Protestant Scholar Says Council Observers Pleased

November 20, 1962

Bishops are shown at a Vatican II session inside St. Peter’s Basilica. The council produced 16 landmark documents that transformed the church. (CNS file photo)

Non-Catholic observers at the Second Vatican Council are pleased at the concern shown by the council Fathers for the Catholic Church’s relations with other churches, according to a leading Protestant scholar.

“I am not betraying any secrets when I tell you how glad we are to note how a concern for ecumenism pervades these discussions,” said Prof. Oscar Cullmann of the Universities of Paris and Basel (Switzerland).

“Yet even here,” the noted Scriptural and patristic scholar told newsmen, “we must be on our guard against illusions. We certainly hope with all our hearts that this renewal [of the Catholic Church] will be realized. For we are convinced that if it is, it will make so much easier the dialogue between Catholic and non-Catholic that will go on after the council.

“But we must not forget that these changes will take place inside the Catholic framework and be based on Catholic principles,” the Lutheran theologian continued. “Nor can we object to this to our Catholic brethren, because it would not be good ecumenism to ask them to become Protestants or Orthodox.

“Still we must face up to reality. Even if the projects for reforms are passed, important differences will persist between us and Catholicism, even the Catholicism reshaped by the council. However, those who hope for renewal know this, and that is why the dialogue must go on, and go on under conditions much more favorable, with this renewed Catholicism.”

Cullmann stated that Protestants tend to look on the Catholic Faith as having “too much,” and that Catholics tend to look on Protestantism as having “too little.” Cullmann stressed that he was speaking only as a private person and not as a representative of the council observers.

“I believe,” he stated, “that the dialogue will move forward when our Catholic brethren cease to look negatively on this ‘not quite enough’ in what they find in us, that is, when they don’t see it as something missing … but as a concentration made under the prompting of the Holy Spirit upon what we feel ought to form the single nucleus of our faith in Christ.”

Cullmann stressed that “the great problem of the union of our churches” arises not from any particular dogma “but from the fact that the Roman concept of unity itself has a different basis from ours.”

He noted that Protestants, therefore, are deeply interested in the coming item on the council’s agenda concerning the unity of the Church.

Listed by Cullmann among the “council’s ecumenical achievements already capable of assessment” were the following: establishment of the Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity, “miracle” of the presence of non-Catholics at the council, the mutual trust between non-Catholic observers at the council and Catholic authorities, and also the observers’ “interior participation” in the council discussions.

“From the outside we look like passive observers,” Cullmann noted, ‘‘but inside ourselves we live these debates along with our Catholic brothers. Inside ourselves we take sides for or against during the sessions, with an attention no less than their own. It is this that has brought us especially close together in these last weeks.”

He stated that the meetings between the council Fathers and observers, sponsored by the Christian unity secretariat, have enabled the observers “actually to participate outwardly in the council.”

He added that the observers have been struck “by the freedom with which the council Fathers state their opinions.”

Reports that observers have not been satisfied with the unity secretariat “are simply not true,’’ Cullmann asserted.

He also said that the council “must recognize the importance” of the World Council of Churches, and expressed the opinion that “great frankness on both sides” is the “first condition for success in our dialogue.”

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