‘Unitatis Redintegratio’ and Its Elusive Success

Vatican II’s Decree on Ecumenism After 50 Years

VATICAN CITY — On Nov. 21, the Church marked 50 years since the promulgation of the Second Vatican Council’s decree on ecumenism, Unitatis Redintegratio (Restoration of Unity).

Overwhelmingly approved by the Council fathers (2,137 votes for to 11 against) in 1964, the declaration sought to renew the Church’s approach to separated churches and ecclesial communities.

Unitatis Redintegratio was the first major Church document on ecumenism since Pope Leo XIII’s 1894 encyclical Praeclara Gratulationis Publicae (The Reunion of Christendom).

But unlike that document, and the Church’s general position on ecumenism that had existed since the Council of Trent, Unitatis Redintegratio refrains from calling on all Christians to return to the fold under the unity of the Vicar of Christ. Instead, it offers a different kind of ecclesiology, one that more generally seeks unity with “separated Christian brethren,” but also acknowledges positive aspects of their communities. And distortion over the document’s true aims during the document’s implementation has led to confusion over the true relationship between members of the one true Church and those “separated brethren.”

The restoration of unity among all Christians “is one of the principal concerns of the Second Vatican Council,” Unitatis Redintegratio begins, and it reminds the Church that such division between Christian communions “openly contradicts the will of Christ, scandalizes the world and damages the holy cause of preaching the Gospel to every creature.”

The document presents Catholics with the “ways and means” to respond to God’s grace and his divine call to unity, urging “Christian perfection,” a “change of heart” and making a point of emphasizing what is good and holy among the members of Protestant denominations and various Christian ecclesial communities.

“Though we believe them to be deficient in some respects,” these ecclesial communities “have been by no means deprived of significance and importance in the mystery of salvation,” the document states (1, 3). The Spirit of Christ, it continues, “has not refrained from using them as means of salvation which derive their efficacy from the very fullness of grace and truth entrusted to the Church.” It refers in particular to “a strong sense of justice and a true charity toward their neighbor” among some separated Christian communities.

It also underlines that “anything wrought by the grace of the Holy Spirit in the hearts of our separated brethren can be a help to our own edification.” Whatever is “truly Christian,” it says, is “never contrary to what genuinely belongs to the faith; indeed, it can always bring a deeper realization of the mystery of Christ and the Church.”

But it also recalls the ultimate goal of ecumenism, stating the hope that all Christians will be “gathered into the one and only Church in that unity which Christ bestowed on his Church from the beginning.” The Church believes that this unity “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,” it says (1, 4).

It urges meetings and dialogue between “both sides,” but stresses that doctrine should be “clearly presented in its entirety” because “nothing is so foreign to the spirit of ecumenism as a false irenicism [attempts to achieve unity through reason], in which the purity of Catholic doctrine suffers loss and its genuine and certain meaning is clouded.”

It then examines the chief types of division and aspects in common, first among the churches of the East and then the ecclesial communities stemming from the Reformation.


Closer in One Respect

Byzantine Catholic Father Yosyp Veresh, professor and director of the Centre of Eastern Christian Studies in Trumau, Austria, said the Catholic and Orthodox Churches have drawn closer since Pope Paul VI promulgated the declaration. A major problem has been the lack of doctrinal unity between the Latin Church and the Orthodox Church, which has made it “difficult to enter into dialogue,” he explained. And although there have been advances, Father Veresh also pointed out serious setbacks, a current example being the Russian Orthodox Church’s animosity to Eastern-rite Catholics in Ukraine. 

Judging the success of Unitatis Redintegratio is, therefore, “not black and white,” he told the Register. Offering a quote from Scripture, he said, “You will know the tree by its fruits, [but] the fruits are coming, and more will come.”

Vatican official Father Tony Currer, who heads the department for Anglican and Methodist relations at the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, said the document has had a “positive impact” on relations with these ecclesial communities. It gave the Anglican Communion a “special mention,” leading to the first public meeting between a pope (Blessed Paul VI) and an archbishop of Canterbury (Michael Ramsey) two years later, as well as the establishment of the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission that has sought ecumenical progress.

However, the Anglican Communion, Methodists and Lutherans have drifted farther away from the Church over the past 50 years, most notably after the approval and ordination of women clergy and deepening differences over human sexuality. Father Currer says these developments could not have been foreseen by Unitatis Redintegratio, but he believes the principles contained in the document “still hold good.”


Unity and Salvation

“We can’t go back; it’s an irrevocable commitment to working with these partners, who we have to believe are sincere Christians, reading the same Scriptures as us, drawing on many of the same sources and trying their best to be disciples,” Father Currer said. “We have to take that in great faith, and there’s a commitment to dialogue and working with them, even if there are times when we think: ‘How are we going to get past this?’”

Ultimately, he said, “unity is a gift that God desires for us and wants to give us, and, therefore, we have to trust he can bring it about even when we can’t see the way.”

Critics of contemporary ecumenical dialogue argue that by not unequivocally upholding the Catholic Church as indispensable for salvation, post-conciliar ecumenism has been harmful for souls because it has relativized the faith. By contrast, Praeclara Gratulationis Publicae calls on the faithful to pray that God “assemble those who are dispersed, bring back those who err and unite them to thy holy, catholic and apostolic Church.”

Critics also cite Pope Pius XI’s 1928 encyclical Mortalium Animos (Religious Unity), in which he stated: “The union of Christians can only be promoted by promoting the return to the one true Church of Christ of those who are separated from it, for in the past they have unhappily left it” (10).

Father Currer acknowledged that it is “a different language we’re speaking,” because Unitatis Redintegratio views the former approach as suggesting “we have nothing to gain and nothing to receive from other Christians.”

Pope St. John Paul II’s 1995 encyclical Ut Unum Sint (Commitment to Ecumenism) and Pope Francis “are all saying that, actually, the Holy Spirit has been at work here in our brothers and sisters in other communions; and if the Holy Spirit has been at work there, then there are gifts for us to receive from that,” Father Currer said. “So moving away from the ‘language of return’ is to say: Actually, we also have to move forward, and we have something to receive from Christians in their communities. It’s a more reciprocal engagement that we are open to, strictly in that sense.” 

Ut Unum Sint exhorts the faithful, when undertaking dialogue, to “presuppose in the other a desire for reconciliation, for unity in truth.” For this to happen, it adds, “any display of mutual opposition must disappear. Only thus will dialogue help to overcome division and lead us closer to unity.”


Truth and Charity Required

Father Veresh stressed the importance of remaining in truth and charity if authentic ecumenism is to bear fruit. “It’s difficult because we’re dealing with living people and living communities,” he said. “It’s not a theory, it’s a praxis, and we don’t want to move to a practice that is separate from the truth, so we have to stay in truth and act as real people in real communities and real churches.”

“Dialogue is not simply an exchange of ideas. In some way, it is always an exchange of gifts,” John Paul II wrote in Ut Unum Sint. But he added: “Ecumenical dialogue is marked by a common quest for truth, particularly concerning the Church.”