Council Takes Historic Steps Toward Pursuing Christian Unity

94th General Congregation
October 5, 1964

By overwhelming majorities the ecumenical council has initially approved the principles that lay the foundation for a more definite and fervent drive for Christian unity among the world’s Catholics.

The council Fathers, in approving the first four changes in the proposed decree on ecumenism, have affirmed that the restoration of unity among all Christians is one of the principal objects of the Second Vatican Council.

They also affirmed that the Church as Christ desired it has unity and uniqueness as one of its main characteristics, that separated Christians in their Churches and communities have many and precious Christian elements in not a few of which there can be a life of grace leading to salvation, and that the council exhorts Catholics to recognize the signs of our times and engage actively in the ecumenical movement.

Although the votes were only the first four of a total of 14 which will be taken on the three chapters of the ecumenism schema, they indicated a forward step toward the beginning of the drive to end the divisions among Christians.

At the 94th council meeting, 15 speakers also commented on chapters three through six of the schema on Revelation. The chief point at issue was the treatment of the historicity of the Gospels or what use is to be made of modern scientific research in interpreting the Gospels.

Among those favoring the use of modern research were Albert Cardinal Meyer of Chicago and Auxiliary Bishop Charles G. Maloney of Louisville, Ky. But bishops from Ireland and Italy expressed fear that the treatment of some modern scholars weakens the authority of the Sacred Books and is harmful to the faithful.

Among other events of the day was the announcement of the death of Father Jean Janssens, S.J., general of the Jesuit Fathers, who died shortly after a morning visit from Pope Paul VI.

The day’s opening Mass was celebrated by Archbishop Peter McKeefry of Wellington, New Zealand. The Gospel was enthroned by Father Joseph Malenfant, O.F.M.Cap., apostolic prefect of Benares-Gorakhpu, India.

Before the Fathers voted on the amendments of chapter one of the ecumenism schema, Archbishop Joseph Martin of Rouen read a report on the chapter, outlining the thinking of the commissions which had drafted it.

Aside from Cardinal Meyer, Augustin Cardinal Bea, S.J., was the only other Cardinal to speak. The president of the Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity called for more stress on the Old Testament and criticized the text for its vagueness and obscurity.

Voting on the ecumenism schema changes was as follows:

By a majority of 2,094 yes to 16 no, the Fathers accepted an amendment to add an introductory paragraph to the original text of the schema which was first discussed during the second council session last year.

The introduction stated that the restoration of Christian unity is one of the principal objects of the Second Vatican Council and extols the need of that unity among Christians. It noted that many men have been disturbed by the divisions among Christians and that a movement has arisen among them to restore the lost unity.

This movement is the ecumenical movement, the introduction stated, and it embraces all who call upon the Triune God and follow Christ as their Lord.

Archbishop Martin, in his report on the changes in the schema, stated that the original title of the first chapter had been changed. Originally it had been called “On the Principles of Catholic Ecumenism.” Now it is called “On Catholic Principles of Ecumenism.” The change acknowledges that there is only one ecumenical movement and not a special movement limited to Catholics.

The second amendment, approved by a vote of 2,081 to 30, proclaimed the unity and uniqueness of the Church founded by Christ and said that the mystery of the Church founded by Christ is the one fold of God, like a sign among nations bringing the Gospel of peace to the whole human race.

The third amendment, approved by a vote of 2,051 to 57, treated of the relationship of the Christian churches and communities separated from the Catholic Church. Noting that divisions have occurred over the centuries, not without fault on both sides, it stated that people belonging in good faith to these bodies cannot be blamed for the sin of separation and that those who believe in Christ and are baptized are in some way united with the Catholic Church, though not perfectly.

It also stated that in these bodies many precious elements of Christianity such as the word of God, grace, faith, hope and charity exist and that not a few of the sacred actions which are performed by them can generate the life of grace and that this is capable of leading to a communion of salvation.

The fourth change, approved by a vote of 2,056 to 50, said that under the guidance of the Holy Spirit efforts are being made through prayer, words and deeds to approach the unity desired by Christ. It was stated that the council exhorts Catholics to recognize the signs of the times and engage actively in the ecumenical movement.

The amendment encouraged individual ecumenical efforts through prayer and the dialogue of experts of the various churches. It also said that there is no opposition between ecumenical activity and the apostolate of conversion since both works are inspired by the Holy Spirit.

Archbishop Martin’s explanation was given prior to the voting. He said the views expressed by the Fathers when the text was first presented at last year’s sessions, as well as more than 500 written observations, were taken into account in reworking the schema.

He noted that there is greater attention paid to the Holy Spirit’s role in ecumenism, and that ecumenism is not a static formula but a movement aroused by the Holy Spirit, which can take turns no one can foresee.

Archbishop Martin stated that the new text does not overlook difficulties and does not presume to solve them all. But the council can give impetus to the movement since the hour of unity is now approaching, he stated.

Cardinal Meyer was the first of the day’s 15 speakers. He said he found the text’s summary of the principles of interpretation excellent and that they show respect for Holy Writ. However, he said, he does not accept the fact that inspiration should be treated only in terms of freedom from error or Biblical infallibility.

He said the interpretation should be examined in the light of the word of God and that words go beyond their immediate meaning. As effects or offshoots of words, the Cardinal listed three — conveying ideas, revealing the nature of the speaker or writer, and producing a reaction among others.

The word of God admirably fulfills these three functions, he said. If we approach our appreciation of Scripture along these lines, then we will be able to understand Revelation correctly as something much more than a series of disjointed propositions setting forth the truth. We will express not only the negative element of freedom from error, but will put strong emphasis on Scripture in a genuinely positive light. Finally, he said, this approach will provide a better context for a clearer understanding of the idea of inerrancy itself.

Cardinal Bea said he feels the text does not sufficiently stress the value of the Old Testament.

Cardinal Bea also said the text was vague and obscure in some places, particularly in alluding to citations from the Bible without actually printing them. He called for a change in one section of the text which urges Catholics and especially Religious to read the Bible. He said he objected to this since it would leave the impression that Religious do not read the Bible.

Bishop Jean Weber of Strasbourg, France, called for emphasis on the richness, unity and fullness to be found in Scripture. The Bible is not just a book dropped from heaven, he said, and in spite of its diversity, the books of the Bible have an affinity, since all bring Revelation within the reach of man.

The problem of the Bible’s freedom from error also concerned Bishop Francis Simons of Indore, India. He said the text makes freedom from error a consequence of Revelation. But what is important is what God wants to say, not what the writer wanted to say. God used the errors of the man who writes Scripture and gradually reveals Himself. There is nothing to show that God wished to free the sacred writers from the errors of their time, he stated.

Italian Bishop Primo Gasbarri, apostolic administrator of the Grosseto diocese, called for a reconfirmation of the historical character of the Gospels and objected to chapter five, which deals with the New Testament. He also cited three documents of the Holy See dealing with Biblical criticism, warning against various dangers arising from historical criticism and the use of form or literary criticism. He said the chapter now is ambiguous and dangerous and must be altered so that scholars do not hurt the consciences of Catholics or weaken the authority of the Sacred Scriptures.

Bishop Jaime Flores Martin of Barbastro, Spain, altered the usual opening salutation of “venerable brothers” by saying “venerable Church of God.” He asked for a clear declaration that the writers of the Bible are genuinely the authors of the Bible and that they are instruments of God.

Bishop Maloney said it is the duty of the council, as it proposes old things and new, to leave doors open as it pursues the goal of the inner unity of the Church. In the field of Scripture, literary forms were known in the early Church, as can be demonstrated from the writings of St. Augustine and St. John Chrysostom, he said. The Church now can make use of new discoveries to corroborate the things it has been teaching and to obtain more explicit knowledge of other elements.

The historical method can make genuine contribution to a right knowledge of Scripture if this method is correctly understood and applied, he said. Citing the recent instruction of the Pontifical Biblical Commission, he stated that instead of saying that the sacred writers used “all their faculties and powers,” it would be more exact to say they used “their human faculties and powers.”

A comprehension of chapter three seems to restrict the sense of Sacred Scripture to what the human sacred writer understood, the bishop declared. It would be wrong to conclude that the understanding of the text on the part of the Church is always restricted to the degree of understanding of the human author, he stated.

Archbishop Casimiro Morcillo Gonzalez of Madrid said the text lacks emphasis on the law as found in the Old Testament and that Christ came to fulfill that law. He said he wanted it stressed that the law and the Ten Commandments were elements of the Old Testament. He also objected that Revelation is treated as a progressive experience and fails to say anything of the demands Revelation makes on man.

An Eastern rite prelate took a completely different tack, finding fault with the text’s basic treatment because it deals with the matter from the viewpoint of the Latin rite of the West.

Melkite-rite Archbishop Neophytos Edelby, consultor of the Patriarchate of Antioch, although approving the provisions for including the findings of modern research in interpretation, said the text was too timid and weak on presenting theological interpretation. The Western Church, he said, has a tendency to the juridical approach, splitting things such as the primacy and episcopate, Scripture and tradition.

This results in a loss of unity, he said; we must come back to the mystery of the Church and realize we cannot separate tradition and Scripture from living the life of the Church. Without tradition, Scripture is a dead letter, he stated. Revelation was lived in the mystery of the Church before it was written and what is needed is a total vision of the action of the Holy Spirit, he declared.

Auxiliary Bishop Eduard Shick of Fulda, Germany, speaking in the name of the German and Scandinavian bishops, expressed pleasure that the text calls for Bible reading by the faithful, since this will end the old accusation that the Church does not favor such reading.

Archbishop Rafael Garcia y Garcia De Castro of Granada, Spain, called for an amendment of several articles for the sake of clarity.

Irish Bishop William Philbin of Down and Connor wanted more emphasis given to the traditional means of Biblical interpretation and not have everything centered on modern means. He complained that there is no synthesis between the two means and also called for greater stress on the ordinary teaching authority of the Church in interpreting the Bible. Lastly, he pointed out that the text says the words and deeds of Jesus in the Bible are true, but what about those of others?

Auxiliary Bishop Joseph Heuschen of Liege, Belgium, said the text protects the historical character of the Gospel and also is satisfactory to the demands of modern Biblical interpretation. By using modern research we can achieve a clearer knowledge of the written Gospels, he said.

Archbishop Joseph Cordeiro of Karachi, Pakistan, said the text should agree with the teaching contained in an instruction issued this year by the Pontifical Biblical Commission. At the same time, he said that the epistles of the New Testament are slighted by the text since it refers to them only as “other apostolic writings.” He asked this be changed to give honor to them and particularly to the Church’s greatest theologian, St. Paul.

The day’s last speaker was Bishop Manuel del Rosario of Malolos, Philippines. He said a distinction between apostolic tradition and traditionalism, a source of errors, should be made. This must be clear, he said, otherwise we may be accused of using tradition as a means of explaining away skeletons in the closets of the Church.

James C. O’Neill
NCWC News Rome correspondent

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