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Vatican II & Ecumenism: What did the Council Really Say?

by Peter John Vere, JCL/M (Canon Law)


Many traditionalist Catholics— among them, many members of the Society of St. Pius X (SSPX)— believe that the Second Vatican Council contradicted Church Tradition in its teachings on ecumenism. If they are correct, then the Catholic Church has a serious problem: Vatican II could not be legitimate, since a legitimate ecumenical council may develop but may not contradict the earlier dogmatic tachig of the Church. A canon lawyer who once belonged to the SSPX tells how he resolved this critical issue.

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Envoy Magazine

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Envoy, 2000, Vol. 5.6

Do Vatican II’s teachings on ecumenism and religous liberty really conflict with Traditional Catholic teaching?

In his first Envoy article on traditionalist apologetics [see “All Tradition Leads to Rome,” Volume 4.6], canon lawyer Pete Vere identified seven common arguments offered by the Society of St. Pius X (SSPX) in defense of their schism, and how he overcame these objections during his journey back to the Catholic Church. Some readers responded that this schism, initiated by Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre in 1988, isn’t merely about the Latin Mass. The SSPX also takes issue with the Second Vatican Council, particularly on the issue of ecumenism. These readers knew Pete would have wrestled with the Second Vatican Council as an SSPX adherent and wondered how he overcame his doubts towards the Council in his spiritual pilgrimage back to the Catholic Church. Here is his response.

Did the Second Vatican Council contradict Church Tradition in its teachings on ecumenism? Many traditionalist Catholics — among them, many members of the Society of St. Pius X — would say yes. If they are correct, then the Catholic Church has a serious problem: Vatican II could not be legitimate, since a legitimate ecumenical council may develop but may not contradict the earlier dogmatic teaching of the Church.

To address the issue, of course, we first have to understand how the Church defines ecumenism. Basically, ecumenism is the spiritual dialogue and activity in which the Church engages with other Christians. “Other Christians” in this context is understood to mean validly baptized non-Catholics.

This means, for example, that Catholic-Orthodox dialogue or Catholic-Anglican dialogue constitutes ecumenism, because both Anglicans and the Orthodox are validly baptized non-Catholic Christians. But ecumenism doesn’t cover Catholic-Islamic dialogue or Catholic-Hindu dialogue, because Muslims and Hindus don’t baptize in the name of the Holy Trinity. The Church describes this kind of spiritual activity with non-Christian religions as “interfaith dialogue.”

While we’re defining terms, we should note that when dealing with common worship among Catholics and other Christians, we must distinguish between communicatio in sacris (sharing in the sacraments), and the more general communicatio in spiritualibus (sharing in common prayer).

Generally, the Church encourages communicatio in spiritualibus between Catholics and Protestants, but strictly limits communicatio in sacris to a handful of sacraments, and even then only between Catholics and members of an Eastern non-Catholic Church (see Canon 844). By “Eastern non-Catholic Church” we mean an historical Eastern Church (Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox or Assyrian Church of the East) whose sacraments and apostolic succession the Church recognizes as valid. This is different from Protestants (including Anglicans), whose claim to have valid sacraments and apostolic succession the Catholic Church does not recognize.

The Spirit of Ecumenical Dialogue

Admittedly, the Church has seen some abuses in the name of ecumenism since the closing of the Second Vatican Council. SSPX adherents are familiar with many of these abuses, and they often blame such abuses on the Council itself. They believe ecumenical dialogue waters down the Church’s doctrine and must necessarily lead to the heresy of religious indifferentism (the idea that differences in religion are essentially unimportant). A few even argue that ecumenism itself is heresy. They think ecumenism must necessarily entail a watering down of the Catholic Church’s traditional teaching that she alone is the Church founded by Christ — that she alone is the Ark of Salvation under the New Covenant.

In making such charges, these individuals fail to take into account the Church’s perennial Tradition. Reconciliatio et Paenitentia, Pope John Paul II’s apostolic exhortation on reconciliation and penance, both addresses and clarifies where the Church stands concerning ecumenical dialogue. In fact, the Holy Father goes beyond mere ecumenical dialogue to include all dialogue in which the Church presently engages with the purpose of bringing about true reconciliation among people.

With his typical clarity of thought, the Holy Father teaches:

It should be repeated that, on the part of the Church and her members, dialogue, whatever form it takes (and these forms can be and are very diverse, since the very concept of dialogue has an analogical value) can never begin from an attitude of indifference to the truth. On the contrary, it must begin from a presentation of the truth, offered in a calm way, with respect for the intelligence and consciences of others. The dialogue of reconciliation can never replace or attenuate the proclamation of the truth of the Gospel, the precise goal of which is conversion from sin and communion with Christ and the Church. It must be at the service of the transmission and realization of that truth through the means left by Christ to the Church for the pastoral activity of reconciliation, namely catechesis and penance.i

This teaching solidly places ecumenical dialogue within the Church’s theological and doctrinal Tradition.

First of all, Pope John Paul addresses the concern that ecumenical dialogue is being used to propagate religious indifferentism. He reiterates that dialogue “can never begin from an attitude of indifference to the truth.” He reminds Christians never to approach ecumenical dialogue with an indifference towards the truth.

In this way the Holy Father authoritatively closes the door to the possible false usage, or abuse, of ecumenical dialogue. He then reiterates the Second Vatican Council’s Catholic principles governing the Church’s involvement in ecumenical dialogue. He explains that all dialogue in which the Church is engaged, including that with our separated brethren, “must begin from a presentation of truth.”

Vatican II Asserts the Papacy’s Traditional Role

Yet what is truth as presented by the Church? What are the principles with which the Church approaches our separated Christian brethren? These are important questions because the adherent to Lefebvre’s schism will often argue that in order to facilitate ecumenical dialogue, the Second Vatican Council downplayed the Church’s unique claim to be founded by Christ upon the Rock of St. Peter.

The Council Fathers anticipate these objections in their declaration on Ecumenism, Unitatis Redintegratio. Within this conciliar document, the Council Fathers clearly teach:

In order to establish this holy Church of His everywhere in the world until the end of time, Christ entrusted to the College of the Twelve the task of teaching, ruling, and sanctifying (cf. Mt 28:18-20 in conjunction with Jn 20:21-23). Among their number He chose Peter.

After Peter’s profession of faith, He decreed that on him He would build His Church; to Peter He promised the keys of the kingdom of heaven (cf. Mt 16:19, in conjunction with Mk 18:18). After Peter’s profession of love, Christ entrusted all His sheep to him to be confirmed in faith (cf. Lk 22:32) and shepherded in perfect unity (cf. Jn 21:15-17).ii

Based on Scriptural foundations, the Second Vatican Council’s ecumenical principles flow from the teachings of Christ and His Apostles. The Council teaches that Our Lord’s Church, and hence Christian unity, must be built upon the rock of St. Peter.

Furthermore, the Council asserts that the task of preserving and confirming this unity within our Lord’s Church rests with St. Peter and his lawful successors within the Roman papacy. The objection that the Second Vatican Council’s teachings on ecumenism water down the role of the papacy fails, for this text reiterates what the Church has always taught according to her Sacred Tradition. St. Peter is, and always has been, the foundation of unity among Christians.

Ecumenism Upholds the Real Presence

St. Peter and his successors are the foundation of unity in the Church. However, this foundation is laid down by Jesus Christ. Our Lord is the source of unity within the Church, especially as it concerns His Real Presence in the Most Blessed Sacrament.

We should keep this in mind when defending the Council’s teachings on ecumenism, since many Lefebvrites also allege that ecumenism undermines Catholic faith in our Lord’s Real Presence in order to appease non-Catholics. This allegation is false. Continue reading Vatican II’s decree on ecumenism, and you discover the following teaching: “In His Church [Christ] instituted the wonderful sacrament of the Eucharist by which the unity of the Church is both signified and brought about.”iii

In other words, the Second Vatican Council calls the Church to promote Christian unity through ecumenical dialogue. Yet the Council recognizes that unity can be neither fully realized nor fully symbolized except through the sacrament of the Holy Eucharist. The Second Vatican Council not only upholds the traditional Catholic position concerning the Most Blessed Sacrament, but the Council clearly states this position in the very decree through which ecumenism is promoted. The Council Fathers, by promoting ecumenical dialogue, seek to bring  our separated Christian brethren back to full communion with the Catholic Church by means of the Holy Eucharist. The Eucharist symbolizes our unity within the Church as Catholics, first with God and secondly with each other. Yet this symbolism may only be fully realized through the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.

In bringing to us the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of our Lord Jesus Christ, as well as in perpetuating Christ’s holy sacrifice upon the cross, the Mass unites all of Christ’s disciples throughout time and space, gathering them into one Church. The intention of the Second Vatican Council’s teaching on ecumenism is to help reunite with the Church those Christian disciples who have become separated through historic schisms and heresies.

The Council of Florence

This ecumenical position represents a departure from Catholic Tradition,” allege many adherents to the SSPX schism. “We find no example of the Catholic Church engaging in similar ecumenical activity before Vatican II.” This allegation troubles many Catholic apologists, because they are unaware of other examples of the Catholic Church’s practice of ecumenism with those who have separated from her. Yet such precedents do exist within Catholic Tradition.

The most important example is probably the ecumenical Council of Florence. This entire council offers a clear precedent from Catholic Tradition for the Church’s present involvement in ecumenical dialogue. After all, the Council of Florence sought to reunite the Orthodox East and the Catholic West.

During this council’s fourth session, Pope Eugene the IV decreed:

Eugenius, bishop, servant of the servants of God, for an everlasting record. It befits us to render thanks to almighty God. … For behold, the western and eastern peoples, who have been separated for long, hasten to enter into a pact of harmony and unity; and those who were justly distressed at the long dissension that kept them apart, at last after many centuries, under the impulse of Him from whom every good gift comes, meet together in person in this place out of desire for holy union.

A couple of matters should draw our attention here.

First, the East and West were obviously separated from one another in schism, as recognized by Pope Eugene the IV in this decree. These Churches nevertheless came together after many centuries to try to reconcile their differences. This is an act of ecumenism, one that Pope Eugene the IV attributes to the Holy Spirit.

In fact, the pope not only attributes this ecumenical dialogue to the Holy Spirit’s inspiration, but he proceeds to uphold such dialogue at the Council of Florence as our Christian obligation, stating: “We are aware that it is our duty and the duty of the whole church to strain every nerve to ensure that these happy initiatives make progress and have issue through our common care, so that we may deserve to be and to be called co-operators with God.”

Tradition Sustains Ecumenical Prayer

Now some critics of the Second Vatican Council maintain that this teaching from the Council of Florence applies solely to ecumenical dialogue, not joint prayer between Catholics and non-Catholics. Yet if we re-read the above citation from the Council of Florence, we find that the pope insists: “It befits us to render thanks to almighty God.” This is a prayer of thanksgiving to God.

Although they had not yet healed their schism, the Roman Pontiff led the Council Fathers gathered from the Catholic West and the Orthodox East in the recitation of this prayer. This is a clear example from Catholic Tradition of a pope and Catholic bishops praying with those Christian brethren who have been separated from full communion.

Non-Catholic Spiritual Authority

Some adherents to post Vatican II schisms disdain the respect shown by the Church towards the ecclesiastical leadership of non-Catholic Churches and denominations. These folks maintain that the Church should continue denouncing non-Catholic spiritual leaders as heretics and schismatics. In departing from the Church’s spiritual unity, they claim, Protestant ministers and Orthodox clergy forfeit any spiritual authority they possess, and thus any right to be held in respect by the Catholic faithful. This is not the position, however, of Pope Eugene the IV, who said this at the Council of Florence:

Finally, our most dear son John Palacologus, emperor of the Romans, together with our venerable brother Joseph, patriarch of Constantinople, the apocrisiaries of the other patriarchal sees and a great multitude of archbishops, ecclesiastics and nobles arrived at their last port, Venice, on 8 February last.

This is recognition, from both Pope Eugene and the Council Fathers, of the religious title and dignity of the Orthodox Emperor John Palacologus and the Orthodox Patriarch Joseph of Constantinople. Despite his separation from Rome, Patriarch Joseph is welcomed to the Council of Florence by Pope Eugene the IV as a brother.

The Second Vatican Council’s approach to ecumenism, by which the Church treats non-Catholic spiritual authorities with both respect and dignity, thus maintains the same ecumenical principles as those upheld at the Council of Florence. No doubt the reality of heresy and schism still exists after the Second Vatican Council (see canon 751), just as it did before the Council of Florence. However, in dialogue with our separated brethren, the Church chooses not to wave the terms “heretic” and “schismatic” in their faces.

What About Protestants?

Nevertheless, in arguing a traditional Catholic position from the Council of Florence — in other words, a position truly based upon the Church’s Sacred Tradition — a Catholic apologist inevitably encounters the objection that these texts apply only to Catholic ecumenism with the Eastern Orthodox. What about Catholic-Protestant ecumenism since the Second Vatican Council? Is there a similar example from a previous ecumenical councils? These are important questions, since SSPX adherents often make a big deal over the invitation extended to six Protestant theologians to participate at the Second Vatican Council in an advisory capacity.

As a quick aside, we should note that there were many additional Orthodox and Protestant observers at the Council. The famous “six Protestants” constantly flouted by opponents of the Second Vatican Council were simply observers at the Consilium, which was involved with the liturgical reform mandated by the Council. The suggestion that these “six Protestants” virtually put together the reformed liturgy of Pope Paul VI is a great exaggeration!

If we accept the Council of Trent as an authentic expression of Catholic Tradition (as Catholics are obliged to do), then such objections fail to take into account Catholic Tradition. For in the documents of Trent’s thirteenth session, we read:

The sacred and holy, general Synod of Trent, lawfully assembled in the Holy Ghost … grants, as far as regards the holy Synod itself, to all and each one throughout the whole of Germany, whether ecclesiastics or seculars, of whatsoever degree, estate, condition, quality they be, who may wish to repair to this ecumenical and general Council, the public faith and full security, which they call a safe-conduct … so as that they may and shall have it in their power in all liberty to confer, make proposals, and treat on those things which are to be treated of in the said Synod; to come freely and safely to the said ecumenical Council, and there remain and abide, and propose therein, as well in writing as by word of mouth, as many articles as to them shall seem good, and to confer and dispute, without any abuse or contumely, with the Fathers, or with those who may have been selected by the said holy Synod; as also to withdraw whensoever they shall think fit.

We should make several important observations here.

First, the Council of Trent both invited and offered safe passage to Protestants who wished to come and participate at this ecumenical council.

Second, Trent invited Protestants of all social and ecclesiastical rank to share their theological views, propose topics for debate, and generally participate in the daily affairs of this ecumenical council.

Third, Trent allowed Protestants to withdraw at any time.

Finally, Trent invited Protestants to be more than simply observers.

Clearly, at Trent the Church issued an invitation to ecumenical dialogue between Catholics and Protestants. And since Lutheranism enveloped most of the German nation around the time of the council, this invitation was much broader than the invitation extended to a handful of Protestant theologians at Vatican II. Trent even permitted the Protestants attending the Council a greater level of participation than was allowed to the Protestant theologians observing Vatican II. In all these ways, then, the Lefebvrite objections to Catholic-Protestant ecumenism, both at and after the Second Vatican Council, are little more than objections to a precedent set by the Council of Trent.

Vatican II and Religious Liberty

We can now turn our attention briefly to the matter of Vatican II and religious liberty. While technically speaking this is a distinct theological issue, it’s nevertheless often lumped in with ecumenism by those who challenge the orthodoxy of the Second Vatican Council. In fact, this is probably the most difficult theological hurdle former SSPX adherents must overcome before reconciling with the Church, mainly due to the mistaken popular belief that Archbishop Lefebvre refused to sign the Second Vatican Council’s Declaration on Religious Liberty, Dignitatis Humanae.

Any scholar with access to the Vatican’s archives knows this rumor to be false. Archbishop Lefebvre did indeed sign the document in question. In fact, anyone seeking Lefebvre’s signature on this document need not look any further than the Acta Synodalia (the Acts of the Synod).iv

Once the adherent to the SSPX schism overcomes the initial shock of seeing Lefebvre’s signature on Dignitatis Humanae, he will often offer a theological objection to the Second Vatican Council’s teaching on religious freedom. In a nutshell, this objection is expressed as follows: Pope Pius IX condemned the following proposition in his Syllabus of Errors: “15. Every man is free to embrace and profess that religion which he, led by the light of reason, thinks to be the true religion.” This appears to contradict Dignitatis Humanae’s teaching on religious freedom, which states:

This Vatican Synod declares that the human person has a right to religious freedom. This freedom means that all men are to be immune from coercion on the part of individuals or of social groups and of any human power, in such wise that in matters religious no one is to be forced to act in a manner contrary to his own beliefs.v

At first glance, these two magisterial teachings do appear irreconcilable. However, the Church can’t contradict herself, and she obviously can’t fail, either. So we must carefully distinguish between moral and political freedom.

Pope Pius IX’s condemnation of religious freedom addresses those who claim all religious expression to be more or less equal — those who say that man possesses a moral freedom to choose whatever religious expression fits his fancy. Around the time of the Second Vatican Council, approximately two thirds of the world lay under the oppressive political yoke of atheistic communism, so the Second Vatican Council addressed this situation through Dignitatis Humanae. In short, the Council taught that all believers have the political freedom to worship God, and the various communist states cannot coerce religious believers into atheism.

Once we understand this context, we can see that the teachings of Pope Pius IX and the Second Vatican Council are easily reconcilable, because they address two different situations. In recognizing religious freedom, Dignitatis Humanae reaffirms man’s moral obligation to seek truth, stating: “All men should be at once impelled by nature and also bound by a moral obligation to seek the truth, especially religious truth. They are also bound to adhere to the truth, once it is known, and to order their whole lives in accord with the demands of the truth.”vi

Fresh Insights With a Solid Foundation

In concluding this apologetic for the Vatican II’s teachings on ecumenism, we can affirm that these teachings are fresh insights into our Catholic Tradition, formulated to address new crises arising in the modern world. They mark no departure from what the Church has always taught. Catholic ecumenism is solidly founded in Catholic Tradition, as handed down from previous ecumenical councils, and it simply resurfaced at the Second Vatican Council.

The teachings of Vatican II on ecumenism build upon the Church’s ecumenical precedents established at the Council of Florence and the Council of Trent. As Catholics, we can embrace the Second Vatican Council’s teachings on ecumenism, because these teachings are solidly rooted in Catholic Tradition. 


i Reconciliatio et Paenitentia, 25.

ii Unitatis Redintegratio, 2.

iii Unitatis Redintegratio, 2.

iv See page 29 for Archbishop Lefebvre’s signature on the Second Vatican Council’s Declaration on Religious Liberty.

v For an in-depth treatment of how Vatican II’s Declaration on Religious Freedom is both consistent with Catholic Tradition and represents a legitimate development of Catholic doctrine, I recommend the writings of Dom Basile, a theologian from the Benedictine monastery of Ste. Madeleine de Le Barroux, which has the privilege of using all the liturgical books in force in 1962.

vi Dignitatis Humanae, 2.

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