Ecumenism is a vital mission of the Church that needs to be understood more fully and correctly, especially as we enter this ostensibly pivotal third millennium. Does ecumenism require Catholics to compromise their faith?
The answer lies in whether we are talking about authentic ecumenism or false ecumenism.
Contrary to what some “traditionalist” Catholics say, there is such a thing as authentic ecumenism and it is essential for Christian unity. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church states: “Christ bestowed unity on His Church from the beginning. This unity, we believe, subsists in the Catholic Church as something she can never lose, and we hope that it will continue to increase until the end of time. Christ always gives His Church the gift of unity, but the Church must always pray and work to maintain, reinforce, and perfect the unity that Christ will for her…. The desire to recover the unity of all Christians is a gift of Christ and a call of the Holy Spirit” (n. 820).
In Crossing the Threshold of Hope, Pope John Paul II also speaks of the urgent need for Christian unity: “By the year 2000 we need to be more united, more willing to advance along the path toward the unity for which Christ prayed on the eve of His Passion. This unity is enormously precious. In a certain sense, the future of the world is at stake. The future of the Kingdom of God in the world is at stake.”
So why is ecumenism so controversial? One central issue is the oft-misinterpreted and misrepresented teaching extra ecclesiam nulla salus (“outside the Church there is no salvation”).
The Catechism quotes Vatican II’s Lumen Gentium on this subject: “Basing itself on Scripture and Tradition, the council teaches that the Church, a pilgrim now on earth, is necessary for salvation…. Hence they could not be saved who, knowing that the Catholic Church was founded as necessary by God through Christ, would refuse either to enter it or remain in it. This affirmation is not aimed at those who, through no fault of their own, do not know Christ and His Church” (nn. 846-847).
The Catechism goes on to quote Vatican II’s teaching on what is known as Baptism of desire: “Those who, through no fault of their own, do not know the Gospel of Christ or His Church, but who nevertheless seek God with a sincere heart, and, moved by grace, try in their actions to do His will as they know it through the dictates of their conscience those too may achieve eternal salvation” (n. 847).
And in its section on Baptism, the Catechism teaches what is known as Baptism of blood: “The Church has always held the firm conviction that those who suffer death for the sake of the faith without having received Baptism are baptized by their death for and with Christ. This Baptism of blood, like the desire for Baptism, brings about the fruits of Baptism without being a sacrament” (n. 1258).
In summary, we know that everyone’s salvation Catholic and non-Catholic is through the Catholic Church, either as faithful members of the Church (Baptism of water), or as persons who give their life for Christ (Baptism of blood), or who would belong to the Catholic Church if they knew it was the one, true Church founded by Jesus Christ (Baptism of desire).
There are, however, a considerable number of “traditional” Catholics, (known as “Feeneyites” in that they are followers of the late Fr. Leonard J. Feeney and his rigorist and thereby erroneous interpretation of extra ecclesiam nulla salus) who deny Baptisms of blood and desire. They often cite various quotations (mostly out of context) from early Popes, saints, and councils to “confirm” their erroneous position that Baptism of blood and Baptism of desire are false teachings.
Yet a historical examination demonstrates that Baptism of blood and/or desire was taught by such early Church fathers as Iranaeus, Tertullian, Cyprian, Cyril of Jerusalem, John Chrysostom, and Augustine, and also by the Council of Trent. And the teaching of Baptism of desire was reaffirmed by Pope Pius XII in his 1943 encyclical Mystici Corporis and by the Vatican’s Holy Office in 1949. Hardly could it be said that this teaching was “invented” by the Second Vatican Council!
It is also asserted by many “traditional” Catholics that ecumenism itself was an invention of Vatican II. This likewise is not the case.
Consider Pope Leo XIII, who tried to encourage an attitude of respect and friendship with the Eastern Churches and with our Protestant brothers and sisters. He never referred to them as heretics, but rather as “separated Christians.”
And consider Pope Pius XII, whose ecumenical outlook in regard to Protestants is most striking. In his 1939 encyclical, Summa Pontificatus, he says that “we cannot pass over in silence the profound impression of heartfelt gratitude made on us by the good wishes of those who, though not belonging to the visible body of the Catholic Church, have given noble and sincere expression to their appreciation of all that unites them to us, in love for the person of Christ or belief in God.”
Also significant during the pontificate of Pope Pius XII was the publishing of On the Ecumenical Movement by the Holy Office in 1949. This document allowed Catholics, with the approval of their bishop, to engage in theological dialog and common prayer with Protestant Christians.
Examples such as these illustrate how ecumenism has profoundly developed over the years, especially since Vatican II and with the post-Vatican II pontificates.
Now there also is such a thing as false ecumenism, which seeks to promote religious indifferentism (all religions are of equal value and therefore it doesn’t matter which one you belong to), universalism (the heretical belief that all people are saved), and syncretism (the combining of various beliefs and practices of different religions as a “compromise”).
But none of these are taught and could never be taught by the Church or the Vicar of Christ. Yes, it is (unfortunately) true that some Catholics go too far in this arena and end up promoting erroneous doctrines and ideologies instead of authentic ecumenical dialog. Even a priest can be guilty of this, such as when he allows or encourages non-Catholics to receive Holy Communion something ordinarily not permitted by the Church.
Yet, to say that the Magisterium itself is teaching and promoting heresy is preposterous, for we know that Christ’s Church is both infallible and indefectible. And all of Pope John Paul II’s ecumenical efforts stem from the teachings of the Second Vatican Council, which like the previous 20 ecumenical councils was guided by the Holy Spirit and thus protected from doctrinal error.
Ultimately, true ecumenism does not require us to give up our Marian devotions or in any way compromise our faith; it means joining hands with other Christians and people of goodwill to bring our nihilistic, hedonistic, anti-life, anti-family culture back to God, while at the same time acknowledging our obvious differences. Far from being a bad word, ecumenism is in the words of John Paul II “a response to the exhortation in the First Letter of Peter to ‘give an explanation of the reason for our hope’” (1 Peter 3:15).
Matt C. Abbott is the former executive director of the Illinois Right to Life Committee and the former director of public affairs for the Chicago-based Pro-life Action League, respectively. He is also a contributor to The Wanderer Catholic newspaper
(This article originally appeared in The Wanderer and is reprinted with permission. To subscribe call 651-224-5733.)