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On the Ecumenical Movement

by Holy Office

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    Document Information

  • Description:
    An Instruction of the Holy Office addressed to the ordinaries of places, given December 20, 1949.
  • Publisher & Date:
    Vatican, January 31, 1950

The Catholic Church, although she does not take part in congresses and other conventions called "ecumenical," yet has never ceased, as is clear from many Pontifical documents, nor will she in future ever cease, to follow with the most intense interest and to promote by earnest prayers to God, all efforts toward the attainment of what is so dear to the Heart of Christ Our Lord, namely, that all who believe in Him "may be made perfect in one."1

For she embraces with truly maternal affection all who return to her as the true Church of Christ; and hence, worthy of all. praise and encouragement are all those plans and projects which, with the consent of Ecclesiastical Authority, have been undertaken and are being carried forward, either for the proper Catholic instruction of future converts or for the more thorough training of persons already converted to the faith.

Now in many parts of the world, as a result of various external events and changes of views on the part of people, but especially in consequence of the common prayers of-the faithful through the grace of the Holy Spirit, there has grown constantly in the minds of many persons separated from the Catholic Church the desire for a return to unity on the part of all who believe in the Lord Christ. To the children of the Church this is surely a cause of true and holy joy in the Lord, and at the same time an invitation to help all those who sincerely seek the truth, by earnest prayer to God imploring for them the grace of light and strength.

However, some of the initiatives that have hitherto been taken by various individuals or groups, with the aim of reconciling dissident Christians to the Catholic Church, although inspired by the best of intentions, are not always based on right principles, or if they are, yet they are not free from special dangers, as experience too has already shown. Hence this Supreme Sacred Congregation, which has the responsibility of conserving in its entirety and protecting the deposit of the faith, has seen fit to recall to mind and to prescribe the following:

I. Since the above-mentioned "union" is a matter which pertains primarily to the authority and office of the Church, it should be attended to with special care by the Bishops, whom "the Holy Ghost hath placed to rule the Church of God."2 They should, therefore, not only diligently and effectively watch over this entire activity, but also prudently promote and direct it, for the purpose of both helping those who seek the truth and the true Church, and protecting the faithful against the dangers which may easily flow from the activity of this "Movement."

Hence they must in the first place be fully aware of everything that has been and is being done through this "Movement" in their dioceses. For this purpose they shall designate well-qualified priests who, according to the doctrine and norms prescribed by the Holy See, for example by the Encyclicals "Satis cognitum,"3 "Mortalium animos,"4 and "Mystici Corporis Christi,"5 shall pay close attention to everything which concerns the "Movement" and report thereon to the Bishops in the manner and at the time which they shall prescribe.

They shall watch with special care over publications which may be issued in any form by Catholics on this matter, and shall see that the canons "on the previous censure and prohibition of books" (canons 1384 seq.) are observed. And they shall not fail to do the same with regard to publications of non-Catholics on the same subject, in as far as these are published, or read, or sold by Catholics.

They shall also diligently provide whatever may be of service3 to non-Catholics who desire to know the Catholic faith; they shall designate persons and Offices to which these non-Catholics may go for consultation; and a fortiori they shall see to it that those who are already converted to the faith shall easily find means of more exact and deeper instruction in the Catholic faith, and of leading a more positively religious life, especially through appropriate meetings and group assemblies, through Spiritual Exercises and other works of piety.

II. As regards the manner and method of proceeding in this work, the Bishops themselves will make regulations as to what is to be done and what is to be avoided, and shall see that these are observed by all. They shall also be on guard lest, on the false pretext that more attention should be paid to the points on which we agree than to those on which we differ, a dangerous indifferentism be encouraged, especially among persons whose training in theology is not deep and whose practice of their faith is not very strong. For care must be taken lest, in the so-called "irenic" spirit of to-day, through comparative study and the vain desire for a progressively closer mutual approach among the various professions of faith, Catholic doctrine-either in its; dogmas or in the truths which are connected with them-be so conformed or in a way adapted to the doctrines of dissident sects, that the purity of Catholic doctrine be impaired, or its genuine and certain meaning be obscured.

Also they must restrain that dangerous manner of speaking which generates false opinions and fallacious hopes incapable of realization; for example, to the effect that the teachings of the Encyclicals of the Roman Pontiffs on the return of dissidents to the Church, on the constitution of the Church, on the Mystical Body of Christ, should not be given too much importance seeing that they are not all matters of faith, or, what is worse, that in matters of dogma even the Catholic Church has not yet attained the fullness of Christ, but can still be perfected from outside. They shall take particular care and shall firmly insist that, in going over the history of the Reformation and the Reformers the defects of Catholics be not so exaggerated and the faults of the Reformers be so dissimulated, or that things which are rather accidental be not so emphasized, that what is most essential, namely the defection from the Catholic faith, be scarcely any longer seen or felt. Finally, they shall take precautions lest, through an excessive and false external activity, or through imprudence and an excited manner of proceeding, the end in view be rather harmed than served.

Therefore the whole and entire Catholic doctrine is to be presented and explained: by no means is it permitted to pass over in silence or to veil in ambiguous terms the Catholic truth regarding the nature and way of justification, the constitution of the Church, the primacy of jurisdiction of the Roman Pontiff, and the only true union by the return of the dissidents to the one true Church of Christ. It should be made clear to them that, in returning to the Church, they will lose nothing of that good which by the grace of God has hitherto been implanted in them, but that it will rather be supplemented and completed by their return. However, one should not speak of this in such a way that they will imagine that in returning to the Church they are bringing to it something substantial which it has hitherto lacked. It will be necessary to say these things clearly and openly, first because it is the truth that they themselves are seeking, and moreover because outside the truth no true union can ever be attained.

III. With regard especially to mixed assemblies and conferences of Catholics with non-Catholics, which in recent times have begun to be held in many places to promote "union" in the faith, there is need of quite peculiar vigilance and control on the part of Ordinaries. For if on the one hand these meetings afford the desired opportunity to spread among non-Catholics the knowledge of Catholic doctrine, which is generally not sufficiently known to them, yet on the other hand they easily involve no slight danger of indifferentism for Catholics. In cases where there seems to be some hope of good results, the Ordinary shall see that the thing is properly managed, designating for these meetings priests who are as well qualified as possible to explain and defend Catholic doctrine properly and appropriately. The faithful, however, should not attend these meetings unless they have obtained special permission from Ecclesiastical Authority, and this shall be given only to those who are known to be well instructed and strong in their faith. Where there is no apparent hope of good results, or where the affair involves special dangers on other grounds, the faithful are to be prudently kept away from the meetings, and the meetings themselves are soon to be ended or gradually suppressed. As experience teaches that larger meetings of this sort usually bear little fruit and involve greater danger, these should be permitted only after very careful consideration.

To colloquies between Catholic and non-Catholic theologians, none should be sent but priests who have shown themselves truly fit for such work by their knowledge of theology and their firm adherence to the principles and norms which the Church has laid down in this matter.

IV. All the aforesaid conferences and meetings, public and non-public, large and small, which are called for the purpose of affording an opportunity for the Catholic and the non-Catholic party for the sake of discussion to treat of matters of faith and morals, each presenting on even terms the doctrine of his own faith, are subject to the prescriptions of the Church which were recalled to mind in the Monitum, "Cum compertum," of this Congregation under date of 5 June, 1948.6 Hence mixed congresses are not absolutely forbidden; but they are not to be held without the previous permission of the competent Ecclesiastical Authority. The Monitum, however, does not apply to catechetical instructions, even when given to many together, nor to conferences in which Catholic doctrine is explained to non-Catholics who are prospective converts: even though the opportunity is afforded for the non-Catholics to explain also the doctrine of their church so that they may understand clearly and thoroughly in what respect it agrees with the Catholic doctrine and in what it differs therefrom.

Neither does the said Monitum apply to those mixed meetings of Catholics and non-Catholics in which the discussion does not turn upon faith and morals but upon ways and means of defending the fundamental principles of the natural law or of the Christian religion against the enemies of God who are now leagued together, or where the question is how to restore social order, or other topics of that nature. Even in these meetings, as is evident, Catholics may not approve or concede anything which is in conflict with divine revelation or with the doctrine of the Church even on social questions.

As to local conferences and conventions which are within the scope of the Monitum as above explained, the Ordinaries of places are given, for three years from the publication of this Instruction,7 the faculty of granting the required previous permission of the Holy See, on the following conditions:

1. That communicatio in sacris be entirely avoided;
2. that the presentations of the matter be duly inspected and directed;
3. that at the close of each year a report be made to this Supreme Sacred Congregation, stating where such meetings were held and what experience was gathered from them.

As regards the colloquies of theologians above mentioned, the same faculty for the same length of time is granted to the Ordinary of the place where such colloquies are held, or to the Ordinary delegated for this work by the common consent of the other Ordinaries, under the same conditions as above, but with the further requirement that the report to this Sacred Congregation state also what questions were treated, who were present, and who the speakers were for either side.

As for the interdiocesan conferences and congresses, either national or international, the previous permission of the Holy See, special for each case, is always required; and in the petition asking for it, it must also be stated what are the questions to be treated and who the speakers are to be. And it is not allowed before this permission has been obtained, to begin the external preparation of such meetings or to collaborate with non-Catholics who begin such preparation.

V. Although in all these meetings and conferences any communication whatsoever in worship must be avoided, yet the recitation in common of the Lord's Prayer or of some prayer approved by the Catholic Church, is not forbidden for opening or closing the said meetings.

VI. Although each Ordinary has the right and duty to conduct, promote, and preside over this work in' his own diocese, yet the cooperation of several Bishops will be appropriate or even necessary in establishing offices and works to observe, study, and control this work as a whole. Accordingly it will rest with the Ordinaries themselves to confer together and consider how a proper uniformity of action and coordination can be obtained.

VII. Religious Superiors are bound to watch and to see to it that their subjects adhere strictly and faithfully to the prescriptions laid down by the Holy See or by the local Ordinaries in this matter.

In order that so noble a work as the "union" of all Christians in one true faith and Church may daily grow into a more conspicuous part of the entire care of souls, and that the whole Catholic people may more earnestly implore this "union" from Almighty God, it will certainly be of assistance that in some appropriate way, for example through Pastoral Letters, the faithful be instructed regarding these questions and projects, the prescriptions of the Church in the matter, and the reasons on which they are based. All, especially priests and religious, should be exhorted and warmly encouraged to be zealous by their prayers and sacrifices to ripen and promote this work, and all should be reminded that nothing more effectively paves the way for the erring to find the truth and to embrace the Church than the faith of Catholics, when it is confirmed by the example of upright living.

Given at Rome, from the Holy Office, 20 Dec., 1949.

AAS 42-142; Holy Office, Instruction, 20 Dec., 1949. Periodica, 39-204 (Hurth); Monitor Ecclesiasticus, 1950, p. 21 (Boyer); The Jurist, 10 (1950), p. 206.

END NOTES

1 John 17:23.

2 Acts 20:28.

3 Acta Leonis XIII, Vol. 16 (1897), p. 157.

4 AAS, Vol. 20 (1928), p. 5.

5 Ibid., Vol. 35 (1943), p. 193.

6 AAS 40-257; reported above in this same volume, under canon 1325.

7 The date of publication is 31 January, 1950.

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