen.org/father-hillier