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


Christian Unity

Return to:  Home > Archives Index > Christian Unity Index

Ecumenism and Higher Education: What Future?

by John A. Hardon, S.J.

We may define the ecumenical movement with the Vatican Council as “the initiatives and activities planned and undertaken, according to the various needs of the Church and as opportunities offer, to promote Christian unity.”

The essence of ecumenism, then, is the promotion of Christian unity. And no one with a spark of faith or after a moment’s reflection would desire anything but an end to this scandal of Christian division. What is less obvious is the exact meaning of disunity, and the corresponding effort to change a divided Christianity.

Our best guide is the document of the Vatican Council, which must be studied with care and, under scrutiny, will reveal the basic principles of the ecumenical movement.

Heading the list of these principles is the fact that two kinds of division among Christians are implied in the word “disunity.” The first and most serious is separation from unity with the Roman Catholic Church, which the Council describes by the use of such terms as “separated brethren” (fratres a nobis sejuncti) and “outside the visible boundaries of the Catholic Church” (extra visibilia Ecclesiae catholicae saepta). The crucial words sejuncti and extra saepta mean “being disjointed” and “outside the enclosure.” They state that our fellow Christians, who are not professed members of the Catholic Church, are somehow separated from that communion with the Body of Christ which the late Pius XII identified as the Roman Catholic Church.

Vatican Council's Explanation

Another division in Christendom is the variety of churches and denominations that are professedly Catholic, and whose differences range across the gamut of doctrine, ritual and moral precept. It was this kind of disunity that first gave rise to the ecumenical movement in the last century and that even now is the main preoccupation of the leaders in the World Council of Churches.

The Vatican Council is at pains to balance both types of division. In spite of separation from Catholicism and among themselves, those who are baptized and profess belief in the Trinity and the divinity of Jesus Christ are united in a way that we have not sufficiently considered before. I was pleased to see the early mistake in the translation of the phrase in quadam communione changed from “real communion” to simply “communion with the Catholic Church.” But the word quadam is vital. The correct rendering is “Men who believe in Christ and have been truly baptized are in some kind of communion with the Catholic Church even though this communion is imperfect.” By implication, such persons are also united with one another by the mystical bonds of grace which flow through all who are incorporated into Christ by baptism and belief in His sacred name.

A second principle logically follows from the first. If disunity is undesirable, it can only be because of its effects, which the Council spells out in plain terms.

Our separated brethren, whether considered as individuals or as communities and churches, are not blessed with that unity which Jesus Christ wished to bestow on all those who through Him were born again into one body, and with Him quickened the newness of life—that unity which the Holy Scriptures and the ancient Tradition of the Church proclaim.

For it is only through Christ’s Catholic Church, which is “the all-embracing means of salvation,” that they can benefit fully from the means of salvation. We believe that Our Lord entrusted all the blessings of the New Covenant to the apostolic college alone, of which Peter is the head, in order to establish the one Body of Christ on earth to which all should be full incorporated who belong in any way to the People of God.

This position is not arrogance. It is a statement of fact which several times has been solemnly defined by the magisterium, that whoever is saved is saved by and through the one Mystical Body which Christ established on earth and of which the Roman Pontiff is the visible head. In the degree that a person vitally professes the faith which has its fullness in Catholicism, he is more or less internally united with Christ and more or less in contact with His saving instruments of salvation.

Lastly, the third principle. At its center the ecumenical movement is a coordinated effort to bridge the gap which still separates other churches than the Catholic from access to the plenitude of divine goodness that God became man to confer on the human race.

It is at this delicate point that a clear distinction must be made. Ecumenism as such is not a convert movement. Its driving power is not the terminal effect of bringing as many people as possible into the Catholic fold. On a broader base, it seeks to reduce disunity among Christians by having them grow in possession of a common faith, common worship, and a common acceptance of moral laws which, ex hypothesi, are fully present in the creed, cult and code of the Roman Catholic Church. But every growth in the profession of this faith, use of these sacraments, and obedience to these norms of conduct is unitive in the deepest and most ontological sense of the term.

Here we touch upon the secrets of Divine Providence. Why such disunity almost from the dawn of Christianity? Why does God permit such divergence and, by Catholic standards, deviation from the pleroma found in the one visible society which calls itself Catholic because it is the universal sacrament instituted by the Savior to redeem fallen mankind?

We do not know the reasons why, except to suggest that in this way those who possess more are sanctified by faithfully using what they have and sharing it with others, and those who possess less by also faithfully using and sharing what they have—besides receiving from others what they need.

Viewed in this way, ecumenism has a definite purpose: to increase in the Christian world the stock of faith, worship and conduct, established by Jesus Christ, on the assumption that all Christians have some degree of these spiritual gifts but they can also grow in their possession and fidelity to what they possess.

Less obvious and more difficult for some to admit is that individuals outside Catholicism may possess certain gifts of grace which professed Catholics do not have, and in their own way be more responsive to what they profess than are nominal members of the Catholic Church. I am reminded of Augustine’s famous remark that he would prefer a good catechumen to a bad Christian, and that the Spirit of God was more active in the faithful centurion than in the faithless Judas who betrayed Christ.

Yet the objective norms remain. By the will of Christ who founded the Church, those who fully profess the Catholic faith, worship, and obedience have access to the fullness of God’s blessings. If their state of soul corresponds to what their lips proclaim, they are incorporated most completely in Jesus Christ and enjoy the plenitude of membership in His Church.

Approximations of this standard are all but infinite: depending first on how much of Christian revelation is known, and which Catholicism concedes is in some measure available outside of its visible organization; but mainly depending on how generously a person responds to what God has revealed to him of divine truth and cooperates with the graces he receives.

Holiness in the Catholic Church

A paradox has plagued the Church since the beginning of her existence. She has been endowed with all divinely revealed truth and all the means of grace, yet her members fail to live by them with all the fervor they should. This creates the spectacle of a society that claims to be the una sancta, while often failing to give the world that image of Christ’s sanctity which He expects of His chosen flock. It scandalizes those who are not Catholic and alienates professed members of the Church.

Disunity has been the fruit of disloyalty. If we want Christian unity, we must pay the price of ecumenism worthy of the name. In the words of the Council, there must be a change of heart.

For it is from renewal of the inner life of our minds, from self-denial and an unstinted love that desires of unity take their rise and develop in a mature way. We should, therefore, pray to the Holy Spirit for the grace to be genuinely self-denying, humble, gentle in the service of others, and to have an attitude of brotherly generosity towards them. St. Paul says: “I, therefor, a prisoner for the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and meekness, with patience, forbearing one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:1-3).

A new term has been coined, “spiritual ecumenism,” which the Council calls the soul of the ecumenical movement, and which consists in holiness of life achieved through reformation of conduct and assiduous prayer.

It is not a platitude that we have no more effective way of reuniting a dismembered Christian world than by professing our faith in deeds. One of the main causes of the Reformation was the conduct of the clergy, religious, and the laity who professed to be Catholic but belied that profession by their lives. To reverse history, the opposite must be done. Catholic people, beginning with their priests, must show forth to the world the good fruits of the faith they believe in and prove what no argument alone can confirm, that the Sermon on the Mount is being lived out as Christ would have it, by those who are in communion with Rome.

No amount of exposition can take the place of this visual proof of God’s presence. If example is lacking, the most convincing logic fails and looks suspiciously hollow. “If the Gospel you preach,” says the Protestant, “is so effective in making people good and holy, why has it been wasted on you?” It is a modern application of Christ’s words to His followers, “You are the light of the world. Even so let your light shine before men, in order that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:14-16).

Mutual Cooperation

Cooperation among Christians is less familiar in a pluralistic society than most of us are willing to admit. The clergy and laity on both sides form an enclave that seldom ventures beyond the fold, and, in spite of all the publicity to the contrary, most priests are not on easy speaking terms with their Protestant confreres in the ministry.

Yet unless Catholics and Protestants get together, and come to understand one another, it is fatuous to expect the laity to rise above the dead level of a studied formality. Cooperation under these circumstances will be sporadic, ineffectual and worse—it may hide deep prejudices because the relationship is superficial and never gets beneath the surface of external or purely social amenities. Some time ago I had dinner with the pastor of the First Congregational Church in Kalamazoo. He told me it was the first time in forty years of his ministry that he had a meal with a Catholic priest or engaged in any sort of conversation with one.

The result of this exclusivism has been to stifle anything like collaboration on a spiritual basis between Catholics and Christians of other churches. I put the blame for racism in America at the door of Christian leaders who for more than a hundred years have raised only weak voices against mass injustice to the Negroes and until the last hour could not agree on a common platform to denounce this crime against humanity.

The breakdown of family life in America is the worst in the nation’s history and, some would say, of all times. Some large cities have a divorce rate of one for every two marriages annually, and the end is not yet in sight. Nothing can hide the fact that our country is socially sick and the malady is spiritual anemia which religious leaders have done little to cure or even alleviate. It is true, we have occasional sermons on the evils of divorce, and private consultation with young couples in trouble, but nothing like a joint effort to study and try to eradicate one of the blackest stains on the dignity of American life.

Our crime rate is fantastic, and a growing number of criminals are young people in their teens. Most often they are products of broken homes and victims of a family tragedy. Crime is a moral issue, and the custodians of morality are the clergy. Not unlike the responsibility for the race problem, I cannot forbear blaming Catholic and Protestant ministry and laity for doing so little cooperatively to stem the tide of America’s flood of youthful crime, which is juvenile only in the age of those who steal and kill and violate women’s chastity.

One area of ecumenical cooperation deserves strong emphasis: the beaching of moral and spiritual values in public education.

Aroused by the growing secularism of public education, Protestant churches in America have awakened to the crisis. They declare themselves unequivocally in favor of integrating religion with the regular curriculum and warn against any shibboleths about mixing Church and State. “We believe that religion has a rightful place in the public school program,” officially declares the Methodist Church, “and that it is possible for public school teachers, without violating the traditional American principle of separation of Church and State, to teach moral principles and spiritual values. Such teaching would afford a background for further and more specific instruction on the part of home and church. The home and Church must carry the chief responsibility for nurturing vital faith which motivates life, but the home and church must have the support of our public schools.”

And most recently the National Council of Churches has completed its own five-year analysis of religious values in public education to publish a second report to the forty million Protestant and Orthodox membership of the Council. It concluded that “the public schools should recognize the function of religion in American life, and maintain a climate friendly to religion, doing its share to assure every individual the right to choose his own beliefs.”

These are not passing sentiments but the grave judgement of most of our fellow citizens. They need our help in this competition for the soul of America. Currently two forces are struggling for mastery of the public school system: high-minded religionists in every denomination who are deeply concerned for the spiritual welfare of the country, and straddling or confused secularists who place selfish and doctrinaire interests before what they call “ethical theism,” which derives from the acceptance of a personal God.

Communicating the Faith

The Vatican Council clearly states that ecumenism is not the same as conversion. “When individuals wish for full Catholic communion, their preparation and reconciliation is an undertaking which of its nature is distinct from ecumenical action.” However, and this should be underlined, “there is no opposition between the two, since both proceed from the marvelous ways of God.”

Indeed, the Council tells Catholics, in their ecumenical work, to be concerned for the spiritual welfare of their separated brethren, by praying for them and keeping them informed about the Church—“making the first approaches toward them.”

No matter how we understand the ecumenical movement, we cannot lose sight of the fact that one of the duties of a Christian is to give witness of his faith, not only by the example of a holy life but by the teaching of the Gospel and its communication to those who either do not have it or know it only partially.

Prudence and kindness are the watchwords in communicating the faith to other Christians. The principle set down at the beginning still stands: ecumenism is not technically conversion, if by conversion we mean only entrance into the Catholic Church. But ecumenism emphatically implies conversion, if conversion means the change of mind and heart that I can effect in my own religious convictions. From his side this does not exclude a similar contribution to me, but from mine I cannot refuse to communicate my knowledge and love of Christ (nurtured in the Catholic faith) without betraying a primary law of charity, which is to share with others the good things that God has undeservedly given to me.

Priests must teach the people that clergy have no monopoly on the apostolate. One of the most incisive statements on the duty to share the faith was Pius XII’s complaint about isolationists who are unaware that to be a Catholic means to have a sense of mission:

How many young people and adults, who call themselves Catholics, are satisfied to fulfill their immediate duties and meet the obligations strictly necessary for their own salvation? They betray how imperfect is their concept of the nature and demands of the Catholic religion. This religion is essentially apostolic (essenzialmente apostolica). It would gain all souls for Christ, the humble and the mighty, the rich and poor, young and old. It would make the Lord known and loved always and above all. Whoever does not have this burning desire, this constant impulse to communicate the rich treasures of the faith to others, is not living up to what the Church expects of her devoted children. (Discorsi e Radiomessaggi, 17, 454).

From an ecumenical viewpoint this desire to communicate covers the spectrum of what I, as a Catholic, possess of divine revelation and what I understand my separated brother in Christ does not have. It is not a question of “selling him” Catholicism. It means sharing with him what I believe to be a great treasure; and no greater disservice can be done the ecumenical movement than to stifle this divine instinct or fear to communicate to others the love of Christ that burns in my own heart.

Role of the Seminaries and Colleges

The greatest hope of the ecumenical movement lies in the colleges and seminaries. If the adaptations recommended by the Council are carried into effect, the next generation of priests and lay leaders will be grounded in the spirit of ecumenism, which for us is the spirit of Christ.

The whole curriculum of higher education, and not only in theology, should gradually be adapted to meet the new needs. In the words of the Council, “We must get to know the outlook of our separated brethren. To achieve this purpose, study is of necessity required, and this must be pursued with a sense of realism and good will.

I like the expression, “with a sense of realism and good will,” to describe how the study of other religions should be done. The realism means that I do not ignore or underestimate the differences that divide Catholicism from other religious systems. Such realism will protect me from falling prey to the naive irenicism that Pope Paul excoriated when he charged some priests and theologians with criticizing the Church for its “ghetto mentality,” as though Catholic unity were something imposed by external tyranny and not a divine gift of interior piety. At the same time, “the good will” preserves me from looking for defects in those who are not Catholic, instead of finding what we have in common and on which they can build an edifice of spirituality.

A good example of this “new approach” is the sacrament of Orders. Ingrained in Reformation Protestantism was the notion of a universal priesthood of all believers. But much has happened since Luther’s Appeal to the German Nobility, when he branded as an “awful lie” Catholic belief in the real distinction between the clerical and lay states.

For some time, now, two different trends are seen among Protestant theologians in reacting against the status quo. Some are indignant that after four hundred years the Churches still show the practical recognition of a secondary status of the laity in comparison with the ministry, the breeding of passivity in the laity as a whole, and stressing the importance of “office” and “ordination” among the clergy. This reaction is most prominent in the Free Church and Congregational traditions where creedalism is least important and the local churches have ultimate authority.

Another and more dominant reaction has been to recognize the facts of history, admit that persistence of a clerical order answers to an inner religious need, and seek to restore the meaning of the ministry to something of its status before the Reformation.

This trend is visible in practice by the amazing proportion of transfers from non-episcopal Churches (Baptists, Disciples of Christ, Congregationalists) to Protestant Churches which maintain a historic episcopate (Methodists and Episcopalians).

In the light of these and similar re-appraisals of the centuries-old theology of the Reformation on the universal priesthood of the laity, it would be a pity if the university and college courses in history and theology did not reflect corresponding changes in curricular structure, content, and stress in manner of treatment. The Council of Trent cannot be too well known and there is no question of minimizing the value of its decree on justification or definition on the sacraments. But they are not enough. Today’s people ought to be familiar with the broad sweep of four centuries of Church history — Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox — since the Council of Trent. They have the right to know how Catholicism has affected the main streams of Protestantism since that fateful October 31, 1517; and how they, in turn, have influenced the Catholic Church.

I believe also that Catholics in higher education, whether lay or clerical, should have personal contact with their Protestant counterparts. In Protestant institutions many voices are calling for faster adjustment of the curriculum to meet the realities of the ecumenical spirit. This is becoming almost a matter of survival. Graduates assume roles in a society where large numbers of Protestants, at least forty percent, change denominations when they change residence. Informal relations with Catholics in the course of their training would extend the horizons on both sides. Future priests and Catholic alumni would be more understanding of the difficulties faced by ministers and Protestant lay leadership, and more appreciative of their work. Protestants would learn what motivates Catholic living. My own experience in sponsoring inter-faith groups has been uniformly good. In fact, unless some such rapport is cultivated long before ordination or graduation, the chances of any serious ecumenical effort afterwards are notoriously slim.

The Shield
Vol. 45 - #4, April-May 1967, ppp. E,F,M,O

Copyright © 2003 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