A Bumpy Catholic Ride into Ecumenism

Posted on Posted in Theology

Now that we’re well into Italy and the far-off goal of Rome is not quite so far-off anymore, it’s a good time to reflect a bit on the Second Vatican Council (1962–1965). Pope John XXIII convened it under the rubric of aggiornamento, Italian for “bringing up to date.” It was only the second ecumenical council of the Catholic Church since the Council of Trent (1545–1563), itself a response to the reforming movements of Luther and others. And one of the most significant things Vatican II did was bring the Catholic Church into the ecumenical movement.

This was really a big deal, because just a few decades before the Catholic Church regarded ecumenism with the utmost hostility. The 1928 encyclical Mortalium Animos issued by Pope Pius XI—not coincidentally just a year after the founding of the Faith and Order movement—made it very clear that Catholics could not be a part of such ecumenical ventures:

“[I]t is clear why this Apostolic See has never allowed its subjects to take part in the assemblies of non-Catholics: for the union of Christians can only be promoted by promoting the return to the one true Church of Christ of those who are separated from it, for in the past they have unhappily left it.” (§10)

In other words, the unity of the church could be easily achieved but only in one way—by universal conversion to the Catholic Church. Until then, people who called themselves “Christians” but were not Catholics were only deceiving themselves:

“For since the mystical body of Christ, in the same manner as His physical body, is one, compacted and fitly joined together, it were foolish and out of place to say that the mystical body is made up of members which are disunited and scattered abroad: whosoever therefore is not united with the body is no member of it, neither is he in communion with Christ its head.” (§10)

As harsh as this may sound, Mortalium Animos is well worth the read, because it has serious concerns that should be taken seriously. The central concern is that a movement oriented toward peace or reconciliation could not afford to dispense with questions of truth. Real unity cannot and will not ultimately be achieved by mere tolerance or good will. At stake is the question of who God really is and what the Christian faith really means.

These concerns weren’t given up by Vatican II—instead, a new way was found to address them across the old boundary lines. More tomorrow!

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