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Rev. Stewart is pastor of the Covenant Protestant Reformed Church in Northern Ireland. Previous article in this series: December 15, 2008, p. 138.

Vatican II’s Decree on Ecumenism (1964)

The most official, systematic, and widely accessible statement of the Roman Catholic Church’s false ecumenism is Vatican II’s Decree on Ecumenism (1964). The Latin name of this decree, Unitatis Redintegratio, is revealing, for it means “Restoration of Unity.” The unity the Roman Church wishes to see restored is that original oneness that it claims all professing Christians and churches had with the “Mother Church” (Rome) and the “Holy Father” (the pope).¹ This will also serve Rome’s geopolitical goals.

As Unitatis Redintegratio itself declares, Roman Catholic ecumenism can have only one outcome:

The result will be that, little by little, as the obstacles to perfect ecclesiastical communion are overcome, all Christians will be gathered, in a common celebration of the Eucharist, into that unity of the one and only Church which Christ bestowed on His Church from the beginning. This unity, we believe, dwells in the Catholic Church as something she can never lose, and we hope that it will continue to increase until the end of time (p. 348).²

Lest anyone within or without the Roman Church think that Rome’s ecumenism implies any openness to the truth of God’s Word or to forsaking its false doctrines, the Decree on Ecumenism states, “Nothing is so foreign to the spirit of ecumenism as a false conciliatory approach which harms the purity of Catholic doctrine and obscures its assured genuine meaning” (p. 354).

In case Roman Catholic laity notice that this statement is particularly addressed to their clergy and theologians (and that this might provide them with a loophole), the “faithful” are told,

Their ecumenical activity must not be other than fully and sincerely Catholic, that is, loyal to the truth we have received from the apostles and the Fathers, and in harmony with the faith which the Catholic Church has always professed, and at the same time tending toward that fullness with which our Lord wants His body to be endowed in the course of time (p. 365).

For Roman Catholics, ecumenism—efforts to bring all professing Christians into the papal fold—must be a priority. This is the first line of theDecree on Ecumenism: “Promoting the restoration of unity among all Christians is one of the chief concerns of [Vatican II]” (p. 341). Similarly, at the end of Unitatis Redintegratio, the council “urgently desires that the initiatives of the sons of the Catholic Church, joined with those of the separated brethren go forward…[in] the holy task of reconciling all Christians in the unity of the one and only Church” (pp. 365-366).³ This is the “full and perfect unity which God lovingly desires” (p. 350) and the “divine summons” (p. 342)—that all return to the papal embrace.

“The seamless robe of Christ” (p. 355), a historic image of the church’s unity, is appealed to, and “rifts” in the church are said to be “damnable” (p. 345). All this must, of course, be read from Rome’s perspective that Christ builds the church on the pope, the successor of Peter. John XXIII’s prayer for the success of Vatican II includes this petition that all non-Catholics return to Rome:

We pray also for those sheep who are not now of the one fold of Jesus Christ [i.e., not in the Roman Church], that even as they glory in the name of Christian, they may come at last to unity under the governance of the one Shepherd [i.e., the pope] (p. 793).

In its introduction (pp. 34-342), the Decree on Ecumenism alludes to the World Council of Churches (cf. p. 342, n. 5) and other ecumenical efforts involving liberal Protestants and the Eastern Orthodox: “among our separated brethren…there increases from day to day a movement…for restoration of unity among all Christians.” Amongst “divided Christians,” there is “remorse over their divisions and a longing for unity.” Rome attributes this to “the grace of the Holy Spirit,” rather than to apostasy, its proper source. The Vatican “gladly notes all these factors” (p. 342) because it understands that all the roads of false ecumenism ultimately lead to Rome.

Eastern Orthodoxy

For Rome, of all the various Christian bodies, the Eastern Orthodox Churches occupy a “special position.” They are treated before, and given more space than, the Protestant churches in theDecree on Ecumenism. The decree emphasizes that Rome and Constantinople (the seat of the Ecumenical Patriarch who ranks as primus inter pares, first among equals, in the Eastern Orthodox communion) have a lot in common. Apostolic succession (viewed as the succession of bishops, in uninterrupted lines, back to the original twelve apostles), priesthood, eucharist, true sacraments, liturgy, spiritual tradition, jurisprudence, veneration of Mary (mariolatry), prayers to saints, etc., are all mentioned (pp. 357-361). Rome magnanimously acknowledges that the seven ecumenical councils (325-787) were all held in or not far from Constantinople (p. 357) and that monasticism originated in the East, adding that “Catholics are strongly urged to avail themselves more often of these spiritual riches of the Eastern Fathers” (p. 359).

Both Rome and Eastern Orthodoxy are well aware of their disagreements, but these are not specifically brought up.4 Instead, historical and cultural factors are mentioned as occasioning and/or maintaining the differences (pp. 357-358, 360). Unitatis Redintegratio advocates “legitimate variety” and reckons that their “various theological formulations are often to be considered as complementary rather than conflicting” (p. 360).

Vatican II hopes to use the Eastern Catholic Churches to provide a bridge to the Eastern Orthodox Churches.5 The Decree on Eastern Catholic Churches (1964) states,

The Eastern [Catholic] Churches in communion with the Apostolic See of Rome have a special role to play in promoting the unity of all Christians, particularly Easterners, according to the principles of this sacred Synod’s Decree on Ecumenism (p. 383).

Since the agreement between Rome and Eastern Orthodoxy is “very close,” Vatican II reckons that “given suitable circumstances and the approval of Church authority, some worship in common is not merely possible but is recommended” (p. 359).

It is the Council’s urgent desire that every effort should henceforth be made toward the gradual realization of this goal [of full communion between Rome and Eastern Orthodoxy] in the various organizations and living activities of the Church, especially by prayer and by fraternal dialogue on points of doctrine and the more pressing pastoral problems of our time (p. 361).

This would certainly add to the size, prestige, and power of the Vatican, for there are at present between 225 and 300 million Eastern Orthodox church members, found especially in eastern Europe and Russia, as well as (increasingly) worldwide. However, more needs to be done, for to this day both churches claim to be the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church, and each denies the other’s right to that name. Rome expects this unification to be “gradual” (p. 361).


For Rome, “the Anglican Communion occupies a special place” (p. 356) among those churches that separated from it at the Reformation. The reason is obvious. Anglicanism’s compromised Reformation left it with a hierarchical structure (referred to as “the historic episcopate” in ecumenical circles) and an unhealthy advocacy of early church tradition. The Church of England even considers itself a via media, or middle way, between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism. Anglicanism’s high-church sacramentalism (prominent especially in its Anglo-Catholic wing) facilitates its restoration to Rome, which sees the church largely in terms of hierarchy, sacraments, liturgy, etc.6 Moreover, the Anglican Communion is the third largest communion in the world (behind Rome and Eastern Orthodoxy) with about 77 million members, making it quite a prize for the papacy.7

The Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission (ARCIC), which arose out of the Joint Preparatory Commission (1967-68), has been discussing ordination, the doctrine of salvation, the eucharist, Rome’s teaching authority, the role of Mary, etc., on and off for about four decades. In approving the statements from ARCIC’s First Phase (1970-1981), “The Church of England has effectively ratified the doctrine of the Council of Trent [1545-1563] on Scripture and Tradition, and on the Lord’s Supper, and it has accepted in principle the primacy of the pope.”8

Since then, ARCIC has continued its labors to bring Canterbury back to Rome. In 2007, ARCIC issued Growing Together in Unity and Mission, which declared,

The Roman Catholic Church teaches that the ministry of the Bishop of Rome as universal primate is in accordance with Christ’s will for the Church and an essential element of maintaining it in unity and truth…. We urge Anglicans and Roman Catholics to explore together how the ministry of the Bishop of Rome might be offered and received in order to assist our Communions to grow towards full, ecclesial communion.9

Queen Elizabeth II, Supreme Governor of the Church of England and Defender of the Faith, and various Archbishops of Canterbury have visited the pope many times. In 2008, Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams became the first (symbolic) head of the worldwide Anglican Communion to visit the Roman Catholic shrine of Lourdes in southwest France. There he took part in an international mass celebrating the 150th anniversary of the apparitions of Mary to Bernadette Soubirous, a 14-year-old peasant.

Ironically, ecumenical relations between Anglicanism and Romanism have slowed, not because of opposition from orthodox Anglicans but because Anglicanism is too liberal for Romanism, especially concerning the ordination of women and homosexuality. John Paul II (1978-2005) suspended official talks between the Roman Catholic Church and the Anglican Communion due to the consecration of Gene Robinson, a practicing homosexual, as a bishop in the Episcopal Church in the United States.10

We do not know the future (only God does), so we do not know if and when Eastern Orthodoxy and Anglicanism will join with Rome and submit to the pope. But this is the earnest desire and stated goal of the Vatican, something for which it is working very hard. Such a union would bring the first, second, and third largest ‘Christian’ communions under the “Supreme Pontiff of the Universal Church.” With current population figures, this would take Rome from one-sixth to one-fifth of the world’s population, and it would greatly strengthen her hand in eastern Europe, Russia, Africa, and the Caribbean.

Next time (DV), we shall consider Rome’s false ecumenism with Protestants, those closer to us and with whom we are more familiar. The anti-Christian kingdom and the return of Jesus Christ are drawing near!

… to be continued.

¹ Thus the Decree on Ecumenism states that all the other groups “separated from full communion with the Catholic Church” (Walter M. Abbot [gen. ed.], The Documents of Vatican II [USA: The America Press, 1966], p. 345). Henceforward, pages in parentheses refer to this book. 

² By “Church,” Roman Catholic authors mean the Roman Catholic Church; by “Catholic,” they mean Roman Catholic. 

3 John XXIII (1958-1963) is especially noted for referring to non-Catholics as “our separated brethren.” This is another example of aggiornamento (Italian for “updating”). 

4 These would include the filioque clause on the procession of the Spirit, the role of the papacy, the lawfulness of married clergy, the dating of Easter, etc. The western and eastern churches had been drifting apart for centuries before 1054, the date usually assigned to the Great Schism, when Leo IX’s representative, Cardinal Humbert, and Michael Cerularius, Patriarch of Constantinople, excommunicated each other. Over nine hundred years later, the excommunications were rescinded by Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras I of Constantinople when they met at Vatican II (1965).

5 The Eastern Catholic Churches are autonomous churches in full communion with the pope, which preserve the liturgical, theological, and devotional traditions of the various eastern churches with which they are associated. 

6 Over the years, a lot of Anglican members and clergy (especially those in the high-church wing) have apostatized and joined the Church of Rome, including John Henry Newman (1801-1890), who was made a Roman cardinal (1879), and, in 1900, Mabel Tolkien and her young son, John Ronald Reuel (1892-1973), whose writings include The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.

7 Interestingly, the 18 million Anglicans in Nigeria outnumber all their co-religionists in the whole of Europe and North America. There are about 9 million Anglicans in the Church of Uganda. 

8 David N. Samuel, The Church in Crisis (Reading, England: The Church of England [Continuing], 2004), p. 129.

9 Quoted in 

10 Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams approves of sodomy, and his view of Scripture descends to the lowest depths of liberalism: God is “a spastic child who can communicate nothing but his presence and his inarticulate wanting,” and John’s Apocalypse is filled with “madness and vengefulness” (cf. Samuel, The Church in Crisis, pp. 131, 141-144). Apostate churches and church leaders are far and away the most blind and deaf of fallen mankind (Isa. 42:19-20); they have been “bewitched” (Gal. 3:1).