There can be no doubt about the commitment of the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council to ecumenism; the subject permeates the council documents and the Decree on Ecumenism states in its first sentence “The restoration of unity among all Christians is one of the principal concerns of the Second Vatican Council.”
Prior to the council, the church had no official channel for communicating with other Christian bodies. Since the Council of Trent it had lived in self-imposed isolation from the churches of the Reformation and their progeny. That ended when Pope John created the Secretariat for Christian Unity. His choice of Cardinal Augustin Bea, the highly respected rector of the Pontifical Biblical Institute, made obvious the importance the pope placed on the new secretariat.
Ecumenism is one of those terms that is understood differently by the Catholic church and most other Christian churches. For Catholics the word ecumenical, as in ecumenical council, means universal, or all embracing. Hence an ecumenical council is a gathering of the universal church in the form of the body of bishops.
For non-Catholics, it its meaning is pan-Christian, as in the ecumenical movement to seek greater unity among Christian bodies. Thus when Pope John announced an “ecumenical” council many thought he had in mind a pan-Christian event.
Originating in the early 19th century among Protestant missionaries who found they were hard pressed to explain to those they were evangelizing how there could be two Christian churches, the ecumenical movement spawned the World Council of Churches, the Faith and Order Movement and in America, the Consultation on Church Union. Officially, the Catholic church stood aloof from the ecumenical movement, but, in the words of Dr. Albert Outler, Methodist theologian from SMU and an observer at the council, an ecumenical underground was at work in an unofficial and informal way among Catholic and Protestant theologians. Outler recalled “We were still very far apart and profoundly ignorant of each other and the respective heritages but there was a growing confidence that something important was beginning to happen and nobody knew how it was going to happen and by what means.” For Outler and his underground confreres the actions and words of Pope John were “a miracle in the making.”
When the document proposed by the Secretariat on Christian Unity was presented to the council Fathers, two other proposals were presented -- one dealing with reunion with the Orthodox and the other a proposed chapter in the first draft of the Constitution on the Church on seeking unity with Protestants. The proposal on Orthodox unity emerged as a separate decree. The Secretariat was asked to make the appropriate revisions.
When the revised document was returned for debate it was composed of five chapters. The first three chapters which provided the basis for the final decree were enthusiastically embraced by the council fathers, chapters IV and V, which dealt with relations with the Jews and religious liberty, respectively caused great consternation and debate. Chapter IV raised many questions from the Eastern rite bishops who expressed concern about the negative reaction against their churches, which were largely based in predominately Muslim countries. With Chapter V, the reaction came from bishops from Spain and Latin America who saw the document as an invitation to proselytism for Protestant and Evangelical churches.
Both Chapters IV and V were removed from the Secretariat proposal and ultimately became separate decrees on non-Christian religions and religious liberty. In final voting the Decree on Ecumenism was given overwhelming support by the council fathers with 2137 voting for and 11 against
One of the constitution’s major clarifications of the church’s teachings regarding other Christian churches and communities was that while the fullness of God’s self-revelation subsists in the Catholic church, nevertheless many elements of “sanctification and truth” can be found “outside her visible structure” and that these elements are potential steps toward unity.
Of significance was the council’s recognition of the Holy Spirit at work in other churches despite the absence of perfect unity, noting “The Spirit of Christ has not refrained from using them as a means of salvation, yet they are not blessed with that unity proclaimed by scripture and tradition.”
Looking back at the Reformation, the council fathers accepted the fact that the church shares in the responsibility for the scandal of separation and affirmed that members of other Christian churches today in no way share in the responsibility. Members of separated churches through the sacrament of baptism are joined to the church in a sacramental bond of unity, which remains to be perfected..
Ecumenism, the document recognizes, requires renewal of the church and personal conversion. The church as a human institution is called to continuous renewal to increase her fidelity to her own calling. Individual Catholics are encouraged to participate in ecumenical efforts of prayer and action to attain the fullness of unity but should diligently study other religions and be strong and knowledgeable of their own faith so that they may explain it to others in a way that will be properly understood.
The constitution concludes that the search for unity “transcends human powers and gifts,” and places its hope in Christ’s prayer “…that they may all be one, as you, father, are in me and I in you, that they also may be in us, that the world may believe that you sent me.”(John 17)