The word Ecumenical is thrown around a lot today and generally I’ve found that it isn’t used or understood correctly. Below is a quick review in preparation for a series of three blog posts which will be submitted over the next few days. This is an important topic and one which we need to understand and are called by Christ and the Church to participate in.
In general terms, Ecumenical represents the process relating to the Church throughout the world concerned with establishing or promoting unity among its members and also with its separated brethren. So we can understand its primary goal as unity among the homogeneous Christian community. Participating in this process is one way in which we partner in Christ’s prayer for unity (John 17:20-23).
In light of this process we can better understand Ecumenical Councils as those to which the bishops, and others entitled to vote, are convoked from the whole world (oikoumene) under the presidency of the pope or his legates, and the decrees of which, having received papal confirmation, bind all Christians. A council, Ecumenical in its convocation, may fail to secure the approbation of the whole Church or of the pope, and thus not rank in authority with Ecumenical councils. Such was the case with the Robber Synod of 449 (Latrocinium Ephesinum), the Synod of Pisa in 1409, and in part with the Councils of Constance and Basle.
The Roman Catholic Church recognizes 21 Ecumenical or General Councils: Nicaea I (325), Constantinople I (381), Ephesus (431), Chalcedon (451), Constantinople II (553), Constantinople III (680–681), Nicaea II (787), Constantinople IV (869–870), Lateran I (1123), Lateran II (1139), Lateran III (1179), Lateran IV (1215), Lyons I (1245), Lyons II (1274), Vienne (1311–1312), Constance (1414–1418), Florence (1438–1445), Lateran V (1512–1517), Trent (1545–1563), Vatican I (1869–1870), Vatican II (1962–1965). Of these, the orthodox Churches of Byzantine tradition accept only the first seven, the family of “non-Chalcedonian” or “pre-Chalcedonian” Churches only the first three, and the Nestorians only the first two. In spite of this, dialogue has shown that even where the break with one of the Orthodox Churches occurred as far back as the Council of Ephesus (431) and the Council of Chalcedon (451), long before the break with Constantinople (1054), the few doctrinal differences often but not always concern terminology, not substance.
The “-ism” of Ecumenism indicates we are not just declaring a process but defining a “belief or principle.” Catholic Ecumenism takes as it starting point (belief/principle) that Christ founded just one Church, not many churches; hence the Catholic Church has as its ultimate hope and objective – that through prayer, study, and dialogue, the historically separated bodies may come again to be reunited with it.
The Catholic Church even before the Second Vatican Council always considered it a duty of the highest rank to seek full unity with estranged communions of fellow-Christians, and at the same time to reject what it saw as promiscuous and false union that would mean being unfaithful to or glossing over the teaching of Sacred Scripture and Tradition. In Lumen Gentium,8, a landmark document of the Second Vatican Council of the Catholic Church states:
- This Church constituted and organized in the world as a society, subsists in [exists in] the Catholic Church, which is governed by the successor of Peter and by the Bishops in communion with him, although many elements of sanctification and of truth are found outside of its visible structure. These elements, as gifts belonging to the Church of Christ, are forces impelling toward catholic [universal] unity.
It is to the Catholic Church, not to some supposed distinct “Church of Christ”, that has been entrusted “the fullness of grace and of truth” that gives value to the other Churches and communities that the Holy Spirit uses as instruments of salvation though the Church of Christ is not said to subsist in any of them.
While the Catholic Church sees itself as the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church founded by Christ himself, it recognizes that elements of salvation are found in other churches also. In the Second Vatican Council’s document, Lumen Gentium, 8, the Council Fathers chose to say that the sole church of Christ as “subsists in” (rather than simply saying “is identical with”) the Catholic Church.
The Catholic Church has, since the Second Vatican Council, reached out to Christian bodies, seeking reconciliation to the greatest degree possible. Significant agreements have been achieved on baptism, ministry and the Eucharist with Anglican theologians. With Lutheran bodies a similar agreement has been reached on the theology of justification. These landmark documents have brought closer fraternal ties with those churches. While relations with the Eastern Orthodox Churches were strained in the 1990s over property issues in countries that were formerly Soviet-dominated, these differences are now largely resolved. Fraternal relations with the Eastern churches continue to progress.
In practice however, unorthodox interpretations were read into the conciliary documents by laity, priests and bishops after the Second Vatican Council. These practices were criticized in the recent document Dominus Iesus. It is interesting to note the 1983 Code of Canon Law absolutely forbids Catholic priests to concelebrate the Eucharist with members of communities not in full communion with the Catholic Church (canon 908), but ecumenically allows, in certain circumstances and under certain conditions, other sharing in the sacraments. The Directory for the Application of Principles and Norms on Ecumenism, 102 states: “Christians may be encouraged to share in spiritual activities and resources, i.e., to share that spiritual heritage they have in common in a manner and to a degree appropriate to their present divided state.”
So in following the example and prayer of Christ, we are to reach out to our separated Christian brethren through the activities of study, prayer, and dialogue in the hopes of fostering common understanding and through the working of the Holy Spirit achieving authentic catholic unity of faith in the Church of Christ which subsists in the Catholic Church. We are to guard against and reject what would be a promiscuous and false union that would mean being unfaithful to or glossing over the teaching of Sacred Scripture, Tradition, and doctrines of our Church. We are to guard against a false ecumenism, a religious indifferentism, a syncretism, or a universalism which results from dumbing down or rejecting our faith in an attempt to achieve a temporal unity.