Some of the greatest challenges facing the Christian and non-Christian world today are met squarely in the schema on ecumenism which more than 2,000 Catholic bishops are discussing in the Second Vatican Council.
The document has a significance in terms of the past, present and future, both inside and outside the Catholic Church. No other matter has come before the council which touches immediately so many millions of people. It embraces the Church’s most ancient teachings on the rights of man, respect and recognition of truth wherever it is to be found, and on the all-encompassing love which Christ has for His Church.
With this in mind it is well to take a close look at this remarkable document which has stirred not only the hearts and minds of Catholics but also has found great interest and even admiration far beyond visible boundaries of the Roman Catholic Church.
As it stands now, the document is composed of five sections: Chapter I, Principles of Catholic Ecumenism; Chapter II, The Practice of Ecumenism; Chapter III, On Christians Separated from the Catholic Church; Chapter IV, The Relations of Catholics to Non-Catholics, and Especially to the Jews; and Chapter V, On Religious Liberty.
Of these, the first three chapters have been accepted by the Fathers as a basis for discussion on the council floor. Acceptability of the last two chapters for debate is to be voted on, it is hoped, sometime before the second session ends on Dec. 4.
Ecumenism is defined in the schema as “a movement and well-ordered activity to encourage that unity among Christians which Jesus Christ sought from His heavenly Father with fervent prayer.”
A summation of the concept of ecumenism as made by one of the experts attached to the Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity — the agency which drew up most of the document, with the cooperation of other bodies — may serve to give the general thinking of those who had a hand in drafting the proposed decree. According to this expert, the goal of ecumenism is a union of dialogue in which Catholics and other Christians present their positions, views and beliefs as clearly and sincerely as possible and with as much Christian charity as possible. The hope and trust is that out of this exchange, God, through the Holy Spirit, will bring about something more — that Christ’s promises for the unity of His Church are fulfilled.
The schema opens with Biblical citations supporting the unity of the Church. It relates that unity to the concept of the unity existing among the three Persons of the Trinity. The schema calls “the unity of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” the “supreme model and principle” of the sacred mystery of the unity of the Church.
The schema’s first chapter states that Christ “is the chief cornerstone” of the Church that He founded and that Christ chose Peter “to preside over the college of his brethren, to confirm them in faith and to feed the entire flock in perfect unity.” Through its development, the Church of Christ will manifest its gift of unity through confession of the same Faith, common celebration of divine worship, and brotherly concord in governing. Thus it makes its “pilgrim journey hopefully toward its eternal homeland.”
In the 1,900-year development of the one and only Church of God, schisms have arisen, dissensions have developed and communities have broken away. The schema states that baptized Christians, though “they do not enjoy perfect communion with the Church,” nevertheless enjoy some kind of communion and “are rightly honored with the name of Christian, and the Church recognizes them as her children.”
The schema acknowledges the existence outside the “visible pale” of the Church, some of the elements of the Church such as “the life of grace and other interior gifts of the Holy Spirit, faith, hope and charity, and also some visible elements by which also the Church’s unity is manifested.”
The schema takes note that the Spirit of Christ does not refuse to use the separated churches or communities as means to salvation, since their efficacy is derived from that fullness of grace and truth that has been entrusted to Christ’s Church. But at the same time, it is affirmed that “separated brethren, both individuals and their communities and churches, do not enjoy that unity which Jesus Christ wishes to lavish upon all those whom He regenerated and vivified into one body and in newness of life.”
What, then, are the consequences of this view of the one and only Church of Christ?
First, says the schema, is the fact that Catholics must live their Faith fully and make it evident to others. In other words, Catholics must show good example since the “Catholic Church possesses all the truth revealed by Christ and all instruments of grace.” By doing so, they “will daily possess more fully and manifest a genuine catholicity, and the door to this Catholic home of the Church will be more widely open to all.”
Secondly, Catholics should “recognize with joy and respect” the authentic goods of Christ and the gifts of the Holy Ghost which are found among the separated brethren. “Whatever is truly Christian is never opposed to the genuine goods of Faith.” Rather, they can result in the fact that “the very Mystery of Christ and of His Church can be the more perfectly realized.”
Noting that separation of Christians retards the growth of the Kingdom of God, impedes development of the fullness of catholicity in the separated children of the Church and gives rise to scandal outside Christianity’s borders, the schema praises prayers being raised inside and outside the Catholic Church to remove obstacles to the “unity of Christians” and encouraging “more and more mutual esteem and understanding.”
As a result, the schema urges “all Catholics to refrain from any words, judgments and actions, which in equity and truth do not correspond with the present state of the separated brethren.” It also asks that Catholic and non-Catholic Christians “seek carefully to discover how they can mutually know each other better, appreciate and help one another by prayer and cooperation.”
The first chapter closes in rejoicing that ecumenism is increasing in the Catholic Church and recommends to the bishops of the Church that “it be diligently promoted and prudently directed by them.”
The second chapter of the schema elaborates the duty of Catholics to live their lives in an exemplary manner.
It is the “office and duty” of Catholics, it says, to have “that concern for restoration of union which to some extent manifests the fraternal bond already existing among all Christians.”
The schema calls first of all for “spiritual renewal of the faithful.”
An inner conversion accompanied by prayer to the Holy Spirit for the “grace of sincere self-denial, humility and meekness in the service of others and a fraternal attitude toward them” can help the future of ecumenism.
It notes that such movements as the liturgical and Biblical movements, spiritualizing of marriage and the Church’s teaching and activity in the social fields are good omens for “future successes of Catholic ecumenism.” It is from self-denial and an outpouring of charity, it says, that desires for unity spring and grow. Therefore, the schema urges, Catholics should show in their lives holiness, which “gives open testimony to the fullness of the inheritance which they claim to enjoy in the Church.”
Prayer meetings for unity are “1icit and even advantageous” for Catholic and non-Catholic Christians under certain special circumstances, it says.
Such prayer for unity is “very efficacious” and a “genuine indication of the bonds by which Catholics are still joined with the separated brethren,” the schema says.
But it adds that such bonds are still “only partial and imperfect” and that it is “not licit to celebrate the sacred mysteries of the Eucharist in common.”
Beyond common prayer, the second chapter recommends that Catholics, to better understand the separated brethren, “acquire a better knowledge of the doctrine and history, devotional and ascetical life, religious psychology and culture” of non-Catholics.
It was particularly recommended that such an approach to ecumenical problems be fostered in seminaries since priests and missionaries are involved most directly in the field. At the same time, the schema warns against “false irenicism [conciliatory approach to Christian unity], whereby the purity of Catholic doctrine suffers harm, or its genuine and certain sense is obscured. …
“The manner and method of stating our Faith must in no way be an obstacle to dialogue with the brethren. … We must expound our Faith profoundly, correctly and clearly; likewise all care must be used to speak in such a way and with such language as to be correctly understood by all.”
Finally, Chapter II notes that Christians are already cooperating on social and emergency areas such as fighting hunger, aiding disasters, combating illiteracy, remedying housing shortages, and rebalancing poor distribution of goods. “This cooperation can lead Christians to know one another better, thus opening the way to Christian unity.”
Chapter III then examines relations between the Catholic Church and the Orthodox and Protestants. It is the longest single chapter in the schema.
The chapter gives “special and due consideration” to Eastern Christian Churches which are not in communion with the Holy See, noting that not a few of them trace “their origin from the Apostles themselves.”
The schema points out that the Western Church has inherited much of the treasure of the Eastern Church in liturgical matters, in spiritual traditions, and in the juridical order.
Moreover, the Church of the West accepts the dogmas defined by the ecumenical councils which were held in the East.
“For the restoration of full canonical and spiritual communion between the Eastern Churches and the Catholic Church,” it is important that the Christian tradition of the East be faithfully safeguarded and that “this extraordinary spiritual and liturgical patrimony be known, revered, preserved and encouraged.”
The schema reaffirms the right of Eastern Churches to certain diversity of customs and practices. It also affirms a “1egitimate diversity” in regard to “different theological statements of doctrine.”
The document says that while maintaining the oneness and integrity of truth, it is recognized that certain points of a revealed mystery can be seen from one aspect or another more clearly and that these “various theological formulas are to be regarded as completing one another rather than differing from one another.”
To achieve reunion, the schema says, it is necessary to understand the relationship that existed between Eastern Churches and Rome before the separation and adds that “today with all our heart and soul and with the help of God’s grace we intend to remove that wall so that there may be but one dwelling place whose cornerstone is Christ Jesus, who will make both one.”
Turning to the subject of Protestantism, the schema says that these Christian communities “are bound to us by such dear and sacred bonds.”
Among these are the confession of Jesus Christ and the bond of Baptism. The schema says that “these true brothers of ours can live by the charity of Christ and they can be elevated by supernatural gifts.”
Praising Protestant reverence for Scripture, the schema lays heavy stress in this section on Baptism, “the sacramental bond existing between all those who have received the sacrament of regeneration.” It says that besides Baptism, there is needed a complete profession of Faith, complete incorporation in the plan of salvation and complete insertion in the Eucharistic communion.
The schema also says it does not mean to overlook those who do not admit the “reality of this sacrament” but who nevertheless profess devotion to Christ and who have a spiritual life nourished by Scripture and practice charity toward their fellowmen.
In closing this chapter, the schema cautions against imprudent zeal but acknowledges the value of efforts for a “dialogue among Christians.” It recognizes the fact that “no progress” is to be made without the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.
Chapter IV is a one-page statement on relations between Catholics and non-Christians, especially Jews. It says that principles of Catholic ecumenism are to be applied also to all who worship God or at least try in conscience and good will to observe the moral law.
Speaking of the Jews, the schema says that the Church, while being a new creation in Christ, “cannot forget that it is a continuation of that people with whom God in His ineffable mercy once deigned to enter into the Old Testament.”
The schema says it is unjust to call the Jews an accursed people since the “Lord by His Passion and Death has atoned for the sins of all men. … The Death of Christ was not caused by a whole people then living and much less by a people of today.” Priests are warned against saying anything that might bring on hatred or contempt for the Jews. The Church must not forget its “common heritage with the synagogue.”
Lastly it says that mutual understanding and good will are to be fostered and that hatred and persecutions against Jews as well as all injustices to men are to be condemned.
Many council Fathers have said that this chapter does not belong specifically in a schema on ecumenism. Some opposed any treatment of the subject by the council; but many others favored treatment of the subject, but either in a separate schema or in another schema such as the 17th, which will deal with the Church in the modern world.
The last chapter is a statement on religious liberty. Father John Courtney Murray, SJ, who teaches theology at Woodstock College, Md., and is a council expert, told a press conference in Rome that this chapter is best understood in the light of the introduction given it on the council floor (Nov. 19) by Bishop Emile De Smedt of Bruges, Belgium, a member of the Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity.
It is widely understood that Father Murray had a hand in drawing up the document and that the American bishops put great support behind the introduction of this statement at that time.
In fact, one American bishop said privately: “Without the American bishops’ support, this document would not have reached the floor.”
In his introduction, Bishop De Smedt gave four reasons why religious liberty must be among the matters touched on by the council:
1. The Church must teach and defend the right to religious liberty since it is a question of truth.
2. The Church cannot remain silent today when almost half of mankind is deprived of religious liberty by atheistic materialism of various kinds.
3. In all nations today, men who have different religions or lack of all religious belief must live together in one and the same human society.
4. The Church must not leave herself open to the charge that she fosters religious liberty only in those situations where she is the majority religion.
The Bishop defined religious liberty positively and negatively — “Positively, religious liberty is the right of the human person to free exercise of religion according to the dictates of his conscience. Negatively, it is immunity from all external force in his personal relations with God, which the conscience of man vindicates to itself.”
The first problem examined by the schema is the question:
“How must Catholics because of their Faith conduct themselves toward men who do not belong to the Catholic Faith?”
The answer proposed is that Catholics must strive by prayer, penance, witness and evangelizing in the Holy Spirit to bring our non-Catholic brothers to the blessing of the evangelical light and of the life of the Church but they must abstain from all direct and indirect coercion. They may not infringe upon the religious liberty of the individual person.
The schema holds, according to Bishop De Smedt, that the reason non-Catholics cannot be forced to admit a Catholic conscience against their consciences is that the act of Faith “is a supernatural gift which the Holy Spirit must freely give to whom and when He wills and, on man’s part, it is and must be an assent which man freely gives to God. Thus, all Catholics are bound to love and to help their non-Catholic brothers with a sincere and active charity.”
Bishop De Smedt said that, in the second part of the chapter, “it is proposed that the sacred synod (the council) solemnly demand religious liberty for the whole human family, for all religious groups, for each human person, whether his conscience be sincere and true or sincere and false concerning Faith, provided only that he sincerely follow the dictates of conscience. Therefore, a general principle is laid down: no human person can be the object of coercion or intolerance.”
“’The man who sincerely obeys his own conscience,” he said, “intends to obey God Himself, although at times confusedly and unknowingly, and is to be considered worthy of esteem.”
In the third part, Bishop De Smedt said, “the schema takes still another step forward and enters on a most difficult question.”
This step is to state that “the right and duty to manifest externally the dictates of conscience is not unlimited but can be and at times must be tempered and regulated for the common good.”
Father Murray has objected that the criterion of the common good “is much too vague a criterion.”
He said it could be reduced to a “reason of state” which could be used to justify various kinds of limiting action and therefore he argues that the concept should not be left on the abstract level but should rather be reduced to the narrower concept of the “exigencies of public order.”
The rest of the document reviews the development of the “process of evolution both in the doctrine on the dignity of the human person and in the Church’s pastoral solicitude for man’s freedom.”
James C. O’Neill
NCWC News Rome correspondent