For many people, it can seem as if ecumenism—the work of bringing together divided Christians—is an optional extra. It doesn’t seem to attract as much attention, for instance, as the Church’s care for the poor or the unborn. We may also feel a bit reluctant to delve into this topic too deeply, for fear that we might end up losing sight of our own heritage as Catholics. Or perhaps the topic seems so complicated that we don’t know how to think about it.
These are good concerns to have, but the goal “that they may all be one” remains an important priority for the Church (John 17:21). Each one of us is called to do what we can to promote Christian unity. So let’s take a look at what the Catholic Church teaches so that we can embrace this call more fully.
Fifty-Five Years and Counting. In their Decree on Ecumenism, the Fathers of Vatican II stated that “the restoration of unity among all Christians is one of the principal concerns of the Second Vatican Council” (Unitatis Redintegratio, 1). This historic document emphasized that ecumenism is a grace from God, a divine call from the Lord to his entire Church. It was the first time that the Church called all of its members to respond to this grace. So we cannot look at it as just an option for clergy or people who feel a special calling. Since the close of the Council in 1965, every pope has taken up and advanced this call to unity in his teachings and in his example.
Pope St. Paul VI, for instance, took the dramatic step of closing the Council with a declaration lifting the 1054 excommunication against the Orthodox Church. By making this the final act of the Council, Pope Paul wanted to make it clear that the Catholic Church was firmly committed to healing divisions. Eastern Orthodox Christians were brothers and sisters to be embraced, not heretics to be condemned. Pope Paul also oversaw the creation of numerous official dialogues with other churches and traditions—Anglicans, Methodists, Lutherans, Pentecostals, and many more.
In his 1995 encyclical on Christian unity, Pope St. John Paul II echoed the teaching of Vatican II when he stated that ecumenism was necessary if we wanted to see the “New Pentecost” that Pope St. John XXIII had longed for. John “understood this clearly,” John Paul wrote. “In calling the Council, he refused to separate renewal from ecumenical openness” (Ut Unum Sint, 17).
Following John Paul II’s death in 2005, Pope Benedict XVI made it clear that he was just as firmly committed to Christian unity. Speaking to a gathering of Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox leaders in Cologne, Germany, Benedict repeated his “firm commitment to making the recovery of full and visible Christian unity a priority of my pontificate.” He went on to say, “Our divisions are contrary to the will of Jesus and they disappoint peoples’ expectations. . . . We must work with new energy and dedication to bring a common witness” (Ecumenical Meeting, August 19, 2005).
Today, Pope Francis continues along the path marked out by his predecessors. He has repeatedly prayed “that all Christians may be faithful to the Lord’s teaching by striving with prayer and fraternal charity to restore ecclesial communion and by collaborating to meet the challenges facing humanity” (Pope’s Prayer Intention for January 2017). The work of ecumenism belongs to “all Christians,” Francis has said, not just bishops and theologians. Every one of us is called to pray and to work for unity.
Unity in Multiplicity. It’s clear that the Church is calling all of the people of God to work for Christian unity. But what about the fear that an emphasis on ecumenism might water down our commitment to our own Church?
Not long after the Council closed, the Vatican issued a document providing guidelines for living out our call to Christian unity. There, we read that “the entirety of revealed truth, of sacraments, and of ministry that Christ gave for the building up of his Church . . . is found within the Catholic communion of the Church” (Ecumenical Directory, 17). Yet at the same time, the Church also acknowledges that unity doesn’t have to mean conformity. As Pope Benedict said, Christian unity “does not mean uniformity in all expressions of theology and spirituality, in liturgical forms and in discipline. Unity in multiplicity, and multiplicity in unity”—that’s the goal (Ecumenical Meeting, August 19, 2005).
This can sound complicated. We would like everything to be black and white, but truthfully, it is complex. The truths of the faith are simple and firm, but the way to unity under those truths is long and demanding. It might help if we were to think about our own families. Every member is different from everyone else—oftentimes, very different. But a healthy family respects each person’s differences even as they celebrate everything that unites them. That is how we need to view the quest for unity.
The Church is careful to distinguish between the work of ecumenism and the equally important work of welcoming new members into the Catholic Church. Both are works of the Holy Spirit, but they are not the same. “The work of preparing the reception of an individual who wishes to be received into full communion with the Catholic Church is of its nature distinct from ecumenical activity” (Ecumenical Directory, 99).
If, in our work for Christian unity, we seek to bring people into the Catholic Church, we risk putting up walls instead of healing divisions. Nothing derails ecumenical encounters more than trying to “win” somebody over to “our side.” Rather, the Church teaches that as we work together and pray with other Christians, we grow together. We acknowledge the gifts that each of us brings, and our relationships deepen. And closer ties mean deeper unity.
Members of One Family. So what does Christian unity look like? More than anything else, it is based on the sturdy foundation of our common baptism. As Vatican II taught, all people “who believe in Christ and have been truly baptized are in communion with the Catholic Church.” Therefore, “the Catholic Church embraces them as brothers, with respect and affection” (Unitatis Redintegratio, 3).
This communion may be “imperfect” in terms of not being complete, but it is still a real and vital communion. We acknowledge that significant differences persist, sometimes “in doctrine and sometimes in discipline,” and that these differences can “create many obstacles.” But even in spite of these obstacles, “it remains true that all who have been justified by faith in Baptism are members of Christ’s body, and have a right to be called Christian, and so are correctly accepted as brothers by the children of the Catholic Church” (Unitatis Redintegratio, 3).
Every Christian, no matter his denomination, is already part of our family. We are all baptized in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We are all washed clean of original sin. We are all temples of the Holy Spirit. We are all equally loved and cherished by our heavenly Father. There is already a “deep communion” between us (Ut Unum Sint, 42). The Church is now asking us to build on this foundation as we work for the full communion that we don’t yet have. God himself has brought us together as brothers and sisters through Baptism; may we work to heal whatever divisions remain!
A Treasury of Common Gifts. One key Catholic principle of ecumenism is the principle of respect and honor toward other faith traditions. Again, the Fathers of Vatican II offer words of wisdom: “Catholics must gladly acknowledge and esteem the truly Christian endowments . . . which are to be found among our separated brethren” (Unitatis Redintegratio, 4). This is yet another aspect of the fact that there is so much that unites us.
These “Christian endowments” include a love for Scripture, an emphasis on evangelization, a deep sense of community, and a strong emphasis on the call to live an upright, moral life. The Church wants us to acknowledge these “riches of Christ and virtuous works in the lives of others who are bearing witness to Christ” (Unitatis Redintegratio, 4).
In some cases, in fact, members of other Christian traditions can display a heroic devotion to these riches that may outweigh the devotion of many Catholics. Doesn’t the Lutheran tradition, for instance, have a long history of encouraging believers to read and study the word of God? Haven’t many Evangelicals taught us much about the call to proclaim the gospel? Don’t our Eastern Orthodox brothers and sisters bear witness to a deep sense of reverence for the Lord in their liturgies? Of course they do—and there is much we can learn from them!
A “Personal Commitment” to Unity. God loves unity. He longs to see his children heal their divisions so that our light can shine more brightly in the world. We have so much to celebrate together. We have so much that we can do together. And most important, there is so much in our different traditions that we can honor and uphold, even as we work to become one body in Christ. Grace, dedication, faithfulness, humility, hope, faith, and love—these blessings and so many more are present in every Christian tradition.
So what does the Church ask of us? No less than “a personal commitment toward promoting increasing communion with other Christians” (Ecumenical Directory, 55). This is the teaching of our Church, brothers and sisters. Our next essay will discuss ways we can do just that.