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A Critical Evaluation of  
The Decree on Ecumenism of Vatican II
 
 1.   INTRODUCTION  
 
The Decree on Ecumenism (Unitatis Redintegration) of Vatican II took its character from the, even more significant, Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium), and it itself conditioned the Decree on the Missionary Activity of the Church (Ad Gentes). With reference to this Dogmatic Constitution, the Decree on Ecumenism states that the Synod has –
"already declared its teaching on the Church, and now, moved by a desire for ...unity ..." (Art.1, para.4).
And, in the Decree 'Ad Gentes' it in turn states that –
"Catholics can co-operate ...according to the norms of the Decree on Ecumenism" (Saayman 1984:63).
 
 
The closing words of Chapter II of the Decree 'Unitatis Redintegration' –
"...and how the road to unity may be made smooth" (Art.12, para.2)
well express the intention of this document. Abbott states that the Decree on Ecumenism–
"marks the full entry of the Roman Catholic Church into the ecumenical movement." (Konig & Geldenhuys, 1983:147).
 
 2.   POSITIVE CHANGE  
2.1 Spiritual Tone  
 
The most immediately impressive aspect of the Decree is its spiritual tone. This moral quality is helped by its richness in Biblical quotation and allusion, and carries an encouraging sense of humility. The decision to present Catholic instruction from an 'ecumenical' point of view so that –
"at every point they may more accurately correspond with the facts of the case" (Art.10, para.1)
shows a praiseworthy willingness for self correction in seeking greater openness toward non-Catholic Christians.
 
  In its attitude to the other Churches, of the "separated brethren", the Decree is careful to avoid any polemical tone. Many changes from the original terminology of the document seem to have been made in order to avoid causing offence to these "separated brethren".  
 
In addition, the statement –
"we beg pardon of God and of our separated brethren, just as we forgive those who trespass against us" (Art.7, para.2)
of accepting mutual blame for schism well expresses this seemingly new meekness of attitude.
 
 2.2 Doctrinal Approachability  
 
On the delicate ground of doctrinal conflict in ecumenical discussion, the Decree urges Catholic theologians to differentiate between the relative value of truths in Catholic teaching (Art.11, para.3) and even even acknowledges deficiencies in the formulation of doctrine (Art.6, para.2), that the way be opened for a –
"fraternal rivalry to incite all to a deeper realization and a clearer expression of the unfathomable riches of Christ" (Art.11, para.3).
This is a marvelous advance in thinking!
 
 2.3 Controlled Recognition  
 
Rome's ancient willingness to recognise Baptism by schismatics or so-called heretics reappears in the Decree. Thus, this is not really a new development as Saayman seems to think (1984:60). The Decree calls Baptism a "sacramental bond of unity" linking all Christians (Art.22, para.2).
 
 
At some length and with generous praise the Decree appreciates the "special position" of the Eastern Churches (Greek, Russian, Serbian, etc) and acknowledges their "true sacraments", theology, discipline and self-government.
 
 
The actions of Pope Paul VI in celebrating Mass in a purely assisting capacity in a church building with dignitaries of certain other Church participating further confirms this new attitude, which was attested also in the simultaneous lifting of the nine-century-old anathemas between Rome and Constantinople on December 7, 1965.
 
 
A new openness and humility toward those previously regarded as schismatics, and rivals in mission, seems to have taken place, which herald positive prospects for future developments in inter-Church relationships.
 
3.   CAUTIONARY NOTES  
 
A word of caution is necessary, unfortunately, for there is no reason to assume, although Rome's boundaries have softened and a new openness become happily evident, that the Catholic Church's special understanding of itself, which carried its claims to preeminence and jurisdiction, has changed.
 
3.1 Concept of the Church  
 
The acknowledged nearest Church to the Roman Catholic communion, the Eastern Churches, are still described as –
"Eastern sons of the Catholic Church" (Art.17, para.2, emphasis mine).
in which 'Catholic Church' does not mean church-universal but Church of the Roman Apostolic See. Hans Kung, a papal appointee to Vatican II, stresses this point (1986:310). Statements such as –
"It is through Christ's Catholic Church alone, which is the all-embracing means of salvation, that the fulness of the means of salvation can be obtained." (Art.3, para.5, emphasis mine).
The unity bestowed by Christ on His 'one and only' Church –
"dwells in the Catholic Church as something she can never lose" (Art.4, para.3).
 
 
Kung emphasises the relationship of other Churches to Rome as being not sisters (as Saayman hopefully thinks, 1984:308/9).
 
 
It becomes clear that the change of the term 'exists' to the term 'subsists' to describe the true Church of Christ, the People of God in earth, is not intended to imply that other Churches are on an equal footing with Rome. Saayman sees this merely as saying that Rome is the 'closest' to what the Church should be (1984:59) but it is perhaps more accurate to say that Rome stands on the 'true Church' side of the pilgrimage and that without union with her no other Church or Ecclesial Community can become what Christ gave the Church to be. In other words, the Catholic Church cannot be sidestepped, it stands between all other Churches and where they should be. In this sense it sees itself as the closest.
 
 
Whereas with the Eastern Churches it is simply a 'wall' that is to be removed (which removal has begun), with the Churches of Protestantism it is a far greater divide, and thus the Holy See recommends controlled dialogue, without joint worship, beginning from those social and other moral concerns that Rome can find in common. The Protestant Churches –
"because of a lack of the sacrament of orders they have not preserved the genuine and total reality of the Eucharist mystery" (Art.22, para.3).
 
 
Therefore there is real restraint, and the Catholic Church by this Decree has joined the ecumenical movement without joining the World Council of Churches, thus enabling her to still retain a sense of special primacy.
 
3.2 Source of Authority  
 
The source of authority is one of the most troublesome issues still to be worked through concerning this Decree by the other Churches in their dialogue with Rome. The Decree still asserts the "special role" of an "authentic teaching office" in the "explanation and proclamation of the written word of God" (Art.21, para.2) which claims special powers for the See of Rome.
 
 
Although Cavert sees a conflict between Rome's ecumenical outlook and its assumption of being the "only true Church" (Konig & Geldenhuys 1983:176), this is perhaps only an appearance of paradox. Some statements of the Decree, especially in the light of the past, leave the impression that Rome sees the ecumenical movement as a possible movement of other Churches closer to Rome and that much of the softening noted above is a real attempt to make this restoration easier – a means to regain the separated.
 
4.   PROBABLE CAUSE OF THE CHANGE  
 4.1 Pressure of Ecumenism  
 
The international impact of the ecumenical movement on the one hand as well as the obvious accomplishments in many fields and in many graces of the non-Catholic Churches has undoubtedly applied pressure to Rome to respond in a manner that would be to her credit.
"the truly Christian endowments from our common heritage which are to be found among our separated brethren" (Art.4, para.8).
 
 4.2 Cultural Climate  
 
Further, the cultural climate of our modern world with the increase in communication and the greater disdain for intolerance and exclusivity has also significantly influenced the attitude of Catholic clergy and laity and would at some stage have needed accommodation in official attitudes. This was probably a preparatory factor in the achievements of Vatican II.
 
4.3 Divine Providence  
 
We cannot ignore the fact that the coinciding of the above factors upon the Catholic Church and the refreshing disposition of Pope John XXIII made this advance a possibility only under the providence of God, toward whom much prayer has ascended for His Church in all its various forms to come to fulfillment in the unity of the commission
 

   5. BIBLIOGRAPHY
  Konig, A & Geldenhuys, F 1983 Systematic Theology Study Guide THB301-X, Pretoria, South Africa: University of South Africa.
  Kung, Han 1968 The Church, Tunbridge Wells, UK: Search Press Ltd.  
  Link, Hans-Georg (Ed.) 1985 Apostolic Faith Today, Geneva, Switzerland: World Council of Churches
  Saayman, WA 1984 Unity and Mission, Pretoria, South Africa: University of South Africa.  

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