The Council At 50: The Search for Christian Unity
Welcome to one of the series of blogs on the Second Vatican Council. Each piece reviews one of the 16 documents produced by the Council Fathers during the extraordinary occasion in Church history. Vatican II, which drew together the world’s bishops, opened fifty years ago in St. Peter’s Basilica, October 11, 1962.
When I was a boy, Catholics did not enter Protestant or Orthodox churches. We did not pray together except for an occasional prayer before a public event. Now, 50 years after the Second Vatican Council, we pray together regularly. This type of “spiritual ecumenism” is at the heart of our movement toward Christian unity.
The Council’s Decree on Ecumenism (1964)Unitatis Redintegratio ( Restoration of Unity), opened the doors of the church. The Council exhorted “all the Catholic faithful…to take an active and intelligent part in the work of ecumenism.” [Decree, #4]
We began to build relationships of trust and forgiveness with our Protestant and Orthodox neighbors. We became friends. We began to look together more honestly at the issues that divide us. The Council urged us to make “…every effort to avoid expressions, judgments and actions that do not represent the condition of our separated brethren with truth and fairness ….” [#4]
In formal dialogues and informal conversations we moved from mutual suspicion and some exaggerations to an honest search for the facts and the truth of the past. Often our perceived differences came from the preconceptions and emotions of times past and not from deep divisions.
Our renewed relationships led to practical collaborations. Today the local food pantry or soup kitchen is often sponsored by an ecumenical coalition of churches. Frequently we coordinate our international efforts to aid those in need so we might be more effective.
On the local level, we see Catholic parish Bible study groups. These did not exist in my youth. We see many Protestant churches celebrating the Lord’s Supper every Sunday. Protestants have shared with Catholics their love for the Bible; Catholics have shared with Protestants their love for the sacraments.
Both the Vatican and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops engage in scholarly dialogues with Protestant and Orthodox friends and colleagues. “Through such dialogue everyone gains a truer knowledge and more just appreciation of the teaching and religious life of both communions.” [#4]
One result of these dialogues was the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification, a carefully worded statement on the key theological issue of the Reformation that was agreed to by the Lutheran World Federation and the Vatican in 1999. Its central affirmation is: “Together we confess: By grace alone, in faith in Christ’s saving work and not because of any merit on our part, we are accepted by God and receive the Holy Spirit, who renews our hearts while equipping and calling us to good works.” [Declaration, #15] In 2006, the World Methodist Council signed the Declaration.
More recently representatives of many Orthodox churches and of the Holy See endorsed the Ravenna Statement on the church. This little-known statement about the sacramental nature of the church and its implications for church life and authority—local, regional and universal— was a breakthrough with significant implications for the unity of Eastern and Western Christians.
Of course, there’s still a “ways to go” and this challenges all Christians. We are just beginning to address ecumenically some of the “hot” moral issues of our times, such as questions of sexual morality. While we have substantial agreement on many moral issues, we need to dig down deeper into the causes of our divergences.
The work of ecumenism is slow but steady. We are touching the deep foundations of our lives. We all adjust slowly to change – even change for the better.
Bishop Denis Madden is chairman of the Committee for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.