Tucked away among the longer documents of Vatican II are two shorter ones: the Decree on Ecumenism and the Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions.
Their impact far exceeds their length. Together with the Declaration on Religious Freedom, these landmark documents represent a great leap forward for the Church, creating a seismic shift that will continue to reverberate across the religious world in the decades and centuries ahead.
Unity, especially among Christians, was a theme of the papacy of John XXIII. He wanted to change the long-standing attitude of Catholic triumphalism that stood in the way of better relations with other denominations. When the pope declared his intention to convene the ecumenical council, it was clear that ecumenism would be a pivotal theme.
Many people mistakenly think John XXIII’s commitment to ecumenism is the reason behind calling Vatican II— “ecumenical.” In fact, the word ecumenical simply refers to something universal or general in scope—thus its use to describe the Council. It has also come to mean cooperation and communication within the worldwide Christian community. Some mention of ecumenism from that perspective found its way into eight of the 16 documents of Vatican II as well as the opening speeches of both Council popes, John XXIII and Paul VI.
Perhaps most remarkable was the invitation extended to other Christian Churches to send representatives to the Council. Twenty-one Orthodox and Protestant groups accepted the invitation, including Russian Orthodox, Anglican, Lutheran, Congregational, Methodist, Presbyterian, Friends (Quakers), Disciples of Christ and the World Council of Churches.
Moving toward Christian Unity
When the draft of the Decree on Ecumenism was introduced to the Council, the bishops’ reaction was immediate and enthusiastic. Montreal’s Cardinal L—ger remarked, “The present hope for and movement toward unity are not passing impulses, but are inspired by the Gospel and the Holy Spirit.”
Initially, questions concerning non-Christian religions and religious liberty were included in the Decree on Ecumenism. It was decided to treat these unique issues in separate documents. This allowed the Decree on Ecumenism to focus exclusively on the regrettable divisions in the Body of Christ.
In a move startling to some, the decree sought to re-establish ties with other Christian traditions rather than insist that they embrace Catholicism. Equally astonishing was the admission that the Catholic Church shares the responsibility for existing divisions and sees its own reform as an essential component in efforts toward reunion. To this end, the decree made a strong push for dialogue and opened the door to friendly discourse by acknowledging separated Christian traditions as sister and brother churches.
Building the Body of Christ
Focusing first on what unites Christians rather than the sometimes serious issues dividing them, the Church let it be known that many important elements that “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….Our separated brothers and sisters also carry out many liturgical actions of the Christian religion…these liturgical actions most certainly can truly engender a life of grace, and…are capable of giving access to that communion in which is salvation” (#3).
Lest Catholicism be seen as setting itself above the fray, the Council Fathers acknowledged, “Catholics must assuredly be concerned for the members of separated Christian communities, praying for them, keeping them informed about the Church, making the first approaches toward them. But their primary duty is to make a careful and honest appraisal of whatever needs to be renewed and done in the Catholic household itself, in order that its life may bear witness more clearly and more faithfully to the teachings and institutions which have been handed down from Christ through the apostles” (#4).
Vatican II recognized that efforts toward unity were not entirely new. “Already this renewal is taking place in various spheres of the Church’s life: the biblical and liturgical movements; the preaching of the Word of God and catechetics; the apostolate of the laity; new forms of religious life and the spirituality of married life; and the Church’s social teaching and activity” (#6).
In the final analysis, much of the work of ecumenism begins with individuals: “The faithful should remember that they promote union among Christians better, that indeed they live it better, when they try to live holier lives according to the Gospel” (#7).
Turning toward Each Other
Opinions about how far we’ve traveled toward Christian unity differ widely. As in most other major areas addressed by the Council Fathers, the opinion pendulum swings from those who believe too little has been accomplished to those who consider the Church to have gone too far.
Those who would like to see more rapid progress may well mean more obvious progress. The years immediately following the Council saw teeming activity with everything from ecumenical discussion groups to joint prayer gatherings. In their eagerness to be accommodating, some people tended to ignore very real differences between Catholics and their fellow Christians. By now, most sincere people realize that nothing is gained by refusing to acknowledge points on which we disagree.
While it is probably true that the initial fervor has cooled a bit, that in no way implies that the work of ecumenism has stalled. In the years since the Council, Catholic theologians and scholars have met for weeks, months and even years with their counterparts from other traditions including Anglican, Orthodox, Lutheran and Methodist. Their work is true ecumenism, first seeking points of accord and harmony, then recognizing legitimate areas of difference and finally searching for common ground on critical positions.
During a recent discussion in Rome on ecumenical relations, Australian Bishop Michael Putney, who co-chairs— the International Methodist-Catholic Dialogue, commented that Vatican II had converted him to the cause of ecumenism. He added that we discover who we are only by engaging those different from ourselves. This helps us to clarify and articulate our faith, making dialogue a spiritual discipline.
Are we there yet? Certainly not. But after centuries of moving ever farther apart, Christians have at last turned toward one another. That may be the most important effect of the Decree on Ecumenism over time, for direction is more important than speed.
Finding Truth in Other Faiths
In a single chapter, The Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions turned centuries of disregard and, too often, disrespect a full 180 degrees. The declaration (commonly referred to by its Latin title, Nostra Aetate) was originally intended to focus almost exclusively on Catholic/Jewish relations, a topic dear to the heart of Pope John XXIII. As apostolic delegate to Turkey and Greece during World War II, he had helped Jewish refugees fleeing to Palestine. He came away from that experience determined that anti-Semitism, wherever and however it still existed in the world, must be stamped out. In its final form, the declaration still carried a heavy Jewish focus but was broadened to include other great traditions as well.
Here, for the first time, the Catholic Church conceded that, while the fullness of truth rests in Jesus, much truth is to be found and respected in other religions also. Equally radical was the document’s encouragement of dialogue among the great world faiths and recognition of the contributions they have made.
For the first time in its history, the Catholic Church formally expressed appreciation for the merits of non-Christian religions: “The Catholic Church rejects nothing of what is true and holy in these religions. It has a high regard for the manner of life and conduct, the precepts and doctrines which…often reflect a ray of that truth which enlightens all…” (#2).
In light of recent world events, the following has taken on more vital significance: “The Church has also a high regard for the Muslims. They worship God, who is one, living and subsistent, merciful and almighty, the Creator of heaven and earth….Although not acknowledging him as God, they venerate Jesus as a prophet; his virgin Mother they also honor, and even at times devoutly invoke” (#3).
And after a long history of persecutions and pogroms carried out against Jews on the grounds that they are Christ-killers, the declaration reads: “Even though the Jewish authorities and those who followed their lead pressed for the death of Christ (see Jn 19:6), neither all Jews indiscriminately at that time, nor Jews today, can be charged with the crimes committed during his passion….Remembering, then, its common heritage with the Jews and moved not by any political consideration, but solely by the religious motivation of Christian charity, it deplores all hatreds, persecutions, displays of anti-Semitism levelled at any time or from any source against the Jews” (#4).
Pope John Paul II has done much to forward the agenda of Vatican II’s declaration on non-Christian religions: gathering the leaders of many faiths at Assisi, praying at Auschwitz and joining Jerusalem’s rabbinical leaders in prayer at the Western (Wailing) Wall. He was also the first pope in history to enter and pray in a mosque.
In the days and weeks following 9/11, I received many phone calls and e-mails from former students, expressing gratitude that they had some knowledge of Islam. Many were surprised and dismayed to find they were the only ones in their circles of friends, co-workers, etc., who had some acquaintance with Muslim belief and practice. They acted as voices crying in the wilderness, trying to explain that what occurred that dreadful day in no way reflected authentic Islamic teaching.
Gradually, Catholics are grasping the truth that every religion, including their own, contains extreme groups which do not accurately reflect their tradition’s beliefs.
What the Decree on Ecumenism and the Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions require of all religious persons of good will is twofold: to understand accurately and respect other religious traditions, and to reflect in our own lives an authentic image of our own tradition. In that way, we will honor both the innovative Council documents we have examined here and the pope whose astonishing vision we have to thank for them.
• What is your attitude toward people of other Christian traditions? people of other faiths? Is this based on personal experience, study or hearsay?
• The Council Fathers challenge us as a Church and as individuals to make our lives bear faithful witness to the teachings of Christ. How well does your life reflect an authentic image of our Catholic tradition?
• Have you taken advantage of opportunities to grow in knowledge and accurate understanding of other religious traditions? What more might you do in the future?