The moment that Pope John announced his plan to convoke an Ecumenical Council, interest centered on the question of what the Council could accomplish for Christian unity. Some, both Catholics and non-Catholics, impetuously talked of achieving unity in the Council itself. But most observers quickly realized that its immediate aim could not be the union of
the Christian world, or even, as Augustin Cardinal Bea wisely cautioned, "reunion with particular religious groups." This is not to deny, however, that the Council may prepare the way for unity by smoothing out many existing difficulties. The most fundamental of these, unfortunately, rise out of theological differences. Can anything be done about them?
No informed person, whatever his belief, expects the Church to compromise in this area. A leading Lutheran churchman. Dr. Hans Lilje, once observed that it would be unthinkable that an ecumenical council would cast doubt upon the dogmatic foundation of the Catholic Church. The executive secretary of the Lutheran World Federation, Dr. Kurt Schmidt-Clausen, also correctly insists that "the realization of Church unity has a chance of succeeding only if we place ourselves on the terrain of truth. Any other way of aspiring to unity by setting truth apart will only lead to a fictitious unity." (His remark was cited over the Vatican radio station in a recent broadcast which the Religious News Service reported at length and with its customary competence. )
The question remains: Does the Church's duty to preserve its doctrinal integrity forbid doing anything to lessen difficulties arising in the field of dogma? It is certain, as Cardinal Bea reminds us, that "charity without truth is blind and does not last." He concluded that the Council must "bind closely together both truth and charity, but before everything truth." Yet the Cardinal likewise maintained that "truth and charity are indivisibly linked...since truth without charity becomes intolerance." The Council may be expected, then, to proclaim the truths of faith without hesitation. At the sarne time, however, it will seek, in all charity, to further Christian unity by narrowing the chance of misunderstanding on the part of other Christians.
To be specific, the Vatican radio station notes that "non-Catholics experience great difficulty in understanding Catholic doctrine when it is presented to them in the traditional language of the Church." Happily, the Council can look to John XXIII for guidance in breaking down this barrier to communication. More than once he has stressed that by returning to the pure sources of revelation, it becomes possible to "renew in splendor the substance of human and Christian thought and life."
In the past, we know, the true meaning of a dogma has come to be misunderstood or even distorted because men's ways of looking at things and their manner of expressing their thoughts have changed greatly over the centuries. In addition, to quote Cardinal Bea again, many of our theological assertions' that express a definite and immutable doctrine "are explained by the historical circumstances in which they were formulated, and sometimes they present merely a certain aspect of the doctrine instead of the full abundance and sense of the truth therein contained." Clearly, a council can preach no other gospel than that entrusted to the Church by Christ Jesus. Just as clearly, it can render the richness of that treasure more accessible to men of our day by proclaiming it with evangelical simplicity and directness.