An ecumenical initiative with vast consequences
On 11 August 1952, Bishop Charrière of Lausanne, Geneva and Fribourg,
chaired a meeting of 24 theologians at the bishop's residence. They took
a step that was to prove crucially important in the growing involvement
of the Catholic Church in the international ecumenical movement.
Catholic Conference for Ecumenical Questions is created
On that day in 1952, the theologians from seven different European
countries who met with Bishop Charrière decided to establish a Catholic
Conference for Ecumenical Questions. Their goal was to achieve true
collaboration between bishops and theologians in what was virtually an
unexplored area of ecumenical rapprochement between the Catholic
Church and other Christian Communities.
They were convinced that such a project could help to reach this
goal. The Conference was to stimulate ecumenical study and at the
same time to bypass activities that gave rise to problems in the area of
ecumenism, such as proselytizing or the methods used to acquire these
Prior to the decision taken at Fribourg, exploratory meetings had
taken place between bishops of various countries, certain theologians
already active in ecumenism in their own countries and three professors
in Rome who enjoyed the confidence of the Roman Curia: the Jesuits, Fr
R, Leiber, Fr A. Bea and Fr S. Tromp. Two Dutch priests had carefully
and thoughtfully conducted these meetings: Prof. Johannes Willebrands,
who later became a Cardinal and President of the Secretariat for
Promoting Christian Unity, and Frans Thijssen. Both were members of the
board of the Catholic Association of St Willibrord, involved
since its creation in 1948 in promoting a rapprochement between
the various Christian denominations in the Netherlands.
The contribution of Motherland's Prof. Johannes Willebrands
In particular, Johannes Willebrands was convinced that an
international Catholic network of theologians interested in the
ecumenical problem would enable ecumenism throughout the world to take
"a deeper breath for a more effective voice".
The Fribourg meeting, held from 11 to 13 August 1952 and at which the
above-mentioned Catholic Conference for Ecumenical Questions
was established, was an opportunity for the then-Prof. Willebrands to
explain his ideas. It was necessary to cultivate personal contacts,
close collaboration and an honest exchange of opinion between all people
worldwide who had anything to do with ecumenical problems in a Catholic
perspective. They would have to develop a true communion d'esprit,
because this alone would enable the Catholic Church to be fully
Willebrands spoke in favour of an ecumenism which, to his mind,
should not be merely a question of dogma, but a living, rich,
kaleidoscopic reality which had not yet reached its full expression in
the Catholic Church. Prof. Willebrands believed that the Catholic
Conference for Ecumenical Questions might help to bring this about.
The participants in the Fribourg meeting not only agreed with him,
but confirmed their wish to collaborate in realizing his projects. They
were delighted to learn that those who had conceived of the initiative
had been able to present a letter from Cardinal A. Ottaviani in which he
expressed his favour for the project. This meant, in fact, that the
Roman Curia was stressing its importance.
The next step was the creation of a Secretariat under Prof.
Willebrands' direction. Many theologians declared their willingness to
act as contact persons and correspondents of this Secretariat in
their home countries. They also committed themselves to informing their
respective bishops of the activities of the Catholic Conference.
Jesuit Father Karl Rahner performed such duties for Austria.
The contribution of Dominican Father Yves Congar
During the constitutive session, decisions were also made concerning
several issues with the intention of opening up prospects for the
future. The intervention by Yves Congar, O.P., of France, made a
profound impression. He asked that greater attention be given to the
presence of other elements of the Church (vestigia Ecclesiae)
beyond the visible frontiers of the Catholic Church. Fr Congar also drew
attention to the concept di [sic] votum Ecclesiae, expressing his
opinion that this concept could be applied to the ecumenical movement as
it had developed since the beginning of the 20th century outside the
Catholic Church. However, he considered that the major factor unifying
the people of God was Sacred Scripture.
The line of thought which began with what unites Catholics with other
Christians was developed in the years that followed. The Conference
decided to meet every year in a different country and city, under the
chairmanship of the local bishop. This decision was made with the
intention of examining and broadening Catholic thinking on ecumenism,
and facilitating this process with the help of lectures by well-known
theologians. Thus, theologians were invited who had not yet taken part
in the meetings of the Conference.
On several occasions the Conference intentionally chose themes
which had been discussed in the context of the World Council of Churches
(WCC). By so doing it intended to give the Geneva Organization a
positive signal, one for which it was high time, considering that in
those years the highest ecclesial authority in Rome did not even
consider the possibility of sending observers to WCC meetings.
To emphasize the importance of WCC initiatives for ecumenical
knowledge in the context of the Catholic Church, the meetings of the Conference
in Huis ter Heide, the Netherlands, in August 1953 and in Mainz,
Germany, in April 1954, therefore focused on the theme the WCC had
chosen for its second assembly, in Evanston, in August 1954: "Jesus
Christ, Hope of the World".
Prior to the meeting of the Conference in 1957, Willebrands
had been in touch with his fellow countryman, Willem Visser't Hooft,
General Secretary of the WCC, regarding the choice of subject. The
following theme was chosen: "The Lordship of Christ over the Church
and over the World". In the reflections on this topic — in the
context of the Catholic Conference and at the level of the WCC — the points of convergence and the differences between Rome and Geneva
clearly emerged and were featured later, in August 1957, as the main
topics of papers given at the meeting of the Conference at the
Benedictine Monastery of Chevetogne.
In collaboration with several professors of the Catholic University
of Louvain the "priority for unity" of Chevetogne, born in
1939, had organized annual "Ecumenical Study Days" since 1947
in which Protestant theologians had also participated. Although they did
not attend the meeting in 1957, their way of understanding "The
Lordship of Christ over the Church and over the World" was a
reference point for the Catholic participants.
Bridge to future deliberations of Vatican Council II
When the Second Vatican Council was announced in January 1959, the Catholic
Conference began a reflection with a view to passing on the results
of its meetings to those who would be taking part in the Council sessions
to determine how it would be possible to inform the bishops of the
world, keeping in mind the proposals they would be submitting to the
commission responsible for the preparation of the Council. The Steering
Committee of the Conference, which had been set up in the meantime,
prepared a Note on the recomposition of the unity of Christians. This
text, finalized in July 1959, was communicated to Cardinals A. Ottaviani,
D. Tardini and E. Tisserant, as well as to numerous bishops.
The contribution prepared with extreme care by the Steering
Committee of the Conference stressed that reunification involved
many psychological barriers that were expressed in the Catholic
vocabulary and would be a cause of vexation to non-Catholics. One
example was the term "return", which gave many people outside
the Catholic Church the impression that she was rigid and immovable and
made no distinction between major and minor issues.
Another example concerned the subject of the Church's holiness in
relation to the need, which the Protestants brought to the fore, to
express the reality of the Church also as a community of sinners. This
to them was a question of fundamental importance.
Moreover, it was necessary to consider the notion of
"catholicity", not in the sense of uniformity, but in order to
make more room in the Catholic Church for legitimate diversity in the
areas of the liturgy, canon law and theology.
The Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity, which was created in
June 1960 and of which Willebrands was appointed Secretary, incorporated
the content of the Note of the Steering Committee of the
Catholic Conference in the documents it prepared for the Council.
Several suggestions on Catholic participation in the ecumenical movement
which this Note contained can be found in the Decree Unitatis
Redintegratio, as well as in other conciliar documents.
During the Council, however, it became clear that many of the tasks
of the Catholic Conference could now be more appropriately
undertaken in an official capacity by the Secretariat for Promoting
Christian Unity. The Catholic Conference therefore met for the
last time in August 1963. There was no further need for semi-official
In retrospect, it can be said that between 1953 and 1963, the Catholic
Conference opened the way to a process that was later facilitated by
several members of the Conference and others.
Keys to the Conference's pioneering role
Four factors account for the pioneering role of the Conference.
In the first place, its innovative character: the development of
reflection in the context of the Catholic Church, and at the same time,
the initiation of dialogue with the WCC.
Secondly, the character of the Conference was international
and scientific, which attracted many theologians and encouraged them to
take part in its decision-making.
Thirdly, the profile of the Conference could hardly be
described as institutional, since it was mainly constituted by the
activity of one man, Johannes Willebrands, who never put himself in the
front line of the movement.
Lastly, the Holy See was always duly informed.
With regard to what has been said, we maintain that there are many
reasons, over 50 years later, for remembering with gratitude the
initiative of creating the Catholic Conference for Ecumenical