The National Catholic Review
Feb 28 1959 - 12:00am | Robert A. Graham
From February 28, 1959
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World reaction to the prospect of an ecumenical council on behalf of church unity must have been extremely encouraging to the Pope. The dramatic decision of John XXIII, which burst upon the public on January 25, was in the main interpreted quite favorably by those who have no particular reason to indulge in perfunctory applause. Orthodox and Protestant leaders, as well as editorialists in the secular press, displayed their unmistakable interest in the Pope's plan and their sincere respect for his motives. His announcement was taken as something to be expected from one whose personality had already established itself in the popular mind as that of an amiable man who wants to be friends with everyone.

Indeed, from all indications, the proposal was the Pope's own idea; it is certainly stamped with his generous and expansive character. There is every reason to expect that the Holy Father will try to start the Fathers of the council off in a mood of conciliation comparable to his own. In the meantime it is already evident that the mere anticipation of a general council under the sign of unity has put this old and much-argued problem on an entirely new basis in everyone's mind. Of itself, the Pope's decision indicates that the Catholic Church believes the time is ripe for serious new initiatives to resolve the tragic historic division of Christians.

What will all this lead to? Speculation is, of course, very hazardous at this stage. One can only size up the elements of the situation, examine the moods of the interested parties and then make an extrapolation from the present state of minds to situations that may materialize in the next few years. As one reads the mass of statements issued by both Orthodox and Protestant leaders after the news broke, it is obvious that the instant, articulate response was nothing less than the explosion of pent-up feelings and thoughts. In these statements two themes recur. Together they indicate, each in its own way, the two dominant elements of hope and doubt that may be expected to be at work in all hearts.

On the one hand, it is evident that the unity of all those who invoke the name of Jesus Christ is an aspiration which means a great deal indeed to non-Catholic Christians. The desire of Christ, expressed so clearly and so often in the gospels, is in striking contrast to present religious divisions. In this common desire for the unity of Christians, no doubt divinely inspired, lies the best hope for its ultimate realization.

On the other hand, a pessimistic note tempers the praise of the Pope's plan. Orthodox and Protestant spokesmen raise points on which they are convinced Rome will not yield. The difficulties—let us be candid about it—of a union with the Catholic Church loom so large at this moment as to seem beyond the possibility of resolution. So set is each of the two major parties on its own standpoint that no compromise formula compatible with the convictions of all concerned appears anywhere on the horizon. If the Catholics are resolute and frank in expounding their own minimum conditions of reconciliation, the Orthodox and Protestants are no less vehement in their rejection of these conditions. Not even the kindly and humane new Pontiff can conjure away a thousand years of theological and historical problems that will confront the 21st Ecumenical Council, to be convened in 1961 in quest of Church unity.

While it is customary to link the Orthodox and the various Protestant denominations in any discussion of the ecumenical movement, these two groups are, as is well known, quite different in the challenge they present from the Catholic point of view. In each case a distinct set of theological and historical issues is at play. In the coming months, therefore, it will be necessary for observers of the preparations for the council to keep this in mind.

Reactions Among the Orthodox

On the side of the dissident Eastern Churches, undoubtedly the man to watch is Athenagoras I, Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople. This prelate's own subjects are reckoned at only two million (by contrast, for instance, with the 7.35 million Orthodox in Greece, not to speak of the 125 million who recognize the Patriarch of Moscow). But the see of Constantinople is "first among equals" and bears the prestige of ancient Byzantium, the "New Rome." Athenagoras studied in the United States where, according to reports, he came to know and admire the Catholic Church. In the past few years he has been quite outspoken in advocating an end to the divisions of East and West. In 1952 the late Pope Pius XII sent to the Patriarch, through the Apostolic Delegate in Istanbul, a commemorative medal of the proclamation of the dogma of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary. The Patriarch on this occasion warmly received the Delegate and devoutly kissed the medal which, need, it be said, represented a belief particularly dear to the Eastern Churches.

It is doubtful that the Pope has ever met the Ecumenical Patriarch personally. That they have been in communication recently is known from the Patriarch's own declaration. It is possible that the Orthodox leader's reaction to the Pope's Christmas appeal for unity was the deciding factor that led to the decision on the general council. In his own New Year message the Patriarch referred to the Christmas appeal at length: "We gladly welcome," he said, "every sincere appeal for the sake of peace in the Church. And our gladness is naturally the greater when such a Church union appeal comes from a Christian center such as Old Rome." He urged that every call for unity be "accompanied by such concrete deeds and actions as are necessary to prove our intentions in full harmony with our words...." At the time, these words appeared only to reflect the Patriarch's known hope of achieving some common practical action among all Christians in the ideological fight against communism. Now it is necessary to view them in the light of the soundings that Pope John XXIII was at that moment undertaking on the opportuneness of an ecumenical council.

The words of Athenagoras should not be overestimated. Few, if any, other Orthodox leaders are on the record in such terms. It may be wondered, in fact, just how far the Patriarch's views are supported by the clergy and laity of his own jurisdiction. Indeed, even he had to add his own note of caution: "Such a uniting of spiritual forces is, of course, not possible in the present state of division and discord which has existed for centuries."

Protestant Reactions

Typically Western in their definiteness were the reactions of Protestant spokesmen. Reinbold Niebuhr, in the February 16 Christianity and Crisis, while hoping for good results from the council, asked on "what basis Protestants and Orthodox would be asked to attend the council. He doubted that the Protestants, for their part, would find the conditions acceptable: "The idea of such a council is good, but it is quite obvious that the Pope's humanity has not betrayed him into any treasonable ideas toward the fixed Roman position that the only way to unity is for the erring children to return to the Roman fold and accept the fatherly authority of the Roman Pontiff." A more official statement was that issued by Dr. Edwin T. Dahlberg, president of the National Council of Churches, whose words are fairly representative of Protestant opinion, at least in this country. He, too, took a well-formulated stand:

Anything that would be a step toward unity of the Churches would be welcome. It would have to be recognized that it was a mutual coming-together, not under conditions laid down by one Church for all the others. Any movement toward unity cannot be looked upon by Protestants as separated Christians returning to the Church of Rome.

A similar stand, for the wider international circle of those working in the ecumenical movement, was taken by W. A. Visser't Hooft, who is general secretary ot the World Council of Churches in Geneva. He found significance in the fact that, whereas first news reports from Rome spoke of "seeking together the basis of a return to unity,' later dispatches spoke only of an invitation to separated communities to seek unity. The latter phrasing seemed to imply reunion only on conditions laid down by Rome. The council's executive committee, in a statement of February 12, confirmed the stand of its secretary by noting that "progress toward unity is made when churches meet together on the basis of mutual respect."

It must be admitted that the Protestants have full cause for believing that the Catholic Church does not wish to meet with either the Orthodox or Protestants on equal terms (or on "the basis of mutual respect"). "The only possible or legitimate union is that of the return of the dissidents to the Roman Church," has written Fr. Charles Boyer, S.J., professor at the Gregorian University in Rome and a foremost leader in the unionist movement. He thus summarized the Church's position:

One can never repeat too often: it is in proclaiming her privilege of being the sole spouse of Christ and messenger of integral verity that the Catholic Church keeps safe the possibility of a real union of all Christians. It is upon her terrain and with her unity that all will be able to become one.

Is this language too sweeping? Does it lack necessary nuances? Other Catholic theologians may perhaps wish the same basic dogmatic truth were framed in somewhat less rigorous terms. Nevertheless, it is a safe interpretation of the mind of the Church, particularly as expressed in the Instruction of the Holy Office of December 20, 1949 (Catholic Mind [XLVIII], June, 1950, pp. 379-384). This important document warned lest Catholic tenets, whether dogmas or questions connected therewith, be "so whittled down and somehow made to conform to heterodox teaching as to jeopardize the purity of Catholic doctrine or obscure its clear and genuine meaning." Similar warnings against "imprudent irenicism" were voiced by the late Pope Pius XII in his doctrinal encyclical Humani Generis (Catholic Mind [XLVIII], Nov., 1950, p. 690).

If Fr. Boyer's words are to be taken as fully representative, in content and tone, of the minimum, unchangeable conditions of the Catholic Church, there would seem to be no possible basis of hope for union. Yet—strange paradox explainable only in the common yearning of all Christians—in recent years the interchange of ideas between Catholic and non-Catholic theologians has been growing apace. (See "Protestants and Catholics in Germany," by Avery Dulles, S.J. AM. 1/24/59 ). The very instruction of the Holy Office, which seemed to imply impossible conditions of union, may, in fact, be interpreted as the first recognition by the Church of the serious possibility of ultimate re-establisbment of Christian unity. In its instruction, the Holy Office can be seen laying down ground rules for inter-faith discussions. It thereby seems to recognize the utility and legitimacy of talking with the non-Catholics, even though minds remain far apart.

But the difficulties remain, no matter how many procedural safeguards have been constructed. Without going into individual theological issues, at bottom there remains no agreement on the very idea of unity itself. True unity, in the Catholic view, can be found only in the Catholic Church and in a return to that true Church by those who are separated from it by dogmatic error or by the absence of communion with the center of unity which is the See of Peter. The Holy Office instruction puts the word "reunion" in quotes, as if to remind Catholics of the ambiguity that bedevils the ecumenical movement. For the World Council of Church, "unity" has a very specific meaning. The World Council starts from the assumption that unity is nowhere to be found among Christians and is something yet to be discovered. This organization has a tendency to seek for a "greatest common denominator," and to bury, so to speak, doctrinal differences under the cover of general agreement on a few "essential" tenets. By contrast, the Catholic Church believes herself already one in faith and destined by Christ to unite within herself today, as at Pentecost, the unity for which Christ prayed. For Catholics, Christ's promise of unity has been and is fulfilled in the Catholic Church. He who seeks unity, therefore, must go to her to find it. This conception, of course, the Protestants and Orthodox do not accept. But the WCC executive committee in its statement already cited conceded that progress toward unity called for a "full commitment on the part of each Church to the truth of the gospel, to charity and to a faithful interpretation of its deepest convictions." A Catholic's deepest conviction is that there is but one true Church and that where Peter is, there is the Church. Can the forthcoming ecumenical council provide a fresh interpretation of that basic tenet?

At the present moment it seems extremely unlikely that any of the Orthodox bishops will take part in the council, even if invited in the most diplomatic way to act as observers. (However, on this point, it is better not to preclude some surprise gesture by Pope John, who can draw on some little-known precedents.) By itself the council can illuminate the doctrinal obscurities in those areas particularly where clarification is most useful from the standpoint of reconciling the Eastern Churches. One of these areas is the meaning of the Church, and the relationship of the Pope to the Church. The English Dominican specialist in unity, Fr. Henry St. John, writing in the January 30 Universe (London), has suggested that the discussion of the new council on the relation of the papacy to the Church as the Mystical Body might well advance the day of Christian unity.

Here in the United States, the problem of unity, as observers have more than once remarked, has hardly engaged the same amount of attention that it has attracted among English Catholics. This is probably because of, and not in spite of, the hopeless proliferation of Protestant bodies in the United States. The council, among its many important incidental effects, may further a new approach by Catholics in this country toward the problem of interdenominational relations. With an historic ecumenical council called to advance Church unity, it would seem unrealistic to proceed on the assumption, as we have done up to now, that no problem exists and that all we Catholics need to do in the name of unity is to pray for the conversion of heretics and schismatics.

Robert A. Graham, S.J., was an associate editor at America.