Catholic Conference for Ecumenical Questions

Author: Prof. Jan Jacobs


Prof. Jan Jacobs 
Professor of History at the Theological Faculty, Tilburg, The Netherlands

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 conversions.

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 ecumenical.

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 deliberations.

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 Questions.

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
30 July 2003, page 10

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