The Real Presence Eucharistic Education and Adoration Association Home Page
The Real Presence Eucharistic Education and Adoration Association Home Page

Father John A. Hardon, S.J. Archives


Church and Dogma

Return to:  Home > Archives Index > Church & Dogma Index

Christ to Catholicism


XI. The Ecumenical Movement

by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

The term “ecumenical” has a variety of meanings. Its etymology comes from the Greek, oikoumene, which means “the inhabited world.” St. Matthew used the term to describe the prophetic promise of Christ, that “this Gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in the whole world, for a witness to all nations.” [1] Later on the same word was used to designate the universality of the Church, as in the Martyrdom of Polycarp (156-157), where the writer says that before his death, Polycarp had prayed “for the Catholic Church throughout the world.” A century later, it became the technical term for a general council of the Church. Thus, according to St. Athanasius (295-373), “the word of the Lord uttered by the ecumenical synod of Nicea abides forever.” [2]

Non-Catholic writers on the subject of religious unity have appropriated the term and invested it with connotations that are quite alien to Christian tradition. They either speak of an “ecumenical reformation (that) asserts the unity of the Church in the midst of the disunity of the churches,” or more accurately, “the Ecumenical Movement is a movement toward one universal Christian Church throughout the whole inhabited world.” [3] For our purpose, we shall understand the ecumenical movement in the latter sense, as a revolutionary change in religious attitude among non-Catholic Christian bodies throughout the world, that for the first time since the Reformation are seriously trying to solve the problem of their disunity.

The ecumenical movement cuts across Catholic interests at many angles. Within the last decade, the Holy See has directed the faithful to recognize here “the inspiration of grace from the Holy Spirit,” leading all men of good will to the unity of one Lord, one faith and one baptism. [4] This implies correlative obligation of those who possess the true faith to be conscious of the efforts which non-Catholic churches are making to find Christian unity. In a variety of ways these efforts can be assisted, with consequent benefit and accretion to the Mystical Body of Christ.

Origins of the World Council of Churches

Practically speaking, the ecumenical movement in modern times may be identified with the formation and development of the World Council of Churches, whose juridical existence is less than a hundred years old. In 1910 the (Protestant) World Missionary Conference held its first meeting at Edinburgh, Scotland, on the basis of national representation. One of the problems raised by the Conference was the mission work in Central and South America. Many of the churches were conducting missions in those countries. But the problem was shelved for fear that “this topic might offend the Roman Catholic Church which is the dominant religious body in the whole territory south of the Mexican border.” [5] The more liberal-minded delegates considered this a weakness, which they attributed to the wide differences in doctrine and policy that characterize the various churches in Christendom. To remedy the evil of non-cooperation, they suggested the formation of a study group to explore and, as far as possible, resolve the points of disagreement.

Bishop Charles Brent, Episcopal missionary to the Philippines, took up the idea and carried it into effect. Later in the same year the triennial Convention of the Protestant Episcopal Church was meeting in Chicago. Brent attended the convention and asked the House of Bishops to appoint a committee inviting “all churches which accept Jesus Christ as God and Savior to join in conference, for the consideration of all questions pertaining to the Faith and Order of the Church of Christ.” [6] Due to the approaching World War and its aftermath, it was not until 1927 that the First World Conference on Faith and Order was held at Lausanne in Switzerland, where 150 representatives from 69 churches met from August 3 to 12, and passed a series of resolutions that laid the doctrinal foundation for the future World Council.

Two years before Lausanne, a similar convention was held at Stockholm, on invitation from the King of Sweden, to discuss the practical aspects of Christianity in relation to politics, industry, race and social questions. The First Conference on Life and Work met at Stockholm on August 19, 1925, and continued in session for eleven days. More than 500 delegates from 33 countries and 91 churches attended. Its outstanding achievement was the final message, which declared that the problems of social morality are too great to be solved by individual effort, so that the community must accept responsibility for them, “and must exercise such social control over individual action as in each instance may be necessary for the common good.” [7]

The Lausanne Conference on Faith and Order and the Stockholm meeting on Life and World decided to hold simultaneous conventions in 1937, at Edinburgh and Oxford, respectively, to set about combining the two societies. This was found agreeable to both delegations, and the following year at Utrecht, in Holland, a committee of fourteen prepared a draft for the proposed World Council of Churches, “which should carry forward the functions of both movements and, in addition, be the continuing, permanent organization of the Churches themselves with responsibility for the whole ecumenical task.” [8] Without a dissenting voice, a Constitution for the World Council was adopted and W.A. Visser’t Hooft appointed Secretary General. Three centers of activity were designated: Geneva, London and New York. The First World Assembly was planned for 1941, but delayed by the war until 1948. In that year, on August 22, “the bells of a thousand steeples of American Churches proclaimed to the world that the official representatives of 147 churches from all the great communions except the Roman Catholic, were assembled in the Nieuwe Kerk at Amsterdam, Holland, to offer their united praises to God for the way in which He had led them to that hour, and their fervent prayers that His Holy Spirit might help them to carry out His design in a disordered and frightened world.” [9]

Constitution of the World Council of Churches

The Constitution of the World Council of Churches covers nine sections, the most important of which defines the doctrinal basis of membership and the extent of its authority over member churches. Significantly the dogmatic foundation covers only one sentence, stating that “The World Council of Churches is a fellowship of churches which accept our Lord Jesus Christ as God and Savior.” [10] Visser’t Hooft admits that “theologically speaking the basis is probably not the best that could be found.” However, it has the advantage of emphasizing that “our unity is not found in ourselves but in our common relatedness to a common Lord.” [11]

Ostensibly, therefore, the Council recognizes the divinity of Christ and rests its membership on the profession of this doctrine. But one of the anomalies of the organization is the discord to be noticed on the three levels on which its voice may be heard, namely, the official declarations of the governing body, the express statements of outstanding authorities within the society, and the open profession of faith by member churches in the World Council. Whenever the Council officially, and anonymously, touches on the subject, it seems clearly enough to teach the natural divine filiation of Jesus Christ, who is “God’s Son become Man,” “who is God and man.” [12]

Not so clear are statements of such conciliar lights as Paul Minear, delegate at Lund for the Conference on Faith and Order, according to whom “recent scholarship is underscoring the fact that Jesus’ teachings are impossible. Does anyone today seriously consider giving money to all, loving all, forgiving all? Can we refuse remarriage to divorcees, abandon wealth and property and family? Do we serve only one master, take no thought of the morrow, seek to become last of all, least of all, servant of all?” [13] And completely denying Christ’s divinity is the teaching of the Congregational Church manual, which asks, “What made Jesus divine?” and answers, “His divinity was achieved. Had he yielded to temptation he would have weakened, and ultimately destroyed his divine nature.” [14] Yet, Congregationalists (recently merged with the Evangelical and Reformed) are one of the leading bodies of the World Council, whose very definition of the Church as a “fellowship” was incorporated in the Council’s constitution.

The authority which the Council enjoys with relation to member churches is very constrained:

The World Council shall offer counsel and provide opportunity of united action on matters of common interest. It may take action on behalf of constituent churches in such matters as one or more of them may commit to it. It shall have authority to call regional and world conferences on specific subjects as occasion may require. The World Council shall not legislate for the churches; nor shall it act for them in any manner except as indicated above or as hereafter may be specified by the constituent churches. [15]

Commentators on the Council insist that it is not a super-church, but a democratic organization which allows free discussion and imposes no duties in faith or morals, except such as the churches may wish to impose on themselves. “It has no constitutional power of any kind over the participating churches. It is a consultative body and will not legislate for the churches. It has duties but no rights. It is an instrument for the use of the churches, but to what extent it will be used remains a matter for each and all of the participating churches to decide.” [16]

Concept of Non-Catholic Unity

In accordance with its constitution, the World Council held its second international meeting six years after Amsterdam, this time in America, at Evanston, Illinois. Twelve hundred delegates from 160 Protestant and Orthodox churches from 48 countries represented 170 million members at the American assembly. Out of their deliberations came an official manifesto, which was drafted by the Committee on Faith and Order, voted on by the delegates and “commended to the Churches for appropriate action.” As the fruit of several years’ theological study by the best minds in the Council, it may be taken as an accurate statement on the two cardinal issues that vex the non-Catholic mind and created the ecumenical movement. The first is to find some intelligible ground of unity among the Christian churches separated from Rome, and the second to explore the nature of their disunity, with a view to finding some means for eventual unification.

Unity Derived from the Person of Christ. Hoping to discover a semblance of unity among the member churches, the theologians of the World Council prejudiced their case by stating that “the New Testament conceives of the unity of the church, not as sociological, but as having its essential reality in Christ himself and in his indissoluble unity with his people.” [17] Instead of defining unity both in terms of its divine Founder and of its human components, who profess and practice a common faith, unity is said to belong only to Christ, who, clearly, is the one Mediator between God and man. Does the New Testament, therefore, say that the Church of Christ is one? Yes, but in a novel sense. It is one only because Christ is one, because He is the one source of our reconciliation with the Father, because through Him alone we receive the Holy Spirit and hope for the glory of heaven. To use a comparison, we may speak of the human race as unified because all men are created by one God, or of a human family as united because all the children are born of one father and mother.

Unity of the Church in its Earthly Pilgrimage. But is this all? Did Christ give His Church only the integrity which comes from His being the one Lord and Savior of mankind ? Essentially and substantially, we are told, that is sufficient. However, Christ wanted His Church to have a second kind of unity, seen in the union of its members with one another, which may be called “the oneness of the church in its earthly pilgrimage.” Properly speaking this is only a tendency toward unity that “will not be totally achieved until God sums up all things in Christ,” on the last day. So as not to be mistaken in its meaning, the Council expressly states that, “In this eschatological perspective all our human divisions are provisional.” [18]

An analogy from St. Paul illustrates the two types of unity, one given and existing; the other to be manifest and still in the making: “In each Christian there is both the ‘new man’ who has been created and yet must be put on daily, and also the ‘old man’ who has been crucified with Christ and yet must be daily mortified. So the Church is already one in Christ, by virtue of his identification of himself with it, and must become one in Christ, so as to manifest its true unity in the mortification of its divisions.” [19] In ecumenical theology, “the Lord has given His Church abundant means for the gradual, though never total, manifestation of unity among the members of His Mystical Body.” “Christ of his love and grace has given his Church such gifts as it needs for its growth from unity to unity….He has given apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers, that the unity of the body may be continually built up. He has given the church the gift and power of prayer, by which the church can plead both for its own unity and for the reconciliation of men to God and to one another.” [20]

Church’s Unity Partially Realized. Painfully aware of their mutual discord, the denominations in the World Council wanted to assure themselves that “the undivided Christ is present among us, in spite of our divisions.” To this end they narrated the various gifts received from God, which suggest at least some measure of uniformity. As regards faith “We all wait upon one Father, through the one Holy Spirit, praying that we may be ready to hear and obey when he talks of the things of Christ and shows them to us.” As regards the Scriptures, all the churches read them, “and proclaim that the gospel forms them in the faith that the word speaking through them draws us to himself and into the apostolic faith.” Relative to the sacraments, “we all receive his gift of baptism whereby, in faith, we are engrafted in him even while we have not yet allowed it fully to unite us with each other.” Moreover, “we all hear his command ‘do this’ and his word ‘this is my body…this is my blood’ in the sacrament of the Eucharist, even while our celebration of the Lord’s Supper is not yet at one table.” In like manner, “we all receive a ministry of the world and sacraments, even while our ministers are not yet recognized by all and not understood in the same sense.” [21]

Here the World Council makes a careful distinction between the terms “common” and “uniform” as applied to the churches. The gifts of Scripture, baptism, the Eucharist and the ministry are not indeed being used in a uniform manner, but, at least, “the fact of our common though diverse, use of these gifts is a powerful evidence of our unity in Christ.” As a “present reality,” it affords some consolation since justice “compels us now to examine seriously how it is that our disunity as churches contradicts our unity in Christ.” [22]

Confession of Disunity

Whatever satisfaction the World Council derived from its reputed “oneness in Christ” was more than negatived by the spectacle of “our disunity as churches,” which obscures from men the sufficiency of Christ’s atonement, inasmuch as the gospel of reconciliation is denied to the very lives of those who proclaim it.” [23] Unfortunately when the Council comes to examine how the great divisions in Christian history are to be estimated, its analysis shades into ambiguity. Objectively, according to the Evanston manifesto, the alienation of one Christian body from another should be considered sinful, but subjectively all the major schisms and heresies in Christianity have been sincerely instituted.

Historical Review of Christian Disunity. Thus during the first millennium “some believed that others were departing from the God-given structure and faith of the church by unwarrantable claims and unfounded doctrines. So came the schism between East and West,” completed by the year 1054 and except for temporary and partial re-unions in Rome, still extant in the “Orthodox” church which number upwards of 150 million communicants. Others again “believed that God called them to such reformation of the faith and order of the church as would restore it to its primitive purity. They found their work could not be completed within the framework of Roman Catholicism; thus came the separate churches of the Reformation.” These represent the parent churches of Luther, Calvin and Zwingli, which have since divided into scores of denominations. “Some believed that the faith must indeed be reformed but within the framework of ancient and historic episcopacy. So the Anglican and Old Catholic communities became separated both from Rome and from many of the Reformed churches.” Generally they may be called “episcopalian,” as distinct from the Roman Church which is papal, and the “Orthodox” which claims to be conciliar. Finally “some believed that the established church of their day would not give free course to the word of salvation. So the older free churches and the Methodist connection felt themselves forced to adopt independent church orders.” [24] In this group belong some of the most influential bodies in the World Council which are founded on the principle of “self-determination” in matters of doctrine and discipline.

Proposed Remedies. The basic remedy for disunity is blind self-surrender “even unto death.” Churches which have cherished certain doctrines and traditions for centuries “have to be prepared to offer up some of their accustomed, inherited forms of life in uniting with other churches, without complete certainty as to all that will emerge from the step of faith.” [25] Various practical means are suggested to give tangible expression to this self-surrender, which lies at the heart of the ecumenical movement.

First and of paramount importance for healing the discord in Christendom, there must be humble repentance. “Not the repentance we may expect of others, but that which we undertake ourselves—cost what it may—even when others are not willing to follow.” This means a sincere “acknowledgement before God that we have sinned so as to be caught in the net of inexplicable evil and rendered unable to heal our divisions by ourselves.” [26]

After repentance should come thankfulness to God “for the actual oneness he has given us in the World Council of Churches.” Concretely the gratitude becomes effective if the present members of the Council resolve “to stay together and beyond that, as the Holy Spirit may guide us, we intend to unite.” [27]

The guidance of the Holy Spirit must come through “our Lord speaking to us through Holy Scripture.” Whatever difficulty this involves, arises from the fact that “we still struggle to comprehend the meaning and authority of Holy Scripture.” Hence the urgency of making an earnest study of the word of God, and, above all, of obedience to what we are told” by the inspired texts. Then “we are on our way toward realizing the oneness of the church in Christ in the actual sate of our dividedness on earth.” [28]

Special and studious attention should be paid to the function of baptism and the Eucharist as instruments of unity. “For some, but not for all, it follows that the churches can only be conformed to the dying and rising again in Christ, which both sacraments set forth, if they renounce their eucharistic separateness.” [29]

And lastly, “the measure of our concern for unity is the degree to which we pray for it. We cannot expect God to give us unity unless we prepare ourselves to receive his gift by costly and purifying prayer.” Especially valuable are communal prayers, for “to pray together is to be drawn together.” Therefore, “we urge, whenever possible, to the observance of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, January 18-25, or some period suited to local conditions, as a public testimony to prayer as the road to unity.” [30]

Evaluation of Ecumenical Theology

In order properly to evaluate the foregoing statement of ecumenical principles, we must first recognize it as a compromise between disparate elements in the World Council.

Uncertainty about the Nature of the Church. At one extreme in the World Council are those who find strength in doctrinal and ritual differences, for whom the Council should be only a federated cooperative with no ambition to any sort of organic unity among the churches. They are “keenly sensitive to the gains in vitality” which come from church disunion. [31] At the other extreme are the “Orthodox” groups, “for whom the unity of the Church already exists,” and, in fact, coincides with their own communion.

Between these extreme lies the majority of denominations in the World Council. They are undecided either on the nature of the church or on the kind of unity it is supposed to have. Some maintain that the unity of the church is an existing historic reality, within certain theoretical boundaries. Their problem is to define these boundaries, within which the church should be united and beyond which diversity is allowed. Others consider the church a purely invisible entity, “a community known only to God.” Its unity therefore is also known only to Him, and the task of the Council is to give better expression to this existent (mostly invisible) union among the divided members. Still others regard the church as essentially visible, but without restricting limits and capable of embracing “all those who profess and call themselves Christians, however diverse their belief and practice.”

Lutheran Concept of Inevitable Disunity. When the World Council came to examine the theoretical basis for a divided Christendom, it settled on the Lutheran theory of man’s utter depravity since the fall of Adam. Accordingly disunion among the churches is certainly sinful, but unavoidable, in view of our corrupted human nature. Thus “we may think of the church as we are able to think of the individual believer, who may be said at one and the same time to be both a justified man and a sinner.” In other words, the Lutheran theory of man’s justification is also the speculative basis for the church’s simultaneous unity and disunity. In the same way that the individual believers are and even remain sinners, although “justified” by God, in Christ who alone is just; so the churches are divided among themselves, while united in their founder, Jesus Christ, who alone is one.

On this hypothesis, disunity in the churches of Christ becomes inevitable as sin in the individual Christian. They can no more keep from being divided than he from committing sin. After all, the members of the church are only human and suffer from the common effect of Adam’s fall which vitiated the nature of man. Only an extrinsic unity of Jesus Christ is imputed to the society which He founded. Really and formally, the church cannot be united this side of heaven, by reason of her fallen members, in whom the virtue of unifying charity has been totally destroyed.

Practice in Contradiction to Theory. It goes without saying that in this theory the unity of the church, like the church herself, is wholly invisible, whereas disunity is palpably visible, yet predetermined, since nothing so sinful as the Church’s human members could hope to produce anything permanently united. But then, what practical conclusions should be drawn? To be consistent, the theologians of the World Council should have resigned themselves to the status quo, and not have presumed to change the unchangeable. Instead, they illogically, but fortunately, went on to offer a series of remedies to heal “our disunity as churches,” thus negating their doctrinal supposition while, from the Catholic viewpoint, opening the way to a possible solution of the gravest problem in Christianity.

They recommended “thinking of our divisions with repentance,” “sincerely and not hypocritically,” which implies the “desire for amendment of life.” Repentance should be accompanied by a study of the Scriptures and obedience to the voice of the Spirit bidding the churches drop their differences in a charitable amity. Above all, the churches must pray, asking the God of light to dispel the darkness which keeps the denominations apart and to bring them together in the union which He desires.

Prospects for the Future

The success of the ecumenical movement will depend in large measure on what sentiments become dominant in the member churches. If the rigid Reformation concept prevails, according to which the Church’s unity is invisible and her disunity inevitable, then the ecumenical movement is destined to failure. The churches of the World Council may continue to cooperate in solving their social and economic problems, with tangible benefits to everyone concerned; but real unitive progress is impossible where radical differences in faith and worship are conceded, in principle, to be irremediable.

Typical of this attitude was the judgment of the Christian Century, the most influential Protestant journal in America, commenting on the Evanston Assembly in 1954. “Always at Evanston,” it complained, “there were grim disunities which the World Council may at limited times and to limited degrees transcend, but which it has hardly even begun to dissolve.” In fact, “Evanston will not be remembered for having carried forward the cause of Christian unity. It might possibly (though we hope not) be remembered for having shown how far off and blocked off the goal of unity is.” Then by way of prophecy, “if four more assemblies handle theological or dogmatic themes as badly as this one did…say the nature of biblical authority in 1960, the nature of the church in 1966, and the nature of salvation in 1972, and the creedal basis of the Council’s own being in 1978---and if the world itself hasn’t blown up by that time, the Council almost certainly will.” [32]

A more hopeful and balanced judgment comes from those who take their stand with the actionists in the World Council. Without examining too closely the speculative reasons of why they are divided, or in self-defense trying to rationalize their disunity, the optimists in the ecumenical movement prefer to work and pray “as the Holy Spirit may guide us.” The defeatist attitude was excoriated by the Council’s Secretary General, who knows that on this point rests the whole future of non-Catholic ecumenism. There are many, he said, who feel that the present relationship of the churches in the World Council is the limit of all that can be hoped for. “The danger of this is that the World Council can thus become a narcotic rather than a stimulant. We must react against this temptation of accepting the present established disorder of our ecclesiastical world simply because it has been made to look less shocking as it has been provided with an ecumenical varnish.” The sanguine element in the Council of Churches looks to find “the way that leads beyond mere cooperation to a true unity which will make it clear to the whole world that as there can only be one Body of Christ, so there is only one Body which is the Church of His people.” [33]

Catholic Attitude Toward the Ecumenical Movement

From its earliest years, the shadow of Rome has hung over the Council of Churches. In 1919, when the original founders were canvassing for members, they called on Benedict XV and invited his cooperation, which he courteously declined. In 1937, at the opening service of the Edinburgh Conference on Faith and Order, the Archbishop of York declared, “We deeply lament the absence from this collaboration of the great Church of Rome—the Church which more than any other has known how to speak to the nations so that the nations hear.” [34] And more recently, the chairman of the theological section of the World Council said it is “a tragic fact that the Church of Rome has not found it possible to take part in any of the gatherings which we have been used to call ecumenical in spite of the absence of so large a part of the Christian world.” [35]

Without prejudice to their own position as members of the true Church of Christ, Catholics have been sympathetic with the World Council. Numerous directives of the Holy See lay the principles and guiding norms on how to estimate the ecumenical movement and, as occasion arises, assist in its efforts for Christian unity.

After Benedict XV had been asked, and refused, to cooperate in the formation of the Council of Churches, he promptly issued an explanatory document, declaring, in the third person, that “His Holiness by no means wishes to disapprove of the Congress in question for those who are not in union with the Chair of Peter. On the contrary, he earnestly desires and prays that, if the Congress is practicable, those who take part in it may, by the grace of God, see the light and become reunited to the visible head of the Church, by whom they will be received with open arms.” [36]

Nine years later, Pius XI, published an entire encyclical, Mortalium Animos, on the Catholic attitude toward world ecumenism, which at that time was frankly “panchristian.” The pope forbade all participation in the movement, on the grounds that it denies the Church of Christ already exists in a visible institution; claims that union can be achieved without unity of doctrine; and insists that the Catholic Church is only one of many acceptable communities in Christianity.

Shortly before the Amsterdam Assembly in 1948, the Holy Office issued a brief monitum, forbidding Catholics, either lay or clerical, to actively participate in “ecumenical congresses, without previous consent of the Holy See.” After the Amsterdam conclave, another document was published, this time going into full detail on how Catholics should comport themselves with relation to the unity movement outside the Church. The Instruction Ecclesia Catholica is the most comprehensive (and authoritative) statement on the subject, covering all the important phases of Modern ecumenism.

Desire of Reunion. Addressing itself to the members of the hierarchy, the Holy See first wants to alert them, and through them the faithful, to the new phenomenon that has arisen in the ecclesiastical world. Owing to various causes, external events and the change of mental attitude, but especially to the common prayers of the faithful, “a desire has awakened and is growing daily in the hearts of many who are separated from the Catholic Church, that a reunion be accomplished among all who believe in Christ the Lord.” To those who profess the true faith, this should be not only a source of gratification but “an inducement to lend their assistance to all who are sincerely seeking the truth by entreating light and strength for themselves from God in fervent prayer.” [37] However, assistance need not be limited to prayers. Along with petitions of divine grace, two ways are open to the faithful for promoting the current efforts toward Christian unity; they are to offer non-Catholics every opportunity of learning about the Church, and, with due caution, they may sponsor or collaborate in meeting with Protestant and other leaders toward solving their problems and expediting their acceptance of Catholic Christianity.

Presenting the Catholic Position. In order to safeguard the purity of faith and forestall the dangers of false irenicism, Catholics are to be deeply convinced that any compromise with the fullness of divine revelation is an injury to the cause of Christian unity. They must beware lest, by stressing things in which we agree, a dangerous indifferentism be encouraged, particularly among those who are not well grounded in theology or careless in their religious practice. The whole body of Catholic truth must be presented, without minimizing the more difficult doctrines or obscuring the less agreeable precepts. On the doctrinal level, there must be no ambiguity about the Church’s position on faith and justification or the critical issue of the Roman primacy.

Without speaking of Protestants about the Reformation, writers and publicists should give an objective picture in which “the faults and foibles of Catholics are not over-emphasized while the blame and defects of the Reformers are dissimulated; nor that accidental circumstances be placed in such a light that the main fact, defection from the Catholic faith is allowed to dwindle from sight and mind.” [38] And in the same spirit, “non-Catholics may certainly be told that, in returning to the Church, they will forfeit none of the good that divine grace has done in their souls.” Rather their conversion will bring these gifts to perfection and final consummation. But this must not be done in such a way as to create the impression that by becoming Catholics, instead of the Church helping them, they are giving the Church something which she needs.

Ecumenical Meetings with Non-Catholics. Three kinds of meetings with mixed religious groups are envisioned by the Instruction of the Holy See. At the broadest level are cultural or civic enterprises in which Catholics collaborate with others for the defense and promotion of the natural law and basic Christian principals against the encroachments of a common enemy. By implication, these are fully sanctioned by the Church’s long-standing tradition and even the example of the Roman Pontiffs. At the second and third levels are ecumenical meetings properly so-called, whose avowed purpose is to discuss religious differences in the interest of ultimate unity. Depending on the scope and participants at the meetings, they are either open, intercreedal congresses or closed theological colloquies. In the open meeting, Catholics and non-Catholics join together in a mutual discussion of their respective beliefs; in the colloquy the same thing is done by professional theologians, and normally concerned with a restricted area of doctrinal controversy.

Significantly the Holy Office permits both of the latter type of meetings, while adding the necessary precautions. On the one hand, “they offer a desirable occasion of spreading a knowledge of Catholic doctrine, with which non-Catholics generally are not sufficiently acquainted.” At the same time, “they also conjure up no slight danger of indifferentism to Catholics.” [39] As a fixed rule, therefore, only priests who are well trained in theology may, with the bishop’s permission, participate in the colloquy type of meeting; the laity are allowed to join in the open creedal meeting if they are properly qualified and approved by ecclesiastical authorities. One important stipulation forbids every form of communication in sacred rites at all ecumenical meetings, with the sole exception of opening or closing the assembly in a common recitation of the Our Father or some other prayer approved by the Catholic Church.

Unity Based on Truth

There is a basic tension between the Catholic and non-Catholic concept of Christian unity, on whose solution finally depends whatever success may be looked for in the ecumenical movement. In large part, and with rare exception, Christian bodies separated from Rome conceive the foundation of religious union more or less independent of doctrinal agreement; or at best, they minimize the agreement and make it subjective. They are less concerned to reunite the churches by their common acceptance of Christian revelation than to merge them at any price, even to eliminating doctrines that are an “obstacle” to uniformity.

Needless to say, this attitude is foreign to the Catholic mind. Superficial critics have accused the Church of obstructing the cause of unity by her unwillingness to make any compromise with those outside her fold. At one of their Lambeth conferences, the Anglican hierarchy admitted “there can be no fulfillment of the Divine purpose in any scheme of re-union which does not include the great Latin Church of the West. But we realize any advance in this direction is at present banned by difficulties which we have not ourselves created. Should the Church of Rome at any time desire to discuss conditions of reunion we shall be ready to welcome such discussions.” [40] For the catholic Church only one condition is necessary and only one possible—the acceptance of her teaching and submission to her authority, not because they are hers but because they are divine. Conscious of her possession of revealed truth, she assumes that those who are seeking unity implicitly want, because they need, the unifying principle that only God in His Church can supply.

Chapter XI - References

  1. Matthew 24:14.

  2. St. Athanasius, "Epistola ad Afros," MPG 26, 1032.

  3. Robert S. Bilheimer, What Must the Church Do?, New York, 1947, p. 81.

  4. Walter M. Horton, Toward a Reborn Church, New York, 1949, p. 9. Instruction of the Holy Office, "De Motione Ecumenica," (Dec. '20, 1949), Acta Apostolicae Sedis, vol. XLII, p. 142.

  5. William A. Brown, Toward a United Church, New York, 1946, p. 57.

  6. Ibid., p. 58.

  7. Ibid., p. 208.

  8. The Story of the World Council of Churches, New York, 1954, p. 10.

  9. Ibid., p. 18.

  10. Assembly Work Book, Geneva, 1954, p. 98.

  11. The Story of the World Council, p. 21.

  12. The Third World Conference on Faith and Order, London, 1953, p. 18.

  13. Paul Minear, in Contemporary Thinking about Jesus, New York, 1944, p. 310.

  14. What the Church Has to Offer, Boston, p. 13.

  15. Assembly Work Book, p. 99.

  16. The Story of the World Council, p. 21.

  17. Our Oneness in Christ and Our Disunity as Churches, Adopted by the World Council on Aug. 29, 1954. p. 1.

  18. Ibid., pp. 8-9.

  19. Ibid., p. 3.

  20. Ibid., pp. 3-4.

  21. Ibid., pp. 5-6.

  22. Ibid.

  23. Ibid.

  24. Ibid.

  25. Ibid., p. 8.

  26. Ibid., p. 9.

  27. Ibid., p. 10.

  28. Ibid.

  29. Ibid.

  30. Ibid.

  31. Oliver S Tomkins, The church in the Purpose of God, New York, 1952, p. 17.

  32. Christian Century, Sept. 22, 1954, pp. 1124-1125.

  33. The Third World Conference on Faith and Order, London, 1953, p. 130.

  34. The Second World Conference on Faith and Order, London, 1938, p.20.

  35. The Third World Conference on Faith and Order, London, 1953, p. 106.

  36. Henry S. Leiper, Relations between the Ecumenical Movement and the Vatican in the Twentieth Century, New York, n.d., p.3.

  37. Instruction of the Holy Office, “Ecclesia Catholica” (Dec. 20, 1949), Acts Apostolicae Sedis, vol. XLII, p. 142.

  38. Ibid., p. 143.

  39. Ibid., p. 144.

  40. The Lambeth Conferences, London, 1948, p. 128.

Copyright © 1998 by Inter Mirifica

search tips advanced search

What's New    Site Index

Home | Directory | Eucharist | Divine Training | Testimonials | Visit Chapel | Hardon Archives

Adorers Society | PEA Manual | Essentials of Faith | Dictionary | Thesaurus | Catalog | Newsletters

Real Presence Eucharistic Education and Adoration Association
718 Liberty Lane
Lombard, IL 60148
Phone: 815-254-4420
Contact Us

Copyright © 2000 by
All rights reserved worldwide.
No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval
system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic,
mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior
written permission of