The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity runs from 29 May to 5 June. It’s a chance to pray with Christ that his Church might be ‘one’. As we consider what this means, the Second Vatican Council’s decree on ecumenism, Unitatis Redintegratio, outlines many helpful principles Catholics can draw on in their work on ecumenism.
The publication of the decree is widely recognised to have been a landmark moment, a fresh articulation of how Catholics should think about and engage with other Christian traditions and denominations.
Here are five key takeaways from the document.
Central to Unitatis Redintegratio is the principle that if somebody has been baptised in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, they have a ‘right’ to be called Christian. Baptism is an immersion into the life of the crucified and risen Lord and, therefore, the life of the ‘new creation’, as St Paul calls it (2 Corinthians 5:17).
According to the decree, even if they are not in full communion with the Catholic Church and haven’t experienced full integration into the life of grace that comes with full sacramental participation, they are members of the Body of Christ and therefore ‘accepted as brothers by the children of the Catholic Church’ (§3)—‘separated’, but brothers and sisters nevertheless.
Although there are ‘varying degrees’ of differences between Catholicism and other Christian denominations—some more serious than others—this principle of baptism is the beginning of how we should see our fellow brothers and sisters in the Lord.
Moreover, God continues to use these Christian communities to draw people to salvation.
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 (§3).
In the work of ecumenism, Unitatis Redintegratio says, Catholics do have a ‘primary duty’, and that is to ‘make a careful and honest appraisal of whatever needs to be done or renewed in the Catholic household itself, in order that its life may bear witness more clearly and faithfully to the teachings and institutions which have come to it from Christ through the Apostles’ (§4).
In other words, we need to make sure our own house and life are in order first.
‘Every renewal of the Church is essentially grounded in an increase of fidelity to her own calling,’ the decree goes on to say (§6). Because the unity of the Church is grounded in the unity of the Trinity, the first thing we need to do is ensure we are always moving deeper into union with God.
All the faithful should remember that the more effort they make to live holier lives according to the Gospel, the better will they further Christian unity and put it into practice. For the closer their union with the Father, the Word, and the Spirit, the more deeply and easily will they be able to grow in mutual brotherly love (§7).
The Church encourages dialogue, even respectful debate, about important issues. But it’s important to know our stuff. ‘We must get to know the outlook of our separated brethren,’ the document says. ‘Catholics, who already have a proper grounding, need to acquire a more adequate understanding of the respective doctrines of our separated brethren, their history, their spiritual and liturgical life, their religious psychology and general background.’
We’ll never have fruitful dialogue and debate unless we are able to accurately represent their own views. Colloquially this is called ‘steel-manning’ an argument—the practice of articulating in the best possible way a differing viewpoint.
Thus, when dialogue does occur, ‘our separated brethren will be better understood, and our own belief more aptly explained’ (§9).
Among the many Christian groups out there, Eastern Orthodoxy has a special place in the heart of Catholicism because of our theological and liturgical closeness.
The antiquity of Eastern Orthodoxy also means that we share a common heritage of spirituality and doctrine, since many of the basic dogmas of Christian faith were articulated and defined in the East.
Unitatis Redintegratio says this:
The very rich liturgical and spiritual heritage of the Eastern Churches should be known, venerated, preserved and cherished by all. They must recognize that this is of supreme importance for the faithful preservation of the fullness of Christian tradition, and for bringing about reconciliation between Eastern and Western Christians (§15).
Finally, the full unity of the Church is not something we can achieve by ourselves. There are real differences of practice and belief between Catholicism and other Christian denominations, and that has meant that as a general rule, we cannot always worship together in the way we might like.
But we should also remember that unity is a gift. Christ prayed for it in John 17 (and still prays for it), and we should trust in Christ’s prayer.
The Council moreover professes its awareness that human powers and capacities cannot achieve this holy objective—the reconciling of all Christians in the unity of the one and only Church of Christ. It is because of this that the Council rests all its hope on the prayer of Christ for the Church, on our Father’s love for us, and on the power of the Holy Spirit (§24).
Melbourne Catholic30 May 2023
Melbourne Catholic04 November 2022