40th Anniversary of Vatican II Decree Unitatis Redintegratio

Author: Cardinal Walter Kasper

40th Anniversary of Vatican II Decree Unitatis Redintegratio

Cardinal Walter Kasper
President of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity

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 Redintegratio.

The argument used alleges that this document is not a Dogmatic Constitution but "merely" a Decree, that is, that it has no binding doctrinal character — or if it does, it is minimal — and 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 above-mentioned argument.

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 — the spiritual exigence, so to speak — for 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 Church's teaching.

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 openness.

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 used".5

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 interpretation".6

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.

Unfortunately — and this is not the least important point that has emerged from the discussion of the theologically binding character of Unitatis Redintegratio— in 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, n. 25).

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 content.

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 Councils.

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 recent.

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 situations.

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 — for love of unity in the essentials — of insurmountable intra-ecclesial differences, deferring their solution to future discussion.

Nor could the earliest Councils — as 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 eloquent examples.16

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 hopeful aspects.

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), [104]f; cf, also the statements of Pope John XXIII in his Address at the Opening of the Second Vatican Council, ibid., [48]f.

2Ibid., [178]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 — Das 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, [42]f.

4Ibid., [284]f.

5 Cf. the notifications of the General Secretariat of the Council, 16 November 1964, in LThK — Das zweite Vatikanische Konzil, I (1966), 349f.

6 Cf. the comment of Ch. Moeller in: LthK — Das zweite Vatikanksche Konzil, III (1968), 280-282.

7 Cf. W. Becker's comment in: LThK — Das 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 Réception 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 attualità alla luce del Giubileo (Rome, 2000)., 335-415, with contributions by E. Fortino, J. Wicks, F. Ocáriz, Y. Spiteris, V. Pfnür.

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
25 February 2004, page 6

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