History of Catholic Ecumenism

from Pope Leo XIII to Pope John XXIII

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Since the Fall of Man, human sin has consistently been in conflict with the Will of God. Jesus’ prayer for the unity of Christians has not been exempt from this unending struggle. The consequence of this strife is that Christianity is separated into three major sections: Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant. Schism, heresy, and as always, sinful pride are the reasons for these divisions. Yet in every age there are Christians sincerely seeking to follow their Lord’s commands; thus, each fissure of the Body leads some to seek a reconciliation. Believers come together to fulfill this desire: this is the ecumenical movement. The present century has seen arguably the greatest number of Christians who have recognized the terrible scandal of disunity and attempted to reunite what has been divided. Protestant institutions have especially involved themselves with this movement, resulting in the creation of the World Council of Churches in 1948. On the Catholic side, one major result of the modern ecumenical movement was Unitatis Redintegratio, a decree dealing with ecumenism handed down in 1964 by the Second Vatican Council. This was the first conciliar document ever to deal explicitly with Catholic ecumenism towards both Orthodox and Protestant brethren.

However, Unitatis Redintegratio was not the start of Catholic ecumenism; in fact, it was not even the first official Vatican statement on the matter.(1) The modern attitude of the Catholic Church toward ecumenism was inaugurated by Pope Leo XIII (1878-1903). After him, official Catholic ecumenism progressed and developed, culminating in the promulgation of Unitatis Redintegratio. The three major themes of this document, dealing with the Catholic concept of unity, the Catholic practice of ecumenism, and the Catholic view of the separated churches, had all been previously addressed by the Roman Pontiffs between Leo XIII and John XXIII (1958-1963). Therefore the document’s position on these three subjects was the result of the many years of Catholic reflection and thought since Pope Leo XIII’s ushering of the Catholic Church into this modern "ecumenical age".

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