History of Catholic Ecumenism


from Pope Leo XIII to Pope John XXIII


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Catholic Concept of Christian Unity



After being lifted up on the cross and glorified, the Lord Jesus poured forth the Spirit whom he had promised, and through whom he has called and gathered together the people of the New Covenant, which is the Church, into a unity of faith, hope, and charity... - Vatican II, "Unitatis Redintegratio", Art. 2

Throughout her history, the Catholic Church has steadfastly stressed the importance of Christian unity. Other non-Catholic believers have also affirmed the need for a united Christianity, but the concept of unity for a Catholic versus a non-Catholic is radically different. The Catholic Church teaches that Christ founded one visible Church upon the apostles, with Simon Peter as its head. Pope Pius XII (1939-1958) affirmed in Mystici Corporis this unchanging tenet of the Church:

He [Christ] entrusted to the Prince of the Apostles the visible government of the whole society which He had founded...for in virtue of the primacy Peter is none other than the Vicar of Christ, and therefore this Body has only one principal Head, namely Christ, who, continuing Himself to govern the Church invisibly and directly, rules it visibly through His personal representative on earth; so that now...that Church is built not only on Himself but also on Peter as on its visible foundation.(2)

This description of the Church is at odds in varying ways with the beliefs of all other Christian bodies. Also, the official teaching of the Church has always been that true unity can only be realized if all Christians are again united to the Roman Pontiff. This strong view heavily influenced the Catholic approach to ecumenism. Until Pope Leo XII, rarely was a praiseworthy word, or even any word, mentioned in papal documents about those Christians not in union with Rome. For example, in 1758, Pope Clement XIII wrote an encyclical entitled "The Unity of Christians" (A Quo Die). Had an encyclical been written in the 20th century with this title, one would assume that it was an ecumenical document. However, this letter deals not with non-Catholic Christians, but rather only with certain disuniting problems within the Catholic Church. In other words, it was assumed in papal documents that unity already existed with those in union with the successor of Peter, so the only discord to address would be the potential factions within the Church.

The disagreement existing between Catholics and non-Catholics with respect to unity can be divided into two categories. The first difference pertains to the governing and visibility of the Church. Both Orthodox and Catholic Christians believe that the Church is a visible entity that was established upon the apostles and has been sustained by the appointment of bishops as successors to the apostles. Whereas the dogma of apostolic succession is disputed by most Protestant Christians; on the Catholic side, popes since Leo XIII have continually defended this key teaching of the faith. Since the conviction of the Church is that Christ Himself appointed the apostles to govern her, Catholic teaching is that he who purposely disobeys them or their legitimate successors is disobeying Christ. Also, only Catholic and Orthodox Orders are recognized as valid.(3) Because of these tenets of the faith, any ecumenical dialogue in which the Church engages will find her defending the belief that true unity can only be achieved in a visibly united church under the leadership of legitimate bishops.

It is true that the Orthodox believe in the divine institution of a visible church upon the apostles. However, they and the rest of non-Catholic Christianity stand in opposition to the second foundational element of the church as Catholics see it: the primacy of Peter. "...that the Bishop of Rome", said Pope John XXIII, "as Peter’s successor and Christ’s Vicar on earth, is the focal center of the entire visible unity of the Catholic Church...is clearly supported by the evidence of the Gospels and by ancient Catholic tradition..."(4) The teaching that the visible church is governed by the bishops with the successor of Peter at the head is strongly reinforced in many papal documents.(5)

Always on guard against a false irenicism among Christians, official Vatican statements dealing with separated brethren clearly and consistently restated that the primacy of Peter is not something that the Catholic Church can compromise on: it is an unchanging doctrine of the faith. In spite of this unyielding belief, however, the Church did not fail to recognize that there were common misinterpretations of this doctrine. Thus, 20th century popes, knowing that the first stage in true ecumenism is the eradication of misunderstandings between believers, attempted to proclaim the true teaching of the primacy of Peter in such a way that all would understand. Pope Leo XIII, for example, realized that many, especially in the East, may have interpreted the doctrine of Papal infallibility declared by Vatican I as yet another step in the process of a papal monarchy. To dispel such fears, he stated:

But if the authority of Peter and his successor is plenary and supreme, it is not to be regarded as the sole authority. For He who made Peter the foundation of the Church also "chose twelve whom he called apostles"; and just as it is necessary that the authority of Peter be perpetuated in the Roman pontiff, so the bishops who succeed the apostles must inherit their ordinary power. Thus the episcopal order necessarily belongs to the essential constitution of the Church. Although bishops do not receive plenary, universal or supreme authority, they are not to be looked upon as mere representatives of the Roman pontiffs. They exercise a power truly their own and are ordinary pastors of the people which they govern.(6)

Considering that the major difference between East and West is the authority of the Pope(7) and the role of bishops in governing the Church, this statement on the authority of all the bishops was a major step toward reconciliation between the two. The road to unity cannot be traveled until key beliefs, commonalties, and differences are clearly and humbly stated.

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