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Vatican II on Ecumenism: Principles

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Apr 06, 2010 | In On the Documents of Vatican II

Vatican II’s Decree on Ecumenism (Unitatis Redintegratio) was issued on November 21, 1964, the same day as the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church and the Decree on the Catholic Eastern Churches, for the three documents are closely connected. Unitatis Redintegratio is divided into three chapters covering the principles and practice of ecumenism, and the Churches and ecclesial communities separated from Rome. Although it is not a long document, I will devote this entry exclusively to Chapter I, “Catholic Principles on Ecumenism”, and will cover the rest of the document more briefly later.

The concept of ecumenism refers to Our Lord’s wish that all His followers should be one, and ecumenism properly applies only to Christians. Even so, the Decree on Ecumenism has been rendered controversial by the experience of many that subsequent ecumenical practice has weakened the Catholic understanding of the importance of the Church. To the contrary, however, the whole motive for ecumenism from the Council’s point of view is the vital importance of bringing all Christians into unity in the one Church of Christ, which it clearly identifies as the Catholic Church.

In keeping with the importance of the unity Christ desired, the first chapter on principles begins with a clear statement of the work of Christ who, through the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, “has called and gathered together the people of the New Covenant, who are the Church, into a unity of faith, hope, and charity” (2). Further:

In order to establish this His holy Church everywhere in the world till the end of time, Christ entrusted to the College of the Twelve the task of teaching, ruling and sanctifying. Among their number he selected Peter, and after his confession of faith determined that on him He would build His Church. Also to Peter He promised the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and after His profession of love, entrusted all His sheep to him to be confirmed in faith and shepherded in perfect unity. (2)

Unfortunately, divisions quickly occurred in the body of Christ, causing it to split into rival communities, and the Council notes that “the children who are born into these Communities and who grow up believing in Christ cannot be accused of the sin involved in the separation.” To the contrary, the Council here establishes the key theological principle which governs the document: “All who believe in Christ and have been baptized are in communion with the Catholic Church even though this communion is imperfect” (3). This is the principle of one faith, one baptism: If you’re baptized, you’re baptized Catholic.

Nonetheless, this communion intrinsic to baptism and faith in Christ is seriously incomplete for those who are separated in any way from the Church:

The differences that exist in varying degrees between them and the Catholic Church—whether in doctrine and sometimes in discipline, or concerning the structure of the Church—do indeed create many obstacles, sometimes serious ones, to full ecclesiastical communion. (3)

It is the point of the ecumenical movement to strive to overcome these obstacles.

Next, the Council enunciates again one of the principles of the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, namely that “many of the significant elements and endowments which together go to build up and give life to the Church itself, can exist outside the visible boundaries of the Catholic Church” (such as Scripture, grace, faith, hope, charity, other interior gifts of the Holy Spirit, and some visible elements as well, such as certain aspects of sacramental life and liturgy). “All of these, which come from Christ and lead back to Christ, belong by right to the one Church of Christ” (3). For this reason, the separated communities “most certainly can truly engender a life of grace” and “must be regarded as capable of giving access to the community of salvation” (3).

Balanced against this salvific reality is the inescapably sad fact that “our separated brethren…are not blessed with that unity which Jesus Christ wished to bestow on all those who through Him were born again into one body.” It is only through “Christ’s Catholic Church” that “they can benefit fully from the means of salvation”, for “Our Lord entrusted all the blessings of the New Covenant to the apostolic college alone, of which Peter is the head, in order to establish the one Body of Christ on earth to which all should be fully incorporated who belong in any way to the people of God” (3).

Thus the Council exhorts all the Catholic faithful “to take an active and intelligent part in the work of ecumenism”, that is, “the initiatives and activities planned and undertaken, according to the various needs of the Church and as opportunities offer, to promote Christian unity” (4).

These activities are enumerated as follows:

  1. Avoidance by all of the failure to represent the condition of the separated brethren with truth and fairness;
  2. Dialogue between competent experts from the different Churches and communities;
  3. Cooperation among the Churches and communities in duties for “the common good of humanity”;
  4. Where allowed, prayer in common;
  5. Examination by each person of his own faithfulness to Christ’s will for the Church, and the consequent need to “undertake with vigor the task of renewal and reform”.

The Council also notes the distinction between ecumenical action, which concerns the differences among religious bodies, and the “preparation and reconciliation” of those who “wish for full Catholic communion” (4)—that is, individual converts. Unitatis Redintegratio firmly insists that “there is no opposition between the two, since both proceed from the marvelous ways of God” (4).

To me the most interesting section in this first chapter is the Council’s explanation of the primary ecumenical task of each Catholic:

Catholics, in their ecumenical work, must assuredly be concerned for their separated brethren, praying for them, keeping them informed about the Church, making the first approaches toward them. But their primary duty is to make a careful and honest appraisal of whatever needs to be done or renewed in the Catholic household itself, in order that its life may bear witness more clearly and faithfully to the teachings and institutions which have come to it from Christ through the Apostles. (4)

The Council is painfully aware that even though the Church “has been endowed with all divinely revealed truth and with all means of grace”, its members “fail to live by them with all the fervor that they should” so that “the radiance of the Church’s image is less clear” and “the growth of God’s kingdom is delayed” (4). Thus all Catholics should see to their own renewal first, “preserve unity in essentials”, show charity in all things, and exercise the diversity of gifts they have received to give “ever better expression to the authentic catholicity and apostolicity of the Church”. They should likewise “gladly acknowledge and esteem the truly Christian endowments from our common heritage which are to be found among our separated brethren” (4).

In closing, this chapter of Unitatis Redintegratio makes again the important point which provides the motive for ecumenism in the first place: While the unity of the Church “subsists in the Catholic Church as something she can never lose”, it is also true that “the divisions among Christians prevent the Church from attaining the fullness of catholicity proper to her” (4). Thus the Council expresses the hope that the unity proper to the Church “will continue to increase until the end of time” (4).

Previous in series: Vatican II on Eastern Catholics
Next in series: Vatican II on Ecumenism: Practice

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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