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).