Restoring Christian Unity
Fifty years ago, on November 21, 1964, the Second Vatican Council issued a decree that began with the words highlighted on the next page. Unitatis Redintegratio (“the restoration of unity” or the Decree on Ecumenism) was not the first document issued by the Church calling for unity among Christians, but it marked a change of tone and, since its publication, many Church efforts claim it as their inspiration. With a half-century of hindsight, it is useful to recall the lessons of the decree, to take a summary look at past and current efforts stemming from it, and ask ourselves what we can do to live out its lessons. As the first sentence bears out, the document deals with the unity among Christians. It does not speak of the relationship between Catholics and Jews or other non-Christian religions (which was addressed in Declaration on the Relationship of the Church to Non-Christian Religions [Nostra Aetate].) As the word “restoration” implies, the document focuses on those communities which were in full communion with the Catholic Church but broke away. The “unity” discussed is indeed a project for the future, but it was at some point also historical fact. On the feast of the Conversion of St. Paul, January 25, 1959, St. John XXIII shocked a group of cardinals by announcing both a Synod for the Diocese of Rome and an Ecumenical Council for the Universal Church.
When the council opened on October 11, 1962, St. John underlined that the purposes of the council were to defend and spread Catholic doctrine and to promote the unity of the Christian family and the human family, saying, “The Catholic Church, therefore, considers it her duty to work actively so that there may be fulfilled the great mystery of that unity, which Jesus Christ invoked with fervent prayer from his heavenly Father on the eve of his sacrifice (author’s translation).” As any construction foreman knows, one must build a foundation before building up. Only upon the foundation of doctrine can one aspire to build up true unity. Unitatis Redintegratio (UR) was published after the document Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium), which renewed the Church’s understanding of its identity. UR’s purpose is clearly stated: “The Sacred Council…has already declared its teaching on the Church, and now, moved by a desire for the restoration of unity among all the followers of Christ, it wishes to set before all Catholics the ways and means by which they too can respond to this grace and to this divine call” (UR 1). “Good Pope John,” as he was called, felt the stirrings of the Holy Spirit in his own soul when he announced the council would be formed. The active presence of the Holy Spirit in the “signs of the times” is a theme that runs through many council documents. It is noteworthy that the decree acknowledges that the longing for unity that led to the ecumenical movement came from the work of the Holy Spirit in communities not in full union with the Catholic Church. “Everywhere large numbers have felt the impulse of this grace, and among our separated brethren also there increases from day to day the movement, fostered by the grace of the Holy Spirit, for the restoration of unity among all Christians. This movement foward unity is called ‘ecumenical’” (UR 1).