Every year many Christians celebrate the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, beginning on Jan. 18 (formerly the feast of St. Peter’s Chair, now celebrated on Feb. 22) and ending on Jan. 25, the feast of the Conversion of St. Paul. The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity provides an annual opportunity to take stock of the ecumenical movement.
Prior to the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), the Catholic Church had held to a decidedly negative attitude toward ecumenical relationships.
Official teaching embraced the principle, articulated by Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani, longtime prefect of the Holy Office (now the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, or CDF), that “error has no rights.”
It was assumed that all non-Catholics and the religious communities to which they belonged were “in error,” and as such were completely outside the “one, true Church of Christ.”
For the Catholic Church in those preconciliar years, ecumenism could mean only one thing: a return of the wandering sheep to the one, true fold of the Catholic Church, under its divinely appointed shepherd, the pope.
The Catholic Church rejected invitations to join the World Council of Churches, and forbade its theologians, including such ecumenical pioneers as the late Cardinal Yves Congar, from attending WCC assemblies.
On closer-to-home issues, Catholics were cautioned not to participate actively (via singing or joining in prayers) at weddings or funerals held in Protestant churches, and if one of the couples was a Catholic marrying outside the church, even if a son or a daughter, the Catholic parents and other Catholic relatives were forbidden to attend the ceremony, lest they give scandal; weddings between a Catholic and a Protestant, permitted only by a canonical dispensation, could not be held inside a Catholic church, but had to be conducted privately, often in a rectory parlor; moreover, the non-Catholic party had to a sign a promise to raise their children as Catholics and the same non-Catholic spouse could not be buried in a Catholic cemetery alongside their lifelong Catholic partner.
Needless to say, Protestants were never allowed to receive holy Communion at a Catholic Mass, and Catholics were strictly forbidden to receive what “purported” to be Communion at a non-Catholic service.
In seminaries, books and articles by Protestant authors were marked by an asterisk to put the student of theology on notice that there could be something dangerous to Catholic faith in the writings. The church also had placed certain works on the Index of Forbidden Books, even keeping the books behind locked library doors, accessible only to those with special permission to read them for limited purposes of research.
Pope John XXIII and the council that he convened in 1962 changed all that. Protestants, Anglicans, Orthodox and Eastern Christians separated from full communion with Rome were now acknowledged as brothers and sisters in Christ. Their faith in Christ, their baptism, their love for sacred Scripture — all of these and more provided common ground between the Catholic Church and other churches and ecclesial communities.
Significantly, the council described ecumenism as a process of restoring Christian unity rather than of a return to the pre-existing unity of the Catholic Church.
There were non-Catholic official observers at the council, who not only had the best seats in St. Peter’s Basilica, but also influenced the drafting of some of the major conciliar documents.
At the end of the council in December 1965, Pope Paul VI announced the repeal of the mutual excommunications that had divided Catholics and Orthodox Christians for centuries.
The Catholic Church subsequently participated in various dialogues, or consultations, with various non-Catholic churches and ecclesial communities at both the international and national levels.
Rules for mixed marriages were substantially amended, and all of the restrictive practices that were in place prior to Vatican II were now abandoned, with the exception of the official regulations governing intercommunion.
After this initial flush of progress, ecumenism seemed for several years to be in a state of drift — a word often used by various ecumenists to decry the situation.
Pope John Paul II did make an effort to seek reconciliation with the Orthodox, but it met with much resistance on the Orthodox side. He also made remarkable gestures toward the Anglicans, meeting and praying with the archbishops of Canterbury on several occasions, in Rome and in England.
Good things are still happening, but last summer’s CDF document on the church did not help matters. It seemed to be, in tone, a reversion to some of that pre-Vatican II theology.
In the spirit of the current pope’s recent encyclical, however, we must look toward 2008 with renewed hope.
Father McBrien is a professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame.