Council clearly makes ecumenism binding as the work
of the Spirit
In the Decree
Unitatis Redintegratio, the
Second Vatican Council recognized that the ecumenical movement is a sign
of the Holy Spirit's action and said that it considered the promotion of
this movement to be one of its principal tasks. Today, 40 years later, the
ecumenical movement is in a different situation.
Alongside the progress, the burden of old and new divisions can be
felt: the process of rapprochement has of course been drawn out far
longer than many expected in an earlier, optimistic phase. Then there are
impatient voices which, contrary to the Council's declared intention (cf.
Unitatis Redintegratio, n. 11) and screened by the mirage of
presumed solutions, are giving rise to problems and misinterpreting the
ecumenical movement, which they mistakenly believe they will further by
surrendering to dogmatic relativism, indifferentism and pure pragmatism.
At times, the difficulties and the misunderstandings lead people to
regard the ecumenical movement with mistrust. Doubt is then often cast on
the theologically binding character of the Conciliar Decree Unitatis
The argument used alleges that this document is not a Dogmatic
Constitution but "merely" a Decree, that is, that it has no binding
if it does, it is minimal
that its only importance is pastoral and disciplinary.
Ecumenical 'rapprochement', main purpose of Vatican II
I. At first sight the argument seems clear. In fact, a closer look
shows that this is far from being the case. However, it is impossible to
deduce an argument of this kind solely from the use of words. Indeed, the
Council of Trent issued nothing but Decrees; yet it approved documents
with this title that were both dogmatically important and binding.
As compared with Trent, the Second Vatican Council made a distinction
between Constitutions and Decrees; but the Council did not explain this
differentiation, or at least not in such a way as to justify the
Pope Paul VI's declarations on the act of the solemn promulgation of
Unitatis Redintegratio took another direction.
At the beginning of the second session of the Council, the Pope had
already declared in a fundamentally important Address that ecumenical
rapprochement was one of the purposes
spiritual exigence, so to speak
which the Council had been convoked.1 If due consideration is
given to this declaration, all the texts of the Council should be read in
an ecumenical perspective.
When the Decree on Ecumenism was promulgated at the end of the third
session (together with the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church), Pope Paul
VI said that the Decree explained and completed the Constitution on the
Church: "ea doctrina, explicationibus completa in Schemate 'De
Oecumenismo' comprehensis...".2 Thus, with regard to
theological importance, he closely linked this Decree to the Constitution
on the Church.
Lastly, in his Closing Address on 8 December 1965 (in agreement with
what Pope John XXIII had said in his Opening Address)3 he
declared that the Council overall, hence including the Dogmatic
Constitution, had a pastoral orientation. And he left no room for doubt
concerning the fact that the pastoral orientation neither excluded nor
relativized doctrinal pronouncements but, on the contrary, was founded on
the teaching of the Church.4
Effectively, there is no pastoral service worthy of the name that is
not anchored in the teaching of the Church; nor is there any teaching of
the Church that consists solely of doctrine and is devoid of pastoral
aims. The First Vatican Council had already declared that the teaching of
the Church must be interpreted in view of the ultimate destiny of the
human being (DS, 3016).
Therefore, just as pastoral work must be guided by the teaching of the
Church, the teaching of the Church must be interpreted by observing man
and his destiny, that is, in a pastoral sense. The viewpoint of the
salus animarum quale suprema lex is not only a fundamental principle
for the interpretation of canon law (CIC, n. 1752), but also of the
From this derive important perspectives for the hermeneutics of the
Concilar texts. Just as it is not permissible to separate Unitatis
Redintegratio from Lumen Gentium or to interpret the Decree in
the sense of dogmatic relativism or indifferentism, Unitatis
Redintegratio likewise indicates the approach to take in explaining
the assertions of Lumen Gentium (an attitude of openness on more
than one point): that is, a sense of theologically responsible ecumenical
Thus, there is no opposition between the doctrinally binding character,
on the one hand, and the pastoral or disciplinary character on the other.
Rather, any wish to discredit the theological aspect of the Decree on
Ecumenism would be contrary to the overall ecumenical intention of the
Second Vatican Council.
Judgment of document's binding character must be differentiated
II. Rejection of the overall devaluation of Unitatis Redintegratio
does not mean that a solution to every problem has been found. On the
contrary, it is at this very point that the task of the correct
interpretation of the Decree begins. And if this is the case we cannot but
differentiate and classify its binding nature.
This can already be deduced from the Theological Commission's response
at the end of the discussion on the Constitution on the Church on the
matter of its binding character. "Clearly a Council text should always be
interpreted in accordance with the general rules, known to all".
This means that it is necessary to accept and maintain the Council's
assertions "in conformity with the intention of the Holy Synod itself, as
shown, in accordance with the foundations of the theological
interpretation, from the subject addressed or from the form of expression
The Council's extensive discussion of the title of the "Pastoral
Constitution on the Church in the Modern World" (Gaudium et Spes)
led to the same result. In this debate the term "pastoral" and its
theological significance were broadly discussed.
As a result, a note on this title expressly establishes: "It (the
Constitution) is called 'pastoral' because, based on doctrinal principles,
it desires to illustrate the relationship of the Church with the
contemporary world. Hence, the pastoral purpose is not absent from the
first part nor the doctrinal purpose from the second", even if this part
"not only contains unchangeable elements, but also elements conditioned by
history". In brief, it is affirmed: "The Constitution must therefore be
interpreted in accordance with the general rules for theological
Unitatis Redintegratio was debated in a similar way, although
the discussion may not have been as broad as that on Gaudium et Spes.
The result was objectively the same. The Council, precisely to avoid a
false irenicism and a purely pragmatic ecumenism, did not accept the
proposal of certain Council Fathers to eliminate everything theological
from the text.7
The Council wished to retain the principle that pastoral affirmations
rest on dogmatic principles and, moreover, that pastoral affirmations
relate these dogmatic principles to concrete historical situations. As a
rule, historical situations are complex and as such are susceptible to
evaluations that can be perfected in the light of deeper investigation.
Affirmations on historical events with effects in the theological
context must therefore be understood in accordance with the theological
rules in force for interpretation, so as not to jeopardize the value of
the doctrinal elements that might be present in them.
this is not the least important point that has emerged from the discussion
of the theologically binding character of Unitatis Redintegratio
the post-Conciliar period all too often knowledge of the rules for the
interpretation of theology and the doctrine of theological qualifications
has been forgotten.8
Regarding this the Second Vatican Council made its contribution in
Lumen Gentium, distinguishing between infallible declarations and the
authentic Magisterium and explaining that the degree to which they are
binding is to be recognized "by the character of the documents in
question, or by the frequency in which a certain document is proposed, or
by the manner in which the doctrine is formulated" (Lumen Gentium,
These distinctions must be taken into account when dealing with the
theologically binding character of Unitatis Redintegratio. The
question, therefore, is not merely: "Is this Council text binding or
not?". Rather, within the documents, a distinction must be made between
the different forms and degrees of obligation, and this must be brought
concretely to the fore as appropriate.
If this is done, it will be hard to dispute that the first chapter of
Unitatis Redintegratio (in which the "Catholic principles on
ecumenism" are expounded) contains binding affirmations that either sum up
or develop further the corresponding assertions in Lumen Gentium.
Explicit citations of the dogmatic affirmations of earlier Councils (the
Fourth Lateran Council, the Second Council of Lyons, the Council of
Florence, the First Vatican Council) confirm that it is a matter of
theologically binding affirmations, although these may not always
constitute ultimately binding infallible definitions.
On the contrary, especially in the third chapter (on "Churches and
Ecclesial Communities which were separated from the Apostolic See of
Rome"), historical affirmations can be found which by their nature cannot
be theologically binding, even if here too there are statements that leave
no doubt as to their implicitly binding meaning.
So it is with these words, for example: "This holy Synod solemnly
declares" (Unitatis Redintegratio, n. 16); "this sacred Council...
declares" (n. 17); "after taking all these factors into consideration,
this sacred Council confirms..." (n. 18). In no way is this wording
inferior to corresponding wording in Lumen Gentium.
Consequently, the hermeneutics of Unitatis Redintegratio and the
judgment on this document's theologically binding character cannot be
global but must be differentiated. To succeed in differentiating every
single case demands concentrated work that no one can dispense with by
resorting to generalizations.
Examine individual documents in the context of their reception
III. Nonetheless, the interpretation of Unitatis Redintegratio
cannot be limited to ascertaining the degree of obligation of every
individual affirmation. After ascertaining the formally binding character
of an affirmation, the problem arises as to the interpretation of its
For this too there are rules, and they obviously also apply to
ecumenical theology. To treat this here would take too long and would
require the exposition of an entire theological methodology. We briefly
mention three of these rules.9
In the first place: a historical interpretation is fundamental.
Here the rule applies that one cannot invoke a vaguely Conciliar spirit
but must start with the manner in which affirmations are expressed. At the
same time, this means that we must pay attention each time to what the
Council wanted to say. And this becomes particularly clear from an
examination of the Acts of the Council.
Moreover, single affirmations cannot be considered on their own. The
positivist citation of single sentences or even phrases taken out of
context is not adequate.10
Instead, individual affirmations should be interpreted in the context
of the Council documents, in connection with all the mysteries of the
faith (DS, 2016) and according to the "hierarchy" of truths (cf.
Unitatis Redintegratio, n. 11). This historical and systematic
interpretation confronts many historical and hermeneutical problems: we
should not evade them to take refuge either in a purely positivistic way
of citing them or in the disputable distinction between the spirit and
letter of the Council.
Secondly: an interpretation in the light of Tradition.
No Council is independent but every Council follows in the wake of the
tradition of all the others. Thus, the Decree Unitatis Redintegratio
refers to the confession of the faith of the Church and to the earliest
It would therefore be erroneous to interpret the Second Vatican
Council, and especially the Decree on Ecumenism, as a break with
tradition.11 Actually, one of the most important reasons for
this Council was a resourcement, a return to the sources; the
Council dealt with a new actualization of Tradition, and in this sense,
with its aggiornamento (a concept that is nowhere to be found in
the documents of the Council).
We should, of course, ask ourselves what does "tradition" mean in the
theological sense, and in so doing, it is necessary to distinguish between
the one Tradition and the many traditions.12 The ecumenical
openness of the Second Vatican Council is not a break with Tradition in
the theological sense of the word; but it is certainly an intentional
modification of individual traditions, for the most part relatively
Thus, it is indisputable that the Council consciously went beyond the
defensive and prohibitive assertions of Pope Pius XI in Mortalium
Animos (1928) and, in this sense, made a qualitative leap.13
Understood in this way, tradition and innovation are not in opposition.
On the subject of Tradition, in the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine
Revelation (Dei Verbum), the Second Vatican Council made its own
the deep understanding of Tradition as treated by J.A. Mohler and J.H.
Newman, who have made it the foundation of their respective theological
reflection (cf. Dei Verbum, n. 8). The Council understood Tradition
to be a living reality, full of the Holy Spirit: that is, both as fidelity
to the Depositum fidei that we received as our inheritance once and
for all, and as an ever renewed "youthfulness" in eternally new
This living interpretation, made under the guidance of the Holy Spirit,
has nothing in common with an easy adaptation to the spirit of the times:
often, on the contrary, the only way it can express the timeliness of
Tradition is by a prophetic witness against the spirit of the times.
The Second Vatican Council document Unitatis Redintegratio must
therefore be interpreted in continuity with all the Councils. This
continuity must not be understood as a dead or fossilized reality, but a
living event through which the Holy Spirit introduces us again and again
into the fullness of the truth (Jn 16:13). It is he, says St Irenaeus of
Lyons, who keeps the Depositum fidei young and "dewy", who
preserves the one and the same Gospel not as something eternally out of
date, but with inexhaustible youth.14
Thirdly: the importance of the reception of the Council.15
Understanding Tradition as a living reality implies that not only in
Unitatis Redintegratio but also in many other texts of the Second
Vatican Council (also in Lumen Gentium), old and new are often
found side by side.
This looks like a compromise. Yet it is not always a "bad compromise",
given that an intelligent compromise can be an intellectual undertaking of
high value and an expression of great wisdom because, while it clearly
excludes error on the one hand, on the other, it permits the existence for
the time being
love of unity in the essentials
insurmountable intra-ecclesial differences, deferring their solution to
Nor could the earliest Councils
every student of the history of dogma knows well
dispense with these expressions of compromise that led subsequently to a
laborious process of assimilation. In this regard, the Councils of Nicea
(325) and Chalcedon (451), and the subsequent history of this, are
People who criticize Unitatis Redintegratio for its use of some
"immature" wording should also criticize the Dogmatic Constitutions of the
Second Vatican Council and essential elements of the most ancient history
of the Councils. The wording of a Council, despite the absolute certainty
that it is exempt from error, is also always open-ended; defining it
sparks a lively process of reception.
In this sense, Unitatis Redintegratio cannot be read merely as a
historical text, isolated from the history of the effects of its reception
in the post-Conciliar period.17 Attached to this form of
reception are the many magisterial documents that confirmed and further
developed ecumenical openness including, especially, the Encyclical Ut
Unum Sint (1995). So, too, is the acceptance that Unitatis
Redintegratio met with in the faith and life of the Church, in
theology and in ecumenical dialogue.
Without a doubt, several points are not yet fully mature; in the face
of certain erroneous developments, in fact, the Magisterium of the Church
has had to take a firm stand, as occurred with the Declaration Dominus
Iesus (2000). Yet this Declaration should not be interpreted out of
context either, but in the light of all the other magisterial documents
and within the framework of the whole process of their reception.
In the past 40 years, Unitatis Redintegratio has been
assimilated by both the authentic Magisterium of the Church and the
sensus fidelium. The Decree, in the past 40 years, has made a great
contribution to developing ecumenical awareness in the consciences of many
Christians. Of course, there has been no lack of exaggerated
interpretations and inappropriate applications; but although wild growth
must be controlled, one cannot uproot the good wheat along with the weeds
(cf. Mt 13:29).
Thus, to underestimate Unitatis Redintegratio 40 years after its
promulgation, would be to set ourselves above an Ecumenical Council, above
the authentic Magisterium of the Church, above the life of the Church
(which is guided by the Holy Spirit); it would mean resisting the very
Spirit who has pushed this process forward through its high and low
phases, with all its problems, but more than these by far, its many
Therefore, in the changed ecumenical situation we have every reason to
ensure (in fidelity to the Tradition of the Church and in the light of
Catholic doctrinal principles, but also with courage and creativity) that
Unitatis Redintegratio will develop its vitality both in theology
and in praxis.
1 Ench. Vat., Vol. 1, Documenti del Concilio Vaticano II
(Bologna, 1981), f; cf, also the statements of Pope John XXIII in his
Address at the Opening of the Second Vatican Council, ibid., f.
2 Ibid., f. If the Pope had not taken the Decree
seriously from the theological viewpoint, his interventions immediately
before its promulgation would be incomprehensible. Concerning this, cf. W.
Becker in: LThK
zweite Vatikanische Konzil; II (1967), 38f; G. Alberigo (Ed.),
Storia del Concilio Vaticano II , Vol. 4 (Bologna, 1999), 436-446.
3 Ench. Vat,, Vol. 1, f.
4 Ibid., f.
5 Cf. the notifications of the General Secretariat of the
Council, 16 November 1964, in LThK
zweite Vatikanische Konzil, I (1966), 349f.
6 Cf. the comment of Ch. Moeller in: LthK
zweite Vatikanksche Konzil, III (1968), 280-282.
7 Cf. W. Becker's comment in: LThK
zweite Vatikanische Konzil, II (1967), 30; G. Alberigo (Ed.),
Storia del Concilio Vaticano II, Vol. 3 (Bologna. 1998), 283f.; 286.
8 Cf. the historical and systematic panorama in L.
Scheffczyk, Qualifikationen, in: LThK, Vol. 8 (1999), 755-757.
9 For the hermeneutics of the Second Vatican Council, cf. W.
Kasper, Die bleibende Herauslorderung durch das II Vatikanische Konzil,
in: Theologie and Kirche (Mainz, 1987), 290-299; H.J. Pottmeyer,
A New Phase in the Reception of Vatican II, in G. Alberigo et al.
(Ed.), The Reception of Vatican II (Washington, 1987), 27-43; for a
brief overview cf, O. Rush, Still Interpreting Vatican II: Some
Hermeneutical Principles, Pro-manuscript (Sydney, 2003)
10 A concrete example: when it is a question of judging the
celebrations of the Last Supper in reformed communities, it is not enough
to quote from Unitatis Redintegratio, n. 22, which says that these
"have not preserved the proper reality [substantia] of the
Eucharistic mystery in its fullness"; instead, it is necessary to complete
the sentence that immediately follows, in which the Council seeks to
control the importance of these celebrations in a positive way.
11 This is what Cardinal J. Ratzinger quite rightly states.
Rapporto sulla Fede (Milan, 1985), 33-35.
12 Cf. Y. Congar, La tradition et les traditions,
Vol. I (Paris, 1960), Vol. 2 (Paris, 1963).
13 Cf. G. Alberigo (Ed.), Storia del Concilio Vaticano II,
Vol 3 (Bologna, 1998), 287, 290, Vol. 4 (Bologna, 1999), 504.
14 Irenaeus of Lyons, Adversus Haereses, 111, 24, 1.
15 The subject of reception has long been neglected by
Catholic theology. In this regard, in addition to the well-known and now
classical treatment of it by A. Grillmeier and Y. Congar, cf. especially
the extensive exposition of G. Routhier, La Rιception
d'un Concile (Paris, 1993). In the philosophical perspective, H.G. Gadamer
and P. Ricoeur have shown that the history of the effect of a text is part
of it and cannot be separated from it.
16 Cf. M. Seckler, Uber den Kompromiss in Sachen der
Lehre, in: Im Spannungsfeld von Wissenschaft and Kirche (Freiburg
im Breisgau, 1980), 99-109.
17 Cf. R. Fisichella (Ed.), II Concilio Vaticano II.
Recezione e attualitΰ
alla luce del Giubileo (Rome, 2000)., 335-415, with contributions by
E. Fortino, J. Wicks, F. Ocαriz,
Y. Spiteris, V. Pfnόr.