Growing in Christian Unity

Growing in Christian Unity

By Catherine E. Clifford (source America Magazine)

The Second Vatican Council did more to change the relationship between the Catholic Church and other Christian churches than any other single event since the Protestant Reformation 450 years earlier, or perhaps even since the tragic schism of 1054 that divided the churches of East and West. It transformed the way Catholics view other Christians and set a new course for the reconciliation of the churches.

It is significant that Pope John XXIII chose to announce the convocation of the Second Vatican Council on Jan. 25, 1959, at the conclusion of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. The council was to have two principal aims: first, a much-needed aggiornamento or updating of the life and teaching of the church so that it might proclaim the Gospel more effectively to contemporary men and women; and second, the re-establishment of unity among the Christian churches. Pope John understood these two goals to be closely related. While the first objective is widely accepted today, the second is too often forgotten.

The Catholic Church remained outside the organized ecumenical movement in the early 20th century and promoted unity through the return of individuals to the Catholic fold. Like Pope Pius XII before him, Pope John recognized the ecumenical movement as a fruit of the Spirit that fostered renewal of ecclesial life. In his vision for the council, renewal and reform were two of the ways of deepening fidelity to the Gospel tradition. By becoming more attuned to the common source of their life in the Gospel, the divided churches would be drawn closer together in Christ.

This represented a marked shift. Since the late Middle Ages, Catholic theology and teaching had envisaged a stark separation between the natural and supernatural orders and tended to portray everything outside the Catholic Church as devoid of God’s redemptive grace. Theologians in the mid-20th century, like the Jesuits Henri de Lubac and Karl Rahner, however, pointed toward a more ancient theological tradition. Centered on the incarnate Word of God, this tradition provided a basis for understanding both the distinction and the proper relationship between the natural and supernatural. Theologians helped to recover a more positive sense of God’s creative and redemptive presence in and through all of human history. Drawing on Augustine’s thought, Yves Congar, O.P., maintained that the sacrament of baptism and many other elements of the church were effectively mediating God’s saving grace in other Christian communities. The presence of these gifts confirmed that the one church of Christ was present and active in them all.

Receiving these ancient insights anew, Vatican II positively affirmed the active presence of the Spirit in the life of other Christian communions and recognized in them effective means of grace. Emphasizing an already existing, albeit imperfect communion among the churches, the council acknowledged the many gifts Catholics share with other Christians: confession of faith in Christ and in a Trinitarian God, common Scriptures, the patrimony of the witness of the early church, sacramental celebrations, witness and service of the Gospel in the world. Since Vatican II, significant consensus has been discovered through official dialogue on a wide range of doctrinal matters once thought to be church-dividing, including historic agreements on Christology with Oriental Orthodox Churches and on the doctrine of justification by faith with churches of the Lutheran World Federation.

The council’s “Dogmatic Constitution on the Church” and “Decree on Ecumenism” reflect an important recovery of understanding of the essential nature of the church as communion. Through baptism and faith all Christians are united in Christ. Communion in Christ grounds the ecclesial communion they share in varying degrees. Vatican II calls for collective conversion to Christ and the continual reform of the church. Dialogue, carried out in a spirit of humility and patient self-examination, is the preferred course of action toward reform and unity.

Other Christian communions—some represented by official observers at the council—also have undertaken important reforms of liturgical expression, ministries and governing structures. While full, visible unity may still seem a distant goal today, Vatican II has been the catalyst for an extensive renewal of the inner life of each church. This has created a new set of relationships among the churches and helped us grow in unity. The council continues to be a transforming force for all of Christianity.

(Catherine E. Clifford is a professor and vice dean in the faculty of theology at Saint Paul University in Ottawa, Ontario.)