Critics of Ecumenism Blasted by U.S. Bishop

75th General Congregation
November 26, 1963

A Texas Bishop, firing verbally with deadly accuracy, attacked Old World critics of ecumenism.

Bishop Stephen A. Leven, Auxiliary of San Antonio, speaking at the ecumenical council meeting of Nov. 26, turned the criticisms of the opponents of ecumenism back upon themselves as he accused them of not keeping their own fences mended. His words were received with mixed reaction as some of the council Fathers sat in angered silence and others responded with enthusiastic applause.

Bishop Leven said there is need not only for a dialogue with the separated Christians, but also among the bishops of the council themselves.

He stated that some Fathers have taken occasion to preach, while others have taken every opportunity to attack the collegiality of the bishops of the Church. He said it has almost been insinuated that the teachings of Pope John on religious liberty — as set forth in his encyclical Pacem in Terris — “were offensive to pious ears.” Some speeches, he said, seem to be based on the principle that any recognition of the action of the Holy Spirit in non-members of the Church is tantamount to a denial of the Faith.

Not a few Fathers have spoken of separated Christians as if they were children to be talked down to in a catechism class, he continued. And all the while, he added, such speakers have perhaps never encountered one separated Christian in the flesh. Such approaches to the problem have unduly exaggerated the possible danger of ecumenism, he stated.

He declared that the prelates who have been dedicating themselves to the apostolate of ecumenical dialogue are not disobedient to the Holy Father nor to the genuine principles of Catholic theology. They are not the ones whose churches have become empty and who have lost their people to communism, he said.

Discussing his speech after the meeting at the U.S. bishops’ press panel, Bishop Leven admitted that it “was not really doctrinal but polemic.” He said the “they” referred to in his speech were not Fathers from just one country.

He said he made the speech because “all my life I have worked among Protestants.” It is unbearable to hear Protestants talked about as if they were a strange entity, he said.

Because he had asked to speak on a subject already closed for discussion, he had to have five other bishops support his request. Bishop Leven said he was supported by the six bishops who sit in his row in the council hall. Only two of these are Americans, he said. The others come from other nations, including Iron Curtain countries. He said that after the morning’s assembly many bishops from the U.S., Australia, Canada, Latin America and South Africa came to congratulate him.

The work of the day’s meeting was devoted to the second chapter of the schema on ecumenism which is entitled “Relation of the Separated Brethren to the Catholic Church.” But the first six speakers, one of whom was Bishop Leven, exercised their privilege of speaking on the preceding chapter on the principles of Catholic ecumenism, which had already been closed by vote.

Archbishop Gabriel Manek, SVD, of Endeh, speaking in the name of 29 Indonesian bishops, objected to the schema’s refusal to call some non-Catholic communities a “church.” He held that the Christian communities originating in the Reformation have elements which entitled them to be called a “church,” and argued that “if they can be called churches without any damage to faith, then they should be given this title.”

Auxiliary Bishop Rafael Gonzalez Moralejo of Valencia went contrary to what has seemed to be the predominant attitude of the Spanish hierarchy in opposing the ecumenical movement. He said that “the principles of religious freedom should be put at the very beginning of the schema since without them no ecumenical dialogue is conceivable.”

Abbot General Sighardus Kleiner of the Cistercian Order recalled that “the first schema, dealing with the Church, recommended devotion to Our Lady as the safeguard of unity” and warned that “any ecumenism which fails to provide a place for the Mother of God is doomed to failure.”

The Church rests on the foundation stone of Peter, said Bishop Enrico Compagnone, OCD, of Anagni, Italy, and “no discussion of ecumenism should lose sight of this basic truth.”

At this point Bishop Leven spoke. He was followed by Archbishop Jean Zoa of Yaounde, Cameroun, who urged that “at a time when Africa is endeavoring to manifest its unity, we should keep trying to deepen unity in the ranks of Christians.”

Consideration of the schema’s second chapter was opened by Valerian Cardinal Gracias of Bombay, who noted that it emphasizes the importance of cooperation among Christians in “the pursuit of unity in charity.” He complained, however, that the text does not give sufficient importance to interfaith cooperation in the service of the poor. He continued:

“A recent study by qualified experts has demonstrated that approximately 150 million families in the world are living in subhuman conditions without enough food to sustain life properly. When we face up to situations such as this, we should recognize our responsibilities to our brothers all over the world. In order to put the Church on record in this regard, a petition would be in order to the Holy Father that the first item on the agenda for the next session of the council should be Schema 17 on the presence of the Church in the world. This is of the utmost importance everywhere.”

Raul Cardinal Silva Henriquez, SDB, of Santiago, Chile, told the meeting: “A type of ecumenism which would be very practical for Europe might not be at all applicable to Latin America, where so many difficulties have arisen from deficiencies in the pastoral approach of the past. Consequently episcopal conferences should study local problems and provide different norms for each country.”

Ecumenism demands not only speculative knowledge of present day circumstances and of history, said Latin Rite Patriarch Alberto Gori, OFM, of Jerusalem, but also a practical and genuinely realistic experience of the mentality, sensibilities and methods of action of separated Christians.

Archbishop William Conway of Armagh, Ireland, seconded the earlier statement of Augustin Cardinal Bea, SJ, president of the Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity, to the effect that the direction of the ecumenical movement must be under the authority and vigilance of local bishops. He suggested that a statement to that effect be incorporated in the text. He also said:

“The schema enumerates certain obligations of Catholics such as sanctity of life, mutual knowledge of our separated brethren and the ecumenical spirit. To this should be added an obligation in this ecumenical day and age of acquiring a thorough knowledge of the teachings of our Faith.”

Speaking in the name of the Polish bishops at the council, Bishop Michal Klepacz of Lodz suggested that a paragraph be added to insist on a return to the primitive testimonies of the Faith.

Auxiliary Bishop Antonio Cardoso Cunha of Beja, Portugal, joined Archbishop Conway in saying that in interfaith discussion care should be taken to determine the qualifications of those who are to take part. He added:

“Along the lines of the Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity, a central permanent office should be set up as a clearing house for directives on the ecumenical movement. Local centers and societies should be organized to prepare the way for the ecumenical movement and assure its progress.”

Three bishops suggested a modification of the Church’s laws on mixed marriages as an aid to ecumenism.

They were Bishop Jean Gay, CSSp, of Basse-Terre et Pointe-a-Pitre, Guadeloupe; Melkite Rite Bishop Augustin Farah of Tripoli, Lebanon; and Bishop Franz Hengsbach of Essen, Germany.

“We should go slowly in receiving into the Church those who already belong to another Christian group,” said Bishop Gay. “On the occasion of mixed marriages it would be most helpful for the priest to have a sincere talk with the minister of the non-Catholic party.”

Bishop Farah declared: “Real charity would call for a greater leeway in participation in religious services and in modification of the legislation on mixed marriages.”

Along with cooperation with non-Catholics in the social field on a national and international scale, Bishop Hengsbach suggested collaboration in the political field also.

He said such collaboration would produce much good “if various religious groups worked together on the solution of religious problems touching the public interest before competent authority had to decide.” He added that to these should be joined a modification of the legislation on mixed marriages.

A plea for more emphasis on charity in this chapter was made by Bishop Alfonso Sanchez Tinoco of Papantla, Mexico.

Bishop Charles-Marie Himmer of Tournai, Belgium, said that “the necessary renewal of the Church … should be reflected in our churches and our liturgical services, our relations with civic authorities and our whole life, lest we hide the authentic face of the Gospel.”

Msgr. James I. Tucek
NCWC News Rome bureau chief

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