One Church, many Christians. Ecumenism is still a controversial concept
After the Second Vatican Council, ecumenism became one of the core topics in church discourse. Interconfessional prayer meetings, joint declarations, or prayers for Christian unity do not surprise anyone anymore. For a large proportion of Catholics, ecumenism is nothing controversial. There are, however, circles within the Church that are strongly critical of the post-Conciliar ecumenical idea and practice.
The Church as the one and only
The aim of ecumenism is, therefore, to unite all followers of Christ in one Church, in one visible structure. For there are many separate churches claiming to be „Christian” but differing in doctrine, structure or understanding of the meaning and role of liturgical worship.
From the perspective of a Catholic, the following fact of faith is a significant starting point to reflect on ecumenism: Christ, true God and true man, founded the one and only Church. This Church is characterised by a uniform interpretation of the essential contents of faith and morals, a single orderly structure and a common understanding of the essence of religious ritual. Thus, a united Church must necessarily have the aforementioned characteristics.
The Acts of the Apostles and the Epistles show the hierarchical structure of local Churches with its division into the functions of bishops, presbyters and deacons. These local churches were not autonomous and were unrelated to other communities. What united all the local churches was the authority of the Apostles and their teachings.
The continuation of such a structure of authority is evident at the time of ecumenical councils. The Bishop of Rome played a special role at the time. He was seen as the centre of the Church’s unity, and no Council could be considered valid without his approval, which distinguishes his role among the five Patriarchs of the universal Church. Acceptance of the dogmatic rulings of Ecumenical Councils was a condition of being recognised as a member of the Church and, therefore, a condition of salvation.
Of course, there were conflicts in the Church from the beginning. These were disputes in the areas of doctrine and discipline, and there were power struggles. I will mention only two events: the so-called Great Schism of 1054 and the Reformation, which began in 1517. It is mainly in the context of these two events that the Catholic Church is conducting ecumenical dialogue today. After the Great Schism, the Catholic Church viewed the Eastern Churches as schismatic. Protestants, on the other hand, were generally considered heretics.
The Church’s understanding of ecumenism, which was dominant until the Second Vatican Council, is reflected in Pius IX’s document entitled Singularis quodam of 1854. There Pius IX makes clear the principle Extra Ecclesiam nulla salus – outside the Church, there is no salvation. Belonging to the Catholic Church and believing all that the Church recognises as revealed by God is a prerequisite for attaining eternal life. People outside the Church can attain salvation if – and only if -joining the Church is blocked by a situation in which the person concerned, through no fault of their own, for reasons beyond their control, is unable to recognise the Catholic Church as the one founded by Christ.
Ecumenical discourse before the Second Vatican Council
Ecumenism as such was born at the turn of the 20th century among Protestant churches. It was a reaction to the increasing secularisation of society. Christian believers began to seek understanding among themselves to join their efforts in countering social trends that were worrying and hostile to religion. An important point for this movement was the establishment of the World Council of Churches at the Amsterdam Conference in 1948.
Initially, the Catholic Church distanced itself from the movement and even saw it as a threat. Pope Pius XI expressed his concerns about the ecumenism of the time in his 1928 encyclical Mortalium Animos. He perceived ecumenical movements as tending towards the building up of one Church through the synthesis of what is common in doctrine and the rejection of conflicting claims. This would imply the rejection of many views recognised as dogma in the Catholic Church but not recognised as such in non-Catholic Churches.
In the pre-Conciliar documents, however, one can already discern a somewhat softened message and an increasingly evident shift of emphasis from „drawing dividing lines” and pointing out errors to gently encouraging non-Catholics to return.
Second Vatican Council
Finally, there comes 1962 and the Second Vatican Council begins. The Council is even considered revolutionary, especially with regard to the problem of ecumenism and interfaith dialogue. The first new treatments of these issues are found in the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church Lumen Gentium. It is about the so-called „Circles of commitment” to the Catholic Church. This doctrine can be reduced to the Council’s recognition of the fact that other Christian churches contain elements of revealed truth which the Catholic Church preserves in its entirety. The more of these elements in a community, the greater the degree of communion with the Roman Catholic Church.
At the same time, Lumen Gentium recalls the principle of Extra Ecclesiam nulla salus and the related doctrine of invincible ignorance.
The fundamental document on ecumenism of the Second Vatican Council is the decree Unitatis Redintegratio. On the one hand, it restates the truth that the Roman Catholic Church is the one and only Church founded by Christ, but on the other it continues to appreciate the presence of „salvific” elements outside the Catholic Church.
The document talks about opportunities to pray together with representatives of other Christian denominations (this is nothing new). The fact that the document raises the possibility of communicatio in sacris, i.e. the joint celebration of the liturgy with Christians who are not in formal communion with Rome, is a step forward.
The key change advocated by Unitatis redintegratio is, above all, a change in ecumenical pedagogy. The document further promotes the tendency for a more positive message towards „separated brethren”. The decree on ecumenism suggests that the starting point for dialogue should be an understanding of the other side. Catholics were encouraged to avoid the attitude of „superiority”.
The Council, therefore, brought about a change in pedagogy. There is no longer talk of „heretics” or „schismatics” but primarily of „brethren”. The intention of this change of language is to try to overcome prejudices and create space for unhindered dialogue. This stems from the belief that truth imposes itself by its own power and does not need authoritative language to do so. It is not a matter of political correctness but a prudent understanding that being brought up in a different culture, rooted in a different Christian tradition is a very big barrier to recognising in the Catholic Church as the only true one. Nevertheless, this does not mean negating the differences.
Criticism from traditionalists
The ecumenism outlined in Unitatis redintegratio and in post-Conciliar practice has been the subject of criticism from traditionalists, especially those associated with Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre and the Society of Saint Pius X that he founded.
During the Council, Archbishop Lefebvre criticised above all the vagueness of the wording of Unitatis Redintegratio. In his opinion, the document distorted the truth that the Catholic Church is the one and only Church founded by Christ.
After the Council, Lefebvre strongly criticised the ecumenical and interfaith meeting in Assisi in 1986, when John Paul II met with representatives of various Christian denominations and representatives of other religions, where they prayed together for the world peace. Lefebvre was then to state that this type of action by the Pope legitimised non-Catholic religions as „good”. According to him, John Paul II „killed” the purpose of evangelisation and missionary work.
How should we perceive ecumenism?
Are the accusations of traditionalists justified? It seems that it would be appropriate to try to interpret this matter from two perspectives: doctrine and pedagogy.
The Church at the Council did not cease to adhere to the principle Extra Ecclesiam nulla salus, as expressed in the passage from Lumen Gentium already quoted herein, which can be found in the latest Catechism of the Catholic Church. As a consequence, ecumenism should be further understood as bringing „separated brethren” back into unity with Rome. This has not changed.
But indeed, a step forward has been taken in terms of seeing salvific elements in non-Catholic communities. Pius IX, in the passages of Singularis quodam quoted by me, was far more cautious in his judgements. So it seems that the Council went a few steps further. Was it the right thing to do? I cannot answer this question.
On the other hand, when seeing in non-Catholics a sincere faith in Christ, a high level of morality and even the testimony of martyrdom, it was difficult not to ask – are these people not true disciples of Christ? Should they go to hell because they are not in the Catholic Church, even though they give an excellent testimony of faith? Combining these insights with the doctrine of „invincible ignorance”, awareness of cultural barriers and beliefs firmly rooted by upbringing, the Council attempted to value other communities as far as possible within Catholic orthodoxy.
The principle of the post-Counciliar pedagogy is the postulate expressed by Paul VI to begin the dialogue with „separated brethren” from what unites rather than divides. The mutual knowledge of one’s doctrine, views and way of thinking is the natural starting point of any dialogue leading to the truth. Also, giving up a position of superiority in the discussion may be advisable. Even true statements can be rejected because of the patronising way in which they are communicated.
The demand to understand the doctrine of the „separated brethren” is a way of unmasking misunderstandings that have arisen either from a different theological language or a different emphasis on speaking about the mysteries of faith.
Another consideration is that although the Catholic Church possesses the fullness of salvific truth, this does not at all mean that each individual Catholic is the depository of that truth. Infallibility in the interpretation of revealed truth belongs to the Bishop of Rome and the Universal Council, and this only in specific cases and under specific conditions.
I think that the following claim made by traditionalists is a bit of a misunderstanding: Since the Church has the fullness of truth, it cannot learn anything from other denominations – it is others who should learn from us.
The Church can learn from other religions. Such learning is not understood as assimilating something revealed by God, which the Church lacks. The idea is rather that the way of experiencing spirituality present in other religions can inspire a Catholic to pay attention to some revealed content that has not been emphasised enough or has been forgotten.
Contact with other faiths can be a stimulus to conversion since often, the revealed truth is obscured by the immoral lives of Catholics. These claims do not contradict the fact that the Church keeps the fullness of salvific truth. Catholicism has always valued natural human wisdom, using Greek philosophy, for example, to build a coherent theological system.
In relation to pedagogy, however, it is worth taking the accusations of traditionalists seriously and rethinking whether some kind of distortion is taking place. Starting with what connects should not end at this stage. Ecumenism that ends up pretending that nothing divides us and does not move on to serious theological debate is a distortion. It also contradicts the teaching of the last Council. As a result, any action taken in the name of a pedagogy, which uses the falsehood of „bridging barriers” is wrong.
In the context of the pursuit of unity, it is worth remembering that the main purpose of the Church goes beyond worldliness since it is to lead the faithful to eternal salvation. All means to achieve this can be found in the Catholic Church. Therefore, all the Church’s activities, including ecumenism, should be focused on giving the greatest possible number of people the easiest possible access to salvation.
Thus, the conflict over ecumenism should not be closed in the Manichean division „heartless Pharisees – empathetic ecumenists”. The discussion on whether the ecumenism and interfaith dialogue we have today (cf. Abu Dhabi Declaration), is good and effective, should be conducted honestly and with openness to all arguments. And if the ultimate motive of ecumenism is not the desire „all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.” (1 Timothy 2:4), but to build temporal peace, it may turn out that this kind of ecumenism has more in common with the attitude of the „Grand Inquisitor” from The Brothers Karamazov by Dostoevsky, who wants to correct the requirements of the Gospel because they are too difficult, than with Christ – true God and true man.
Polish version available here.
Publication (excluding figures and illustrations) is available under Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International. Any use of the work is allowed, provided that the licensing information, about rights holders and about the contest "Public Diplomacy 2021" (below) is mentioned.
Public task financed by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland within the grant competition “Public Diplomacy 2021”. The opinions expressed in this publication are those of the authors and do not reflect the views of the official positions of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland.