Catholic Church and ecumenism

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The Catholic Church has been heavily involved in the ecumenical movement since the Second Vatican Council (1961–1965).

Te Deum Ecuménico 2009 in the Metropolitan Cathedral of Santiago, Chile

Definition and practices of ecumenism[edit]

Before the Second Vatican Council[edit]

The Catholic Church sees itself as one, holy, catholic and apostolic church, founded by Christ himself. Its teachings state the proper Church of Christ is identical with the Catholic Church.

Ecumenism takes as it starting point that Christ founded just one Church, not many churches; hence the Roman Catholic Church has as its ultimate hope and objective - that through prayer, study, and dialogue, the historically separated bodies may come again to be reunited with it.

Before the Second Vatican Council, the Roman Catholic Church defined ecumenism as a relations with other Christian groups in order to persuade these to return to a unity that they themselves had broken. "Traditionalist Catholics" reject the Vatican 2 council and still hold to this view. [1] Pursuit of unity, thus understood, was always a principal aim of the Church.

At the Council of Lyons (1274) and the Council of Florence (1438–1442), in which some bishops of the Eastern Orthodox Churches participated, reunion formulas were worked out that, however, failed to win acceptance by the Eastern Churches.

The Roman Catholic Church even before the Second Vatican Council always considered it a duty of the highest rank to seek full unity with estranged communions of fellow-Christians, and at the same time to reject what it saw as promiscuous and false union that would mean being unfaithful to or glossing over the teaching of Sacred Scripture and Tradition. But the main stress was laid on this second aspect, as exemplified in canon 1258 the 1917 Code of Canon Law:

  1. It is illicit for the faithful to assist at or participate in any way in non-Catholic religious functions.
  2. For a serious reason requiring, in case of doubt, the Bishop's approval, passive or merely material presence at non-Catholic funerals, weddings and similar occasions because of holding a civil office or as a courtesy can be tolerated, provided there is no danger of perversion or scandal.

Since the Second Vatican Council[edit]

The aim of the Second Vatican Council, as its initiator, Pope John XXIII, stated, was to seek renewal from within the Church itself, which would serve, for those separated from the see of Rome, as a "gentle invitation to seek and find that unity for which Jesus Christ prayed so ardently to his heavenly Father." [2] The Council opened up an era of earnest endeavour not only to explain to others the Church's teaching, but also to understand their outlook.

While the Roman Catholic Church sees itself as the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church founded by Christ himself, it recognizes that elements of salvation are found in other churches also. In the Second Vatican Council's document, Lumen gentium, 8, the Council Fathers chose to say that the sole church of Christ as "subsists in" (rather than simply saying "is identical with") the Catholic Church:

Nevertheless, many elements of sanctification and truth are found outside its visible confines. Since these are gifts belonging to the Church of Christ, they are forces impelling towards Catholic unity.

The Roman Catholic Church has, since the Second Vatican Council, reached out to Christian bodies, seeking reconciliation to the greatest degree possible.

Significant agreements have been achieved on baptism, ministry and the eucharist with Anglican theologians. With Lutheran bodies a similar agreement has been reached on the theology of justification. These landmark documents have brought closer fraternal ties with those churches.

However, recent developments, such as the ordination of women and of men living in homosexual relationships, present new obstacles to reconciliation with, in particular, Anglicans. Consequently, in recent years the Roman Catholic Church has focused its efforts at reconciliation with the Orthodox Churches of the East, with which the theological differences are not as great.

While relations with the Eastern Orthodox Churches were strained in the 1990s over property issues in countries that were formerly Soviet-dominated, these differences are now largely resolved. Fraternal relations with the Eastern churches continue to progress.

In practice however, unorthodox interpretations were read into the conciliary documents by laity, priests and bishops. This practice was criticised in the recent document Dominus Iesus.

The 1983 Code of Canon Law has no longer canons who absolutely forbid the cooperation of Catholic priests with clergy members of other systems of belief. It still absolutely forbids Catholic priests to concelebrate the Eucharist with members of communities not in full communion with the Catholic Church (canon 908), but allows, in certain circumstances and under certain conditions, other sharing in the sacraments. The Directory for the Application of Principles and Norms on Ecumenism, 102[3] states: "Christians may be encouraged to share in spiritual activities and resources, i.e., to share that spiritual heritage they have in common in a manner and to a degree appropriate to their present divided state."

Relations with Orthodox churches[edit]

The Roman Catholic Church recognizes 21 Ecumenical or General Councils: Nicaea I (325), Constantinople I (381), Ephesus (431), Chalcedon (451), Constantinople II (553), Constantinople III (680–681), Nicaea II (787), Constantinople IV (869–870), Lateran I (1123), Lateran II (1139), Lateran III (1179), Lateran IV (1215), Lyons I (1245), Lyons II (1274), Vienne (1311–1312), Constance (1414–1418), Florence (1438–1445), Lateran V (1512–1517), Trent (1545–1563), Vatican I (1869–1870), Vatican II (1962–1965).

Of these, the orthodox Churches of Byzantine tradition accept only the first seven, the family of "non-Chalcedonian" or "pre-Chalcedonian" Churches only the first three, and the Nestorians only the first two.

In spite of this, dialogue has shown that even where the break with one of the Orthodox Churches occurred as far back as the Council of Ephesus (431) and the Council of Chalcedon (451), long before the break with Constantinople (1054), the few doctrinal differences often but not always concern terminology, not substance.

Emblematic of these differences in terminology is the "Common Christological Declaration between the Catholic Church and the Assyrian Church of the East",[4] signed by John Paul II, Bishop of Rome and Pope of the Catholic Church, and Mar Dinkha IV, Catholicos-Patriarch of the Assyrian Church of the East on November 11, 1994.

The division between the two Churches in question goes back to the disputes over the legitimacy of the expression Mother of God, as well as Mother of Christ for the Virgin Mary, that came to a head at the Council of Ephesus in 431.

The Common Declaration recalls that the Assyrian Church of the East prays to the Virgin Mary as "the Mother of Christ our God and Saviour", and the Catholic tradition addresses the Virgin Mary as "the Mother of God" and also as "the Mother of Christ", fuller expressions by which each Church clearly acknowledges both the divinity and the humanity of Mary's son. The co-signers of the Common Declaration could thus state: "We both recognize the legitimacy and rightness of these expressions of the same faith and we both respect the preference of each Church in her liturgical life and piety."

Some of the most difficult questions in relations with the ancient Eastern Churches concern not so much doctrine as practical matters such as the concrete exercise of the claim to papal primacy and how to ensure that ecclesial union would not mean mere absorption of the smaller churches by the Latin component of the much larger Catholic Church, the most numerous single religious denomination in the world, and the stifling or abandonment of their own rich theological, liturgical and cultural heritage.

At a Balamand declaration meeting in Balamand, Lebanon in June 1993, the [Joint International Commission for the Theological Dialogue] between the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox Churches declared that these initiatives that "led to the union of certain communities with the See of Rome and brought with them, as a consequence, the breaking of communion with their Mother Churches of the East ... took place not without the interference of extra-ecclesial interests" (section 8); and that what has been called [uniatism] "can no longer be accepted either as a method to be followed nor as a model of the unity our Churches are seeking" (section 12).

Relations with Anglican churches[edit]

Historic tensions[edit]

Long-term hostility between the Catholic Church and the Anglican Communion was engendered by resistance among some English to the declaration of royal supremacy of King Henry VIII over the Church in England, the confiscation of Church properties, the dissolution of the monasteries, guilds and chantries, the execution of priests, forced attendance at Anglican worship, the forced payment of tithes to the state church and the illegalization of the Catholic faith.

There was a brief restoration of communion with Rome during the reign of Mary I. Her death marked the end of Catholic attempts to reconcile by law the English Church to Rome. Subsequently, Pope Pius V's excommunication of Elizabeth I in 1570 and authorisation of rebellion against her contributed to official suspicion of the allegiances of English Catholics. This, combined with a desire to assert the claims of the established church, led to the promulgation of restrictive laws against their civil and religious rights. Elizabethan era restrictions were only relieved through several legislative reforms in the 19th century, cumulatively known as Catholic Emancipation. The last restriction on Catholics preventing them from marrying into the royal family remains in effect.

Apostolicae curae[edit]

Main article: Apostolicae curae

In 1896 Pope Leo XIII issued Apostolicae curae rejecting the Anglo-Catholic claims of the Oxford Movement and the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral such as apostolic succession. In it the pope declared Anglican orders "absolutely null and utterly void." The official reply of the Archbishops of the Church of England was Saepius officio. The judgment remain in effect to the present. The judgement of nullity was reaffirmed in 1998 by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, when it gave Apostolicae curae as an example of the authoritative teaching of the Catholic Church.[5]

Early ecumenism[edit]

Some attempts at dialogue began in 1915, when Pope Benedict XV approved a British Legation to the Vatican, led by an Anglican with a Catholic deputy. However, discussion of potential reunion in the Malines Conversations eventually collapsed in 1925. Continued efforts resulted in the spread of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity in both churches (and others), and the visit of George Bell, Bishop of Chichester, to Cardinal Montini of Milan, later Pope Paul VI.[6]

Post Second Vatican Council developments[edit]

Real rapprochement was achieved under the leadership of Pope John XXIII, whose foundation of the "Secretariat for the Promotion of Christian Unity" encouraged Archbishop Geoffrey Fisher to make a historic, though not entirely official, visit to the Vatican in 1960. Subsequently the Bishop of Ripon, John Moorman, led a delegation of Anglican observers to the Second Vatican Council. In 1966, Archbishop Michael Ramsey made an official visit to Pope Paul VI, and in the following year, the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission was established. Its first project focused on the authority of Scripture, and the Commission has since produced nine agreed statements. Phase One of ARCIC ended in 1981 with the publication of a final report, Elucidations on Authority in the Church. Phase Two has been ongoing since 1983. The most recent agreed statement dealt with Marian theology, and was published in 2004.

Pope Paul VI went so far as to refer to the Anglican Church as "our beloved sister Church," though this description might not tie in with present thinking in the Vatican. Until recently it was used the website of the Roman Catholic Ampleforth College (referring to Anglican pupils at that school).

New tensions[edit]

Despite the productivity of these discussions, dialogue is strained by the developments in some provinces of the Anglican Communion primarily concerning the ordination of women, permissive teaching on abortion, and the ordination of those in public same-sex sexual relationships as priests and, in one case, a bishop (Gene Robinson). More progress has been made with respect to Anglican churches outside the Communion.

Cardinal Walter Kasper, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, warned that if the Church of England was to ordain women as bishops, as the Episcopal Church has done, then it could destroy any chance of reuniting the Anglican and Catholic Churches.[7] Although ARCIC had just completed the major document on Marian theology in 2003, Pope John Paul II temporarily called off all future talks between the Catholic Church and the Anglican Communion upon the consecration of Gene Robinson as bishop.[8]

Pope John Paul II made Pastoral Provision for Anglican congregations which as a whole wish to become Catholic. There has been only a small number of Anglican Use parishes, all of which are in the United States. These are Roman Catholic parishes which are allowed to retain some features of the Book of Common Prayer in worship. Additionally, one of the Continuing Anglican Churches attempted to achieve the recognition of Rome without abandoning its liturgical traditions, as the Anglican Use parishes have done.

According to Catholic Canon Law, Catholics should not receive the Anglican communion (canon 844 §2) and permits Catholic ministers to administer to an Anglican the sacraments of Eucharist, Penance and Anointing of the Sick, only in danger of death or some other grave and pressing need, and provided the Anglican in question cannot approach an Anglican priest, spontaneously asks for the sacrament, demonstrates the faith of the Catholic Church in respect of the sacrament and is properly disposed (canon 844 §4).

Anglican Ordinariates[edit]

In October 2009, Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith announced Pope Benedict XVI's intention to create a new type of ecclesiastical structure, called a Personal Ordinariate, for groups of Anglicans entering into full communion with the see of Rome.[9] The plan would create diocese-like structures for former Anglicans within the Roman Catholic Church independent of existing Latin Rite dioceses. It would allow them to preserve elements of Anglican liturgy, spirituality and religious practice, including married priests but not married bishops. Anglicanorum coetibus was issued on 4 November 2009.

Relations with Old Catholic Churches[edit]

The Old Catholic Archdiocese of Utrecht was formed in 1703,[10][disputed ] in the area occupied by the historical Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Utrecht, which had been canonically suppressed in response to the Protestant Reformation in 1580.[11] and superseded by the Dutch Mission erected in 1592.[12]

After 1870 several German-speaking Catholics left the Catholic Church in light of the First Vatican Council. Many aligned themselves with the independent Bishop of Utrecht, who ordained clergy among them to form the Old Catholic Churches. Though it is not in communion, the Catholic Church recognizes as valid the Old Catholic holy orders and apostolic succession, however does not recognize their ordinations of women to the priesthood begun in the 1970s. The Old Catholic Churches consider themselves to be in full communion with the Anglican Communion.[10]

The Polish National Catholic Church ceased intercommunion with both the Anglican Communion in 1978, and the Union of Utrecht member churches in 1996, disagreeing over the issue of female ordination. It has since become closer to Rome, which recognizes it to have a similar status as the Orthodox Churches.[10]

Relations with Protestant churches[edit]

Lutheran Churches[edit]

The Lutheran-Roman Catholic Dialogue began over thirty years ago, and has consisted of eleven rounds of discussion. The most recent discussion has focused on doctrines associated with eternal life. The dialogue process has produced one major joint declaration, concerning the doctrine of justification, issued in 1999 called the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification.

World Council of Churches[edit]

One of the most significant documents on ecumenical relations was Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry, published by the Faith and Order Commission of the World Council of Churches (WCC) in 1982.[13] Although the Catholic Church is not a member of the WCC, some Catholic theologians are full members of the Commission, though not as representatives of their Church, and participated in the production of the paper, the aim of which was to seek common ground between the various traditions concerning the Christian rite of initiation (Baptism), the sacrament of the Eucharist, and the nature of Holy Orders, while also stating clearly the differences existing between them. The Churches were invited to indicate their reactions to the contents of the document, with a view to "analyz(ing) the ecumenical implications for the churches at a future World Conference on Faith and Order."

See also[edit]

Major documents[edit]

Major documents before the Second Vatican Council were:

Major documents since the Second Vatican Council were:

Some elements of the Roman Catholic perspective on ecumenism are illustrated in the following quotations from the Council's decree on ecumenism, Unitatis Redintegratio (UR), of 21 November 1964, and Pope John Paul II's encyclical, Ut Unum Sint (UUS) of 25 May 1995.

Every renewal of the Church is essentially grounded in an increase of fidelity to her own calling. Undoubtedly this is the basis of the movement toward unity ... There can be no ecumenism worthy of the name without a change of heart. For it is from renewal of the inner life of our minds, from self-denial and an unstinted love that desires of unity take their rise and develop in a mature way. We should therefore pray to the Holy Spirit for the grace to be genuinely self-denying, humble. gentle in the service of others, and to have an attitude of brotherly generosity towards them. ... 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. (UR, 6-7)
Christians cannot underestimate the burden of long-standing misgivings inherited from the past, and of mutual misunderstandings and prejudices. Complacency, indifference and insufficient knowledge of one another often make this situation worse. Consequently, the commitment to ecumenism must be based upon the conversion of hearts and upon prayer, which will also lead to the necessary purification of past memories. With the grace of the Holy Spirit, the Lord's disciples, inspired by love, by the power of the truth and by a sincere desire for mutual forgiveness and reconciliation, are called to re-examine together their painful past and the hurt which that past regrettably continues to provoke even today. (UUS, 2)
In ecumenical dialogue, Catholic theologians standing fast by the teaching of the Church and investigating the divine mysteries with the separated brethren must proceed with love for the truth, with charity, and with humility. When comparing doctrines with one another, they should remember that in Catholic doctrine there exists a "hierarchy" of truths, since they vary in their relation to the fundamental Christian faith. Thus the way will be opened by which through fraternal rivalry all will be stirred to a deeper understanding and a clearer presentation of the unfathomable riches of Christ (UR, 11)
The unity willed by God can be attained only by the adherence of all to the content of revealed faith in its entirety. In matters of faith, compromise is in contradiction with God who is Truth. In the Body of Christ, "the way, and the truth, and the life" (Jn 14:6), who could consider legitimate a reconciliation brought about at the expense of the truth?...Even so, doctrine needs to be presented in a way that makes it understandable to those for whom God himself intends it. (UUS, 18-19)
When the obstacles to perfect ecclesiastical communion have been gradually overcome, all Christians will at last, in a common celebration of the Eucharist, be gathered into the one and only Church in that unity which Christ bestowed on His Church from the beginning. We believe that this unity subsists in the Catholic Church as something she can never lose, and we hope that it will continue to increase until the end of time. (UR, 4)


  1. ^ The article Union of Christendom (PD-icon.svg "Union of Christendom". Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. 1913.  is an illustration of that perspective.
  2. ^ Encyclical Ad Petri cathedram
  3. ^ Directory For The Application Of Principles And Norms On Ecumenism
  4. ^ The Holy See - Vatican web site
  5. ^ Commentary on Ad tuendam fidem, 11g
  6. ^ Longenecker, Dwight. "Catholics and Anglicans"
  7. ^ Challenges lie ahead for Episcopal Church in U.S., url accessed 6/26/06
  8. ^ Telegraph Newspaper article on the breaking off of Catholic-Anglican ecumenical dialogue following the Gene Robinson consecration.
  9. ^ "Pope Benedict approves structure for admitting large groups of Anglicans into Catholic Church". Catholic News Agency. Retrieved 22 October 2009. 
  10. ^ a b c McNamara, Edward (2012-02-14). "The Old Catholic and Polish National Churches". Irondale, AL: Eternal Word Television Network. Retrieved 2015-01-04.  Republished from "The Old Catholic and Polish National Churches". Rome. Archived from the original on 2015-01-05. 
  11. ^ "Archdiocese of Utrecht". David M. Cheney. Retrieved 2014-01-14. 
  12. ^ "Mission "Sui Iuris" of Batavia (Holland Mission)". David M. Cheney. Retrieved 2014-01-14. 
  13. ^ Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry