A Dilemma for the Catholic Church
“A NEW PENTECOST.” Such was the hope that Pope John XXIII expressed for the ecumenical council that began in 1962 and that came to be known as Vatican II. He hoped that it would be a means of spiritual renewal among Catholics and that it would bring about changes that would pave the way for reuniting Christendom.
But such ideas of aggiornamento (updating) were not shared by all the prelates in the Vatican. The New Encyclopædia Britannica reports: “The Pope’s decision, consequently, was received coolly by his conservative Curia, who were convinced that the church had prospered under Pius XII’s leadership and who saw no good reason for the changes John envisioned. Some of the Vatican cardinals in fact did everything in their power to delay the council until the old man had passed from the scene and the project could be quietly dropped.”
Vatican II’s Decree on Ecumenism
Pope John XXIII lived long enough to set the Second Vatican Council in motion, but he died shortly afterward, in June 1963, long before the council concluded in December 1965. Yet, the Decree on Ecumenism was promulgated by Pope Paul VI on November 21, 1964. It stated in its introduction: “The restoration of unity among all Christians is one of the principal concerns of the Second Vatican Council.”
Significantly, Jesuit priest Walter M. Abbott wrote in The Documents of Vatican II: “The Decree on Ecumenism marks the full entry of the Roman Catholic Church into the ecumenical movement.” And in a similar vein, under the heading “Roman Catholicism following the second Vatican Council,” The New Encyclopædia Britannica said optimistically: “The Roman Catholic Church has officially abandoned its ‘one true church’ position.”
But has the Catholic Church really abandoned that position? On what conditions was unity to be brought about? After having defined the extent to which Catholics could engage in ecumenical activity, the Decree on Ecumenism stipulated: “This sacred Council urges the faithful to abstain from any frivolous or imprudent zeal. . . . Their ecumenical activity cannot be other than fully and sincerely Catholic, that is, loyal to the truth we have received from the Apostles and the Fathers, and in harmony with the faith which the Catholic Church has always professed.”
Obstacles to Unity
The fact is, the Roman Catholic Church did not abandon its position that it is the one true church. The Vatican II Decree on Ecumenism states: “It is through Christ’s Catholic Church alone, which is the universal help towards salvation, that the fullness of the means of salvation can be obtained. It was to the apostolic college alone, of which Peter is the head, that we believe that Our Lord entrusted all the blessings of the New Covenant.”
The recent French work Théo—Nouvelle Encyclopédie Catholique (1989) states: “For Catholics, the pope, as Peter’s successor, is theologically the permanent element of the unity of the Church and the bishops. The plain fact, however, is that the pope is the major cause of division between Christians.”
This divisive doctrine of the primacy of the pope is closely related to the dogmas of papal infallibility and the apostolic succession of Catholic bishops, both of which are unacceptable to most non-Catholic churches of Christendom. Did Vatican II do anything to modify the Catholic position on these doctrines?
The Vatican II Dogmatic Constitution on the Church answers, in paragraph 18: “This sacred synod, following in the steps of the First Vatican Council [which decreed the dogma of papal infallibility], teaches and declares with it that Jesus Christ, the eternal pastor, set up the holy Church by entrusting the apostles with their mission as he himself had been sent by the Father (cf. Jn. Joh 20:21). He willed that their successors, the bishops namely, should be the shepherds in his Church until the end of the world. In order that the episcopate itself, however, might be one and undivided he put Peter at the head of the other apostles, and in him he set up a lasting and visible source and foundation of the unity both of faith and of communion. This teaching concerning the institution, the permanence, the nature and import of the sacred primacy of the Roman Pontiff and his infallible teaching office, the sacred synod proposes anew to be firmly believed by all the faithful, and, proceeding undeviatingly with this same undertaking, it proposes to proclaim publicly and enunciate clearly the doctrine concerning bishops, successors of the apostles, who together with Peter’s successor, the Vicar of Christ and the visible head of the whole Church, direct the house of the living God.”
Significantly, this Dogmatic Constitution on the Church was promulgated by Pope Paul VI on the very day that he signed the Decree on Ecumenism. And on that same November 21, 1964, he made a statement proclaiming “Mary ‘Mother of the Church,’ that is, of all the faithful and all the pastors.” How can it be claimed that the Decree on Ecumenism ‘marked the full entry of the Roman Catholic Church into the ecumenical movement’ when the pope chose on the very day it was published to reaffirm dogmas that are totally unacceptable to the majority of the members of the WCC (World Council of Churches)?
The Dilemma of the Church
Dr. Samuel McCrea Cavert, former general secretary of the National Council of Churches, who played a leading part in the formation of the World Council of Churches, stated: “The Decree [on Ecumenism] does not really reconcile its ecumenical outlook with its assumption that the Roman Catholic is the only true Church. . . . Associated with this is the further assumption of the primacy of Peter and of his jurisdiction over the whole Church. These assumptions seem to indicate that the Roman Catholic understanding of ecumenism is unchangeably Rome-centered.”
Dr. Konrad Raiser, deputy secretary-general of the WCC, declared: “The pope [John Paul II] is making many ecumenical declarations, but he is inspired by a mission that is taking him in a different direction.”
This evident contradiction between the Vatican’s facade of ecumenism and its dogged attachment to its own traditional concepts only reveals that the Church of Rome finds itself on the horns of a dilemma. If it is sincere about its participation in the ecumenical movement for Christian unity, it must forgo its claim to be the only true church. If it refuses to forgo this claim, it must admit that its so-called ecumenism is just a tactical move to entice the Orthodox and Protestant churches back to the Catholic fold.
Put bluntly, the Catholic Church must either admit that its centuries-old claims are false or that its present participation in the ecumenical movement is sheer hypocrisy. Either way, many sincere members of Christendom’s churches are perplexed. They wonder if Christian unity will ever be attained.
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‘The Decree on Ecumenism marks the full entry of the Roman Catholic Church into the ecumenical movement’
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Vatican II placed the Catholic Church on the horns of a dilemma