Changes in Catholic approaches to ecumenism
by Sr. Donna Geernaert, SC
“May they all be one . . . that the world may believe that you sent me” (John 17:21). These words from Jesus’ prayer at the Last Supper define the goal of the ecumenical effort among Christians around the world. Insofar as unity among the followers of Jesus witnesses to the credibility of the Gospel, it is not surprising that the 1910 Missionary Conference in Edinburgh is usually identified as the beginning of the 20th century ecumenical movement. Although the Catholic Church did not take part in the 1910 conference, the ecumenical landscape has changed so much over the past 100 years that the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity (PCPCU)
was actively involved with the World Council of Churches (WCC)
in preparing to celebrate the anniversary and in exploring ways of undertaking mission together.
On the eve of the Second Vatican Council, documents of the Catholic Church regularly referred to the Orthodox as “schismatics”, and to members of the Reformed churches as belonging to “heretical sects”. In the 1917 Code of Canon Law
, the model of the church was that of the “perfect society”. The visibility of the church was dominant. Membership was defined by sharing in the bonds of faith, valid sacraments, and hierarchical communion. The Church of Christ was the Catholic Church. Baptized non-Catholics, if they had been born into a particular church rather than having left the Catholic Church by choice, might be seen as “heretics or schismatics in good faith”. The ecumenical model, if it could be called such, was of individual return to the Catholic Church.
At the beginning of the 20th century, the renewal of biblical and patristic studies as well as a greater historical consciousness led to a reconsideration of the spiritual aspect of the Church. This is reflected in the publication of Pope Pius XII’s 1943 encyclical, Mystici Corporis Christi
, which speaks of the Church as the mystical body of Christ. Since this Church is visible, membership is determined on the tangible level, and those divided in faith or government cannot be living in the one Body. Yet this encyclical does not say that non-Catholics cannot be saved but only that they cannot be sure of their salvation and that they are deprived of the many means of salvation offered by the Catholic Church. While not really members, they may be related to the Mystical Body even unconsciously. The explicit desire to join the Catholic Church is not necessary for salvation, as the Vatican’s 1949 condemnation of Leonard Feeney’s strict interpretation
of the maxim, “outside the Church, no salvation”, makes clear. With reference to the teaching of Pope Pius XII, the Holy Office affirmed that those baptized by their implicit desire can be saved and recognized the good dispositions of the person who wants to conform to God’s will as an indication of that desire. But the focus is still on individuals rather than communities.
During the Second Vatican Council, a new language and understanding emerged: non-Catholic Christians are now “separated brothers and sisters”, and their assemblies are now described as “churches or ecclesial communities”. The Council became increasingly aware that all who have been incorporated into Christ through baptism belong in a mysterious way to the Church of Christ, and began to appreciate in a new way the presence of God’s grace and power in the separated churches and communities. Specifically, while the Council affirms that the Church of Christ “subsists in” the Catholic Church, it moved away from the assertion that there is an absolute identity between the two. Further, the Council understood that there is an ecclesial (saving) value in the communions of non-Catholic Christians. Their members are not merely dispersed persons lost for the Catholic Church – to be converted individually – but are to be considered from within their respective churches or communities. Since the Council and after 50 years of ecumenical experience, today we commonly speak of “brothers and sisters in Christ”.
Baptized into the one body of Christ, divided Christians share a certain, though imperfect, communion. Christians belonging to another church or ecclesial community confess the Christian faith. Though not identical with the faith of the Catholic Church, it is the faith of their specific community which they express when they receive baptism. The baptism that faith community celebrates is a baptism which incorporates its members in Christ within that community. There are no vagrant baptized. It is in the community, Lutheran, Presbyterian, United Church, or Baptist, etc., that grace is given, and belonging to the Church takes place there.
When the Decree on Ecumenism (Unitatis Redintegratio)
was promulgated at the end of the third session of the Council, Pope Paul VI said that the Decree
explained and completed the Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium)
. With regard to theological importance, he closely linked the two documents. In the Decree on Ecumenism
, the Council designated the restoration of unity among all Christians as one of its principal tasks and also makes it clear that this is an ecumenism in truth and love, with the visible unity of the church as its goal (UR
, 2). Visible unity is not something external added to the individual churches but belongs to the intimate structure of faith, permeating all its elements. Yet unity is not to be understood as uniformity. Rather, the unity of the Church is realized in the midst of a rich diversity of spirituality, discipline, liturgical rites, and celebration as long as this diversity remains faithful to the apostolic tradition (UR
, 4). The concern for unity is fundamental to the understanding of the Church, and “the dynamism of the movement towards unity” is an expression of the Church’s continuing renewal in greater fidelity to its own calling (UR
, 6). As Pope John Paul II states in his 1995 encyclical Ut Unum Sint
, “ecumenism, the movement for promoting Christian unity, is not just some sort of “appendix”
which is added to the Church’s traditional activity. Rather, ecumenism is an organic part of her life and work, and must pervade all she is and does” (UUS
Over the past several years, Christians have grown together in mutual understanding, awareness of reciprocal relations, and doctrinal convergences. But what has been accomplished is only one stage on the journey. The ultimate goal of the ecumenical movement is the full communion of faith and life that is realized and celebrated in sharing the Eucharist. This unity is God's gift to the Church, to be achieved as Christ wills by the means Christ wills. Our hope is in the prayer of Christ for the Church, in the love of the Father for us, and in the power of the Holy Spirit. “And this hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured forth into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us” (Romans 5:5).
Sr. Dr. Donna Geernaert, s.c., served for 18 years in promoting ecumenical and interfaith relations for the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops. She has been a staff member, consultant, and member of numerous multilateral and bilateral theological dialogues in Canada as well as internationally.