Protestant Observer at Council Reports on Impressions So Far

Professor Cullmann

Following is the text of the remarks made on Nov. 24 to members of the press accredited to the Second Vatican Council by Prof. Oscar Cullmann of Paris and Basel, an observer at the council.

1. Observers and Publicity

Recently Cardinal Bea told you that the observers gave the impression of being “very pleased.” I think I should confirm at the outset that impression as exact, in all the tact, trust and readiness with which we are at all times received and treated at the Secretariat for Unity, by Cardinal Bea himself, by Msgr. Willebrands and by all their staff.

They have indeed done everything possible to enable us to follow the council’s sessions, to make our views known, to enter in contact with the Fathers of the council and other personalities of Rome. They also give us the privilege of visiting in our free hours, under the most ideal conditions, historic places in Rome and its neighborhood — the excavations under St. Peter’s, the Vatican Library, Subiaco, Grottaferrata. We are deeply grateful to the Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity, whose activities daily reveal to us how truly its existence answers the cause of drawing us closer together.

If some newspapers have spoken recently of discontent among the observers, it is just not true — as it has been suggested erroneously — that it is because we are dissatisfied with the Secretariat; rather it would be with the oversimplifications in which some papers have reported our impressions. And this is the more pointed in that we ourselves believe that just because we are observers, we must exercise the discipline of a certain reserve.

It seems hard for some to understand this reserve. More than once I have felt that we were being blamed for being even too discreet, even to the point of keeping silence on issues that had already found their way out by other channels easily enough. Still, in effect, we have an even stronger obligation to keep silence than the others who are members of the council. Observers of course are in the position of guests. What would be our reaction in private life, if an invited guest should go off and reveal any of our family secrets that he had happened to stumble upon?

Still our situation is not quite that of a simple guest, for we have been invited expressly as observers. That means that those who have offered us hospitality have, as it were, encouraged us to observe even their secrets.

That does not mean that we ought to reveal those secrets before the council ceases to consider them as such, i.e., before it has finished its work, but we may even now speak of our impressions and in this respect you, being journalists, have not merely the right to know them, but you can perform a very useful task in the interests of ecumenism.

Only let me, by your leave, express a desire that is certainly shared by other observers. I certainly am not telling you your business, but we would he grateful if you did not reduce everything we say to oversimplifications, and if you recognized how complex things can be. Oversimplification is always dangerous; it is especially so in dealing with the Church and theology. If one of us should hesitate over certain things, we would be grateful if you did not say that a “tension” or even a conflict had appeared.

When we say we are happy, we would be grateful not to he quoted as “enthusiastic.” For being happy and retaining our faculty of judging is more valuable for the cause of rapprochement than enthusiasm. We would be grateful too, for any influence you can exert to see that your papers do not use sensational headlines when there is nothing sensational about.

It is also important to put the stress in the right place in what we say, and not to give an aside a significance that it does not have for us, nor to omit what is for us essential, with the sole motive of supplying readers only with what they want to hear. I know all too well that in questions of theology the average reader has a limited capacity for comprehension. But one should try to increase this, and in this respect many of you have been remarkably successful in what you have said about the council.

After these preliminaries, I will speak very frankly about my impressions in general, because like all the observers and invited guests, I am of the opinion that the first condition for success in our dialogues is a great frankness on both sides. From the ecumenical point of view it is a quite mistaken policy to keep silent about what really separates us. I must say that in all the dialogues I have had over a long time with our Catholic brethren the interests of unity have been always served by far the best by mutual frankness, provided we did not lose sight of our goal of unity.

2. Diversity and Unity Among the Observers

I want to stress that, though I am here trying as far as possible to give the impressions of all the observers, I am speaking entirely in my own name. Yet for that matter, none of the observers could speak in the name of all, because we are so different.

I am quite certain that I can say that all, without exception, are unanimous in gratitude for the reception we have been given at the council. But on the other hand, there are obviously great differences among us. Just as the churches we represent differ greatly among themselves, it is natural that there will not be the same reaction in all of us to the things we see and hear; this is true in both the liturgical and the theological spheres. As you will have seen from the photographs of the opening ceremony of the council, even from without we do not represent a group at all homogeneous.

However, the churches represented by the observers, different as they are, still find a unity, despite and indeed in, this diversity, through the organization of the World Council of Churches at Geneva. This great reality, rich with promise, is a fact of which the Vatican council must recognize the importance.

The World Council of Churches has, from the ecumenical point of view, made plain the path. The presence of observers at this council has in large measure been facilitated by a unity in diversity already existent among the churches separated from Rome, and those dialogues with our Catholic brethren, that will be enriched and developed by this council, were inaugurated long since at Geneva.

But the observers are not united just by the negative fact of being separated from Rome. More important is the positive element of our common faith in Christ, and this common faith provides also the guarantee of those positive results which together with our Catholic brethren, we expect from our presence here. If some observers feel themselves nearer to the Roman Church than others, that is no negative fact. It shows that there is not an impenetrable wall between the observers on the one hand and our Catholic brethren on the other.

Yet all this must not make us conclude that union with the Catholic Church can happen in the same way that the churches grouped in the World Council of Churches at Geneva have found unity. On the contrary, we must take into account the fact that the great problem of the union of our churches with the Roman Church does not arise from this or that particular dogma, nor from the factual difference in liturgy, but from the fact that the Roman concept of unity itself has a different basis from ours. That is why we await with particular interest the council’s discussions on the Church and on unity.

One last word on the part played by the observers. I have spoken of our relations among ourselves in the task we have to perform here. But there is another aspect to consider. We have to represent our respective churches. With some exceptions that you know of, all the non-Roman churches are represented here.

We are a very tiny group compared with the vast number of Christians we represent. Great then is our responsibility. It would be too great a responsibility if we were to be identified purely and simply with those churches and theologies in whose name we are trying to observe what we hear in the council.

For their part our churches understand this. Yet we have great hopes that the dialogue with our Catholic brethren which is bound to begin after the council, and under conditions more favorable than before, will be shared by many of our Protestant and Orthodox brethren who are not here.

3. Possibilities and Limitations Seen in Ecumenism in the Light of Our Impressions Thus Far

The “thus far” is important, since the council is not over, and the all-important discussions on the Church and on unity have not yet begun. We wait patiently for the end of the council.

However, I am willing to say, even now, a provisional word, and if I begin by saying we must be on our guard against illusions, that must not be construed in any way as pessimism about the outcome of the council; but I do not want anyone to expect from the council more than it sets out to realize.

I need not point out to you gentlemen of the press, and to your regular readers, that this council, though it has indeed an ecumenical interest as a long-term policy, is not for all that a union council such as history has known between Roman Catholicism and Orthodox. But laymen who follow the council’s affairs only from a distance are still drawing quite mistaken conclusions from our presence at the council.

I still get letters from Catholics and Protestants which say: “I hope that you (observers) will be able to agree with the Catholics over the union of the churches.”

I think it would be a good thing that every so often you pointed out this mistake to your readers, so as to prevent too great a feeling of disillusion when, after the council, it will be noticed that our churches continue to be separate.

I think this the more necessary just because the atmosphere of trust, even of friendliness, that reigns between the observers and the members of the council, could encourage this misunderstanding, especially when too many superlatives are used about our “enthusiasm.”

But one great hope is a legitimate one, and that is that of the renewal of the Catholic Church which this council at least proposes to effect, even if the issue is of course not yet decided. Some projects have already been discussed in the last few weeks. I am not betraying any secrets when I tell you how glad we are to note how a concern for ecumenism pervades these discussions.

Yet even here we must be attentive against illusions. We certainly hope with all our hearts that this renewal 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; 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, there will remain important differences between us and Catholicism, even the Catholicism reshaped by this council. However, those who hope for the renewal know this, and that is why the dialogue must go on, and go on under conditions much more favorable, with this renewed Catholicism.

In my opinion, the real problem between Catholics and non-Catholics is this: In the fruitful conversations that we have held here with our brethren, I have been constantly made more aware how, despite the multiplicity and diversity of features shown by Catholicism (a much greater diversity than in our Protestant Christianity), it can assert complete agreement with most of the positive truths based on the Bible that we believe and preach. Such agreement certainly gladdens in its own right.

Yet we must not disguise the great difficulty that underlies this accord. What separates us, in addition to the conception of unity already alluded to, is not any positive element in our faith, but precisely that extra in Catholicism (seen, that is, from our point of view; that too much), and that not quite enough in us (seen from the Catholic angle; that too little).

I believe that dialogue will move forward when our Catholic brethren cease to look negatively on this “not quite enough” in that they find in us, that is, when they do not see it as something missing, as a result of arbitrary reduction, 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.

That is why we hail with gladness every proposal at the council, in either the liturgical or theological field that aims at such a concentration, and we are saddened at any corresponding widening in the opposite sense.

But I think I should direct a word toward our Protestant churches. We are just now present as observers at a Catholic council. And so rightly we look out for signs of the reforms we want to see take place inside Catholicism.

But when we go back home, and speak to our co-religionists of the changes we are expecting from the council, we must be on our guard against arousing in them a kind of Pharisaism, as if our own churches did not themselves constantly need renewal at the hands of the Holy Spirit in the light of the Bible. And to keep within the framework of the problem just now before us, we must also ask ourselves whether what has been happening in our churches in respect of the Bible is less a concentration on it, than a reduction from it, and whether there are not some Bible elements that our churches have not wrongly lost sight of. There is no time here to allude to such points.

4. Ecumenical Achievements at the Council Already Capable of Assessment

Here I can be brief. And several of us have already said the essential things.

a) First of all I put the very existence of the Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity as one achievement. If it continues to work in this sincere ecumenical spirit full of respect for other churches, such as characterizes now all its actions and attitudes, one may justly consider its existence as of extreme importance for the future of ecumenism.

b) Our presence here. I subscribe entirely to what Cardinal Bea has already told you on this head: It is a miracle. Each morning as I watch us take our places — and they are places of honor, facing the cardinals — then the secretary of the council, when Mass is over, pronounces the “Exeant Omnes,” and we can remain in our places, I am amazed more and more at how we really form part of the council, and in making Cardinal Bea’s word “miracle” my own, I give a special thought to what past councils meant to Christians who were not Catholics! I do not know if all laymen fully appreciate what our presence means in that light.

c) Just now I said that we must be careful and not draw false conclusions from the atmosphere of trust that exists between Catholics and observers in the council. But having said this, I want to underline the importance of this mutual trust, which in regard to us is translated into terms of being allowed to share all secrets, and to trace the very varied currents of thought in Catholicism. We must only hope that this trust will be passed on to the laity of the churches on both sides.

d) I think too that another important ecumenical achievement already realized in the council is our interior participation in its discussions. From the outside we look like passive observers; 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, and it is this that has brought us specially close together in these last weeks.

Nothing remains except to confirm briefly all that I have said before about the way the observers pass their days at the council.

5. Our Preparation for Observing the Work of the Council

For one thing we prepare ourselves in communion with the greater part of our churches by prayer, realizing as we do that we are also thus in communion with our Catholic brethren. As observers we meet twice a week in the morning for a short service in one of the Methodist chapels of Rome.

Otherwise, we each prepare privately, studying the schemata (for us too, this word has taken on a special meaning, quite new, from the council), which have been entrusted to us. We make our notes on them, we compare them with the Bible, and check them against the texts of the Fathers of the Church, and with the decisions of former councils. Our reactions to the schemata so far shown us are obviously very varied; some we like, others we do not; some really cheer us, others disappoint.

6. Sharing in the Sessions

The Secretariat has most kindly put at our disposal a team of interpreters who are utterly selfless in their unwearied task of translating and summing up for us the Latin speeches of the Fathers of the council, in French, German, English and Russian. There is quite a difference between reading Latin (which most of us can do without difficulty) and hearing it spoken, especially when pronunciations vary. The ear needs to accustom itself.

And so, we form language groups in the tribune reserved for us. I have the pleasure of sitting near a Benedictine Father who serves as interpreter; some years ago he was my pupil at the Sorbonne. Today the roles are somewhat reversed: he has become my master as regards spoken Latin. But I think I can say that our interpreters can see some progress in their pupils so far, and less need to turn to them than at first. We still find it difficult to understand, only when we have to listen to some council Fathers whose pronunciation betrays excessively their vernacular.

The newspapers have said more than once, and rightly, that we observers have been struck by the freedom with which the council Fathers state their opinions. I remark at this point how important it is from an ecumenical point of view that, while on the one hand we react objectively, as observers must, to what is said, on the other hand we take sides inside just like any other member of the assembly. Without this taking sides one way or the other, we would miss the meaning for the faith of the questions in debate.

7. Discussions with the Secretariat for Promoting Unity

Every Tuesday afternoon the Secretariat organizes discussions between ourselves and its members who include a number of famous Catholic bishops and theologians. On such occasions we find ourselves face to face with other council members, perhaps those who have prepared the schemata, perhaps those who have a special competence in certain topics.

In preparing for these discussions, Msgr. Willebrands takes full account of our suggestions and wishes. We have the most complete freedom to express our ideas and our criticisms. In this way we can actually participate outwardly in the council. These discussions begin and end with prayer together and, for the most part, are most fruitful; however, often we obviously come up against the difficulties underlined above. Even when there is a profound accord on some particular theological issue, we sense that other issues are still dividing us, especially in those areas where the Catholic faith has fundamentally something “extra” over ours.

But the fact that it is possible to hold so open and so brotherly a discussion, and at the fringe of the council at that, must be considered a very positive element, and deserves special mention by any future historian of the Second Vatican Council.

8. Other Contacts on the Edge of the Council

I mention first, the break for coffee during sessions. The historian of the council must also include reference to the ecumenical import of the coffee bar installed for all members of the council. It serves not only to refresh us, but also to contact in a way otherwise impossible bishops from all over the world.

I have elsewhere mentioned the excursions that the Secretariat has organized for us. Finally, reference should be made to the numerous visits we receive from Catholic theologians, and the invitations of private people kindly given to enable us to dine with bishops and even cardinals. From my own experience of having for quite a while cultivated such personal contacts, even at a merely human level, I realize their importance for ecumenical dialogue.

If in this context I may speak personally, I do not forget my relations with the Benedictine Convent of St. Anselm on the Aventine, and particularly with the Bible Institute, where I first had the joy of meeting the then rector, now Cardinal Bea, and where I have many friends among those to whom I feel united as colleagues in the study of the Bible. And so I pass to my final point:

9. Our Hope

I have said that the council has already borne fruits helpful to our coming together, however distant the day of union may be. Our hope is that this coming together will happen in the sense I indicated when referring to the problem posed to us by the nature of our differences.

This means that we hope that the council’s decisions, of which as yet we know nothing, will be inspired by the Bible.

I do not say this just because I am an exegete, and so am particularly interested in the Bible, but it is a fact that dialogue began among exegetes. Today it has spread to all theologians. Our hope is that it will not merely not be interrupted by this council, but intensified and made more easy.

We wait in confidence. Whatever the issue, the dialogue will go on, and if it is continued by both sides in the same spirit that has so far animated it, that fact in itself becomes an element of unity capable of bearing still more fruit.

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