VATICAN II's DECREE ON ECUMENISM
– Post-Conciliar Misinterpretations, and –

THE QUEST FOR CHRISTIAN UNITY




Vatican II's formal introduction into the modern world of Ecumenism (originally set into motion by Protestants seeking greater unity via the World Council of Churches) occurred during the "Third Session of the Vatican II Council" (September 14 – November 21, 1964). Pope Paul VI, bishops, and theologians devoted themselves to determine how the Catholic Church could take positive steps to achieve that "Unity" among Christians which it had always desired in conformity with Our Lord's words during the Last Supper:

"That all may be one... that the world may believe."
(Jn. 17: 21)

The Lord's prayer certainly assured, to the Church He founded on Peter and the Apostles, that substantial Visible Unity which can never be lost among the heresies and schisms which would historically tear away millions from her bosom. But it ceaselessly called her pastors to pray, study, and labor for their reintegration in the Mystical Body of the Catholic Church of those baptized children of hers who for whatever reason had strayed from Holy Mother Church, the flock committed to Peter, Rock and Head of the Apostles.

Exhorting all Catholics to take an active and intelligent part in the work of ecumenism and to "gladly acknowledge the truly Christian endowments of our common heritage which are found among our separated brethren", the Council Fathers took some practical measures to facilitate greater understanding and friendship with them:

  • the encouragement of theological dialogues,
  • cooperation in dealing with social problems,
  • and joining in common prayer as a "very effective means of petitioning for the grace of unity." (UR, #4, 8)

There is the admonition (often ignored afterwards) that:

"Nothing is so foreign to the spirit of ecumenism as a false irenicism which harms the purity of Catholic doctrine and obscures its genuine and certain meaning."
(U.R., #11)

It is a matter for profound examination of conscience after almost 50 years of ecumenical activity by Catholics sparked by the "Decree on Ecumenism" to examine and study the success of such efforts. Well known Catholic author Kenneth D.Whitehead and one of the best informed writers dealing with texts of Vatican II, controverted by critics, observed:

Agreement is far from universal among Catholics themselves whether the new Catholic emphasis on ecumenism adopted by Vatican Council II has been an entirely good thing for the Church. Among the various misunderstandings and confusions that followed in the wake of the Council, those related to the question of ecumenism have in fact seemed to be especially acute. And this is not just because of the apparent lack of success to date of the really extraordinary ecumenical efforts the Church has made in the post-conciliar years. For after more than 40 years of such ecumenical efforts, there is scarcely a single case of completely restored Christian unity; nor, in spite of widely publicized ecumenical meetings between Church leaders, extensive dialogue by theologians, numerous agreed statements, many and regular joint prayers for Christians to be united, along with much talk on all sides about how Christians ought to be united, there still does not seem, any time soon, to be much of a real prospect for actual Christian reunification, or restoration of communion between formally separated Christian bodies. (1)

At the beginning of the Church's charter on Ecumenism – its "Decree on Ecumenism" [known as] "Unitatis Redintegratio" (U.R.) – that was promulgated in public session by Pope Paul VI on November 21, 1964, one reads:

The restoration of unity among Christians is one of the principal concerns of the Second Vatican Council. Christ the Lord founded One Church and One Church Only. However, many Christian communions present themselves to men as true inheritors of Jesus Christ; all indeed to profess to be followers of the Lord but they differ in mind and go their different ways, as if Christ Himself were divided. Certainly, such division openly contradicts the will of Christ, scandalizes the world, and damages that most holy cause, the preaching of the Gospel to every creature.
(UR, #1)

As Mr. Whitehead noted in view of the distortions that would be committed by trendy theologians concerning the nature and identity of the Church:

"It is perhaps more than a little ironic that Vatican II's strongest and most insistent reiteration of the Church's traditional claim to be the one, true Church founded by Jesus Christ should have come, of all places, in its Decree on Ecumenism." (2)

The Decree declared with no equivocation :

"It is through Christ's Catholic Church alone, which is the universal help toward salvation, that the fullness of the means of salvation can be obtained. It was to the Apostolic College alone, of which Peter is the head, that we believe Our Lord entrusted all the blessings of the New Covenant, in order to establish on earth the one Body of Christ into which all those should be fully incorporated who belong in any way to the People of God."
(U.R., #3)
"As the obstacles to perfect ecclesiastical communion are overcome, all Christians will be gathered, in a common celebration of the Eucharist, into the unity of the one and only Church, which Christ bestowed on His Church from the beginning. This unity, we believe, subsists in the Catholic Church as something she can never lose, and we hope that it will continue to increase until the end of time."
(UR, #4)

The Decree on the Catholic Eastern Churches, "Orientalium Ecclesiarum" (O.E.), which was promulgated on the same day as that on Ecumenism, also noted the unicity of the true Church of Christ by stating:

The holy Catholic Church, which is the Mystical Body of Christ, is made up of the faithful who are organically united in the Holy Spirit by the same faith, the same sacraments and the same government (O.E. #2)...These individual Churches, both Eastern and Western, while they differ among themselves in what is called 'rite', namely in liturgy, in ecclesiastical discipline and in spiritual discipline, are none the less all equally entrusted to the pastoral guidance of the Roman Pontiff, who by God's appointment is successor to Blessed Peter in primacy over the Universal Church. Therefore these churches are of equal rank, so that none of them is superior to the others because of its rite. They have the same rights and obligations, even with regard to the preaching of the Gospel in the whole world (cf. Mk. 16 :15), under the direction of the Roman Pontiff.
(O.E., #3)

The above quotations from the Decrees on Ecumenism and the Eastern Catholic Churches simply repeat in succinct fashion the words of Council Vatican II's most important document, "Lumen Gentium" (Dogmatic Constitution on the Church), the most magnificent ecclesiological exposition of the nature of the Church in 2000 years of the Church's history:

This is the sole Church of Christ which in the Creed we profess to be One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic, which our Savior, after His Resurrection, entrusted to Peter's pastoral care (Jn. 21: 17), commissioning him and the other Apostles to extend and rule it (cf. Matt. 28:18, etc.) and which He raised up for all ages as 'the Pillar and Mainstay of the truth' (1 Tim. 3:15). This Church, constituted and organized as a society in the present world, subsists in the Catholic Church, which is governed by the successor of Peter and by the bishops in communion with him. Nevertheless, many elements of sanctification and of truth are found outsides its visible confines, since these are gifts belonging to the Church of Christ, they are forces impelling towards Catholic unity.
(Lumen Gentium, #8)

Vatican II insisted, moreover, on the Petrine ministry of the Pope as essential to the hierarchical structure and spiritual mission of the "Church as Evangelizer" of the nations:

[Christ] willed that the successors of the Apostles, the bishops namely, should be the shepherds in His Church until the end of the world. In order that the episcopate itself, however, might be one and undivided, He put Peter at the head of the other Apostles, and in him he set up a lasting and visible source and foundation of the unity both of faith and communion. This teaching concerning the institution, the permanence, the nature and import of the sacred primacy of the Roman Pontiff and his infallible teaching office, the Sacred Synod proposes anew to be firmly believed by all the faithful, and, proceeding undeviatingly with this same undertaking, it proposes to proclaim publicly and enunciate clearly the doctrine concerning bishops, successors of the Apostles, who together with Peter's successor, the Vicar of Christ, and the visible head of the whole Church, direct the house of the living God (Lumen Gentium, #18)... The college or body of bishops has no authority unless united with the Roman Pontiff, Peter's successor, as its head, whose primatial authority, let it be added, over all, whether pastors of faithful, remains in its integrity. For the Roman Pontiff, by reason of his office as Vicar of Christ, namely, and as pastor of the entire Church, has full, supreme and universal power over the entire Church, a power which he can always exercise unhindered.
(Lumen Gentium, #22)
(see also L.G. #25, noting the Pope's function in the Church as "the supreme teacher of the Universal Church, in whom the Church's charism of infallibility is present in a singular way.")

Here one sees Ecumenical Council Vatican II guided by the Holy Spirit reaffirming in the strongest (and even, one might say, in 19th c. Ultramontane) terms the teaching on Papal supremacy and infallibility found in Vatican I, the ecumenical Council particularly disliked and calumniated in the writings of Liberal/Modernist theologians and writers. In the last 50 years such critics of traditional Catholic doctrines have been a major factor contributing, with their anti-Catholic errors and their anti-Papal complex, to the "Crisis in the Church".

Clearly, the "Crisis" that appeared after the Council, reflected a great loss of faith aided by intellectual elites (clerical and lay) who had lost sight of the divine and supernatural character of the Church. They neglected the Church as the divine work of a divine Christ and as a mystery of faith, as Body of Christ, People of God, and virginal Bride of Christ.

For five decades the Magisterium via the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith has issued repeated Instructions for fidelity to Catholic truth and censures of heterodox views and writings to remind bishops and laity that Our Lord Jesus was THE ONE Savior of the world and that the Catholic Church is "His ONE Church". The Church, moreover, was not a mere human and sociological entity to be reconstructed in a democratic political manner open to every moral aberration and thereby becoming enslaved to "the spirit of the world".

As mentioned, egregious misinterpretations of the teachings of Vatican II, especially regarding the nature and identity of the Church, lie at the heart of the "Crisis" that the Church finds itself in. The blurring of the identity of the Church due to a "false irenicism and the obscuring of Catholic doctrinal distinctiveness" made the reason for being or remaining Catholic less compelling. It also led to the sorry diminution of missionary activity and zeal for the salvation of souls. A pall of silence fell over Vatican II's teaching concerning salvation:

"[Christ] is present in his Body which is the Church. He Himself explicitly asserted the necessity of faith and baptism (cf. Mk. 16: 16; Jn. 3: 5), and thereby affirmed at the same time the necessity of the Church which men enter through baptism as through a door. Hence they could not be saved who, knowing that the Catholic Church was founded as necessary by God through Christ, would refuse to enter it, or to remain in it."
(L.G., #14)

Distortion of the ecclesiology of Vatican II, moreover, led to hostility towards the exercise of the Petrine ministry of the Roman Pontiff. Disobedience to the Popes' teachings and directives would characterize what would be termed by journalists an "American Church" ("AmChurch") whose rebellious "Liberal Establishment" hung loose to Rome. "AmChurch" bishops resistant to Roman Curial correction would prove to have failed time and again to safeguard the "One Lord, One Faith, One Church", being, as Msgr. George A. Kelly charged, "pluralized into ambiguity by modern academics" (3)

These academics were, of course, those camp-followers of theologian Charles E. Curran who led the revolt against the Papal encyclical "Humanae Vitae" in 1968, and have continued to teach in Catholic universities and colleges seeking to free themselves from the control of Bishops or who remained free from episcopal discipline.

As "Time" magazine (November 28, 1981) observed:

"The Roman Catholic Church in the U.S. sometimes must seem like an unruly teenager, demanding the right to experiment and to be 'relevant'."

It further noted that some Bishops, theologians, and leading religious women sought change in Church doctrine regarding divorce-and-remarriage, contraception, abortion, sexual mores (especially homosexuality), the prohibition against priestly ordination of women, and above all the freedom to dissent from Magisterial teachings. Amidst the turmoil in the Church in the 1970's and 1980's "Time" quoted Fr. Carl Peter of Catholic University of America, as observing:

"The church in this country is healthy and reaching a new stage of maturity. While remaining authentically Roman Catholic, we are becoming more and more distinctly American."

The radical views and doctrinal changes desired by those who ignored the teachings of Vatican II and the obligation on all to adhere to them in "obedience of faith" were clearly in defiance of the actual doctrines taught and reaffirmed by the Church. Vatican II documents were not read by dissenters with the eyes of faith in the Church, thereby resulting in perversions of Catholic doctrines. There was never a serious study of the Council and its doctrinal texts by all too many American Catholics, who would be easily victimized by popular currents of dissent often given sanction in the Liberal Catholic Press.

The resultant offenses against Catholic doctrine have been outrageous and have resulted in much damage to the Church. This has been the judgment of Popes and Bishops across the post-conciliar years, with Pope Benedict XVI especially denouncing the gross error that dogma and doctrine had been changed by Vatican II, resulting in an "hermeneutic of rupture and discontinuity."

One of the most serious denials (explicit or implicit) of Catholic doctrine was that which denied "the Catholic Church to be Christ's one and only Church". Vatican II's "Decree on Ecumenism" was, in effect, manhandled by subtle dissenters as well as "Lumen Gentium's" use of the word "subsistit" which was twisted to mean that the Church of Christ is wider and broader than the Catholic Church.

Thus, for example, the scholarly Jesuit Fr. Robert Taft, perhaps the world's leading expert on the Byzantine Liturgy, can actually write in open contradiction to Vatican II's "Decree on Ecumenism" and other documents:

"The new Catholic 'Sister Churches' ecclesiology describes not only how the Catholic Church views the Orthodox Churches. It also represents a startling revolution in how the Catholic Church views itself; we are not the only kid on the block, the whole Church of Christ, but one Sister Church among others. Previously, the Catholic Church saw itself as the original one and only true Church of Christ from which all other Christians had separated from one reason or another in the course of history, and Catholics held simplistically, that the solution to divided Christendom consisted in all other Christians returning to Rome's maternal bosom."
(Catholic World Report, 5/2/2013)

Fr. Richard McBrien who has dominated the theology department at Notre Dame for many years and termed by fellow faculty member philosophy professor Dr. Ralph McInerney as "the worst thing that ever happened to the University of Notre Dame", was known for his rages and invectives against the Vatican and the Papacy. His view of the Church and his doctrinal dissent on many issues was disseminated in books, columns in diocesan papers, and church bulletins throughout the U.S. and Canada for many years.

For Fr. McBrien and his followers:
  1. "The expression 'one, true Church of Christ' is misleading and it should be avoided...The Body of Christ is larger in scope and extent than the Church by itself... Were a Catholic to shift his own place within the Body of Christ (by moving from one Christian community to another), one cannot speak of that Catholic as one who 'has lost the faith'." (cf. his "Catholicism", 1994, pp. 684, 732, 735)
A well-known writer, Fr. Ben F. Meyer, eventually left the priesthood but not before misrepresenting Conciliar teaching:
  1. "By 'Church' throughout my study is meant the one Church of Christ, which as the Council put it, subsists in the Roman Catholic Church, and as the Council left to understand... subsists also in the Orthodox, Anglican, and Protestant Churches."
Eastern rite Catholics were not immune from the dissenters' new ecclesiology. Ukranian Catholic Fr. Victor Posipishil wrote:
  1. "[Vatican II introduced] the distinction between the Church of Christ and the Catholic Church. To the first belong all baptized persons; to the second belong those who have subjected themselves to the primatial authority of the bishop of Rome." (Diakonia, no. 3, 1987, p. 146)
Even the noted Dominican spiritual writer Fr. Jordan Aumann was influenced to state in his book "On the Front Lines: the Lay Person in the Church After Vatican II":
  1. "We have made a distinction between membership in the 'Church of Christ' and in the Catholic Church. All validly baptized Christians, whatever their religious affiliation, are members of the Church of Christ."
The Canadian Basilian T. Allan Smith also insisted that Vatican II's use of the word "subsistit" rather than "est" (is) resulted in the Council:
  1. "clearly abstaining from making a statement of identity. The Council does not state that the one true Church founded by Christ is the Roman Catholic Church."
The University of Louvain ecumenist Andre de Halleux writing in a scholarly ecumenical journal declared:
  1. "The ecclesial reality that the decree on Ecumenism recognized in the Eastern Churches separated from the Apostolic Roman See is such that one must say that such Churches also represent the true Church on earth. The Church of Christ subsists similarly in the Orthodox Church. Both the Catholic and the other Church are equally Catholic." (Irenikon,no. 3, 1985)
The Jesuit Thomas P. Rausch supported the arguments of another theologian J.R.Dionne, stating:
  1. "The Council Fathers in the famous substitution of 'subsists in' for 'is' in what became no. 8 of Lumen Gentium effectively changed the position of Pius XII by moving away from the relation of identity he had asserted between the Mystical Body of Christ and the Roman Catholic Church. Because the text of Orientalium Ecclesiarum was not brought into harmony with Lumen Gentium, the two documents remain inconsistent with each other." (in the ecumenical periodical "One in Christ", no. 2, 1988).
Even Catholic parish bulletins would question the identity of the Catholic Church as the one true Church and the Mystical Body of Christ:
  1. "Each year from January 18-25, Christians around the world observe the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. This was formerly known as the Chair of Unity Octave, when we Catholics prayed that the Protestants would soon see the light and return to the one true Church. Today, we look at that a little differently. There is no one true Church. Truth is never found just in a Church. Truth is found in Jesus." (January 25. 1987, St. Luke's Parish Bulletin, Two Rivers, WI)

Many other quotations could be given showing the confusion generated by theologians, catechists, and certain lay and clerical ecumenists regarding the identity of the one true Church of Christ, i.e., the Catholic Church. This erroneous teaching could be found in the catechisms of elementary school children.

It may be pointed out briefly here that:

  1. The documents of Vatican I nowhere use the expression "Roman Catholic Church" to describe itself. It always refers to itself as "the Catholic Church", period. That Catholic Church is Christ's "one and only Church".
  2. Catholics are those who are in full communion with the Successor of Peter, the visible head of the visible Church.
  3. Baptized non-Catholics may be said to be "joined in many ways" and to possess a certain belonging to the Catholic Church but only Catholics are "fully incorporated" in the Church and thus the "members of the Church". Non-Catholics, i.e., Protestants, Eastern Orthodox, and Oriental Orthodox, are all "called to this Catholic unity". (L.G., 13, 15)
  4. Unlike the separated Eastern Churches, Protestant denominations lack the Apostolic Succession of Bishops, and thus are not called "Churches" by Vatican II, but rather "ecclesial communities".
  5. As the distinguished Catholic theologian and Servant of God, Fr. John Hardon, S.J. , explained in his famous "The Catholic Catechism", "That which constitutes the one true Church – its churchiness, so to speak – not merely exists but it subsists in the Catholic Church, which is governed by the Successor of Peter and by the bishops in communion with him. Behind the carefully chosen verb 'subsists' stands the affirmation that the objective fullness of Christ's heritage to the Church – totality of his Revelation, totality of his Sacraments, and totality of authority to rule the People of God in his Name – resides in the Catholic Church, of which the bishop of Rome is the visible head." (p. 213)

That there can only be one subsistence of the Church is confirmed by the document issued by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), "Responses to Some Questions Regarding Certain Aspects of the Doctrine on the Church" (June 29, 2007). The Church's teaching is unequivocal but through the deliberate misinterpretation of the Council by those who passed their own opinions off as truth, decades of ecumenical work became nothing but futile wheel spinning. Unity with Peter was not discussed as the ultimate goal.

CONCLUSION

Who has not witnessed the doctrinal confusion among the faithful, and the liturgical aberrations disfiguring Catholic worship – sometimes to the scandal of Protestants and Orthodox? Who has not read of the alarming decline in Mass attendance and the closing of Catholic parishes and schools attended by fewer and fewer Catholics as well as the disappearance of Catholic monasteries, convents, and seminaries? For 4 decades parents have protested the lack of sound catechesis in Catholic schools and parishes and predicted that bishops' approval of Curriculum sex education in parochial and public schools was bound to lead to an assault on the entire spectrum of Catholic sexual morality. They were shocked at the laxity of ecclesiastical authorities who issued "Imprimaturs" on defective religious education texts and failed to outrightly condemn errors propagated by radical theologians and catechists.

There was also the scandal of liberal priests telling Protestants and Orthodox seeking to become Catholics to stay where they were so as not to injure ecumenism. The lapsing of millions of Catholics from the practice of the Faith and the spread of religious indifferentism has been unquestionably due to the on-going secularization of culture. It was also aided by errant theologians neglecting or distorting the truths and cautions embodied in Vatican II's "Decree on Ecumenism".

Is There Hope for the Future?

Despite the attempts to obscure the unique nature of Christ's Catholic Church and to wreak confusion among the faithful, it would be a profound mistake to believe that the Magisterium of Holy Church had abandoned that central tenet of the Faith: the Catholic Church is the one true Church Christ founded.

Erroneous views promoting religious indifferentism, false ecumenism, and universal salvation were the constant object of concern and vigilance as reflected in the addresses of Pope Paul VI and his successors throughout the post-conciliar period. The refutation of serious errors and even revived heresies occupied a host of documents issued by the Congregation of the Faith (CDF), all striking at the hydra-head of the theological Leviathan seeking to destroy the Church in the name of "renewal".

Major dissenters were applauded by the world press for their efforts to dismantle the hierarchical structure of the Church and to render irrelevant the "deposit of faith" confided by Christ to the Apostles with Peter at their head. Censures and excommunication of those media darlings who tore at the teachings of the Church from inside her ranks were decried as injustice. The distortion of doctrine continued.

But while the Catholic Church was being battered with serious losses of largely poorly catechized members, the ongoing disintegration of doctrinal Protestantism would attract many Evangelicals, Anglicans, and those of other denominations to the Catholic Church.

In the spiritual wasteland of modern society plunging into moral relativism and barbarism, the Catholic Church was viewed increasingly to be that visible society and spiritual Kingdom against which the Gates of Hell could NOT prevail. For all the liturgical and disciplinary changes that proved troubling, the Catholic Church held to its dogmatic and doctrinal patrimony. Amidst the severe storms raging against the Barque of Peter, the Catholic Church had proved to be NOT a "house built on sand" but rather a House built on the enduring Rock of Peter.

It is to be noted that it was in the post-conciliar period marked by disorders in the Church that the "best and brightest" of Protestants, Scott Hahn, Graham Leonard, William Oddie, Thomas Howard, Kenneth Howell, became Catholics. Then, too, there have been the agnostic seekers of truth who (like Malcolm Muggeridge) were revolted by modern nihilism to become Catholics. Anglican congregations have become increasingly interested in becoming Catholic and the Church has allowed them to do so with their own rites.

The warming of relations between Eastern Orthodox and Catholics with Orthodox patriarchs and bishops engaging in visits to Rome also represents one of the fruits of Vatican II's "spiritual ecumenism", preparing the way for the long-hoped "Reunion of the Churches". Nor can one overlook the spiritual heirs of the greatest of Russian philosophers, Vladimir Soloviev, in Russia and Romania. Influenced by Vatican II's outreach to the East and by Soloviev's ecumenical writings, work is going on quietly for the ending of the Byzantine Greco-Slav Schism.

 


ENDNOTES

1) Whitehead, Kenneth D., "The New Ecumenism" (St. Paul/Alba House, 2009; 214 pages), pp. 3-4.
2) Ibid., p. 31.
3) See 'in toto' Msgr. George A. Kelly, "The Battle for the American Church" (Doubleday & Company, Inc., Garden City, New York, 1979; 513 pages).


About James Likoudis
James Likoudis is an expert in Catholic apologetics. He is the author of several books dealing with Catholic-Eastern Orthodox relations, including his most recent "The Divine Primacy of the Bishop of Rome and Modern Eastern Orthodoxy: Letters to a Greek Orthodox on the Unity of the Church." He has written many articles published by various religious papers and magazines.
He can be reached at:  jlikoudis@cuf.org, or visit  Mr. James Likoudis' Homepage