The Man Behind Unity

Book cover
‘Because He Was a German!’by By Jerome-Michael VerebEerdmans. 352p $35

Among the signal achievements of the Second Vatican Council is the Roman Catholic Church’s irreversible commitment to the cause of Christian unity. How did the church come to change its preconciliar, triumphalist insistence on the “return” of “schismatics and heretics” to the one, true church, identified exclusively with the Roman Catholic Church, and in its place embrace a shared search for full communion with the “separated brethren”? As with other conciliar breakthroughs, this stunning development had been prepared by antecedent renewal currents that were treated with a mix of cautious approbation, suspicion and censure by Vatican curial officials.

Pope John XXIII’s heralded hope that Vatican II would promote Christian unity faced resistance from these same officials who hoped to control the preparatory process. Then, on May 30, 1960, Pope John announced his intention to establish a new curial entity called the Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity (S.P.C.U.), and he named a new cardinal, with whom he had scant contact, to head it. Cardinal Augustin Bea, S.J., like the pope 79 years old, was a biblical scholar and respected religious, having been Pope Pius XII’s personal confessor and having served the Holy Office as a German consultant, under the formidable Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani. Jerome-Michael Vereb’s “Because He Was a German!” tells the engaging story of how Bea and his secretariat came to be the “ecumenical conscience” of the Second Vatican Council.

The book relates the beginnings of ecumenical activities in the 20th century, with special attention to the “German theater.” Why Germany? Several factors conspired to produce an ecumenical kairos in the “country” that was the cradle of the Reformation. First, the collapse of the Reformation principle cuius regio, cuius religio at the end of World War I and then the nightmare of the Third Reich stimulated a new appreciation of the church’s nature and the shared Christian call to holiness. Second, ressourcement in Reformation historiography by Lutheran and Catholic scholars helped to set aside sterile polemics and clear a path for dialogue. Third, prophets of “spiritual ecumenism,” notably Max Metzger and the Una Sancta movement, placed high value on lived experience and promoted exchanges with ecumenically minded Protestants. Vereb cites Cardinal Willebrands, co-founder of the Catholic Conference for Ecumenical Questions and subsequently secretary and then president of the S.P.C.U., who stated that the “single greatest cause for the dynamic of the ecumenical movement” was “the ‘life together’ of Protestant and Catholic clerics in concentration camps.”

Bea’s life story has been related by his personal secretary, Stjepan Schmidt, S.J., in a biography to which Vereb makes frequent reference (1992). Bea pursued advanced biblical studies in Berlin with Protestant scholars before World War I. After serving as the Jesuit provincial superior in Germany, he was called to Rome, where he spent the rest of his life as professor, scholar and rector at the Jesuit-run Pontifical Biblical Institute. Bea kept informed about developments in his native land.

Apropos of ecumenism, much credit goes to Archbishop Lorenz Jaeger (named a cardinal after the council) and his Möhler Ecumenical Institute in Paderborn for sensitizing Bea to its urgency. Jaeger was the “ecumenical conscience” of the German Bishops’ Conference during and after the Second World War. Vereb’s archival investigations in Paderborn have brought to light the correspondence between the two men in the months before Pope John’s announcement about the S.P.C.U. Bea helped draft the letter to Pope John, signed by Jaeger, requesting that the pope establish a curial office for ecumenical matters. Coincidentally, Patriarch Maximos IV Saigh had written to the pope not long after the pope’s election to make a similar request. The book’s appendix contains these letters. (It should be noted that the Bea archives in Münich remain sealed.)

The fundamental question upon which ecumenical ecclesiology depended was: Who belongs to the church? Pope Pius XII’s encyclical Mystici Corporis (1943) had restricted church membership to those belonging to the Roman Catholic Church. Citing the Pauline letters in the New Testament and deftly referring to the 1917 Code of Canon Law, Bea made a compelling argument that the sacrament of baptism incorporates one into the church. Vereb summarizes several of Bea’s presentations that sought to establish the doctrinal basis for the S.P.C.U.’s work.

Among the interesting historical episodes that Vereb relates is the Rhodes Incident and its aftermath, which occurred the summer before the pope established the S.P.C.U. A terrible misunderstanding occurred between the Central Committee of the World Council of Churches and the Catholic “observers” at an international meeting on the island of Rhodes. The incident brought home the pressing need for a curial office to serve as an information bureau concerning inter-church matters. Curial intransigents would have been content with an S.P.C.U. that functioned simply as a Press and Guest Bureau. But Pope John and Cardinal Bea had a more substantial understanding of the S.P.C.U.’s mandate. The story of how Bea’s S.P.C.U. played a decisive role in the drafting and approval of Vatican II’s “Decree on Ecumenism” and the “Declaration on the Relationship of the Church to Non-Christian Religions” and the “Declaration on Religious Freedom,” however, is beyond the aim of Vereb’s book. Having followed different trajectories in service to the church, in their old age Angelo Roncalli and Augustin Bea came to a meeting of minds and hearts for the cause of Christian unity. After Bea had met with the pope, he remarked to his secretary: “We understood each other perfectly!”

Vereb is ideally suited to tell this story. He worked for a time in the S.P.C.U., and he spices this account with personal reminiscences of ecumenical pioneers like Johannes Willebrands, whom he interviewed. It was Pope John’s private secretary, Loris Capovilla, who said that Pope John chose Bea “because he was a German.”

Tighter editing would have eliminated unnecessary repetitions in what was originally a doctoral thesis. A more comprehensive history of the modern ecumenical movement would have more to say about the important role of Yves Congar, O.P.

Vereb’s book, which includes a detailed index and bibliography, makes a valuable contribution to the understanding of the origins of the Roman Catholic ecumenical movement and the person who animated it.

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