Vatican II - Voice of The Church
Vatican II - Voice of The Church

Restoring Unity

By Dennis Rudd

"Thus it is absolutely clear that ecumenism, the movement promoting Christian unity, is not just some sort of "appendix" which is added to the Church's traditional activity. Rather, ecumenism is an organic part of her life and work, and consequently must pervade all that she is and does."

Pope John Paul II in Ut Unum Sint, 25 May 1995

The Catholic Church's commitment to ecumenism

The above words of Pope John Paul II, together with the opening words of the Vatican II Decree on Ecumenism, Unitatis Redintegratio - "The restoration of unity among all Christians is one of the principal concerns of the Second Vatican Council" - make clear beyond all doubt the Catholic Church's commitment to ecumenism, to the quest for Christian unity.

In Ut Unum Sint  ('That they may be one'), his encyclical letter on commitment to ecumenism, Pope John Paul II noted that the ecumenical movement really began within the Churches and Ecclesial Communities of the Reform, and that at about the same time the Ecumenical Patriarchate expressed the hope that some kind of co-operation among the Christian Communions could be organized. (1)

Pope John XXIII said that the unity of the Church was the "compelling motive" for his calling the Council (2), and when he spoke at the opening of the Council, he made it clear that he regarded the unity of Christians as a major concern of the Catholic Church: "The Catholic Church ... considers it her duty to work actively so that there may be fulfilled the great mystery of that unity which Jesus Christ invoked with fervent prayer from his heavenly Father on the eve of his sacrifice."

The initial decision to invite non-Catholic observers to the Second Vatican Council was made by Pope John himself; it was the first Council to which Christians not in communion with the Catholic Church had been invited. By the end of the Council their numbers had grown to close on one hundred. According to Cardinal Franz König (3), they had a positive influence on the ecumenical climate and their role grew as the Council progressed.

The end of the council was marked by a service in St Peter's on 7 December 1965. Cardinal König  recalled: "I was one of a small group on the altar with Pope Paul VI. After asking the representative of the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople to join him there, the Pope announced that the Papal Bull of 1054, which had declared the Great Schism between the Western and Eastern Church, was now null and void. I can still hear the thundering burst of spontaneous applause with which this announcement was received. For me this highlight signalled that the impulses set off by the council were already at work. The crucial process of reception, that all-important part of any church council, which can take several generations, had begun. It continues today."

The basis of the Catholic Church's commitment to ecumenism

The Second Vatican Council quite deliberately rejected the view that the Church of Christ is to be identified solely with the Roman Catholic Church, with its implication that other Christians have no part in Christ's Church. The Council Fathers spoke of the Church of Christ as 'subsisting' in the Roman Catholic Church:

This Church (i.e. the unique Church of Christ), constituted and organized in the world as a society, subsists in the Catholic Church, which is governed by the successor of Peter and by the bishops in union with that successor, although many elements of sanctification and of truth can be found outside of her visible structure. These elements, however, as gifts properly belonging to the Church of Christ, possess an inner dynamism toward Catholic unity. (4)

The implication is that all those elements that Christ willed for his Church are to be found in the Roman Catholic Church, but nevertheless Christ's Church cannot be totally identified with the Catholic Church. The fact that the Catholic Church understands itself to possess all those things which Christ intended his Church to have does not imply, and should not be taken as implying, that other Churches have none of these things. [Nor, it might be added, does it imply that the Catholic Church always uses these gifts to the best effect.]

The Vatican II Decree on Ecumenism recognises that other Churches have many of these elements, and the Catholic Church recognises that the Holy Spirit has used, and continues to use, other Churches as means of salvation. What we all have in common is greater than what separates us.

What kind of relationship, then, does the Catholic Church perceive between itself and other Churches? The Decree on Ecumenism speaks of the 'rents in the seamless garment of Christ'. Rents are tears or splits, they are not necessarily a fragmentation into separate pieces. The divisions between Christians are not seen as having created total breaks, for all baptised Christians are incorporated in Christ through their baptism, and are therefore truly brothers and sisters in Christ. But because there are real differences and disagreements, we have to speak of a communion which is real but partial and incomplete.

For this reason, the restoration of unity has to be understood as the convergence of the Roman Catholic Church with other Christian Churches, as shared gifts are rediscovered - in our own Church and in other Churches - so that the unity willed by Christ for his Church is realised. (5)

The implications of the Catholic Church's understanding of itself and its relationship with other Churches, initially set out in the Constitution on the Church Lumen Gentium, are more fully explored in the Council Decree on Ecumenism Unitatis Redintegratio and most appropriately these two major documents of the Council were promulgated on the same date, 21 November 1964.

Why should the Catholic Church, indeed why should all Christians, be concerned about unity? The reason, of course, is very simple - because it is seen to be the will of Christ. St John's Gospel records Our Lord's words, spoken on the night before his passion: "I ask ... that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us ... so that the world may believe that you have sent me" (Jn 17:20-21).

Although the reason may be simple, the task is one which is far from easy. And, as Pope John Paul II said, we all have a part to play: All the faithful are asked by the Spirit of God to do everything possible to strengthen the bonds of communion between all Christians and to increase cooperation between Christ's followers: "Concern for restoring unity pertains to the whole Church, faithful and clergy alike.  It extends to everyone according to the potential of each". (UUS §101)

It cannot be said too often that the quest for unity does not imply a need, or even a desire, for uniformity. Diversity is a mark of the Holy Spirit, who distributes a variety of gifts; and God, who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit, is the very model of unity in diversity, diversity in unity. Within the Catholic Church itself is to be found diversity in spirituality, in discipline, in liturgical rites. St Augustine spoke of "unity in essentials, freedom in non-essentials, charity in all things." To quote Pope John Paul II again: "Unity not only embraces diversity, but is verified in diversity."

And Cardinal Basil Hume, the late Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster, said, "Christian unity is a gift from God ... It is also a process of growth. I would distrust anybody who tries to indicate to me what the end of that process will be. One step at a time..."

We now have to look at how these steps are being made.

The Quest For Unity

How is Christ's desire for the unity of his followers being sought? And how is it a task for all of us?

Theological dialogue is, of course, essential. An example of this, one of many dialogues which have been undertaken since the Council, is the work of the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commissions. Here, the stated aim has been "not to evade difficulties, but rather to avoid the controversial language in which they have often been discussed." Pope John Paul II, in Ut Unum Sint, set out the many dialogues and contacts that have been initiated between the Catholic Church, the Churches of the East and the Reformed Churches of the West.

But divisions between Christians are not just questions of doctrine, they have resulted in separation: separation between Christians in the same country, the same town, the same street, the same household.  So an essential part of the quest for unity is the coming together of Christians, to overcome the separation, mistrust and misunderstanding that have ensued as a result of the divisions.  It is in cities, towns and villages that "this is a task for all of us".

Most importantly, we have to follow Our Lord's example of prayer. Prayer is central to the pursuit of Christian unity, for it is by prayer that we acknowledge that unity is not to be achieved solely by our own actions, but is a gift of God through the working of the Holy Spirit.

These three elements - prayer, theological dialogue and local ecumenism - complement each other, and all three elements are essential in the quest for unity.

If you live somewhere - it may be somewhere as large as a country or as small as a village - where there is little or no opportunity for exchange with Christians of other churches, then it can be easy to neglect the quest for unity and to regard it as not relevant to your situation. Yet you still have the opportunity for prayer, an opportunity that is not to be passed by. "Prayer for unity is not a matter reserved only to those who actually experience the lack of unity among Christians. In the deep personal dialogue which each of us must carry on with the Lord in prayer, concern for unity cannot be absent." (UUS §27)

The Abbé Couturier, whose name is closely associated with the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity said, "we should pray for the unity Christ wants, and pray for it to come in the way he wants."

Where Christians from more than one church reside in a society, there can be occasions for coming together and growing together in many ways; but are those occasions always being grasped? The so-called Lund Principle, enunciated as long ago as 1952, set out the aim that churches should act together in all matters except those in which deep differences of conviction compel them to act separately.

In what ways can churches and individual Christians not in full communion act together?
  • First and foremost, by praying together: in Ut Unum Sint, Pope John Paul had much to say on prayer together. "When brothers and sisters who are not in perfect communion with one another come together to pray... their prayer [is] the soul of the whole ecumenical movement" (UUS §21). "If Christians, despite their divisions, can grow evermore united in common prayer around Christ, they will grow in the awareness of how little divides them in comparison to what unites them." (UUS §22)
  • As well as prayer for unity, shared prayer is an opportunity for putting before God the needs and problems we all have in common - for example peace, social concerns. Such sharing is in itself an effective way of promoting reconciliation between Christians.
  • By studying together; in parts of the Christian world there is now an established tradition of sharing and growing together through Lenten and other study groups and courses. Such study, too, can help us to realise that what divides us is much less than all that we have in common.
  • It is of course important that such study should be undertaken in an eirenic spirit, for the Holy Spirit will want to be busy on these occasions. So when you are a member of such a gathering and your neighbour is speaking, it is important to listen carefully with generosity and humility, especially if he/she is expressing something which is new to your own understanding - because the Holy Spirit may be speaking through him/her. Equally, it is important to listen carefully to what you yourself say, to make sure you express your own understanding with generosity and humility - because the Holy Spirit may be wanting to speak through you.
  • By working together: this may be through collaboration in attending to the many needs of the communities in which we live. The unity experienced in co-operation on issues of this nature can be a foretaste of the ultimate unity Christians desire. "In the eyes of the world, co-operation among Christians becomes a form of common Christian witness and a means of evangelization which benefits all involved." (UUS §40)

It is recognised that all Christians have an essential unity which derives from their common baptism. St Paul gave us guidance (1 Cor 12) when he said that although the parts are many the body is one - "the eye cannot say to the hand, 'I do not need you', nor can the head say to the feet, 'I do not need you'."  We have to echo this - we cannot say to other churches 'we have no need of you'.

It is a sobering thought that on every occasion we do things by ourselves when there is not a compelling need to, we are, despite St Paul, saying to other Christians, 'we have no need of you'.

Some of these activities may not be practicable for us at the moment because of our situation or because the relationship between churches in our part of the world has not yet progressed to the point where they have become possible. In this situation we may even have to be prepared to step forward, to be in the vanguard.

Progress and problems

It is possible to look back and be amazed at the ecumenical progress that has been made at all levels through the action of the Holy Spirit over recent decades. It is equally possible to look forward and perhaps feel daunted by the difficulties that still lie ahead.

In Ut Unum Sint, Pope John Paul II noted that, thus far on our journey, much has been attained - greater mutual understanding, doctrinal convergences, growth in communion - but our aim has to be full visible unity among all the baptised. (UUS §77)

In the introduction to The Unity of Christians by Cardinal Augustin Bea we read, "... the work of re-uniting Christians is the work of God and it will be accomplished by the grace of God, no matter how difficult it may seem from a human standpoint." (6) So it is important not to become in any way discouraged when difficulties or seeming setbacks occur, when hoped-for expectations are not realised. The unity of Christians will come in God's time. Our task is, as in all things, to be faithful.

May I end on a personal note? Some years ago I was invited to carry out a study, in a small locality, of the attitudes of people, both lay and ordained, to churches other than their own. I called the resulting report "The Great Day" because one member of an independent evangelical church said to me in the course of this work, "I would see it as a great day when we all worship together."

Of the many comments I received, two in particular have always remained in my mind:

 "I am never antagonistic towards other churches, but what is the point of doing things with them?"

 "How can a divided Church heal a divided world? How can it heal wounds, break down barriers, play its role in bringing the Kingdom."

The first attitude is perhaps not untypical of many Christians - acceptance of the situation as it exists because "that's the way things are". The second remark, made to me by a minister of the United Reformed Church in my country, looks beyond the past and the present to be aware of Christ's prayer on the night before his passion and death, "that they may all be one, even as you and I are one; that the world may believe it was you who sent me".

Dennis Rudd

(1) Ut Unum Sint §65

(2) Ad Petri Cathedram §42-44, 1959

(3) Cardinal Franz König, 'It must be the Holy Spirit', The Tablet (London), 21-28 December 2002

(4) Dogmatic Constitution on the Church [Lumen Gentium] §8

(5) Emmanuel Sullivan SA & the present writer, 'Working for Unity', Diocese of Arundel and Brighton, 1993

(6) Geoffrey Chapman Ltd, London, May 1963