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Don’t let Catholic ecumenism down

Dear Fr Aidan,

Thank you for your reply to my last letter. But could I just mention one small point before tackling the subject here which, in line with the agenda being followed between the SSPX and Rome, is “The Unity of the Church and Catholic Principles of Ecumenism”.

I didn’t exactly say that “doctrinal Modernism is not to be found in the documents of the Council”. While I did acknowledge that the Council documents do not actually state Modernist principles as presented in Pope Pius X’s famous encyclical Pascendi, my argument was that the documents do indeed contain ideas which arise from these principles. So the question here is – to what extent are these ideas present in the Council’s 1964 Decree on Ecumenism (Unitatis Redintegratio)?

Keeping to ecumenism between the Church and Protestantism in all its forms, there is little difference between the views of the SSPX and those of at least one pre-conciliar pope. In An Open Letter to Confused Catholics, Archbishop Lefebvre describes ecumenism as “a tendency especially dangerous to the Faith, the more so because it masquerades as charity …

we cannot unite truth and error so as to form one thing, except by adopting the error and rejecting all or part of the truth. Ecumenism is self-condemnatory.”

Similarly, in his 1928 encyclical Mortalium Animos, Pope Pius XI writes of the budding ecumenical movement of his time and warns Catholics not to be deceived by “the outward appearance of good” since “beneath these enticing words and blandishments lies hid a most grave error”. Given that unity is a mark of the Church, since the Church is one, holy, Catholic and Apostolic, the error lay in the claim that unity only existed in apostolic times, to be later replaced by distinct churches and communities divided by differences of opinion which should now be put aside and “from the remaining doctrines a common form of faith drawn up and proposed for belief”.

Having questioned how unity can be achieved between those who “retain each his own opinions and private judgment” Pope Pius XI has this to say on ecumenism: “The Apostolic See cannot on any terms take part in their assemblies, nor is it anyway lawful for Catholics either to support or to work for such enterprises; for if they do so they will be giving countenance to a false Christianity, quite alien to the one Church of Christ” (para 8).

Now, everyone says that Vatican II produced no new teachings or defined any new doctrines. But did it introduce new ideas and ways of thinking not defined as doctrines but practically written in stone anyway? Because the Decree on Ecumenism states: “The sacred Council exhorts … all the Catholic faithful to recognise the signs of the times and to take an active and intelligent part in the work of ecumenism” (para 4). And “in certain circumstances, such as in prayer services ‘for unity’ and during ecumenical gatherings, it is allowable, indeed desirable, that Catholics should join in prayer with their separated brethren” (para 8). Far from adhering to a “false Christianity”, Protestants are termed “separated brethren” by Vatican II.

Furthermore, the Decree on Ecumenism contains another new idea, one which Pope Pius XI denounced. Catholic theologians are told that in ecumenical dialogue they “should remember that in Catholic doctrine there exists an order or ‘hierarchy’ of truths, since they vary in their relation to the foundation of the Christian faith” (para 11).

Wasn’t the “hierarchy of truths” an idea proposed by the modern theologian Yves Congar? Isn’t this what Pope Pius XI warned against when he referred to “that distinction which some have seen fit to introduce between those articles of faith which are fundamental and those which are not fundamental … as if the former are to be accepted by all, while the latter may be left to the free assent of the faithful” (para 9).

Because however you explain it, the term “hierarchy of truths” will be taken to mean that some truths are more significant than others. The 1970 document Reflections and Suggestions Concerning Ecumenical Dialogue (part IV, para 4b), suggests how this new idea can be understood. “For example, the dogma of Mary’s Immaculate Conception … presupposes, before it can be properly grasped in a true life of faith, the dogma of grace to which it is linked and which in its turn necessarily rests upon the redemptive incarnation of the Word.”

But the dogma that Mary, Mother of God, was conceived without original sin, is a teaching accessible to everyone. Why complicate matters in a pastoral context when, combined with the term “hierarchy”, the result is bound to be that this dogma will be sidelined in ecumenical dialogue? Pope Pius XI pointed to the error of putting aside differences in order to achieve a common set of beliefs. Is the Immaculate Conception to be put aside so as not to upset Protestants?

Not according to Mortalium Animos, since “all who are truly Christ’s believe, for example, the Conception of the Mother of God without stain of original sin with the same faith as they believe the mystery of the August Trinity, and the Incarnation of our Lord just as they do the infallible teaching authority of the Roman Pontiff” (para 9).

If thinking which arises from Modernist principles is indeed present in the Decree on Ecumenism it should reveal itself both in new ideas and in the sidelining of traditional doctrines, since according to Pope Pius X in Pascendi, Modernists believe that religion, the Church, tradition and dogma are manifestations of man’s unconscious search for the divine and can thus be adapted as man’s unconscious determines. Overall, the trend will be towards universality, in which the particular and unique teachings of the Faith are played down in favour of what is common to all.

Not only are new ideas present in the Decree – one certain to lead to traditional doctrines being passed over – but past failings of the Church are also alluded to, this being a Modernist strategy to justify change as Pascendi points out. For example, “often enough, men of both sides were to blame” for the separation of communities from the Church (para 3). And renewal is necessary because “in various times and circumstances, there [may] have been deficiencies in moral conduct or in the way that Church teaching has been formulated” (para 6).

Of course tradition is present in the Decree, as in all Council documents. But what else is present, or not present? Although the Decree extols the virtues of the “separated brethren”, it does admit that, among other things, the Protestants “have not preserved the proper reality of the eucharistic mystery in its fullness” (para 22). And the same paragraph continues: “Nevertheless, when they commemorate the Lord’s death and resurrection in the Holy Supper, they profess that it signifies life in communion with Christ and await his coming in glory.” The “doctrine of the Lord’s Supper” is then suggested as a suitable subject for ecumenical dialogue.

But the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is not considered a subject suitable for ecumenical dialogue. Protestants might commemorate the Last Supper, but they deny Transubstantiation and don’t believe in the necessity of offering the Body and Blood of Christ to God as satisfaction for the sins we daily commit. Has the traditional doctrine that the Mass is a propitiatory sacrifice, which is not even mentioned in the Council’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy as previously argued, also been sidelined to appease Protestants?

Archbishop Lefebvre certainly thought so, and it is one of the SSPX’s claims that the reforms have Protestantised the Mass. In A Bishop Speaks: Writings and Addresses 1963-1976, Archbishop Lefebvre compares the changes introduced by the Council with the changes introduced by Martin Luther, changes which reflected Luther’s view of the Mass as merely a “sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving, but certainly not an expiating sacrifice renewing and applying the sacrifice of the cross”.

Luther believed that Mass is offered by God to man, not by man to God. He abolished the Offertory and the prayers at the foot of the altar; turned the rite into a Liturgy of the Word followed by Communion; introduced the vernacular; turned the priest round to face the people; introduced tables for altars; and rejected the sacrificing priesthood with the claim that all Christians are priests.

All of which sounds uncomfortably familiar, especially as the Decree on Ecumenism actually states: “Church renewal has notable ecumenical importance … the biblical and liturgical movements, the preaching of the Word of God and catechetics, the apostolate of the laity … All these should be considered as promises and guarantees for the future progress of ecumenism” (para 6).

So, to end, can Catholic principles of ecumenism mean anything other than proclaiming the teachings of the Church in their fullness and entirety, while praying for and welcoming those who would into the unity which the one, true Church of Christ alone possesses?

Kindest regards,


Dear Moyra,

Thank you for your epistle on ecumenism, where you ask: are the principles of Catholic ecumenism, as laid down by the Second Vatican Council, consistent with the teaching that the gift of unity promised by Christ to his followers endures in the Catholic Church and in her alone? Actually, you had already mentioned the topic of ecumenism, and the question of inter-religious dialogue, sometimes bracketed with it, in your previous letter, but I wanted to keep my powder dry on both these fronts…

Before getting into the meat of the new topic, I must address what in this fifth letter you open by calling a “small point”. Moyra, I have to say that your “small point” is a very big point indeed! To agree that the documents of the Council do not contain Modernist principles but to assert that nonetheless they include Modernism-derived theses or ideas goes beyond what I understand to be the limits of acceptable criticism if we are speaking of doctrinal Modernism in the proper sense. As I’ve stressed in the course of our exchange, we can legitimately point out failures of prudence on the part of the Council Fathers (a latitudinarian approach to liturgical adaptation and an insufficiently critical view of cultural modernity have been my examples here). We may also point out weaknesses or unilateralism in the formulation of the conciliar teaching (the document on religious liberty – another topic we shall be addressing – is, I believe, the worst offender in that regard). I draw the line, however, at the rejection of the doctrinal intentions embodied in the Council documents even if those intentions are said to function at the level not of principles but of derived ideas.

I accept that at almost all points the Council does not seek to define doctrine in a single act of infallible interpretation. (The exception, as the late cardinals Yves Congar and Avery Dulles were agreed, is the passage on the divine origin of the episcopate in the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church.) But I think that the Council’s other doctrinal theses must be accepted as well. They need to be accepted inasmuch as they are starting points for the reiterated or everyday (“ordinary”) magisterial pronouncements of the post-conciliar popes (and the wider episcopacy), and inasmuch, too, as they are legitimate developments of what was already found in Tradition as received in the pre-conciliar Church.

What is wrong with Lefebvrism is its claim that the distinctive theses of the Council are not legitimate developments of this kind, and that, accordingly, the ordinary magisterium of the Church now finds itself in a condition of internal self-contradiction. That this is an erroneous judgment does not, however, abrogate what is right with Lefebvrism, which is its critique of the sub-Catholic mindset the theses in question have been taken to justify by those who use them to forward the agenda of theological liberalism, which itself is liberal Protestantism in thin disguise.

May I now apply all this to the matter in hand? The key doctrinal thesis presented by the conciliar Decree on Ecumenism is found in the teaching that genuine ecclesial elements are to be found outside the unity of the Catholic Church, such “elements” being taken to cover both means of sanctification (appropriating salvation) and doctrinal truths (understanding rightly what such appropriation entails). Let’s take the “means of sanctification” first. For over 1,500 years Catholicism has rejected St Cyprian’s view that there can be no sacraments outside the visible unity of the Church. (It is still, by the way, an influential opinion in Eastern Orthodoxy.) That rejection alone is sufficient to warrant what the Council says about the means of sanctification. When in the late 16th-century schismatic Oriental bishops in the Ukraine entered into Catholic communion they were recognised as already the sacramental high priests of their communities, true bishops in the apostolic succession. Again (to move from the sublime to the cor blimey), when I was received into the Catholic Church in 1966 I underwent conditional baptism not because there was any doubt about the sacramental reality of baptism as conferred in the Church of England but because Anglicans had occasionally departed in practice from the defining norms for that sacrament, norms they accepted in theory. Had I been Orthodox, moreover, I should not have needed to be confirmed again.

Now let’s take “doctrinal truths”. The Council of Trent did not feel a need to lecture Lutherans about the Trinity, any more than the Scholastic theologians of all periods felt a need to correct the Greeks about Christology. It is true that some Scholastic theologians so exalted the role of Church authority in the making of the act of faith that no one could make a properly Christian act of faith unless they accepted the content of the faith specifically from the hands of the Catholic Church. That has never been, however, the official position of our Church. Reunion councils like Florence always assumed they were dealing with people who were heterodox on one or more heads, not with those who might just as well be in outer darkness. The teaching of Vatican II about the elements of truth and sanctification in non-Catholic Christian bodies (how many elements and of what scope varies, of course, in dependence on which such body we are talking about) is simply a consolidation at the level of doctrine of much that was taken for granted in the preceding tradition.

It follows that while the unity of the Church of Christ endures exclusively in the Catholic Church (full communion with the Mystical Body of Christ means, specifically, adherence to the Catholic Church with its Petrine centre), not everything that can be called “genuinely ecclesial” is included in the visible unity of the Catholic Church so understood. To say that the Mystical Body “subsists” in the Catholic Church is convenient shorthand for that rather long sentence I’ve just written.

Does the persistence of these elements of truth and sanctification mean the Catholic Church should send representatives to every possible kind of pan-Christian jamboree? Of course not. Pius XI had good reasons for supposing that the officially organised Protestant (and, to a much lesser extent, Eastern Orthodox) ecumenical movement in the early part of the 20th century had a marked tendency to doctrinal indifferentism. By the 1950s, however, that was no longer the case: professional ecumenists took doctrine very seriously indeed. The early 1960s were a good time to prepare the way for Catholic participation.

By saying so, do I mean that the de facto pursuit of ecumenism by Catholics since the Second Vatican Council has been an unreservedly good thing? I mean nothing of the sort. There have been particular irresponsible actions. There has been a widespread unwillingness to raise the question of the unique claims of the Catholic Church. The overall effect has been to lodge in some people’s minds a sense that “all the churches are the same; it doesn’t matter, really”. But that is not because the Decree on Ecumenism has been observed. It is because it has been traduced. Imagining the “hierarchy of truths” means that some truths are less true than others is one example of letting Catholic ecumenism down. Imagining ecumenism means Catholics must become more like Protestants, rather than, say, more like the Orthodox is another.

Of course we are not, in fact, to become “more like” either. That way of putting it is entirely superficial. We are to bring into the unity of the Church all the riches found in the separated churches and communities on the basis of the “elements of truth and sanctification” they have preserved – even if not all their members come to join us, though we should dearly like it if they did. In my opinion, authentic Uniatism and true ecumenism come down (or rise up) to the same thing. So you see from that conclusion, dear Moyra, that for once we are in agreement in the end.

Kindest wishes in the Lord,

Fr Aidan OP