“What happened to ecumenism?” (Part I)

As I write about the Church as the ‘sacrament of intimate communion with God and the union of the whole human race’, the bonds of unity in the Catholic Church, and the inseparability of the ‘institutional Church’ and the mystical Body of Christ, the question arises, “What ever happened to ecumenism? What about those Christians who are not Catholic?”

A little history is in order here. In 1928, when the ecumenical movement (the movement for the unity of Christians) was still quite young, Pope Pius XI wrote an encyclical letter “Mortalium Animos” in which he strongly insisted that the unity prayed for and willed by Christ already existed in the Catholic Church and that there could be no true unity where there were fundamental disagreements – such as existed and do exist – on matters of doctrine. In that light he rejected the ecumenical movement for seeking a common basis of union among Christians apart from and transcending the unity that already existed in the Catholic Church, as though all Christian groups were equally right and equally wrong in matters of belief and practice. As a result he also forbad Catholics from participating in non-Catholic ‘assemblies’, warning of the dangers of ‘indifferentism’ and ‘relativism’.

Then in the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) the Church appeared to do an about face and embrace the ecumenical movement. “Dialogue” became the new watchword and Catholics began praying and doing bible-studies with other Christians as well as collaborating with them in a myriad of charitable works.

What happened? After so many centuries did the Church suddenly discover that she had been wrong? That those outside had an equal claim to be Christians? That she had been mistaken about many matters essential to the faith and practice of Christians? Or that doctrine was no longer so important?

That seems to be the understanding of many, both inside the Church and out. Indeed, the dangers of ‘indifferentism’ and ‘relativism’ about which Pope Pius XI warned have very much spread throughout the life of the Church.

In reality the Church adopted a more complex view of her relations with other Christians and Christian groups. Complexity is never very popular. Whereas Pope Pius XI took a very objective view of the matter, the Second Vatican Council, while maintaining the objective view, integrated many subjective factors, leading to a very different practical outlook.

When I wrote about the bonds of unity (faith, sacraments, and government) I quoted from the Second Vatican Council’s Decree on Ecumenism (Unitatis Redintegratio UR). Perhaps the key passage in the document follows immediately upon the discussion of the actual unity of the Church:

“In the beginnings of this one and only Church of God there arose certain rifts, which the Apostle strongly condemned. But in subsequent centuries much more serious dissensions made their appearance and quite large communities came to be separated from full communion with the Catholic Church – for which, often enough, men of both sides were to blame. The children who are born into these Communities and who grow up believing in Christ cannot be accused of the sin involved in the separation, and the Catholic Church embraces upon them as brothers, with respect and affection. For men who believe in Christ and have been truly baptized are in communion with the Catholic Church even though this communion is imperfect.” (UR3 – Emphasis added)

This short passage contains first of all the key objective distinction between ‘full communion’ – which can only be had in the Catholic Church – and ‘imperfect communion’. Those who have been validly baptized are to be regarded as true Christians. That distinction makes possible two important subjective distinctions.

First, even though the communities to which other Christians belong are separated from the Church they “cannot be accused of the sin of separation.” The actual separation took place so far in the past that those alive today have inherited, rather than chosen that separation. Incidentally, this would not apply to new separations.

Second, while truth of faith and morals might objectively belong to the Catholic Church, in the history of the actual separations the bad conduct of Catholics, even of the highest rank, might have contributed to the tragic events of separation.

That leads to a radically different approach to the ‘separated brethren’.  Pope Pius XI in writing about the ecumenical movement writes purely from his lofty stance as the Sovereign Pontiff and successor of Peter, keenly aware of the prerogatives he has received from Christ. That leaves other Christians with little choice other than to accept or reject; there is no room for ‘dialogue’. Likewise, for Catholics, they were left only with the possibility of obeying the Pope and avoiding interaction with other Christians, lest they be contaminated by their errors.

By distinguishing between full and imperfect communion and by recognizing the importance of certain subjective factors, the Second Vatican Council opened the door to a true dialogue. From the Catholic point of view that dialogue is premised not on a recognition of the equal rightness and wrongness of all Christians, but on the recognition that even if the Catholic Church has received the fullness of the means of salvation willed by Christ, we cannot expect non-Catholics simply to recognize the evident truth of the matter, especially since we as Catholics have not always behaved very well.  (To be continued)







Fr. Joseph Levine graduated from Thomas Aquinas College and after a long journey was ordained to the priesthood for the Diocese of Baker, Oregon. He currently serves as pastor of St. Peter Catholic Church in The Dalles on the Columbia River.

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