Ecumenism Today: The Situation in the Catholic
In November 2004, the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian
Unity (PCPCU) organized an international meeting near Rome to mark the
40th anniversary of the promulgation, on 21 November 1964, of the Second
Vatican Council's Decree on Ecumenism Unitatis Redintegratio.
Over 250 people took part in the meeting, including the presidents or
secretaries of the ecumenical commissions of most of the world's
Bishops' Conferences and Synods of Eastern Catholic Churches, the
Catholic moderators of bilateral theological dialogues with the
principal Christian Communions, the members and consultors of the
Pontifical Council. Also present were over 30 fraternal delegates from
other Churches and Ecclesial Communities, representatives from the World
Council of Churches and the Council of European Churches, as well as
guests from the Roman Curia and from the Pontifical Roman Universities
and Theological Faculties.
The purpose of the gathering was to celebrate 40 years of the
Church's ecumenical commitment, but also to reflect on the continuing
significance of Unitatis Redintegratio, to examine the path
travelled since the Council and to formulate proposals for future
As part of the preparation for this important meeting, the PCPCU sent
a questionnaire to the Bishops' Conferences and to the Synods of the
Eastern Catholic Churches, with the purpose of generating a report on
the present situation of ecumenism within the Catholic Church at the
local level. The intention was to measure the degree of practical
Unitatis Redintegratio 40 years after its promulgation, and of
the Ecumenical Directory 10 years after its publication.
One-hundred sixty three questionnaires were sent out; 83 responses
Looking at the responses by continents and regions, we see the
following: from Africa we had 20 answers (44 percent); from Latin
America and the Caribbean 17 (71 percent); 1 from North America (50
percent); 12 from Asia (60 percent); 24 from Europe (60 percent); 7 from
the Middle East (46 percent); 2 from Oceania (40 percent).
We are fully aware of the limited nature of our inquiry; the
questionnaire was not scientifically formulated; the responses were less
than expected and correspond to quantitatively different realities,
which makes comparisons and statistics impossible: Brazil cannot be
compared with Gibraltar, or Germany with Kazakhstan.
Nevertheless, we believe that we have a firm basis on which to build
a picture of the present state of ecumenical commitment, and we present
here a brief report of the results.
We have summarized our findings under four headings:
1. The advance of ecumenical awareness within the Catholic Church;
2. The organization of ecumenism;
3. The Church's ecumenical action at the local level;
4. Suggestions for future work.
1. The advance of ecumenical awareness within the
1.1 Positive signs
The inquiry shows that in every part of the world Unitatis
Redintegratio has introduced a radical improvement in Catholic
attitudes towards other Christians; the polemical approach of the past
is no longer dominant.
Catholics have a positive attitude to the ecumenical task. They are
eager to know more about the other Churches and Communions, and they are
generally willing to take part in ecumenical events and meetings,
especially in common prayer for unity.
There is widespread practice of spiritual ecumenism. In addition to
the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, which continues to be a
principal component of ecumenical action, joint celebrations of major
liturgical feasts and commemorations, as well as on the occasion of
civic, local and national celebrations, are a reality almost everywhere.
There is widespread sharing of church buildings. Two thirds of the
respondents mention ecumenical cooperation at the parish level and the
publication of guidelines for ecumenical activity in their region.
In general we can be assured that the effort to apply the ecumenical
commitment of the Second Vatican Council continues and spreads
throughout the Church.
1.2 Problems and resistance
At the same time we cannot be naive. And although not all the
difficulties mentioned in the responses are equally present in all parts
of the Church, an overview of these difficulties may be helpful, since
they describe the challenge which those who work for Christian unity
face at the level of practical involvement.
To summarize in some way, we can say that among the
theological-pastoral questions most often raised in the responses to
our questionnaire there is:
the issue of the mutual recognition of baptism, and the re-baptism of
Catholics by some Churches and communities, either as a fact or as a
policy; on this point, a presentation of the guidelines followed by some
Bishops' Conferences was sent to all Conferences after our Plenary
Assembly of 2001, and was also published in the official Bulletin of our
Council (cf. PCPCU, Mutual Recognition of Baptism. Synthesis of
Responses from Episcopal Conferences, Study Document in:
Information Service 109 (2002/1-II) pp. 20-25);
the matter of abuses in communicatio in sacris;
questions regarding mixed-marriages;
in some places excesses in Catholic Marian devotions are a problem;
the matter of unifying the date of Easter, which has been debated here
and there since the Council, is a concern, especially in the Middle
differences in ecclesial organization and structures make it difficult
in some countries for Catholics to identify ecumenical partners in some
we also see widespread mutual accusations of proselytism (Latin America,
finally, many Conferences coincide in indicating as a problem the lack
of an ecumenical literature that is accessible to the less educated
Among the non-theological factors affecting ecumenism we find
social and political situations (principally in the ex-Soviet bloc
countries), ethnic conflicts (Africa and the Balkans) and the question
of whether the Church is in a majority or minority situation.
In Eastern Europe many respondents refer to the tensions surrounding
the question of the restitution of Church properties. In some places the
quest for Christian unity is seen as a threat by certain Islamic groups.
Respondents in all continents mention the persistence of attitudes of
mutual fear, suspicion and mistrust. Other Christians are afraid of
being absorbed by the more powerful Catholic community, and Catholics
express mistrust towards groups that use the media and public campaigns
to criticize Catholic doctrines, or insist on certain negative and
scandalous situations to attack the Church.
In a word, there is still much suspicion of one another's real
intentions and regarding the evangelical inspiration of one another's
programmes and actions.
Although much has been achieved in places with regard to the
purification of historical memories, some local Churches say that the
memory of past events, remote or more recent, still impedes or hinders
ecumenical relations. The purification of memories is something to which
John Paul II has drawn our attention on numerous occasions, and it
remains one of the most crucial challenges for those who work for
Some responses point to a lack of motivation and enthusiasm. In some
cases this stems from the suspicion that ecumenism weakens the
evangelizing mission of the Church.
Some Catholics think that ecumenism compromises their faith and is an
admission of an insufficiency in the Catholic Church, which they are not
ready to accept.
In some countries with a large Catholic majority, the small number of
Christians belonging to other Churches is offered as a justification for
the lack of ecumenical initiative.
Elsewhere, the newer Evangelical and Pentecostal communities are
often not regarded as genuine Ecclesial Communities, and the
indiscriminate use of the term "sect" continues to cause problems on all
continents. Ecclesial Communities (Baptists, Evangelicals, Pentecostals)
with which the Catholic Church has theological dialogues and
international relations, even for decades, are included in lists of
On the other hand, especially in Latin America, responses frequently
indicate a non-recognition of the Christian-character of Catholics by
some Evangelical and Pentecostal groups. It may help to remember that on
this mutual difficulty we already have Study Documents produced by
various mixed commissions of dialogue (for example: Catholic-Pentecostal
Dialogue: "Evangelization, proselytism and common witness";
Consultation between the Catholic Church and the World Evangelical
Alliance: "Church, Evangelization and the Bonds of Koinonia").
2. The organization of ecumenism
Vatican II committed the ecumenical task in a special way to the
Bishops. The Ecumenical Directory recommends the setting up of
ecumenical commissions in each Diocese and at national and regional
levels, or at least the naming in each Diocese of a delegate in charge
of promoting the ecumenical spirit and inter-church relations.
The PCPCU is pleased to see that only very few Conferences do
not have a department or commission for ecumenism. On the other hand
most respondents indicate that these commissions or delegates work in
restricted conditions, and they mention the lack of continuity in
carrying out projects, and the need for new, younger blood among those
engaged in ecumenical work.
At the level of Dioceses, matters are not so satisfactory. The
lack of personnel, of specific training, of resources, financial and
otherwise, make ecumenical work difficult.
On the other hand, in some countries there are flourishing support
groups and associations of people well trained in ecumenism, active
in ecumenical education in Dioceses, parishes, groups and seminaries.
More attention needs to be given to finding and training such experts
Regarding membership in Councils of Churches, we see that a
substantial change has taken place in recent years.
Forty years ago, the Catholic Church did not belong to any such
Council of Churches. Today, she is a member of 70 of the existing 120
national councils of churches, and takes part in three out of seven
regional councils of churches, and in seven regional councils associated
with the World Council of Churches.1
An analysis of the implications and forms of Catholic participation
in such councils, as well as suggestions as to how to meet the
difficulties and challenges which impede Catholic participation in some
places, is contained in a new document of the Joint Working Group
between the Catholic Church and the World Council of Churches due to be
published in the next few months.
3. The Church's ecumenical action at the local level
Regarding dialogue: 42 out of 83 Bishops' Conferences
responding to the inquiry declare that they have permanent structures of
dialogue with other Churches and Communities present in their territory;
38 have mixed commissions of dialogue.
As regards the reception of dialogue documents, only 35
Conferences say they have a good dissemination of the results of
dialogues, and have actively promoted discussion and study through the
publication of resources.
Some respondents also indicate that efforts are being made to utilize
the Internet to promote ecumenism in some countries, and this is a
matter which the PCPCU is greatly interested in pursuing.
In the field of social concerns, 44 Conferences say they are
involved in cooperative efforts with other confessions. Here too we must
admit that more can be done.
The need for better ecumenical formation has been mentioned by
practically all the ecumenical commissions responding to our inquiry.
There should be a place in this training for the presence and
contribution of representatives of the other Churches and communities.
Indeed, we hope that more and more such efforts will be cooperative.
All of these points will form the basis of the activity of the PCPCU
in the coming months and years.
The Pontifical Council's Document on formation, The Ecumenical
Dimension in the Formation of Those Engaged in Pastoral Work (1995),
which offers suggestions for a course in ecumenism and gives resources
for the same, is not well known and needs to be distributed more widely.
Together with the Congregation for Catholic Education, the PCPCU is
now carrying out a survey at the world level of Catholic seminaries and
universities and theological faculties, in order to find out exactly
what the practice is and whether suitable attention is being given to
ecumenism in Catholic education. The data are now being collected and
the results will eventually be published.
4. Some thoughts on the future of ecumenism
The consultation shows that the degree of commitment to the
ecumenical task at the local level throughout the Church is growing in
intensity and extension.
In a globalized world Christians in all Churches feel an impetus to
overcome the state of division between them. Spiritual ecumenism
conversion of mind and heart to Christ, joint prayer for unity
is attracting more and more attention.
In responses to the questionnaire, many good suggestions for future
ecumenical work have emerged. The inquiry underlines three areas as
needing urgent attention now and in the future:
1) the insertion of ecumenical initiatives in the organic pastoral
programmes of Dioceses;
2) the ecumenical education of the laity, of Religious, seminarians,
priests and Bishops;
3) and reflection on how to respond to the problem of aggressive
In a world that has changed much since the Second Vatican Council, a
new realism permeates the Catholic approach to the restoration of unity.
It is clearer than ever that ecumenism can only be promoted on a solid
doctrinal basis, on serious dialogue between divided Christians.
Above all, there is a fuller realization that the work of unity can
flourish only within a deep and convincing spirituality, a spirituality
of Christian hope and courage.
The PCPCU hopes that the commemoration of the 40th anniversary of
Unitatis Redintegratio has served to inspire new hope and courage in
those most directly responsible for the implementation of the Church's
1 According to data available up to September 2004, the
Catholic Church is a full member in three regional Councils of Churches:
The Council of Churches of the Caribbean, the Middle East Council of
Churches and the Council of Churches of the Pacific.
The Church is a member of 14 national Christian Councils or Councils
of Churches in Africa, three in Asia, 10 in Oceania, 12 in the
Caribbean, 25 in Europe, one in North America, five in South America.
Cf. "INSPIRED BY THE SAME VISION": Roman Catholic
participation in national and regional Councils of Churches, Appendix E.