Ecumenism in our time: A fruit of the Council

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The Holy Father seemed pitch perfect during his visit to Sweden to join with Lutherans in a joint celebration of the Reformation. The event is worthy of comment from many different perspectives, but it is undoubtedly the case that the renewed emphasis on ecumenism is one of the most obvious fruits of the Second Vatican Council.

Pope Francis spoke warmly of the gifts of the Reformation to the church, the whole church, most especially the fact that it put the Bible back into the hands of the people of God. Indeed, the biblical notion of the church as the people of God could scarcely have played the central role it did in the ecclesiology of Vatican II had it not been for the Reformation. The dogmatic constitution Dei Verbum revivified a Catholic appreciation for Scripture and its centrality to the Christian life and has only in recent years garnered the attention it deserved among the other conciliar texts.

One of the distinguishing marks of Vatican II was that it stepped away from the traditional statement of anathemas against doctrines judged in error. St. Pope John XXIII indicated when he opened the Council that he hoped for a different approach. "The Church in every age has opposed these errors and often has even condemned them and indeed with the greatest severity," the pope said. "But at the present time, the spouse of Christ prefers to use the medicine of mercy rather than the weapons of severity; and, she thinks she meets today's needs by explaining the validity of her doctrine more fully rather than by condemning." His wish was brought to fruition by the Council which, instead of condemning the "separated brethren" issued the decree on ecumenism, Unitatis redintegratio, which stated, "But the Lord of Ages wisely and patiently follows out the plan of grace on our behalf, sinners that we are. In recent times more than ever before, He has been rousing divided Christians to remorse over their divisions and to a longing for unity. 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."

That same document also led to long discussions between Catholic and Lutheran theologians. Those discussions achieved a singular success in 1999 with the issuance of a "Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification." At the time of the Reformation, this was arguably the most contentious theological point of difference between the two Christian groups but, through patient dialogue, the theologians and leaders of the church reached the conclusion that, shorn of the polemics in which the discussion had been framed in the 16th century, they shared a common understanding of the doctrine itself today. That did not just happen. That was the result of long, patient dialogue. I need hardly note that St. Pope John XXIII's vision for a Council that avoided condemnation was once again seen to be a source of grace and blessing in this later document, which never would have been possible had not dialogue itself been one of the achievements of the Council.

Growing up, many of us were taught a bunch of nonsense. I thought that Catholics were the only ones who believed in the Real Presence, but Luther believed in the Real Presence, he simply denied the doctrine of transubstantiation, believing that the bread was still present as well, just as Jesus' humanity was still present in the hypostatic union. Reading the Bible became a part of my parents' spirituality later in life, when they joined a small Bible study group in our parish: They had been raised to believe it should be left to the priests.

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Later in life, I studied the Reformation, both of them. None of us knows how we would have responded to the ecclesial challenges of the early 16th century. I would like to think I would have stood with Contarini and Pole among the Catholic reformers, and there was a Catholic Reformation, not merely a Counter-Reformation, but who knows? Luther was the greatest theologian of his day, and perhaps intellectual excitement would have won the day. I hope I would have been suspicious of Cranmer who kept his finger to the wind, and his wife hidden from his king. I know the severity of Calvin, then as now, would have had little appeal.

In 2000, when I went with my dad to Poland, we visited a church in Lublin that had a pair of pulpits, one on each side of the nave. The archbishop, the late great Jozef Zycinski, explained to us that Poland was the one country where tolerance reigned in those days and that Protestant preachers were invited to the church to enter into debate with a Catholic, each pastor taking one of the two pulpits, a kind of ecclesial Lincoln-Douglas debate.

Pope Francis looked back to call all to remorse for the misunderstandings and worse on all sides. More importantly, he looked to the present and, specifically, to the vast scope of common witness open to all the followers of Jesus Christ. Just as Christ himself came to heal a hurting world, his followers today are called to heal a hurting world. That is what ministry in his name entails and there is no shortage of need in our broken world. The Holy Father called special attention to the victims of war, migrants and refugees, the call of justice in our societies, and the urgent need to confront climate change. If you talk to someone from Catholic Relief Services, or from Lutheran World Services, you will know how much each respects the work of the other and how often they collaborate to bring the healing touch of Christ to the lost and lonely of our world.

Five-hundred-year-old wounds are not healed with one visit. And the divisions that were left by the Reformation remain wounds, in need of further healing so that they may yet become scars. A scar is a wound that is healed, still and always testifying to the original hurt, but testifying as well to the power of healing. There is a long way to go. The Second Vatican Council took the first, and now seen as seminal, steps. Blessed Pope Paul VI, St. Pope John Paul II and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI continued the dialogue and the building up of mutual respect. Pope Francis now makes his always astute and generous intervention. It is a work of the Holy Spirit. It is a fruit of the Council.

[Michael Sean Winters is NCR Washington columnist and a visiting fellow at Catholic University's Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies.]


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