History of Catholic Ecumenism


from Pope Leo XIII to Pope John XXIII


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Catholic Practice of Ecumenism



There can be no ecumenism worthy of the name without interior conversion. For it is from newness of attitudes of mind, from self-denial and unstinted love, that desires of unity take their rise and develop in a mature way. - Vatican II, "Unitatis Redintegratio", Art. 7.

The rise of the modern ecumenical movement forced the Catholic Church to grapple with the issue of how to relate to Christians who are not in union with Rome. Although the Church has continually emphasized the essentiality of the union of all Christians with the Successor of Peter, the all-too-evident fact is that vast numbers of believing, faithful Christians are not within this union. With the prayer of Jesus "that they may all be one" speaking to their hearts, the popes of the past century increasingly tried to develop standards with regard to non-Catholic Christians. These attempts addressed various issues, including the relationship between ecumenism and apologetics; the proper level of Catholic involvement in Protestant ecumenical movements; and the effect reunion would have upon the Catholic Church.

The teaching of the Catholic Church has always been that she possesses the fullness of the Christian faith. Implicit in this belief is that those who do not hold all the Catholic teachings are thereby in error in one way or another. This would necessarily include all non-Catholic Christians. Thus, in order to bring people into the Catholic faith, apologetics is necessary; however, ecumenism and apologetics are rarely complimentary. Early in this century, "ecumenism" and apologetics in official Church documents still intertwined. Writing in 1894 on the reunion of Christendom, Pope Leo XIII stressed heavily the necessity of non-Catholic Christians returning to the "fold". Regarding the East’s rejection of the primacy of the pope, he stated, "But let them look back to the early years of their existence, let them consider the sentiments entertained by their forefathers, and examine what the oldest traditions testify, and it will, indeed, become evident to them that Christ’s divine utterance, ‘Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build My Church’ has undoubtedly been realized in the Roman Pontiffs."(8) Then, addressing Protestants, he proceeded, "Suffer that We should invite you to the unity which has ever existed in the Catholic Church and can never fail; suffer that We should lovingly hold out Our hand to you. The Church, as the common mother of all, has long been calling you back to her..."(9) These apologetic statements were not uncommon in papal documents, yet have no parallel in Unitatis Redintegratio, in which the Eastern churches as well as Protestant churches were not explicitly asked to join the Catholic Church. This is not to say that the Catholic Church changed her position upon the source of true unity; no, she still proclaimed that "Christ the Lord founded one Church and one Church only".(10) However, in order to foster ecumenical dialogue "worthy of the name", the Church saw that apologetics and attempts at conversion were not appropriate within the context of ecumenism.

Another issue for papal consideration in the first half of the 20th century was the level of Catholics’ involvement in Protestant-organized ecumenical activities. Protestant ecumenical work was more widespread in this century than in any other. With the Edinburgh missionary conference of 1910 that included many different Protestant denominations, the modern ecumenical movement was truly born. Quickly the question arose concerning the extent of Catholic involvement in these affairs. Pope Benedict XV (1914-1922) was the first to be forced to address this issue when the Catholic Church was invited to a Protestant ecumenical "Faith and Order" conference in 1919. He refused to participate in this conference; in fact, the Holy Office issued a decree on July 4, 1919 prohibiting Catholics from taking part in conferences dealing with Christian unity being held by separated Christians, unless the Holy See explicitly permitted such participation.(11) This policy continued under Pope Pius XI (1922-1939), who in response to another unity conference, issued the encyclical Mortalium Animos. In this letter Pius XI completely rejected the Protestant Ecumenical Movement of his time: "...it is clear that the Apostolic See cannot on any terms take part in their assemblies, nor is it anyway lawful for Catholics either to support or to work for such enterprises; for if they do so they will be giving countenance to a false Christianity, quite alien to the one Church of Christ."(12)

Following this strong discouragement of Catholic collaboration in Protestant unity movements, however, slow movement toward more active Catholic participation occurred in the years preceding Vatican II. In 1949, the Holy Office issued another decree, entitled Ecclesia Catholica, that dealt with Catholic ecumenical involvement. This document, in many ways, appears as a bridge between Mortalium Animos and Unitatis Redintegratio. Seen in the light of the latter, it appears overly cautious and suspicious; yet in comparison to the former document, progress is evident. One statement in particular from the document reveals this: "They [the bishops] should therefore not only carefully and efficaciously keep this movement under vigilant observation, but also prudently foster and guide it unto the twofold end of assisting those who are in search of the truth and the true Church..."(13) This development reached its culmination with a pronouncement by Pope John XXIII, shortly before Vatican II. For the first time ever, papal permission was officially granted for Catholic participation in the World Council of Churches conference, to be held in New Delhi in 1961.(14) In fact, the Council then went a step further when it not only allowed Catholic participation, but even called such involvement "desirable".(15)

With the hopes of many running high this century for the real possibility of the reunion of Christianity, a number of Church documents addressed whether or not there would be benefits to the Catholic Church should reunion occur. In keeping with the general attitude of Rome toward any reunion is Pope Leo XIII’s statements in Praeclara Gratulationis that heavily emphasized the benefits that non-Catholics will gain if they "return to the fold they have abandoned".(16) This century, however, saw an awakening in Catholics, from the parish all the way to Rome, to the true benefits that their Church would gain by reunion. A sampling of this new development can be seen in these words from Pope Pius XI: "When individual men and whole peoples are thus perfectly reconciled, the conjunction of the Church will at once be perfected through the return of all who for whatever reasons have been separated from her."(17) The benefits to be gained by the Catholic Church from reunion with the separated brethren was explicitly acknowledged in Unitatis Redintegratio:

Nor should we forget that anything wrought by the grace of the Holy Spirit in the hearts of our separated brethren can contribute to our own edification. Whatever is truly Christian is never contrary to what genuinely belongs to the faith; indeed, it can always bring a more perfect realization of the very mystery of Christ and the Church.(18)

This realization by the Vatican that, in some ways, there is something missing from the church by the disunity of all Christians, was a major step toward reunion. For reunion is only possible after all sides realize the great scandal that exists due to fragmentation.

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