History of Catholic Ecumenism


from Pope Leo XIII to Pope John XXIII


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Catholic View of Separated Churches



These various divisions...differ greatly from one another not only by reason of their origin, place and time, but still more by reason of the nature and seriousness of questions concerning faith and Church order. - Vatican II, "Unitatis Redintegratio", Art. 13.

"Two principal types of division"(19) within the body of Christianity have existed since the sixteenth century. These two are the separation between East and West, and the division of the West between Catholic and Protestant. Since the reasons and origins of these divisions contrast so greatly, the Catholic Church has treated each major breach in quite different ways. In fact, the Church has been involved in its own "ecumenical movement" for centuries, making numerous attempts to reunite with the separated Eastern churches, resulting at various times in either success or failure. Many of the Eastern Rite Catholic churches are the successful result of these reunion movements. Two major examples of failed attempts, on the other hand, are the Second Council of Lyons (1274) and the Council of Florence (1438-1439). Both aspired to reunite the Catholic and Orthodox churches, and on paper, both succeeded. However, neither in practice accomplished the desired goal, as disunion triumphed shortly after each council. The long history of reconciliation efforts between East and West is demonstrated in the development of ecumenical thought in this century’s official papal documents. The churches in the East - principally the Orthodox - were the primary target of ecumenical discussion. Whereas popes before John XXIII were very cautious in statements directed toward Protestants, many times they showed for the separated Eastern churches unreserved admiration and praise that is not typical in encyclicals. This sentiment led to a greater emphasis in papal documents upon the common bonds that the Orthodox and Catholic share. Statements directed toward Protestants, however, were slow in praise as well as in attempts at ecumenical dialogue.

Separated Christians of the East

The attitude that the similarities between Orthodox and Catholic believers are to be emphasized was first strongly enunciated by Pope Leo XIII:

The difference that separates the Eastern Churches from us is not so great, nay, with few exceptions we are so entirely at one that in defence of the Catholic faith we often have recourse to reasons and testimony borrowed from the teaching, rites, and customs of the East. The principal subject of contention is the primacy of the Roman pontiff...(20)

This emphasis upon commonality continued to be heard from the Vatican after Leo XIII. Certain features of the Orthodox endeared them to the Roman Pontiffs: "They [the Orthodox] have faithfully preserved the greater part of divine revelation. Among them is found a sincere obedience to Christ, a special love of his holy Mother, and the frequent reception of the sacraments."(21) This concept found culmination in Unitatis Redintegratio’s section on the Eastern Christians, which exalted the many characteristics that the Eastern churches have in common with the Catholic Church.

The praise given to the East early this century should not suggest that ecumenical discussion between Catholics and Orthodox was fully developed. Although popes were willing to praise many Eastern traditions and beliefs, Rome did, at times, place the blame for disunity more heavily upon the non-Catholic East. Pius XI, writing in a 1923 encyclical dealing with certain non-Catholic Eastern Christians, stated, "On their side the Roman Pontiffs left nothing undone to bring back these peoples [Eastern Slavs] to the unity of the Church."(22) Also, this same pope freely used the term "schismatic" when referring to those Eastern Christians who are not in union with Rome.(23) These were hardly ecumenical statements of joint responsibility for the divisions of today. Just 42 years later, however, Pope Paul VI (1963-1978) signed a joint declaration with Patriarch Athenagoras I stating the co-liability for the separation that exists between Orthodox and Catholics. This was fast development indeed within the Catholic Church.

Clearly this century was one of progress in relation to ecumenism with the East. Virtually no pope since Leo XIII was lacking in praise of the many commendable beliefs and traditions that those Eastern Christians separated from Rome still hold. To be sure, the Catholic desire for reunification had its modern origin in the work of Pope Leo XIII. His longing that the East and West might again be one set the tone for the rest of the century. As he stated, "the yearning desire of Our heart bids us conceive and hope that the day is not far distant when the Eastern Churches, so illustrious in their ancient faith and glorious past, will return to the fold..."(24) So, in many ways, the rescinsion of the excommunications of 1054 between the Bishop of Rome and the Patriarch of Constantinople that occurred in 1965 had its conception in the labors of Pope Leo XIII.

Separated Christians of the West

Whereas Pope Leo XIII ushered in the beginning of the modern Catholic ecumenical dialogue with the Eastern non-Catholic churches, official ecumenical moves toward Protestant Christians were not quite so forthcoming in this century before Vatican II. In fact, official statements were at times so ambiguous that some Catholics as well as Protestants wondered if the Church considered Protestants truly Christian.(25) While one can see how misinterpretation in this area may arise, a careful reading of the documents and a placement of them in their historical light makes the true teaching evident. With the vast number of different doctrines and practices that are to be found among Protestants, Rome was hesitant to make any sweeping general statements in this area. However, the Vatican did issue a number of declarations during the reigns between Popes Leo XIII and John XXIII; these statements deal with a number of practical matters ranging from the validity of a Protestant Baptism to the validity of Anglican Orders. On a whole, however, most statements released by the Vatican before the reign of John XXIII did not explicitly attempt to engage Protestant Christianity in ecumenical dialogue.

Today it is assumed by all involved in ecumenical discussions that the issue of whether Catholics and Protestants consider each other Christians is resolved. However, no such assumption existed earlier this century. Many Protestants felt that the Catholic Church did not consider them Christian, and in fact, many individual Catholics agreed with that sentiment. One source of the confusion was the difficulty in some Catholic minds as to whether someone who is technically a heretic (by holding erroneous beliefs) could at the same time be considered a Christian. For example, Pope Pius XII, stating the requirements of membership in the Church, added along with Baptism and possessing the true faith, "those...who have not cut themselves off from the structure of the Body by their own unhappy act or been severed therefrom, for very grave crimes, by the legitimate authority."(26) Interpreting this statement and others like it out of context (of both the encyclical and Church Tradition) lead some to believe that Protestants are not truly Christian. This is not the teaching of the Church. However, in ecumenical discussion, it did not always matter what the official teaching of the Church was, but rather what Protestants thought the official teaching of the Church was. This was the area of development in official Vatican documents. Rome progressively more clearly stated its acceptance of a Protestant Baptism that conforms to certain guidelines. The Church has always affirmed the belief that "Outside the Church there is no salvation", but Pope Leo XIII (later restated by Pope Pius XI) clearly asserted who are members of the Church: "Those who have been validly cleansed by the waters of baptism belong by right to the Church, even if error keeps them apart or disagreement severs them from fellowship."(27) So, the question becomes, what is a valid baptism? According to the Council of Trent, it is a baptism that is performed with the intention of doing what the Church does, regardless of who administers it. The official teaching of the Church has not changed in this area; the development during the years leading to Vatican II is the explicit affirmation of this teaching and the application of it to Protestants.(28)

In reading the official documents regarding the separated Christians of the West, another shift is evident in the time from Pope Leo XIII to Vatican II. The change was from highlighting the errors of Protestants to emphasizing the common beliefs that Catholics and Protestants share. Pope Leo XIII clearly emphasized the errors of Protestantism in Praeclara Gratulationis(29), and of course, in discussing Protestant ecumenical conferences, Pope Pius XI, as seen above, wrote very few complimentary remarks in Mortalium Animos. By the pontificate of Pius XII, however, one can already see some movement toward more approving remarks about all non-Catholic Christians, both in East and West. One statement speaking of Protestants by this pope showed definite progress: "without belonging to the visible body of the Catholic Church, [they] are near to us through faith in Jesus Christ".(30) Common faith in Christ was the key subject of this shift in emphasis. With the increase of so many who are hostile to the Christian faith in the 20th century, the Catholic Church began to realize the important bonds that she truly has with Protestants. Those who have faith in Christ are, in the most important ways, more united to each other than to all those who are not followers of Christ. This increasing recognition of our already-existing unity with Protestants on this significant matter was crystallized under the pontificate of John XXIII. His concern for ecumenical issues was evident. Not only did he allow Catholics for the first time to participate in Protestant ecumenical conventions, he even permitted the presence of Protestant Christians at the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council. As is evident in Unitatis Redintegratio, no longer would the Catholic Church emphasize the erroneous beliefs of Protestantism. Instead, she would primarily proclaim the common faith in Jesus Christ as Lord that all Christians hold.

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