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Vatican II on Ecumenism: Practice

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Apr 12, 2010 | In On the Documents of Vatican II

The remainder of the Decree on Ecumenism can be summarized more briefly. It consists of a chapter on “The Practice of Ecumenism” and a chapter on “Churches and Ecclesial Communities Separated from the Roman Apostolic See”.

The second chapter covers ecumenical practice. The Council stresses that “every renewal of the Church is essentially grounded in an increase of fidelity to her own calling” and that “undoubtedly this is the basis of the movement toward unity” (6). Among the areas which ought to contribute in a special way to the ecumenical enterprise are Biblical and liturgical movements, preaching and catechetics, the apostolate of the laity, new forms of religious life, the spirituality of married life, and the Church’s social teaching and social activity. Yet again, amid all these potential activities, the Council insists that “there can be no ecumenism worthy of the name without a change of heart” (6). The soul of the ecumenical movement is “this change of heart and holiness of life, along with public and private prayer for the unity of Christians” (8).

Throughout the discussion of ecumenical practice, the Council strives for a delicate balance. For example, the Council notes that while prayer should be undertaken in common, this does not mean indiscriminate worship in common (communicatio in sacris). Worship in common is to be guided by the authority of the local bishop. It is certainly to be desired as a sharing in the means of grace, but as a witness to the unity of the Church, worship in common is generally forbidden where that unity does not exist (8) . Rather, in order to work toward the necessary unity, we must study the situation and attitudes of our separated brethren, and the theological problems which have led to this separation (9).

Similarly, the Council insists that the theological and historical forms of training of future bishops and priests be carefully worked out “with due regard for the ecumenical point of view, so that they may correspond more exactly with the facts” rather than “polemically” (10). But at the same time, “nothing is so foreign to the spirit of ecumenism as a false irenicism, in which the purity of Catholic doctrine suffers loss and its genuine and certain meaning is clouded” (11).

The Council also envisions that whereever ecumenical cooperation proceeds properly, there should be positive social results which can lead to greater theological unity. Thus ecumenical effort ought to contribute to:

a just evaluation of the dignity of the human person, the establishment of the blessings of peace, the application of Gospel principles to social life, the advancement of the arts and sciences in a truly Christian spirit, or also in the use of varioius remedies to relieve the afflictions of our times such as famine and natural disasters, illiteracy and poverty, housing shortage and the unequal distribution of wealth. All believers in Christ can, through this cooperation, be led to acquire a better knowledge and appreciation of one another, and so pave the way to Christian unity. (12)

The third chapter highlights the nature of the separation between the Catholic Church and the Eastern Churches on the one hand and the Western ecclesial communities on the other. In the East, the chief reason for separation is the failure to properly understand and accept the Petrine authority. Nonetheless, the Eastern Churches possess special gifts which should be prized by Catholics: A great love for the sacred liturgy, devotion to Mary, attachment to Tradition, the apostolic succession, true sacraments, and monastic life. Even certain forms of theological expression in the East may “come nearer to a full appreciation of some aspects of a mystery of revelation”. The Churches of the East are churches in their own right, with great spiritual riches, and reunion with the Apostolic See should not detract from their own governance and traditions. Therefore, the Council “solemnly repeats the declaration of previous Councils and Roman Pontiffs, that for the restoration or the maintenance of unity and communion it is necessary ‘to impose no burden beyond what is essential’” on the Churches of the East (14 – 16).

In the West, however, the condition of the separated brethren is far more complicated: “There exist important differences from the Catholic Church, not only of an historical, sociological, psychological and cultural character, but especially in the interpretation of revealed truth” (19). Even the positive gifts of these communities are occasions for division. For example, the Council acknowledges “a love and reverence of Sacred Scripture” in the separated Western ecclesial communities, but notes that they differ “regarding the relationship between Scripture and the Church” (20). The Council also notes that most of these communities preserve an authentic sacrament of Baptism, explaining that “whenever the Sacrament of Baptism is duly administered as Our Lord instituted it, and is received with the right dispositions, a person is truly incorporated into the crucified and glorified Christ, and reborn to a sharing of the divine life” (22). And yet:

Baptism is only a beginning, an inauguration wholly directed toward the fullness of life in Christ. Baptism, therefore, envisages a complete profession of faith, complete incorporation in the system of salvation such as Christ willed it to be, and finally complete ingrafting in eucharistic communion. (22)

In the midst of these difficulties, these separated brethren are nourished by their faith in Christ and strengthened by both baptismal grace and the Word of God, as witness their private prayer, Christian family life and community worship, as well as their thanksgiving for blessings and their sense of justice and charity. For this reason, the Council suggests, “ecumenical dialogue might start with discussion of the application of the Gospel to moral conduct” (23).

Unitatis Redintegratio concludes by recognizing that we must place our hope in Christ’s prayer that we may all be one, and not in mere human effort, which can so often be misplaced. Thus the Council issues a stern commandment in the final section, a commandment which has too often been observed only in the breach, providing yet another reason for returning at last to what Vatican II actually taught:

This Sacred Council exhorts the faithful to refrain from superficiality and imprudent zeal, which can hinder real progress toward unity. Their ecumenical action must be fully and sincerely Catholic, that is to say, faithful to the truth which we have received from the apostles and Fathers of the Church, in harmony with the faith which the Catholic Church has always professed, and at the same time directed toward that fullness to which Our Lord wills His Body to grow in the course of time. (24)

Previous in series: Vatican II on Ecumenism: Principles
Vatican II on Bishops: The Bishops Themselves

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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