On May 5, 1995 Pope John Paul II issued an Encyclical Letter Ut Unum Sint (That They May Be One) on Christian Unity. The Encyclical read like an extended commentary on the document on Christian Unity issued on December 7, 1965 by the Second Vatican Council.
The unity of all Christians was high on the list of priorities of Pope John XXIII when he called the Second Vatican Council. On January 25, 1959, when he announced his intention of calling the Council, he said he wished to invite the separated Christians to seek again the unity for which so many souls are longing throughout the world.
He set up the Secretariat for Christian Unity as one of the Commissions to prepare for the Council. Its task was to prepare the document on Christian Unity, and shepherd it through the discussions and decisions of the Council until it received final approval.
The document on Christian Unity was usually referred to as the Decree on Ecumenism, a word which means the movement and activities directed towards worldwide unity of Christians. It received final approval in the Council on November 20, 1964, with a vote of 2054 in favor and 64 against.
The document went through various stages. It began as a chapter in the document on the Church, drawn up by the Doctrinal Commission. That was found unsatisfactory because of lack of input from Christians who are not Catholics.
A new document was prepared by the Secretariat of Christian Unity. It was introduced to the Council on November 18, 1963, and consisted of five chapters. Then Chapter 4 on “Catholic Attitude to non-Christians”, and Chapter 5 on “Religious Liberty” were taken out to become separate documents, leaving a document of three chapters contained in 25 pages.
The chapters were (1) Catholic Principles on Ecumenism, (2) The Practice of Ecumenism and (3) Churches and Ecclesial Communities Separated from the Roman Apostolic See.
The first chapter begins by stating that the restoration of unity among all Christians is one of the chief concerns of the Second Vatican Council. It recognized that even in the time of the apostles there were signs of division, and in subsequent centuries more widespread disagreements appeared and quite large communities became separated from full communion . . .developments for which at times men of both sides were to blame (n.3)
It is something new for the Catholic Church to accept even partial responsibility for the division among Christians, and it is an example of the humility which this document both recommends and puts into practice.
The document recommends that Catholics take care not to engage in words, actions or judgments which could be hurtful or harmful to the movement of Christians towards unity. Beyond that they should be prepared to engage in dialogue so that everyone gains a truer knowledge and more just appreciation of the teaching and religious life of the other side. (n.4)
In chapter 2 the document emphasizes that change of heart and holiness of life, along with public and private prayer for the unity of Christians, are at the heart of the whole ecumenical movement. In prayer services for unity it is permissible and desirable that Catholics join in prayer with their separated brethren. It also repeats the statement that shared worship is a sign of unity, and also a means by which unity is achieved (n.2 &8).
With reference to the training of the clergy, the document recommends that theology be taught in a way that respects the teaching of our separated brethren and not as a means of refuting them. While standing fast by the doctrines of the Church, Catholics can be flexible in the manner of expressing them. They should exercise humility and charity as they search together with separated brethren into the divine mysteries of the Christian faith. (n.11)
Chapter 3 is divided into two sections, dealing with the separated Christians first of the East and then of the West. Many of the Eastern churches originated with the Apostles, and for centuries they were sister churches sharing with the Latin Church the sacraments and the basic dogmas forged in the Councils of the East (n.14)
Due to differences in language and culture the apostolic heritage received different forms of expression. This, added to mutual failures in understanding and charity, set the stage for separations. These are factors which must be kept in mind by those devoted to restoring full communion between the East and the West. (n.14)
The document goes on to state that the churches of the East always had the freedom to govern themselves according to their own discipline, and that this will be honored in any restoration of unity (n.16). Likewise the Council allowed for a legitimate variety in theological expressions since East and West have different approaches to understanding and proclaiming divine things (n.17)
Turning to the separated churches of the West, the Council noted considerable differences in doctrine, practice and structure among the churches themselves, as well as weighty differences with the Catholic Church. The Council nevertheless offers some considerations to serve as a basis and motivation for dialogue towards unity. (n.19)
Shared faith in Jesus Christ as God incarnate, and love of the Sacred Scriptures which reveal God in history, create an important bond towards unity between the separated Christians in the West and the Catholic Church. Those separated Christians who are baptized have a sacramental bond of unity with the Catholic Church, but there is still need for dialogue on the true meaning of the Lord’s Supper and other sacraments for progress towards unity in ministry and worship (n.22).
These principles and recommendations of the Council are an astounding change from what had gone before. Rulings by Pope Pius XI (Animos Mortalium 1928) and Pius XII (Ecclesia Catholica 1949) placed severe restrictions on Catholics engaging with other Christians in a search for Christian unity.
The appeal of Pope John Paul II to separated Christians to pray for his conversion is an indication of how ecumenism has developed. (Ut Unum Sint n.4). Pope John Paul II was aware that the Primacy of the bishop of Rome as it is exercised today is an obstacle to Christian unity. He appealed to separated Christians to help him discover how to exercise the Primacy in a way that will be faithful to Christ’s command without being an obstacle to Christian unity.
The Vatican II document on Christian Unity has laid down the simple and humble guidelines for engaging in ecumenical activity. It is now up to all Catholics, clergy and faithful alike, to do their part towards bringing about that unity among Christians that the Lord wants and the world needs (n.5).
“The Church in the Modern World” is unique among the documents of Vatican II. It is the longest of the 16 documents issued by the Council; it was not even contemplated in the work of the Preparatory Commissions; and it is written in a style that has come to characterize the newness of Vatican II among the Councils of the Catholic Church.
On December 1, 1962, the Doctrinal Commission presented its outline of the document on the Church (De Ecclesia), expected to be the key document of the Council. It received withering criticism from the majority for being a repetition of the defensive stance of the Council of Trent against Protestantism, with nothing positive to say about other religions or the contemporary world.
A proposal was made that the document should follow the suggestion made by Pope John XXIII in his opening address on October 11th. This would give the document the form of a triple dialogue: the Church in dialogue with its own membership (who are we, and what are we about); the Church in dialogue with other Christians (our brothers and sisters in the Faith, but visibly separated from us); the Church in dialogue with the modern world (how can we serve the world; what can we learn from the world).
This proposal was widely acclaimed. Over the next two years the third dialogue gradually became a separate document. Its title was Gaudium et Spes (Joy and Hope), from its first two words, and it received its final form only during the last two months of the Council. It was finally approved on December 7, 1965, with 2309 votes in favor, and 75 against.
The document consists of 93 articles, filling 110 printed pages. It is divided into two parts. Part One has four chapters which deal with (1) the dignity of the human person, (2) the community of mankind, (3) human activity throughout the world, and (4) the role of the Church – how the Church can serve the world, what the Church can learn from the world.
Part Two has 5 chapters which deal with these specific matters (1) Marriage and the Family, (2) Development of Culture, (3) Socio-Economic Life, (4) Political Life and (5) Justice and Peace.
Apart from the topics under consideration, what is noteworthy about this document is the language. The Council is respectful as it offers to be of service to the world, and recognizes the help the Church has received from the modern world (n.44). The Council is humble as it acknowledges the responsibility of Christians for some of the loss of religious values in the world (n.19).
This optimistic document helps to distinguish Vatican II from other Church Councils with their condemnations and anathemas. It makes an honorable attempt to follow the lead given by Pope John XXIII in his opening address when he declared, “The Church prefers to make use of the medicine of mercy rather than that of severity. She considers that she meets the needs of the present day by demonstrating the validity of her teaching rather than by condemnations”.
The Vatican II Constitution on Divine Revelation takes its name from the first two words of the document, Dei Verbum (Word of God). It was given final approval on November 18, 1965, by a vote of 2344 in favor with 6 against.
The document consists of 6 short chapters, a total of 18 pages. The first chapter is titled “Revelation Itself”. It refers to God revealing himself in creation, and then manifesting himself to our first parents “from the start”. From that time on “he ceaselessly kept the human race in his care”, calling Abraham, and then teaching through the patriarchs, Moses and the prophets to wait for the promised Savior. “In this manner he prepared the way for the gospel down through the centuries” (n.3)
The second chapter is called The Transmission of Divine Revelation. It explains that “Christ the Lord, in whom the full revelation of the supreme God is brought to completion, commissioned the apostles to preach to all men that gospel which is the source of all saving truth and moral teaching”(n.7). That commission was carried out by the apostles, and by those “apostolic men who under the inspiration of the same Holy Spirit committed the message of salvation to writing” (n.7).
The document goes on to say that the apostles left bishops as their successors, handing over their own teaching role to them. Then it adds, “What was handed on by the apostles includes everything which contributes to the holiness of life and the increase of faith of the People of God; and so the Church in her teaching, life and worship perpetuates and hands on to all generations all that she herself is, all that she believes. This tradition which comes from the apostles develops in the Church with the help of the Holy Spirit” (n.8)
Having introduced the word “tradition” the document continues: “Through the same tradition the Church’s full canon of the sacred books is known, and the sacred writings themselves are more profoundly understood and unceasingly made active in her; and thus God, who spoke of old, uninterruptedly converses with the Bride of His beloved Son” (n.8). “Hence there exist a close connection and communication between sacred tradition and sacred Scripture. For both of them, flowing from the same divine wellspring, in a certain way merge into a unity and tend toward the same end” (n.9).
“The task of authentically interpreting the word of God, whether written or handed on, has been entrusted exclusively to the living teaching office of the Church, whose authority is exercised in the name of Jesus Christ. This teaching office is not above the word of God but serves it, teaching only what has been handed on”. (n.10)
You may be puzzled by all these words about sacred scripture, tradition and the teaching office of the Church, which do not offer much by way of inspiration to the ordinary person in the pew. What you are witnessing is the outcome of tense debates which took place in the Council between the first presentation of this document in November 1962 and its final approval in November 1965.
Father John O’Malley, in his book What Happened at Vatican II, explained that it became clear early on in the Council that there were two distinct groups of bishops with differing views on the Church and the Council. One group, whom I call the Centralists, believed that all power in the Church should be centered in Rome, in the Pope and the departments of the Roman Curia who assist him in governing the Church. The other group, whom I call the Collegials, believe that Church power should be shared by the entire college of bishops, with the bishop of Rome having the special duty to intervene to resolve disputes and promote unity.
The original document on Divine Revelation presented to the Council in November 1962 had been prepared by the Centralists. They made Scripture and Tradition two distinct sources of God’s revelation. While Scripture was limited to the actual texts, it implied that Tradition had no limit, and could go on developing. The authentic interpretation of the sources of Revelation belonged to the teaching office of the Church, which meant in effect, the Pope and the Roman Curia.
This understanding of Tradition was unacceptable to the Collegials. They believed that Tradition should be linked to Scripture, and could not be used to invent new doctrines which had no basis in Scripture. Moreover the teaching office of the Church could not have priority over the revealed word of God.
The battle lines were drawn, and the tense debate went on over the three years. You can see the efforts at compromise in chapter 2 (n.7-10). The resulting words may be doctrinally acceptable to both camps, but I think the conflict took a lot of energy from the Council, and left it incapable of inspiring enthusiasm about Divine Revelation.
I would like to have seen more attention given to God’s self-revelation in Creation itself. After all, the sacred books have been in existence only a few thousand years, four or five at most. For the hundreds of thousands of years of man’s existence prior to that, the primary revelation of God was the Universe itself.
My own experience among the Mapuche in the South of Chile taught me how people can know about God from the world around them, and find ways to respond. The Mapuche (the name means People of the Land) have no sacred books and no tradition of revelation. But they believe that the earth is a gift from the Creator’s hand, and they are grateful for it.
When the Mapuche stand at the door of their huts each morning they give thanks to the Creator God for the earth, the sky, the rising sun or the falling rain. They give thanks for the land, for the crops and for the animals which provide food and sustenance for them and their families. When they need to kill an animal from the flock or herd for food, they first ask pardon from the Creator God for doing this. Then they thank the animal they are about to kill for being available, and they thank the herd and promise that they will continue to take good care of them.
Their almost mystical attitude to the world around them was an object lesson in how man’s religious sense can be aroused by the Universe itself as the primary revelation of God. The Mapuche claimed no special revelation; they had no sacred texts; but they were alive to the presence of the Creator God in the world around them.
Sometimes when I reflect on some of our sacred texts I wonder how much of it is God, and how much is the imagination of the person who thinks God is speaking to him. One example when Moses, responding to the Golden Calf episode told the Levites: Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel: Put your sword on you hip, every one of you. Now go up and down the camp, from gate to gate and slay your own kinsmen, your friends and neighbors. The Levites carried out the command of Moses, and that day there fell about 3,000 of the people. (Exodus 32, 25-29).
Another example when the prophet Samuel spoke to King Saul: Now therefore listen to the message of the Lord: I will punish what Amalek did to Israel when he barred his way as he was coming up from Egypt. This is what the Lord of hosts has to say: Go now, attack Amalek, and deal with him and all that he has under the ban. Do not spare him, but kill men and women, children and infants, oxen and sheep, camels and asses. (1 Samuel 15, 2-3).
The God in these examples does not sound like the compassionate God revealed by Jesus Christ in the Gospel. Did God change, or did Moses and Samuel just get the message wrong? That could be a topic for another statement on Divine Revelation.