Like yeast in dough, for 40 years ecumenism has been quietly leavening the life of the churches. It is so much taken for granted that we often do not recognize how different the shape of Christian life is today from 50 years ago and how close the churches have grown. For centuries, hymnody divided Catholics from Protestants. Today we sing one another’s hymns. Catholics prize “Amazing Grace” and belt out “How Great Thou Art,” and Protestants can be heard chanting Ubi Caritas and Veni, Sancte Spiritus.
Today, among the churches splintered by the Reformation, liturgies are looking more and more alike. Since the Second Vatican Council Catholics have put more emphasis on the Liturgy of the Word. At the same time, the council’s revision of the Lectionary helped inspire a parallel text, the Common Lectionary now used by several Protestant denominations. Revisions of Protestant orders of worship reflect a classic Christian focus on the Eucharist; many churches that had Communion services only infrequently now hold them monthly. Albs and stoles, even chasubles, are found in churches that once saw only pulpit gowns.
As the Catholic Church marks the 40th anniversary of Vatican II’s “Decree on Ecumenism” (Unitatis Redinte-gratio), we should bear in mind that the council intended ecumenism to be integral to its understanding of the church. From the floor of the council meeting hall, Pope Paul VI declared that the decree “explained and completed” the “Constitution on the Church.” In his encyclical Ut Unum Sint (1994), Pope John Paul II made clear the centrality of ecumenism to the postconciliar agenda of church renewal. “Ecumenism,” he wrote, “is an organic part of [the church’s] life and work, and consequently must pervade all that she is and does” (No. 20). Underscoring the point, where the council wrote of “separated brethren,” Pope John Paul II speaks of “our fellow Christians.”
As the churches work to achieve the full visible unity for which Christ prayed, Acts 15:28-29 provides the working rule: “It has been decided by the Holy Spirit and ourselves not to impose on you any burdens beyond [the] essentials....” Unity is necessary only in essentials; in other matters there may be legitimate diversity. “In everything,” the council said, “let charity prevail.” Acknowledging that the papacy itself is for many an obstacle to unity, in Ut Unum Sint Pope John Paul II offered to explore the ways the Petrine ministry might be reshaped to more readily achieve unity among the churches (Nos. 95-97). The Vatican has already held two consultations on this issue. Many churches and scholars have responded constructively to the pope’s invitation.
In the United States, the Catholic-Orthodox dialogue has made serious progress in recent years on Orthodox recognition of Catholic baptism and on the 1,000-year-old credal difference over the term filioque, the word in the Catholic version of one of the ancient creeds that proclaims belief that the Holy Spirit “proceeds from the Father and the Son.” The U.S. Catholic-Lutheran dialogue prepared the way for the landmark Catholic-Lutheran Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification (1999), which addressed perhaps the most fundamental controversy of the Reformation. The dialogue with the Reformed Churches in the United States has made significant progress on the question of the Eucharist; and this year’s report of the International Catholic-Mennonite Dialogue has opened the way to more Catholic collaboration with the peace churches and the Anabaptist tradition.
There continue to be setbacks, of course. The ordination of women and practicing homosexuals and the blessing of same-sex unions in parts of the Anglican Communion overshadow progress made in significant agreements on Eucharist, ordination and ministry. Pope John Paul II made clear, however, in a joint message issued in 1996 with George Carey, then archbishop of Canterbury, that problems like the ordination of women should not impede the quest for unity. Anglicans in turn, in the recently released Windsor Report on ordination and rites for homosexuals in the Anglican Communion, cited ecumenical relations as a reason to avoid church-dividing innovations.
Like a seed growing unseen, the Holy Spirit has been at work bringing Christians closer together. Discerning eyes can begin to make out the lineaments of the one Church of Christ of which we all are a part. As our differences diminish, it is time to appreciate better the gifts we bring one another. For as the council wrote, “Catholics must gladly acknowledge and esteem the truly Christian endowments for our common heritage which are to be found” among our fellow Christians. “It is right and salutary to recognize the riches of Christ and virtuous works in the lives of others who are bearing witness to Christ, sometimes even to the shedding of their blood.”