The MOST Theological Collection: The Holy Spirit and the Church

"Appendix I: Summary of Decree on Ecumenism"


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Preliminary observation: This decree shows a more sharp change than any other document of Vatican II. To grasp this we need to keep in mind three distinctions: 1) Doctrine -- This we believe because of the promises of Christ; Vatican II reversed no doctrine, made only a few small changes by giving decisions on previously debated points; 2) Legislation or commands: Vatican II made large changes in the legislation on liturgy -- We should obey commands unless immoral. The changes in liturgy of course are not immoral. But some Bishops do give immoral commands, e. g, an order to use textbooks for Catholic schools which do not convey the faith or even contradict it; 3) Prudence or good judgment -- this refers to either of the two items above. But here there is no promise of Christ, no claim by the Church, to protection in prudence. So if someone thinks something is done in defective or poor prudence, he is not breaking with the Church (e. g, the prudence of liturgical changes or of handling of ecumenism). So these three distinctions are important: someone not knowing them might break on the matter of prudence, but then, not knowing the lines and distinctions, might go on to break on items 1 or 2, where he should not break.

In the Patristic age, writers were anything but ecumenical: they hit the heretics hard. A strong instance was the work of St. Cyprian Against Demetrian, who was the local governor. So it seems they spoke strongly even though some born in the heresy may not have been guilty personally.

Before Vatican II the Church did not speak so strongly as the Fathers, yet ecumenism was carefully restricted. Now Vatican II strongly encourages it: all should take part at least by prayer, while specialists can engage in dialogue.

This is a difference in prudence, not in doctrine. We might ask: Were conditions different in the Patristic age, so that they and Vatican II were both right in the prudential aspect of their judgments?

Introduction by the Council

1. The restoration of unity is one of the chief goals of the Council. Christ founded one Church. The division contradicts His will and is a scandal to the world, and a hindrance to the preaching of the Gospel.

The Lord of the ages has begun to pour forth more abundantly a desire of unity. Hence there has arisen an ecumenical movement.

The Council wills to propose to all Catholics the helps, ways and means by which they can respond to this divine call.

I: The Principles of Catholic Ecumenism

2. Jesus prayed that all might be one. To make firm His holy Church everywhere even to the end of time, Christ gave the task of teaching, ruling and sanctifying to the college of the Twelve, and chose Peter among them to whom He promised the keys. He wills that His people grow in unity and the profession of one faith. The model and principle of the unity is the Trinity of Divine Persons.

3. Already from the beginning, divisions arose, in later centuries the divisions were larger, and large communities were separated from the full communion with the Catholic Church, sometimes not without fault on both sides. Those born in such communities who are imbued with the faith of Christ cannot be charged with the sin of separation. For these who believe in Christ and have been properly baptized, are placed in a certain communion with the Catholic Church, even if it is not perfect. Not a few impediments, at times grave ones, to full ecclesiastical community arose. Nonetheless, being justified by faith in Baptism, they are incorporated in Christ, and so are rightly adorned with the Christian name, and are rightly recognized by the sons of the Catholic Church as brothers in the Lord.

Furthermore, certain elements of which the Church itself is built, can be found in some number and excellence even outside the visible boundaries of the Church: the written word of God, the life of grace, faith, hope, and love and other interior gifts of the Holy Spirit which come from Christ and lead to Him and pertain to the one Church of Christ. Not a few actions of the Christian religion are done by the separated brothers which in varied ways can generate the life of grace, and are to be called apt to open the entrance into the communion of salvation.

So the Spirit of Christ does not refuse to use as means of salvation the churches themselves and separated communities whose power is derived from the fullness of grace and truth entrusted to the Catholic Church. Yet they do not enjoy that unity which Jesus Christ willed to give to all. Only through the Catholic Church of Christ can the fullness of all the means of salvation be reached. For we believe that the Lord entrusted all the gifts of the New Covenant to the one apostolic college over which Peter presides to form the one body of Christ on earth, to which they are fully incorporated, who in some way already pertain to the people of God. This people during its earthly pilgrimage even though in its members it remains subject to sin, grows in Christ until it arrives at the whole plenitude of eternal glory in the heavenly Jerusalem.

What was just said is very true, but some have distorted it. So Cardinal Jozef Tomko, Prefect of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, in addressing the International Conference on Mission Work, criticized by name two theologians and the U. S. Maryknoll Society. These two are Paul Knilter, a lay theologian of Xavier University, and Fr. Michael Amaldoss, S.J., an assistant in Rome to the Superior General of the Jesuits. They give the impression that one religion is a good as another, since it is true that one can be saved without formally joining the Catholic Church - cf. LG ยง16 cited above. Knilter wrote a book, No Other Name? and edited another called The Myth of Christian Uniqueness: Towards a Pluralistic Theology of Religions (This second one is published by Orbis Books of Maryknoll. Cardinal Tomko said this second book is an example of confusing ecumenical outreach with denying the unique and definitive role of Jesus in salvation. Knilter pointed to an article in Maryknoll's magazine: "It [Maryknoll] now seeks to discover the faith and goodness that exists in people of different religions, rather than to announce Christianity or Christ to them."

4. This Council urges all Catholics to recognize the signs of the times and to diligently take part in ecumenical work. It urges elimination of all words, judgments and works which do not correspond to the condition of separated brethren, in fairness and truth and which therefore make mutual relations more difficult. It also recommends dialogues between well prepared experts. For by this dialogue the more accurate knowledge of the doctrine and life of each Communion can be known and all will gain a fairer appreciation of these. Also encouraged are those common efforts in duties to the common good called for by every Christian conscience. They also come together for common prayer where permitted. Finally let all examine their fidelity to the will of Christ for the Church and start vigorously on the work of renovation and reformation. All these things, done under the vigilance of the pastors, prudently and patiently contribute to fairness and truth, concord and collaboration so that in this way, little by little, obstacles can be overcome that impede perfect ecclesiastical communion and all Christians may be gathered into the unity of the one Church which subsists in such a way that it cannot be lost in the Catholic Church.

The Catholic faithful in ecumenical action should be solicitous for the separated brethren, praying for them, communicating with them about affairs of the Church, taking the first step to them. Let them sincerely and attentively consider the things that are to be renewed and done in the Catholic family itself.

For although the Catholic Church is endowed by God with all revealed truth and all the means of grace, yet her members do not always live with the fervor with which they should. So all Catholics should tend to Christian perfection and strive that the Church, carrying about the humility and mortification of Jesus, may be cleansed and renewed from day to day, until Christ presents her to Himself as a glorious Church, without spot or wrinkle.

While keeping unity in necessary things, let all preserve due liberty in the various forms of the spiritual life and discipline and in the diversity of liturgical rites, even in the theological development of revealed truth.

On the other hand it is necessary that Catholics gladly recognize and esteem the truly Christian good things flowing from the common patrimony which are found among the separated brothers.

II. The Practice of Ecumenism

5. Care for restoring unity is a concern of the whole Church, both faithful and Shepherds.

6. The Church in its pilgrimage is called by Christ to this reform in fidelity to its vocation, which as a human and earthly institution it perpetually needs. Hence if some things whether in morals or in ecclesiastical discipline or even in the expression of doctrine - which is to be carefully distinguished from the deposit of faith - have been less accurately conserved, at the suitable time they should be restored rightly and in due fashion.

A good example of this matter of wording is found in the language which has been used to speak of original sin: it was called a stain, and transmitted by heredity. John Paul II, in a General Audience of Oct 1, 1986 said: "In context, it is evident that original sin in Adam's descendants has not the character of personal guilt. It is the privation of sanctifying grace in a nature which, through the fall of the first parents, has been diverted from its supernatural end. It is a 'sin of nature' only analogically comparable to 'personal sin.'" Again, it is often said that by it our mind is darkened and will weakened. John Paul II, General Audience of Oct 8, 1986: "... according to the Church's teaching, it is a case of a relative and not an absolute deterioration, not intrinsic to human faculties... not of a loss of their essential capacities even in relation to the knowledge and love of God." This means that our nature is reduced to the state it would have been in if God had created Adam and Eve with only basic humanity, and without the added coordinating gift and the gift of grace. In such a state, the various drives within us, in body and soul, each operate blindly, with no thought for the other needs or the needs of the whole person. So then emotions tend to cloud mind and pull on the will.

However, Paul VI in Mysterium fidei (Sept 3, 1965) said that the old language while less good, is not wrong:

"The rule of speaking which the Church in the course of long ages, not without the protection of the Holy Spirit, has introduced, and has strengthened by the authority of Councils... must be kept sacred, and no one at his own whim or under pretext of new knowledge may presume to change them."

7. There is no rightly called ecumenism without interior conversion. So from the Divine Spirit we should implore grace of sincere self-denial, humility and meekness in serving and fraternal liberality towards others. Therefore we humbly beg pardon of God and of the separated brethren just as we forgive our debtors.

8. This conversion of heart and holiness of life, along with private and public prayers for christian unity are to be considered as the soul of the whole ecumenical movement, and can rightly be called spiritual ecumenism.

In certain special situations such as prayers prescribed for unity, and in ecumenical meetings, it is permitted, even to be desired, that Catholics join in prayer with the separated brethren. These prayers are a very effective means of obtaining unity.

However, worship in common may not be considered as a means to be used indiscriminately for restoring Christian unity. There are two principles of this communication, that of expressing the unity of the Church, and participation in the means of grace. The expression of unity generally forbids common worship. The obtaining of grace at times recommends it. Episcopal authority should prudently decide the concrete manner of acting. [We add: here there is real danger of giving an impression that one church is as good as the other. This is a question of prudence, not of doctrine.]

9. We should get to know the mind of the separated brethren. For this, study is required. Catholics properly prepared should acquire better knowledge of doctrine and history of the spiritual life and cult, and of religious psychology and culture that the separated brethren have. To attain this it is very helpful to have meetings of the two sides especially to study theological questions, provided that those who take part, under the vigilance of the authorities, be really experts.

10. Sacred theology and other branches of knowledge should be treated historically and under the ecumenical aspect, so that they may be more precisely true. It is very important for future pastors and priests to learn a theology carefully elaborated in this way, and not in a polemic way. [Comment: Does this mean we should not learn apologetics? Probably not, that can be learned separately. But, howsoever much agreement may be reached on peripheral matters, unless Protestants and others come to accept the principle of the teaching authority of the Church - there is still no real union].

11. The manner and order of expressing the Catholic faith should not become an obstacle to dialogue with the separated brothers. It is necessary that the full doctrine be lucidly presented. For nothing is so foreign to true ecumenism as that false irenicism in which the purity of Catholic doctrine suffers damage and its genuine and certain sense is obscured. One should also note that there is an order or hierarchy of Catholic doctrines, since the relation of these items with the foundation of Christian faith is varied. [For examples of violations of this section, see the examples of excesses by A. Dulles, at the end of this summary].

12. Since today cooperation in social matters is widespread, all are called to work together, all the more those who believe in God, and most especially all who bear the Christian name. Cooperation among Christians expresses in a living way that conjunction in which they are united together. Such cooperation should contribute to a good appreciation of the dignity of the human person, the promotion of peace, the application of the principles of the Gospel to social life, the progress of the arts and sciences in a Christian way, and in taking remedies against the afflictions of our times such as famine, disasters, illiteracy and need, homelessness and unfair distribution of goods.

III. Churches and Ecclesial Communities Separated from the Apostolic Roman See.

13. We turn to the two chief splits in the seamless tunic of Christ. The first happened in the east at first over dogmatic formulas of Ephesus and Chalcedon, later by a break in ecclesiastical communion of the Patriarch and Rome. The other is commonly called the Reformation. The Anglican Communion holds a special place. Yet these various divisions differ much among themselves.

The Eastern Churches

14. The churches of East and West for many centuries went their own ways, but yet there was brotherly communion and the same sacramental life, with the Roman See moderating, by common consent. It is pleasing to recall that many local particular churches flourished in the East, first among them being the Patriarchal Churches.

Likewise we should not fail to note that the Churches of the East from the beginning have a treasury, from which the Western Church took many things in liturgy, in spiritual tradition, and in the juridical order. And it is important that fundamental dogmas about the Trinity and the Word of God who was incarnate from the Virgin Mary, were defined in Eastern ecumenical councils.

The inheritance from the Apostles was accepted in diverse forms and modes. These things, besides external causes, because of a lack of mutual understanding and charity, gave the opportunity for separations.

15. All know with what love the Eastern Christians conduct the sacred liturgy. In this liturgical cult they praise Mary ever Virgin in very beautiful hymns and they honor many Saints, including Fathers of the universal Church. Since those Churches, even though separated, have true sacraments, a certain communication in worship, in suitable circumstances and with ecclesiastical approval, is not only possible but to be encouraged.

In the East there are found the riches of those spiritual traditions, especially monachism. Monastic life moved from there to the West.

Let all know that the very rich Eastern patrimony in liturgy and spirituality should be venerated, conserved and cherished.

16. To remove all doubt, the Council declares that the Churches of the East, mindful of the unity of the whole Church, have the faculty of ruling themselves according to their proper rules, since they are more suited for the character of their faithful.

17. Similar things are to be said about the diverse theological expressions. It is not surprising that certain aspects of a revealed mystery at times are perceived more fittingly and presented better by one than by the other, in such a way that theological formulas often are complementary rather than opposed. We note that the theological traditions of the East are excellently rooted in Sacred Scripture. So this Council declares that all this patrimony, spiritual, liturgical, disciplinary, and theological, in the varied traditions pertains to the full catholicity and apostolicity of the Church.

18. Considering all these things, this Council repeats what was said by previous councils and Popes, namely, that to restore unity or conserve it, nothing more than what is necessary is demanded. (Cf. Acts 15. 28).

Separate Churches and Ecclesial Communities in the West

19. These, even though separated, "are joined in a special affinity and bond with the Catholic Church because of having had for a long time in past centuries the Christian life in ecclesiastical communion". [Comment: This is an example of straining. The fact they once were one with us does not produce any bond now]. Since they differ so much not only from us but also among themselves, it would be very difficult to describe them. We hope that in all the ecumenical sense and mutual esteem will gradually grow. Yet we must admit that there are difficulties of great weight, especially in the interpretation of revealed truth.

20. Yet we rejoice seeing the separated brethren looking towards Christ and the font and center of ecclesiastical communion. Touched with the desire of union with Christ, they are driven more and more to seek unity.

21. A love and reverence, almost a cult, of Sacred Scripture leads our brothers to a constant and diligent study of the Sacred pages. But Christians separated from us affirm the divine authority of the sacred books in a different way than we - various ones hold various views about the relation of Scripture and the Church, in which according to the Catholic faith the authentic Magisterium holds a special place in explaining and preaching the written Word of God. Yet the Sacred Utterances in the dialogue itself are excellent instruments in the powerful hand of God to attain that unity.

22. By Baptism when it is conferred according to the Lord's institution, and is received with proper disposition of soul, a person is really incorporated into the crucified and glorified Christ and is regenerated to life. So Baptism is a sacramental bond of unity among all those regenerated by it. Yet Baptism is of itself only the beginning. Baptism is ordered to the complete profession of faith and to complete incorporation into the institute of salvation. The ecclesial communities separated from us, even though their full unity with us coming from Baptism is lacking, and even though we believe that they, especially because of the lack of the Sacrament of Orders, have not kept a genuine and full substance of the Eucharistic mystery, yet, while in the Holy Supper they make memorial of the death and resurrection of the Lord, they profess that life in Christ is signified and they await His glorious coming. So the doctrine about the Lord's Supper, the other sacraments, and the cult and the ministry of the Church should be an object of dialogue.

23. Faith in Christ brings fruits in praise and thanksgiving; there is also a living sense of justice and a sincere charity for neighbor. This active faith brings forth not a few institutes for relieving the spiritual and corporal misery of others, to educate youth, to make the social conditions of life more human, to establish universal peace. Since many Christians do not always understand the Gospel on moral matters in the same way as Catholics, ecumenical dialogue about the moral application of the Gospel can take its beginning there.

24. The Council exhorts the faithful to abstain from any levity or imprudent zeal which could harm the progress of unity. For their ecumenical action should not be other than fully and sincerely Catholic, that is, faithful to the truth. The Council strongly hopes that the undertakings of the sons of the Church may advance along with the undertakings of separated brothers without placing any obstacle to the ways of Providence and without prejudice to the future impulses of the Holy Spirit. Further, it declares it is aware that the work of reconciling Christian in the unity of the one only Church of Christ is beyond human powers and capabilities. Hence it puts its hope entirely in the prayer of Christ for the Church, in the love of the Father for us, in the power of the Holy Spirit.

Examples of ecumenical excess by A. Dulles:

1. Proceedings of Catholic Theological Society of America, 1976, p. 240:

"Indirectly, however, the Council worked powerfully to undermine the authoritarian theory and to legitimate dissent in the Church.... Vatican II quietly reversed earlier positions of the Roman magisterium on a number of important issues.... The Declaration on Religious Freedom accepted the religiously neutral State, thus reversing the previously approved view that the State should formally profess the truth of Catholicism...."

COMMENT: Cf. Vatican II, On Religious Liberty #1."It leaves untouched traditional Catholic doctrine about the moral duty of men and societies toward the true religion and the only Church of Christ."

p. 242: "By its actual practice of revisionism, the Council implicitly taught the legitimacy and even the value of dissent. In effect, the Council said that the ordinary magisterium of the Roman pontiff had fallen into error and had unjustly harmed the careers of loyal and able theologians."

2. Origins. NC Documentary Service Dec. 26, 1974. At a convocation honoring the retired Episcopalian bishop of Southern Ohio at Xavier University on Dec. 6: "In other words, I am suggesting that the Catholic Church, while continuing to propose these doctrines [Immaculate Conception and Assumption] as true, should abolish the canonical penalties presently connected with the questioning or denial of these doctrines. If this were done, the church could declare its readiness to enter into full communion with other Christians provided the only issue between them and herself were the present unreadiness to accept the dogmas of 1854 and 1950."

3. The Survival of Dogma NY, 1971. p. 164:"It is far from obvious that the dogmas of the Church, having been 'revealed by God himself, ' cannot be revised by the Church.... Our findings suggest that the Catholic dogmas as presently formulated and understood may be significantly changed...."