Theological Studies: On the Occasion of the Week of Christian Unity
At the Angelus on January 5, 2014, the Pope announced that he would carry out “in this coming May, from the 24th to the 26th, if God wills…a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. The chief purpose is to commemorate the historic encounter between Paul VI and the Patriarch Athenagoras,” which took place 50 years ago on January 5, 1964. After detailing the three stages of his visit (Amman, Bethlehem and Jerusalem), Pope Francis emphasized the ecumenical aspect of this “pilgrimage of prayer”: “At the Holy Sepulchre, with Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople, we will celebrate an ecumenical encounter with representatives of all the Christian churches of Jerusalem.”1
Once more the Vicar of Christ, on whom rests the unique foundation of the only Church of Christ, has chosen the setting of ecumenical prayer for a pan-Christian meeting with the highest representatives of Michael Cerularius’s schism.
True Catholic Ecumenwism
However, the only unity that the Church recognizes is the unity of faith, worship and government, by which all members of the Mystical Body are united with each other and with their Head, Christ and His Vicar on earth (see Mt. 16:18, Jn. 21:16-17, Eph. 4:16). Unfortunately the Eastern schismatics refuse to recognize the authority of the Pope over the Universal Church and deny or do not accept several essential dogmas: the procession of the Holy Ghost, the primacy and infallibility of the Roman Pontiff, the Marian dogmas of the Immaculate Conception and of the Assumption of our Lady body and soul into heaven. They refuse the teachings of the Magisterium formulated after the seven first ecumenical councils, in other words ever since the Second Council of Nicaea in 787. Organized in individual and autonomous churches, the Orthodox—in reality heterodox—are no longer united in government at all.
The Catholic Church in its Magisterium has condemned the meetings and initiatives that are not founded on the unity of faith, by the bond of which “the disciples of Christ must be united principally.”2 The law of faith is absolute, because without “the teachings of Christ whole and uncorrupted,” without “one law of belief and one faith of Christians,”3 there would be neither unity in the Church, nor true charity.
The Protestant vision according to which the Church should be divided into distinct and individual communities, as are the Orthodox, ignores the true nature of the Church, a supernatural society founded by God and recognizable by its four marks: One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic, as affirmed in the Apostles’ Creed. None of these marks can be separated from the others: “It follows that the Church, which is Catholic in truth and in name, must also distinguish itself by the prerogative of unity, sanctity and apostolic succession.”4
Therefore, “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. To the one true Church of Christ, we say, which is visible to all, and which is to remain, according to the will of its Author, exactly the same as He instituted it.”5 Such is true Catholic ecumenism.
Ecumenism according to Vatican II
The 1960s saw the rise of a new ecumenism. Through the Council for Promoting Christian Unity, founded June 5, 1960, and especially with the Second Vatican Council, clergymen believed they could spearhead a broader ecumenical movement where dialogue took pride of place over a return to the unity of faith, worship and government. From this moment on, the Church of Christ defined itself more as a “sacrament of the unity of the human race” and no longer as a society. It no longer identified strictly with the Catholic Church in which it was supposed to “subsist.”6 Worse, it accepted its share of responsibility for the division of Christians, declared that unity should be achieved and that the Holy Ghost was at work in the separated communities.7
As is plainly to be seen, the change was essentially no longer making the law of faith an absolute. For the preconciliar popes, ignoring it put the Church in danger of utopianism and ending up with “the neglect of religion or indifferentism and to modernism, as they call it. Those, who are unhappily infected with these errors, hold that dogmatic truth is not absolute but relative, that is, it agrees with the varying necessities of time and place and with the varying tendencies of the mind, since it is not contained in immutable revelation, but is capable of being accommodated to human life.”8
Ever since Vatican II and its general adaptation to the needs of the world and the values of modern life—the famous aggiornamento of John XXIII—the Church has engaged in dialogue and mutual recognition of other Christian churches, “our separated brethren,” as well as of non-Christian religions. In doing so, the Church relegates the question of faith refused or denied by these groups to the background, losing sight of the fact that all the truths defined by the Church are revealed by God, since they are drawn from the divine deposit that He entrusted to the Church. It even seems to ignore its own nature, since “the mystical body of Christ, in the same manner as His physical body, is one (Cor. I:12, 12) compacted and fitly joined together (Eph. 4:15-16)…”9
Francis: “To journey together is already to be making unity”
On Saturday, January 25, 2014, Pope Francis presided at Vespers in the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls, in presence of Metropolitan Gennadios, representative of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople and vice-president of the Central Committee of the World Council of Churches (WCC).10 The Anglican archbishop of Canterbury was also present. In his homily, the Pope explained that the divisions in the Church must not be seen as a natural phenomenon—and indeed, causing schisms is the devil’s work, and it should be mentioned that such divisions mean leaving the Church of Christ—and that “our divisions wound Christ’s body, they impair the witness which we are called to give to him before the world.” While the Pope rightly recalled that Christ cannot be divided (see I Cor. 1:13) he did not clarify that this indivisibility applies not only to the Head of the Mystical Body, but also to all the united members of the Body.
On the contrary, the Pope followed in his predecessors’ footsteps, recalling the work of John XXIII and John Paul II: “In the course of their own lives, both came to realize the urgency of the cause of unity and, once elected to the See of Peter, they guided the entire Catholic flock decisively on the paths of ecumenism. Pope John blazed new trails which earlier would have been almost unthinkable. Pope John Paul held up ecumenical dialogue as an ordinary and indispensable aspect of the life of each Particular Church. With them, I think too of Pope Paul VI, another great promoter of dialogue…”
Intending to take up his predecessors’ heritage, Pope Francis emphasized that from now on ecumenical dialogue is “an essential dimension of the ministry of the Bishop of Rome, so that today the Petrine ministry cannot be fully understood without this openness to dialogue with all believers in Christ. We can say also that the journey of ecumenism has allowed us to come to a deeper understanding of the ministry of the Successor of Peter, and we must be confident that it will continue to do so in the future.”
From now on, along with other Christian denominations, the Pope wants “us all to walk together fraternally on the road to unity.” The path “towards the re-establishment of full visible unity of all believers in Christ” requires only one thing: “To journey together is already to be making unity.” “Unity will not come about as a miracle at the very end. Rather unity comes about in journeying, the Holy Ghost brings it during the journeying.”
So the Vicar of Christ on earth, the visible foundation of the only Church of Christ, has confirmed the “previously unthinkable” novelty” of modern ecumenism that has so profoundly impacted and changed the very exercise of the ministry of Peter. Following the example of his immediate predecessors, Pope Francis has made ecumenical journeying—“A journey of unity and love”—and inter-Christian dialogue essential aspects of his apostolic duty, the Petrine service.
In this journey, the whole and uncorrupted doctrine of Christ—the Faith—has ceased to be the law of discerning and establishing belonging to the one Spouse of Christ, now presented at least in fact as divided, undefined in its contours. If the Faith is mentioned, it is reduced to “the declaration of the love of God manifested in Christ, His Son.”11 Faced with what is in danger of becoming a mere agreement on the lowest common denominator (everyone recognizes Jesus as God and Saviour), it is right to remember that unity does not come from a journey—even for peace and good understanding between peoples—but rather from the profession of the same Creed, participation in the same worship and subjection to the same government. The unchanging Magisterium of the Catholic Church is categorical on this topic.
The cause of the change of perspective which has subverted the order of Christianity and frayed the proper understanding of the Church’s very nature resides in the Second Vatican Council document on ecumenism. Pope Francis quoted it in his homily at St. Paul Outside the Walls: “Christ the Lord founded one Church and one Church only. However, many Christian communities present themselves to people as the true inheritance of Jesus Christ; all indeed profess to be followers of the Lord but they differ in outlook and go their different ways, as if Christ were divided. Such division openly contradicts the will of Christ, scandalizes the world, and damages the sacred cause of preaching the Gospel to every creature.”12
Pius XI: The Return of the Dissidents to the One True Church of Christ
The Catholic Church has always taught that it was the one and only Church founded by its Divine Spouse. That the divisions among men, brought about by Satan and his henchmen, heretics, and schismatics, have brought about the existence of other communities that assume the title of “Church” is a sad and painful fact. The solution to these unfortunate separations has always been that echoed by Pius XI less than a century ago, and it is still valid today:
“So, Venerable Brethren, it is clear why this Apostolic See has never allowed its subjects to take part in the assemblies of non-Catholics: for 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.
“To the one true Church of Christ, we say, which is visible to all, and which is to remain, according to the will of its Author, exactly the same as He instituted it. During the lapse of centuries, the mystical Spouse of Christ has never been contaminated, nor can she ever in the future be contaminated, as Cyprian bears witness: ‘The Bride of Christ cannot be made false to her Spouse: she is incorrupt and modest. She knows but one dwelling, she guards the sanctity of the nuptial chamber chastely and modestly.’13 The same holy Martyr with good reason marveled exceedingly that anyone could believe that ‘this unity in the Church which arises from a divine foundation, and which is knit together by heavenly sacraments, could be rent and torn asunder by the force of contrary wills.’14 For since the mystical body of Christ, in the same manner as His physical body, is one (I Cor. 12:12) compacted and fitly joined together, (Eph. 4:16) it were foolish and out of place to say that the mystical body is made up of members which are disunited and scattered abroad: whosoever therefore is not united with the body is no member of it, neither is he in communion with Christ its head (Eph. 5:30; 1:22).
“Furthermore, in this one Church of Christ no man can be or remain who does not accept, recognize and obey the authority and supremacy of Peter and his legitimate successors. Did not the ancestors of those who are now entangled in the errors of Photius and the reformers obey the Bishop of Rome, the chief shepherd of souls? Alas their children left the home of their fathers, but it did not fall to the ground and perish for ever, for it was supported by God. Let them therefore return to their common Father, who, forgetting the insults previously heaped on the Apostolic See, will receive them in the most loving fashion. For if, as they continually state, they long to be united with Us and ours, why do they not hasten to enter the Church, ‘the Mother and mistress of all Christ’s faithful’?15
“Let them hear Lactantius crying out: ‘The Catholic Church is alone in keeping the true worship. This is the fount of truth, this the house of Faith, this the temple of God: if any man enter not here, or if any man go forth from it, he is a stranger to the hope of life and salvation. Let none delude himself with obstinate wrangling. For life and salvation are here concerned, which will be lost and entirely destroyed, unless their interests are carefully and assiduously kept in mind.’16
“Let, therefore, the separated children draw nigh to the Apostolic See, set up in the City which Peter and Paul, the Princes of the Apostles, consecrated by their blood; to that See, We repeat, which is ‘the root and womb whence the Church of God springs,’17 not with the intention and the hope that ‘the Church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth’ (I Tim. 2:15) will cast aside the integrity of the faith and tolerate their errors, but, on the contrary, that they themselves submit to its teaching and government.”18
(Source: ACIM – DICI, No. 289, Jan. 31, 2014)
1 L’Osservatore Romano, translated from the French edition, Jan. 9, 2014, p. 6.
2 Pius XI, Encyclical Mortalium Animos, Jan. 6, 1928.
4 Letter Apostolicae Sedis from the Holy Office to the Bishops of England, Sept. 16, 1864 (DS 2888).
5 Mortalium Animos.
6 Lumen Gentium, Nov. 21, 1964.
7 Decree Unitatis Redintegratio, Nov. 21, 1964.
8 Mortalium Animos.
10 The WCC was established in 1948. At the time a monitum of the Holy Office forbade Catholics from participating (Monitum de mixtis conuentibus acatholicorum cum catholicis, June 5, 1948, p. 257). Today the WCC includes the majority of Orthodox communities, a large number of Anglican, Baptist, Lutheran, Methodist and Reformed sects, as well as many “United and independent churches” (Mennonites, Old Catholics, the Remonstrant Brotherhood, etc.). At the end of 2012, the WCC included “345 member churches” of which none shared the same faith, the same worship or the same government.
11 Audience of Pope Francis granted to an ecumenical delegation from Finland on January 17, 2014, ORLF, January 2014, p. 7. Here is the full quote: “Our witness must focus on the centre of our faith, on the declaration of the love of God that is manifested in Christ, His Son. We find here room to grow in communion and unity together, promoting spiritual ecumenism, which is born directly from the commandment of love left by Jesus to his disciples.”
12 Second Vatican Council, decree Unitatis Redintegratio, Nov. 21, 1964.
13 St. Cyprian, Letter 48 ad Cornelium, 3.
15 Lateran Council IV, c. 5.
16 Lactantius, Divin. Instit., IV, 30, 11-12.
17 St. Cyprian, Letter 48 ad Cornelium.
18 Mortalium Animos.