Commitment to Ecumenism: A Catholic Understanding

Thursday, January 15 1998

The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity will be held from January 18th to January 25th, 1998 with the theme: “The Spirit Helps Us” (Romans 8, 26). To mark this annual event, the Episcopal Commission for Ecumenism of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB) has published a text to present the Catholic understanding of the commitment to Ecumenism. The Canadian Bishops approved the text at the Annual Plenary meeting that was held in Cap de la Madeleine, Quebec, in October, 1997.

Last spring, the CCCB became full members of the Canadian Council of Churches (CCC). On the occassion of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, the CCC, in collaboration with Novalis and the Canadian Centre for Ecumenism, published a kit of program materials to aid in the preparation of different celebrations for Christian unity.

To obtain more information, contact Novalis at 49 Front St., Toronto, ON, M5E 1B3 or call toll-free 1-800-387-7164 or fax 1-416-363-9409.

May they all be one . . . that the world may believe that you sent me. (John 17:21) This prayer of Jesus defines the goal of the ecumenical effort among Christians around the world; it is thus the ground of the Catholic Church’s commitment to ecumenism. In the documents of the Second Vatican Council, the Catholic Church was given a mandate for ecumenism which has been supplemented by authoritative post-conciliar texts including: the Codes of Canon Law for the Roman and Eastern Catholic Churches (1983 and 1990), the Directory for the Application of Principles and Norms on Ecumenism (1993), two apostolic letters from Pope John Paul II Preparation for the Jubilee of the Year 2000 (Tertio Millennio Adveniente, 1994) and Light from the East (Orientale Lumen, 1995), and Pope John Paul II’s encyclical Commitment to Ecumenism (Ut Unum Sint, 1995). These documents underline the responsibility of the “entire college of bishops and of the Apostolic See” to foster ecumenism which “by the will of Christ, the Church is bound to promote.” (Canon755.1) In brief, the Catholic Church’s commitment to ecumenism is irrevocable and this commitment has a firm theological foundation.

Doctrinal Basis

The doctrinal basis of a Catholic vision of ecumenism is founded on two premises: the will of Christ and the shared communion of all Christians through baptism. Since the Church founded by Christ is “one and unique”, the Second Vatican Council’s Decree on Ecumenism declares that discord among Christians: “openly contradicts the will of Christ, provides a stumbling block to the world, and inflicts damage on the most holy cause of proclaiming the good news to every creature.” (UR, 1) While the Church of God is one, its unity has been ruptured by human folly and sinfulness.

But even though divided, Christians are still in communion with one another. Baptized into the one body of Christ, divided Christians share a certain, though imperfect, communion. The call to unity is for the sake of the world. “Ecumenical cooperation shows to the world that those who believe in Christ . . . can set about overcoming human divisions, even about such sensitive matters as religious faith and practice.” (Directory, 205)

Conversely, divisions among Christians are a major obstacle to the preaching of the Gospel in the world today. For Pope John Paul II, this is a particular challenge in preparation for the year 2000. “Among the sins which require a greater commitment to repentance and conversion should certainly be counted those which have been detrimental to the unity willed by God for his People . . . The approaching end of the second millennium demands of everyone an examination of conscience and the promotion of fitting ecumenical initiatives, so that we can celebrate the Great Jubilee, if not completely united, at least much closer to overcoming the divisions of the second millennium.” (TMA, 34)

The Unity We Seek

For the Catholic Church, the unity we seek is unity in faith, sacramental life and ministries: a visible organic unity. Real unity in Christ must mean a unity that is visible and tangible. Unity that is interpreted as an invisible relationship which leaves the outward forms of the churches unchanged is not the goal of the ecumenical movement. Our clear task is to find suitable structures that will enable our separated communities to lead a truly common life and to make joint action possible at both local and universal levels. Visible unity is not something extrinsic added to the particular churches but pertains to the intimate structure of faith, permeating all its elements.

How does the Catholic Church see its relationship to the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church founded by Jesus Christ? The Second Vatican Council’s assertion that the one Church of Christ “subsists in” the Catholic Church means that within this Church, it is possible to find the entirety of revealed truths, the sacraments, and the ministry needed for the building up of the Church and the carrying out of its mission. (LG, 8) Intended both to satisfy the Catholic Church’s understanding of itself and to leave open the relationship of other Churches and Ecclesial Communities to the one Church of Christ, this conciliar affirmation continues to create concern for many dialogue partners. Yet, authentic dialogue requires a clear expression of each participant’s self-understanding.

The unity we seek is not to be understood as uniformity. In fact, the unity of the Church is realized in the midst of a rich diversity, a diversity that is a dimension of the Church’s catholicity. In the documents of the Second Vatican Council, it is clear that unity does not require the sacrifice of the rich diversity of spirituality, discipline, liturgical rites and elaboration of revealed truth that has grown up among Christians as long as this diversity remains faithful to the apostolic tradition. (UR, 4, 15-16, Directory, 20) When attempting to determine the kind of diversity that is legitimate, one factor to be kept in mind is the fundamental distinction between the deposit of faith and the theological formulations by which that faith has been transmitted through the centuries. (UR, 6, UUS, 18-19, 81)

Another important factor is the recognition in Catholic teaching of an order or “hierarchy” of truths, since these vary in their relationship to the foundation of the Christian faith. (UR, 11, UUS, 37-38) The Catholic Church’s commitment to full visible unity does not imply a lack in appreciation of the need for, and the value of, intermediate goals. Indeed, the fourth and fifth chapters of the 1993 Ecumenical Directory offer a wide range of spiritual activity and ecumenical cooperation to assist the churches and ecclesial communities in giving expression to the unity they already share. Echoing the famous question asked by the Third World Conference on Faith and Order (Lund, 1952) as to whether the churches “should not act together in all matters except those in which deep differences of conviction compel them to act separately”, the Directory affirms that Christians “will want to do everything together that is allowed by their faith.” Among the many possible areas for cooperation, the Directory lists: “working for a more just society, for peace, for promotion of the rights and dignity of women, and for a more equitable distribution of resources . . . joint services for the poor, the sick, the handicapped, the aged and all who suffer because of unjust ‘structures of sin’ . . . the problem of migrants, refugees, and victims of natural catastrophes” (215); collaboration “in such areas as education, public and private morality, social justice, matters connected with culture, learning and the arts” (44); pastoral care in “schools, hospitals and prisons” (64); joint efforts in the field of medicine and social communications media (216, 217).

Church as Communion

The Extraordinary Synod of Bishops held in 1985 to assess the implementation of Vatican II states that it was on the basis of an ecclesiology of communion that “the Catholic Church at the time of the Second Vatican Council fully assumed its ecumenical responsibility.” (Final Report, II.C.7) From a Catholic perspective, three aspects of an ecclesiology of communion are particularly helpful in promoting ecumenical relations: 1) This understanding of the Church is rooted in a Trinitarian theology which sees distinctions of Persons maintained through mutual relatedness. Such a notion of communion will continue to affirm unity in diversity and diversity in unity. 2) The concept of “communion” allows for varied degrees of relationship and implies that communion will have a certain visibility. 3) An ecclesiology of communion asserts that sharing a common life with God in Christ entails communion with one another and the whole created world. Union with God in Christ through the Spirit is the heart of Christian communion. Above all, communion is to be recognized “as a gift from God, as a fruit of God’s initiative carried out in the pascal mystery.” (Some Aspects of the Church Understood as Communion, 3)

The Church, as a mystery, is the community of those who, because of Christ, are no longer separated. If communion is of the very essence of the Church of God, then all together the churches must form a Church of churches, a Communion of communions. All their diversity must be brought together into a communion of life where each enriches the others and all recognize their radical rootedness in an indivisible community of salvation. The visible unity of the Church, then, will find its full expression through communion in faith, sacramental life, fellowship, mutually recognized ministry and jurisdiction. The Directory begins with the reminder that “The Council situates the mystery of the Church within the mystery of God’s wisdom and goodness which draws the whole human family and indeed the whole of creation into union with himself.” (11) The Church is not closed in on itself but is sent to announce and witness, to make present and spread the mystery of communion so as to be for all an “inseparable sacrament of unity”. (Aspects, 4) “God wills the Church because he wills unity and unity is an expression of the whole depth of his agape.” (UUS, 9) Thus, “the concern for unity is fundamental to the understanding of the Church” (Directory, 58) and, according to the Decree on Ecumenism, “the dynamism of the movement towards unity” is an expression of the Church’s continuing renewal in greater fidelity to its own calling. (UR, 6)

Living Out Our Ecumenical Commitment

The call to seek unity is an imperative for all Christians. According to the Second Vatican Council, “Concern for restoring unity pertains to the whole Church, faithful and clergy alike. It extends to everyone, according to the potential of each, whether it be exercised in daily Christian living or in theological and historical studies.” (UR, 5) In fact, commitment to ecumenism is a “duty of the Christian conscience enlightened by faith and guided by love.” (UUS, 8) Thus, “where ecumenical work is not being done, or is not being done effectively”, the Directory states, “Catholics will seek to promote it.” (Directory, 23) In this context, ecumenical formation of the faithful becomes an important pastoral consideration. In the documents of the Catholic Church the promotion of Christian unity has three interrelated elements: spiritual means, practical cooperation and common witness, theological dialogue. Each of the three elements builds on the others and aspects of all three are present in each. This suggests a way of testing the authenticity of any particular ecumenical endeavour.

Since the early 1970s, many areas of practical cooperation have been the focus of Canadian ecumenical coalitions usually involving the PLURA (Presbyterian, Lutheran, United, Roman Catholic, and Anglican) churches and occasionally including Mennonites, Salvation Army or Society of Friends. The work of these coalitions has been internationally recognized as an excellent example of how churches can address societal concerns together. The reception of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB) as a full member of the Canadian Council of Churches in June 1997 should provide further opportunities for practical cooperation on social issues. In recent years, new issues have given rise to new partnerships as the CCCB and the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada have worked together on a number of common concerns.

Another area in which Canadian experience affirms the Directory‘s recommendations is through cooperation in interfaith dialogue, particularly through the Canadian Christian-Jewish Consultation which was initiated in 1977 and the Canadian Christian-Muslim Liaison Committee which began in 1986. For Christians, ecumenical cooperation is “a clear expression of the bond that unites all the baptized.” (Directory, 211) It is “a true school of ecumenism, a dynamic road to unity.” (UUS, 40) Yet, human efforts alone, no matter how vital they are, cannot bring about the unity we seek. Christian unity is, finally, a gift of the Holy Spirit for which we must pray “with ever greater insistence”. (TMA, 34)

Ecumenism reaches into the depths of Christian spirituality. It requires that “change of heart and holiness of life, along with public and private prayer for the unity of Christians” that the Second Vatican Council calls “spiritual ecumenism” and identifies as “the soul of the ecumenical movement.” (UR, 8) Even when prayer is not specifically offered for Christian unity, it actually becomes an expression and confirmation of unity. Ecumenical prayer is at the service of Christian mission and credibility. Thus, it is not surprising that the Directory and the apostolic letter on relations with the Orthodox churches highlight the special vocation of religious orders and congregations in fostering ecumenical thought and action. “Those who seek holiness will be able to recognize its fruits also outside the visible boundaries of their own Church.” (Directory, 25) While prayer is the “soul” of ecumenical renewal and of the yearning for unity, it is also the basis and support for theological dialogue.

Rooted in today’s personalist way of thinking, dialogue is an indispensable step toward the self-realization of human individuals and communities. More than just an exchange of ideas, dialogue is an exchange of gifts. There is a close relationship between dialogue and prayer in that deeper prayer makes dialogue more fruitful and prayer becomes the ever more mature fruit of dialogue. Dialogue may take place in a variety of formal and informal settings including conversations that occur in daily life, sessions for the common examination of Christian perspectives on issues of concern to particular professional groups, and study groups for specifically ecumenical subjects. (Directory, 174) In Canada, the CCCB co- sponsors formal bilateral dialogues with the Anglican, Lutheran, and United Churches and participates in multilateral dialogue through the Canadian Council of Churches’ Commission on Faith and Witness. Other occasions for dialogue occur through the presence of ecumenical guests and partners at denominational meetings.

Communion of Life and Spiritual Activity

In discussing the possibility of sharing in spiritual activities and resources (prayer in common, participation in liturgical worship, common use of sacred places, sharing in sacramental life), two principles give guidance: the real communion in the life of the Spirit which Christians already share, and the incomplete character of this communion. The application of these principles leads to the recognition of a distinction between the various Eastern Churches and Christians of other Churches and Ecclesial Communities. The Orthodox and Eastern Orthodox Churches are seen by the Catholic Church as “Sister Churches” which possess apostolic succession. (UR, 15) Hence, always respecting the particular disciplines of each of these Churches, there are solid grounds for allowing some sharing in liturgical worship whenever there is a genuine spiritual good to be gained. With other Churches and Ecclesial Communions, however, the degree of communion shared is less complete and the sharing of sacramental life is also more limited. When in danger of death or in situations of grave and pressing need as identified by the diocesan bishop, Christians who are members of other Churches and Ecclesial Communities may request the sacraments of penance, Eucharist and anointing of the sick if the conditions specified in the Code of Canon Law are met. In similar circumstances, Catholics may request these sacraments only from a minister of another Church in which these sacraments are recognized as valid by the Catholic Church or from a minister who is recognized as validly ordained according to Catholic teaching on ordination. (Canon 844, Directory, 129- 132)


Over the past several years, greater mutual understanding and doctrinal convergences have resulted in an affective and effective growth in communion. But what has been accomplished is only one stage on the journey. The ultimate goal of the ecumenical movement is the full communion of faith and life that is realized and celebrated in sharing the Eucharist. This unity is God’s gift to the Church, to be achieved as Christ wills by the means Christ wills. Our hope is in the prayer of Christ for the Church, in the love of the Father for us and in the power of the Holy Spirit. “And this hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured forth into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.” (Romans 5:5)

Episcopal Commission for Ecumenism
Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops
October 1997