To my mind, the most interesting of the decisions made at the Vatican Council is this one. It treats precisely of that matter which is such great concern of other churches of our day. It sets forth, too, a change in attitude, though not in doctrine, in the Romish Church. There was a time, and not too long ago, when Romish leaders would not deign to meet with those outside their own church domain. The Romish Church, after all, was by far the largest single denomination within the realm of Christendom—and it was incumbent upon the others to return to “mother.” But that attitude appears to be changing. More and more a dialogue is being carried on between Rome and other churches. The basis of that dialogue is set forth in this “decree.”
This all is being done under that banner: “That they all may be one.” And, of course, to seek the healing of the many and deep breaches made in the past history of the church does seem most desirable indeed. But the question the Christian increasingly faces in these days is: what is the testimony of Scripture? We do read of the healing of one breach at the end of time in Rev. 13:3. It is the healing of the wound of the beast. But Christ declares as one of the signs of the end of time: “Many shall come in My Name, saying, I am Christ; and shall deceive many. . . . And many false prophets shall arise, and shall deceive many. And because iniquity shall abound, the love of many shall wax cold.” (Matt. 24:5, 11, 12). And the present decree of the Romish Church reminds strongly of both signs. Let the Church then beware.
THE PRINCIPLE OF ECUMENISM
The document we consider in this article sets forth first several principles the Romish Church considers important. The following quotations are all from the book: Council Daybook, Session 3, pages 343-351. First, and expectedly, Rome continues to maintain that the fulness of salvation can only be seen in it:
Nevertheless, our separated brethren, whether considered as individuals or as communities and Churches, are not blessed with that unity which Jesus Christ wished to bestow on all those who through Him were born again into one body, and with Him quickened to newness of life—that unity which the Holy Scriptures and the ancient Tradition of the Church proclaim. For it is only through Christ’s Catholic Church, which is “the all-embracing means of salvation,” that they can benefit fully from the means of salvation. We believe that Our Lord entrusted all the blessings of the New Covenant to the apostolic college alone, of which Peter is the head, in order to establish the one Body of Christ on earth to which all should be fully incorporated who belong in any way to the people of God.
Secondly, the Romish Church recognizes the fact of divisions in the past, and even concedes a certain measure of guilt for the separations which took place:
But in subsequent centuries much more serious dissensions appeared and quite large communities separated from full communion with the Catholic Church for which, often enough, men of both sides were to blame.
Thirdly, the document admits that essential elements of proper communion can be seen outside of the Romish Church:
Moreover, some, even very many of the significant elements and endowments which together go to build up and give life to the Church itself, can exist outside the visible boundaries of the Catholic Church: the written word of God; the life of grace; faith, hope and charity, with the other interior gifts of the Holy Spirit, and visible elements too. All of these, which come from Christ and lead back to Christ, belong by right to the one Church of Christ.
. . .It follows that the separated Churches and communities as such, though we believe them to be deficient in some respects, have been by no means deprived of significance and importance in the mystery of Salvation.
Finally, to encourage the ecumenical movement, the document suggests four things: 1. The church avoid judgments, expressions, and actions which do not fairly represent the “separated brethren.” 2. The church encourage “dialogue” between the different communions. 3. The church seek co-operation in the “duties for the common good of humanity. . . .” 4. Finally, that the members in the Romish Church “examine their own faithfulness to Christ’s will…and, wherever necessary, undertake with vigor the task of renewal and reform.”
THE PRACTICE OF ECUMENISM
To carry out ecumenical endeavors on a practical level, this second chapter suggests first that there must be a continual reformation within the Church herself. It recognizes that “in various times and circumstances, there have been deficiencies in moral conduct or in church discipline, or even in the way that church teaching has been formulated—to be carefully distinguished from the deposit of faith itself” and that these “deficiencies” also “can and should be set right at the opportune moment and in the proper way.”
The “decree” declares that no “ecumenism worthy of the name” can take place without a change of heart. It goes on to concede that the Romish Church has also sinned against the “separated brethren” and begs forgiveness. Of course, this is stated in a very general way, and the “sins” for which it begs forgiveness are not itemized.
The words of St. John hold good about sins against unity: “If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us,”
So we humbly beg pardon of God and of our separated brethren, just as we forgive them that trespass against us.
Several steps are recommended to the Romish faithful to promote true ecumenism. Among these are included:
(1) In certain special circumstances, such as in prayer services “for unity,” and during ecumenical gatherings, it is allowable, indeed desirable that Catholics should join in prayer with their separated brethren. . . .
(2) Witness to the unity of the Church very generally forbids common worship to Christians, but the grace to be had from it sometimes commends this practice. The course to be adopted. . .is left to the prudent decision of the local episcopal authority. . . .
(3) Most valuable. . . are meetings of the two sides—especially for discussion of theological problems—where each can treat with the other on an equal footing—provided that those who take part in them are truly competent and have the approval of the bishops.
(4) Sacred theology and other branches of knowledge, especially of an historical nature, must be taught with due regard for the ecumenical point of view, so that they may correspond as exactly as possible with the facts.
(5) In these days when cooperation in social matters is so widespread, all men without exception are called to work together, with much greater reason all those who believe in God, but most of all, all Christians in that they bear the name of Christ. Cooperation among Christians vividly expresses that bond which already unites them, and it sets in clearer relief the features of Christ the Servant.
CHURCHES SEPARATED FROM THE ROMAN APOSTOLIC SEE
This third chapter distinguishes between two groups which have separated from the Romish Church. There are first the Eastern Churches concerning which the document states:
These Churches, although separated from us, yet possess true sacraments and above all, by apostolic succession, the priesthood and the Eucharist, whereby they are linked with us in closest intimacy. Therefore some worship in common, given suitable circumstances and the approval of Church authority, is not merely possible but to be encouraged.
. . . The rich liturgical and spiritual heritage of the Eastern Churches should be known, venerated, preserved and cherished by all. They must recognize that this is of supreme importance for the faithful preservation of the fulness of Christian tradition, and for bringing about the reconciliation between the Eastern and Western Christians.
In the second place, the chapter recognizes the churches of the reformation, and sets forth considerations as basis for dialogue with them. I’ll summarize these “considerations.” (1) Rome recognizes and speaks well of the fact that other churches confess Jesus to be God, Lord, and Mediator. (2) It recognizes a “love and reverence of Sacred Scripture” in churches outside of the Romish Church. (3) It recognizes that these churches “while invoking the Holy Spirit, . . . seek in these very Scriptures God as it were speaking to them in Christ, Whom the prophets foretold, Who is the Word of God made flesh for us.” It was this third point that the pope personally modified at the close of the third session when he introduced 19 modifications of this particular decree. He changed the original word “find” to “seek”, suggesting that after all there is no “finding” of Christ in those groups outside of the communion of Rome. The Protestant ecumenists rather universally deplored the change made. (4) Rome recognizes that the sacrament of baptism is performed in other communions in addition to its own. (5) Finally, it states that “the daily Christian life of these brethren is nourished by their faith in Christ and strengthened by the grace of baptism and by hearing the word of God.”
On the basis of these “considerations,” the Vatican Council encouraged efforts towards closer contact with the “separated brethren.” It did issue a word of warning toward the overly zealous:
This sacred council exhorts the faithful to refrain from superficiality or imprudent zeal, for these can hinder real progress toward unity. Their ecumenical action must be fully and sincerely Catholic, that is to say, faithful to the truth which we have received from the apostles and Fathers of the Church, in harmony with the faith which the Catholic Church has always professed. . . .
How much this decree will affect the cause of ecumenism, I do not know. It is evident, however, that within the past few years there is a far more friendly attitude between the Roman Catholic Church and the protestants. Many “dialogues” have already taken place. And this is only the beginning. Within the last years, a burning desire has arisen in the heart of man to unite all churches into one. Though many things yet deter, it seems nothing will stop that movement. Nothing, that is, til Christ returns on the clouds of glory to gather His faithful Church to Himself in Heaven.