The newly approved decree on ecumenism gives a clear and authoritative decision on the future posture of the Church toward non-Catholic Christians.
The decree, which received the overwhelming approval of the Second Vatican Council in detailed voting completed here, tries to correct four major misunderstandings about the grace-filled movement toward Christian unity.
First, there is not a “Catholic ecumenism” pushing behind, alongside of, or ahead of Orthodox, Anglican and Protestant types. We are witnessing today one Christian movement, and each church is asked to contribute, according to its conscience, whatever can bring about, among all Christians, that full invisible and visible unity that Christ has willed for His Church.
The cause of Christian unity is not best served as it had been in the past: by the traditional refusal of serious contact with other Christian communities. The lack of such contact is no longer an obvious anomaly or a salutary punishment but an added obstacle insofar as it perpetuates and strengthens mutual ignorance and apathy.
Our common concern is not eventually to erect a ghetto of united Christians, set apart from the rest of men. Rather, our concern is to eliminate the scandal of a Christian family which appears to the non-Christian not as a united body of men and women proclaiming the Good News of Christ which can save the world from itself, but a chorus of voices hotly arguing about what the Gospel of Christ really is. We wish to be one in order that through our united witness in word and act the world may believe.
Secondly, ecumenism concerns a movement, not the static stance of Church to Church. Since the Catholic Church is involved in this dynamic movement, the conciliar decree does not attempt to define ecumenism, but only provisionally to describe the ecumenical situation in the mid-1960s.
Thirdly, the Catholic contribution to Christian unity is not confined to specialists or “professional dialogists.” Ecumenical work is the faithful service of the whole Church — layman, Sister, Brother, seminarian, priest, bishop, and pope — in the face of a divided Christian world. The decree tries to discover what God expects of all Catholics while 400,000,000 brothers in Christ remain, in varying degrees, united with us, yet separated from us; how we can better determine and respect what makes non-Catholic Christians our brothers and how we can help heal the tragic wounds that make them separated.
Fourthly, the Catholic involvement in the ecumenical movement presupposes “the continuing reform” of the Church — yes, the decree is not afraid to use the term.
This Church renewal is now being expressed in various movements: a deepening appreciation of the Church as the people of God sent by Christ to serve both Him and His world; the liturgical and Biblical revivals; a worldwide missionary apostolate which embraces every layman; social action; the catechetical and homiletic movement; the formation of seminarians and Sisters.
True, the council is trying to formulate in clear terms and thus to develop these reforming movements. But the council is not the Church and the council’s immediate aim is not to reform the Church but to enable the Church to reform itself. Even the best of conciliar decisions do not automatically grip the members of the Church as living truths to be put into practice immediately. The Church is not composed of IBM machines.
As with ecumenism, so with the other renewals: we all are asked to shorten the inevitable time lag while the council’s decisions filter through the Church — in diocesan chanceries, seminaries, sermons, catechisms, and Catholic homes. Thus, the future ecumenical life of a diocese cannot be judged solely by the number of specific Catholic-Protestant-Orthodox joint projects which are organized by an official ecumenical committee.
With these points in mind, it may become clear why it is so difficult to play the role of a prophet in predicting the exact course of the ecumenical movement or the role of a bureaucrat in detailing rigid programs of action. The movement for Christian unity is only in its initial stage. It would be unfortunate to bind the Church too rigorously today to programs that soon may be dated.
Future postures and actions by Catholics will depend also on the developments in attitudes and activities by other Christians.
For example, the council has determined to allow, at times urge, some forms of worship in common between Catholics and other Christians. But what kind of service and what degree of participation will depend largely on how deeply correct, nonsuperficial ecumenical and liturgical attitudes have caught on among both Catholic and non-Catholic Christians.
Accordingly, the decree states only brief principles for prohibiting and recommending common worship services, in order to give elasticity and freedom for prudent experimentation on local and national levels.
The future ecumenical life of the Church will see a gradual change of what is presently predominating in our attitudes toward other Christians. We will take more seriously the words of Pope Paul VI in his first encyclical: “Let us stress what we have in common rather than what divides us.” Teachers and scholars will be more alert to understand the doctrine and history, the spiritual and cultural life, and the thinking patterns of non-Catholic Christians. This will be greatly aided not only by a confrontation in print, but also by person-to-person dialogue.
We will be more on the lookout to seize opportunities for a common Christian witness in realistic action against nuclear warfare, the plight of the homeless, illiteracy, unequal distribution of wealth, and the effects of rapidly expanding populations in some areas of the world.
If one is allowed to predict what is most needed in the future, I would not hesitate to write: a feet-on-the-ground realism about the theological and pastoral difficulties which will continue to plague divided Christians and a deeply spiritual hope that if we Christians serve God’s will while we are divided, our service will result in that unity God wishes through the means and ways He wishes and gives, and when He wishes to give it.
Father Thomas F. Stranskey, C.S.P.
Father Stransky is a staff member of the Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity and has long been active in ecumenical work.