Ecumenical debate and Vatican II

Ecumenical debate and Vatican II

The Second Vatican Council produced sixteen extensive documents aimed at the comprehensive renewal of the Catholic Church worldwide.  One of these documents focused on ecumenism, the relationship among various Christian bodies and churches; it has the title Unitatis Redintegratio.

When the bishops began discussing ecumenism at the Council, the first chapter of the draft document had the title “The Principles of Catholic Ecumenism.”  That title could give the wrong impression that there is more than one ecumenical movement (e.g. one for Catholics, one for Protestants, one for the Orthodox, etc.).

To avoid the idea that the Catholic Church was setting up its own form of ecumenism (alongside that already growing among Protestants), the title was changed to “The Catholic Principles of Ecumenism.”  This new title better reflects the fact that there is only one movement toward Christian unity, in which the Catholic Church now participates.

Little progress was achieved during the first session of Vatican II (1962).  By the start of the second session (1963), a completely new draft on ecumenism was ready.  It consisted of five chapters: (1) Principles of Catholic Ecumenism; (2) Practical Aspects of Ecumenism; (3) Christian Communities Separated from the Catholic Church; (4) Non-Christians, especially Jews; and, (5) Religious Liberty.  There was much debate and clarification during the second and third sessions (1963-1964), before the final document was approved on November 21, 1964.

Restoring Communion.  The seeking of unity among all Christians was a central concern of Saint Pope John XXIII and of the Second Vatican Council; this is well expressed in the Latin title of the document on Ecumenism [Unitatis Redintegratio = restoration of unity] (UR).  In addition, this key concern is fostered through concrete guidelines that help Catholics work for Christian unity.

Unitatis Redintegratio takes its point of departure from the already existing ecumenical movement underway in various Christian communities (UR 1).  It encourages Catholics to join this movement, offering some general principles (chapter one), some practical suggestions (chapter two), and additional reflections on those Christian communities separated from the Catholic Church (chapter three).

Chapter One begins with Christ’s prayer that all believers may be one as he and the Father are one (Jn 17:21).  It envisions the Holy Spirit holding together all the faithful in union with Christ.  Indeed, the source and model of unity is the unity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  UR follows a clear method: it encourages openness and dialogue with others, while at the same time, clearly expressing the Catholic Church’s own self-understanding, her teaching and theology, always seeking clarity and balance as an effective path to Christian unity. 

Avoiding Judgments and Accusations.  The Vatican II document on Ecumenism admits the reality of a divided Christianity (UR 2).  Then it makes a remarkable admission regarding the source of this division.  It bluntly states: “people on both sides were to blame” (UR 3).  In short, both Catholics and Protestants have caused the historical divisions that have fractured Christianity.  Also, no one living today should be blamed for these past divisions.

Following the language of Lumen Gentium, the Council’s document on the Church (LG 8, 15), Unitatis Redintegratio drops the language of “church membership” with its distracting question of who is and who is not “in” the Church.  Instead, UR speaks about degrees of unity and communion among Catholics and other Christians.

The decree goes on to affirm the value and legitimacy of other Christian churches and ecclesial communities.  However, in all of this, UR does not abandon the Catholic belief that the Catholic Church contains “the fullness of the means of salvation” (UR 3).  This vision captures the goal of ecumenism: it is restoration, not return.  It is not the obligation of some Christians to return to the Catholic Church.  Indeed, all Christians must pray for and work for the restoration of Christian unity.