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Ecumenism: What is the relationship of the Catholic Church to the Orthodox Churches, and the non-Catholic Christian communities?

What is Ecumenism?
  • "It is the movement that seeks to bring about Christian unity and comprises the initiatives and activities planned and undertaken, according to the various needs of the Church and as various opportunities present, to promote Christian unity" (UR 4).
  • The task of Christian unity is a most urgent one in the Catholic Church. Ecumenism - as distinguished from inter-religious dialogue - has its foundation in the will of Jesus given to us on the eve of his death: "Ut unum sint" - "May they all be one" (John 17, 21). The Second Vatican Council described the responsibility of restoring the unity of all Christians as one of its principal concerns (UR 1) and as a task inspired by the Holy Spirit (UR 4, 1). Pope John Paul II underlined the "irreversibility of the ecumenical choice" (Ut unum sint, 3) on several occasions. Likewise Pope Benedict XVI, at the very outset of his pontificate, gave the assurance that he would strive to restore the full and visible communion of all the followers of Christ. In this task priority would be given to the unity of the faith.
  • Ecumenical dialogue is based on the right and the duty of each person to express, with serenity and objectivity, his or her own identity, and to illustrate that which unites and what continues to divide. The very fact of presenting one's own position with clarity does not constitute and obstacle to ecumenical growth; on the contrary is encourages dialogue.

Why does Ecumenism exist?

It exists because there are still divisions among Christians. This situation is contrary to the will of Christ who prayed, «that they might all be one» (John 17, 21). In this way the unity of all Christians should be realised so that there would be "one flock and one shepherd" (John 10, 16), and so that "the people of God shall happily arrive at the fullness of eternal glory in the heavenly Jerusalem" (UR 3).

What kind of damage does this division among Christians cause?
  • It causes various kinds of damage, both within and outside the Church. In fact:
    • it is a scandal that weakens the voice of the Gospel;
    • «the divisions among Christians prevent the Church from attaining the fullness of catholicity proper to her, in those of her sons who, though attached to her by Baptism, are yet separated from full communion with her. Furthermore, the Church herself finds it more difficult to express in actual life her full catholicity in all her bearings» (UR 4);
    • "The universality which is proper to the Church, governed by the Successor of Peter and the Bishops in communion with him, is faced with an obstacle to its full realisation in history on account of the divisions that exist between Christians" (CDF, Letter, Communionis notio, 17.3).
  • This lack of unity between Christians inflicts grave damage to the witness that Christians are called upon to bring to non-Christians: it constitutes a contradiction in terms of witness. "It is sad that in this situation that Christians are diminished in their missionary and evangelical thrust because of divisions that undermine their internal life and reduce their apostolic credibility" (Pontifical Council for the Unity of Christians, Directory for the application of principles and norms on ecumenism, Presentation).

Why is it necessary to distinguish between the unity of the Church and the unity of Christians?

  • Since the unity of the Church already exists. The unity, «that Christ bequeathed to his Church at the beginning we believe subsists in the Catholic Church as something she can never lose and we hope that it will continue to increase until the end of time» (UR 4). For this reason we proclaim in the profession of faith: «I believe in the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church...», and this Church subsists in the Catholic Church (cfr. LG 8).
  • What is lacking is the unity of Christians. In fact, «Even in the beginnings of this one and only Church of God there arose certain rifts which the Apostle strongly condemned. But in subsequent centuries much more serious dissensions made their appearance and quite large communities came to be separated from full communion with the Catholic Church-for which, often enough, men of both sides were to blame» (UR 3).
  • "The unity of the entire Church, which already exists in the Catholic Church and cannot be lost, is the guarantee that one day the unity of all Christians will become a reality" (John Paul ii, Discourse, 13 November 2004).
  • Nonetheless Christians of the orthodox Churches and those non-catholic Christian communities who are separated from full communion still retain many elements in common with the Catholic Church.

What elements does the Catholic Church have in common With those other Churches and non-catholic Christian communities?

  • The members of these Churches and non-catholic Christian communities:
    • "are justified by faith in Baptism as members of Christ's body, and have a right to be called Christian, and so are correctly accepted as brothers by the children of the Catholic Church as brothers and sisters of the Lord " (UR 3);
    • they have "moreover, some and even very many of the significant elements and endowments which together go to build up and give life to the Church itself, can exist outside the visible boundaries of the Catholic Church: the written word of God; the life of grace; faith, hope and charity, with the other interior gifts of the Holy Spirit, and visible elements too" (UR 3);
  • "For the Spirit of Christ has not refrained from using them as means of salvation which derive their efficacy from the very fullness of grace and truth entrusted to the Catholic Church. All of these, which come from Christ and lead back to Christ, belong by right to the one Church of Christ." (UR 3); and "urge us on towards Catholic unity " (LG 8).
  • "The Church recognizes that in many ways she is linked with those who, being baptized, are honoured with the name of Christian, though they do not profess the faith in its entirety or do not preserve unity of communion with the successor of Peter" (LG 15).
  • At the same time the Catholic Church recognises that the orthodox Churches enjoy the strongest bonds with respect to the other non-catholic Christian communities since there are only very few differences between the former and the latter.

What is the difference between the orthodox Churches and the non-catholic ecclesial communities?

  • The orthodox Churches, since their birth in 1054:
    • "Yet possess true sacraments and above all, by apostolic succession, the priesthood and the Eucharist, whereby they are linked with us in closest intimacy " (UR 15.3);
    • there is, therefore, "some worship in common (communicatio in sacris), given suitable circumstances and the approval of Church authority. This is not only possible but to be encouraged" (UR 15);
    • merit the title of "particular or local Churches", and are called "Sister Churches of the particular Catholic Churches" (UR 14.1);
    • by the celebration of the Eucharist of the Lord in these single Churches the Church of God is built up and grows;
    • are in a communion with the Catholic Church that is so deep «that very little is lacking so that the fullness may be reached which would allow a common celebration of the Lord's Eucharist» (Paul VI, Discourse in the Sistine Chapel on the occasion of the tenth anniversary of the mutual cancellation of the excommunications between the Churches of Rome and Constantinople, 14 December 1975);
    • are not, however, in full communion with the Catholic Church, since they are not in communion with the visible head of the Catholic Church who is the Pope, the successor of Peter. This is not an accessory fact but one of the constitutive principles of every particular Church. For this reason, since "communion with the Catholic Church, the visible head of which is the Bishop of Rome and the Successor of Peter, is not some external complement to a particular Church but rather one of its internal constitutive principles, these venerable Christian communities lack something in their condition as particular churches" (CDF, Responses to some questions regarding certain aspects of the doctrine on the church, 4).
  • non-catholic ecclesial communities:
    • here we are speaking especially about those born after the reform of the 16th century: protestants (inspired by the thought and work of Martin Luther: 1483-1546), Anglicans (originating with the Act of Supremacy by King Henry VIII of England in 1534)... Apart from these, there is also a multiplication of new Christian denominations, that continue to spring up;
    • do not have apostolic succession regarding the sacrament of order, and for this reason are deprived of a constitutive element in order to be a Church;
    • especially they have not retained the proper reality of the Eucharistic mystery in its fullness because of the absence of the sacrament of Orders (cfr. UR 22.3);
    • "for this reason that Eucharistic intercommunion with the orthodox Churches and the non-catholic Christian communities is not possible for the Catholic Church" (CCC 1400);
    • nevertheless "when they commemorate His death and resurrection in the Lord's Supper, they profess that it signifies life in communion with Christ and look forward to His coming in glory" (UR 22);
    • they cannot, according to Catholic doctrine, be called "Churches" in the proper sense (cfr. CDF, Dominus Iesus, 17.2) since they have not persevered in the valid Episcopate and the genuine and integral substance of the Eucharistic mystery;
    • "although many elements of sanctification and of truth" are found outside of its visible structure since these elements belong to the Church of Christ, are forces impelling toward Catholic unity (LG 8) such as Sacred Scripture, baptism and charity...

What is the important principle in ecumenical dialogue?

In ecumenical dialogue "the principle of fraternal love and the search for reciprocal understanding and common approach are vital; but so too is the need to defend the faith of our people, confirming it in the joyful certainty that the «unica Christi Ecclesia... subsistit in Ecclesia catholica, a successore Petri et Episcopis in eius communione gubernata» («the one Church of Christ... subsists in the Catholic Church, governed by the successor of Peter and the Bishops in communion with him»(LG 8)" (Benedict xvi, Homily, 12-5-07).

How are we to understand the affirmation that the Church of Christ subsists in the Catholic Church?

"Christ established here on earth only one Church and instituted it as a "visible and spiritual community", that from its beginning and throughout the centuries has always existed and will always exist, and in which alone are found all the elements that Christ himself instituted. This one Church of Christ, which we confess in the Creed as one, holy, catholic and apostolic []. This Church, constituted and organised in this world as a society, subsists in the Catholic Church, governed by the successor of Peter and the Bishops in communion with him". In number 8 of the Dogmatic Constitution Lumen gentium 'subsistence' means this perduring, historical continuity and the permanence of all the elements instituted by Christ in the Catholic Church, in which the Church of Christ is concretely found on this earth. (CDF, Responses to some questions regarding certain aspects of the doctrine on the church, 2).

Why does the Second Vatican Council (Lumen Gentium) use the expression SUBSISTIT IN (SUBSISTS IN) and not the word EST (IS)?

  • By using the word subsistit (subsists), the Council:
    • indicates the full identity of the Church of Christ with the Catholic Church. Since the Church that Christ willed continues to exist (subsistit in) in the Catholic Church, the continuity of this subsistence implies a substantial identity between the Church of Christ and the Catholic Church. The Council wanted therefore to teach that the Church of Jesus Christ as a concrete reality in this world can be found in the Catholic Church;
    • affirms that the word subsists "can only be attributed to the Catholic Church alone precisely because it refers to the mark of unity that we profess in the symbols of the faith (I believe... in the "one" Church); and this "one" Church subsists in the Catholic Church.)" (CDF, Responses to some questions regarding certain aspects of the doctrine on the church, 2);
    • expresses the singularity and not the multiplicity of the Church of Christ: there is only one Church of Christ and it subsists in history in one single entity, namely that Catholic Church;
    • in this way it safeguards the unity and uniqueness of the Church which would be diminished if the Church founded by Christ were to subsist in other ways;
    • avoids the Church of Christ being seen as "the summit - as distinct from and yet different to the overall grouping - of the Churches and ecclesial communities " or of "thinking that the Church of Christ does not exist any more today in any particular place, and thus is merely the object of a search by all the Churches and communities" (CDF, Mysterium Ecclesiae, l). If this were the case, the one Church of Christ would not exist any more as "one" in history or would only exist in as an ideal or in fieri in a future convergence or reunification of the diverse sister Churches, augured and promoted by dialogue;
    • more clearly expresses the fact that, outside the visible structures of the Catholic Church, there are found "many elements of sanctification and of truth". These elements, "as gifts belonging to the Church of Christ, are forces impelling toward catholic unity" (LG 8). This is a recognition of the presence of ecclesial elements that are proper to the Church of Christ in the non-catholic Christian communities. "It follows that the separated Churches and Communities as such, though we believe them to be deficient in some respects, have been by no means deprived of significance and importance in the mystery of salvation. For the Spirit of Christ has not refrained from using them as means of salvation which derive their efficacy from the very fullness of grace and truth entrusted to the Church" (UR 3.4);
    • allows for a greater openness on the part of the Catholic Church to the need for ecumenism to recognise the ecclesial character and dimension of the Christian communities that are not yet in full communion, based on the "plura elementa sanctificationis et veritatis" (many elements of sanctification and of truth) that are present in them
  • The use of this expression, subsistit in, brings into harmony two doctrinal affirmations: on the one hand, the Church of Christ continues to exist fully only within the Catholic Church in spite of there being divisions among Christians, and, on the other hand, the exist numerous elements of sanctification and of truth which are found outside her structure, in those Churches and ecclesial communities that are not yet in full communion with the Catholic Church (cfr. CDF, Responses to some questions regarding certain aspects of the doctrine on the church, 3 and commentary).

What needs to be done to achieve the unity of Christians?

  • It is necessary:
    • to have a continual renewal of the Church and a growth in fidelity to its vocation. Such a renewal is the impetus of the movement towards unity;
    • to have a conversion of hearts is to «lead a life that is more in conformity to the Gospel», since divisions are caused by the members who are not faithful to the gift of Christ;
    • prayer in common, «conversion of the heart» and «holiness of life, together with private prayer and public prayer for the unity of Christians. These are seen as the soul of the entire ecumenical movement and can properly be understood as spiritual ecumenism»;
    • reciprocal mutual understanding;
    • ecumenical formation of the faithful and especially of priests;
    • dialogue between theologians and gatherings with Christians of the various Churches and communities;
    • collaboration among Christians in various areas of service to mankind (CCC 821).
  • True ecumenism cannot exist without interior conversion and purification of the past, without holiness of life that is in harmony with the Gospel, and especially without intense and assiduous prayer that echoes the prayer of Jesus" (John Paul ii, Discourse, 13 November 2004).
  • Union with Christ is also a union with all those to whom he gives himself. I cannot possess Christ just for myself; I can belong to him only in union with all those who have become, or who will become, his own. Communion draws me out of myself towards him, and thus also towards unity with all Christians. (Benedict xvi, God is love, n. 14).

of the Basilica of Saints Ambrose and Charles, in Rome
Monsignor Raffaello Martinelli

NB: For further information about the topics discussed, please see the following Pontifical documents:
  • Second Vatican Council, Lumen gentium (LG); Unitatis redintegratio (UR);
  • Pontifical Council for the Unity of Christians, Directory for the application of principles and norms on ecumenism 1993;
  • Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC);
  • Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF):
    • Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on some aspects of the Church understood as Communion, 28 May 1992;
    • Responses to some questions regarding certain aspects of the doctrine on the church, 29 June 2007.