In Jan. 2009, Rev. Brian W. Harrison wrote an article titled “Is Ecumenism a Heresy?” for the Catholic Answers magazine formally known as This Rock. You can find the article here: http://www.catholic.com/magazine/articles/is-ecumenism-a-heresy . Due to the success of Catholic Answers and Harrison’s misrepresentation of the Catholic Faith, I thought a real Catholic Answer needed to be given. I’ll give an answer to everything Harrison writes in order that the context is not lost. Harrison writes:
Vying with the Declaration on Religious Liberty for the honour (or disgrace, depending on one’s theological outlook) of being the Second Vatican Council’s most doctrinally innovative document is its Decree on Ecumenism, Unitatis Redintegratio (UR). Those at both traditionalist and liberal ends of the Catholic spectrum have seen this Decree (with sentiments of glowering gloom and gloating glee respectively) as representing a significant departure from traditional doctrine. The latter, of course, emphasized Catholicism as the one true religion, to which separated Christians will simply have to return if ever unity is to be restored.
SPERAY’S COMMENT: Catholics have no choice but recognize that there are no Christians truly outside of the Catholic Church, and the unity can only happen with a return of these heretics.
In this short article I shall limit myself to a comparison between UR and the pre-conciliar papal document most frequently cited as being incompatible with it, Pope Pius XI’s 1928 encyclical on fostering true religious unity, Mortalium Animos (MA). This encyclical set out the Catholic Church’s position regarding the fledgling movement for religious unity which had been gathering steam in liberal Protestant circles since the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
In order to compare these two magisterial documents, we first need to recall the distinction between a reversal of official Church policy, discipline or pastoral strategy, and a contradiction of doctrine. The former type of change has often taken place in the course of Church history, in response to changing circumstances. And in this practical, disciplinary respect, a comparison between MA and UR reveals an undeniable and very marked change of direction – indeed, practically a U-turn. Pius XI flatly forbade any Catholic participation in inter-church or inter-religious meetings and activities motivated by the desire for restoring Christian unity. Vatican Council II, on the other hand, authorizes and positively encourages Catholic participation in such activities (within certain limits).
SPERAY’S COMMENT: The conciliar popes have actively participated in pagan, Jewish, Islamic, Protestant, and Eastern Orthodox worship services to the point of donning their counterpart outfits. The only limit perhaps, is the fact that a Catholic can’t receive communion in Protestant services. Outside of that, anything goes.
The modern Church has thus made a prudential judgment that the risks and dangers of indifferentism and confusion about the faith occasioned by such activities – perils strongly emphasized by Pius XI – are outweighed by the great good to be hoped for as the long-term result of ecumenism: gradual better mutual understanding leading to that unity which Christ willed for all who profess to be his disciples.
SPERAY’S COMMENT: Harrison readily admits that Vatican 2’s UR is a complete U-turn from the historic Faith as taught by Pope Pius XI, but what he fails to do is to tell his readers that this 180 degree turn is not merely a prudential judgment against some out-dated practice, but rather is a contradiction to Divine Law. The long-standing practice of condemning participation in inter-church or inter-religious worship meetings and activities was explained by Pope Pius XI in MA: “for if they do so they will be giving countenance to a false Christianity, quite alien to the one Church of Christ.” The practice of inter-religious worship meetings and activities combine the way of truth with the way of error. We are to worship God in spirit and truth where there is no room for Satan and his lies. The Second Council of Constantinople: “For we are taught, ‘What fellowship hath righteousness with unrighteousness? And what communion hath light with darkness? And what concord hath Christ with Belial?’” To do what Harrison admits UR is promoting is apostasy. In another place, MA clearly implies that it goes against the Divine law when Pope Pius XI stated, “Apostolic See cannot on any terms take part in their assemblies.”Harrison admits that the reversal is a scandal because it can lead one away from the faith, too. Read carefully that Harrison is trying to persuade his readers that an evil means (the risks and dangers of indifferentism and confusion about the faith occasioned by such activities – perils) justifies the end (gradual better mutual understanding leading towards unity.) Notice that it is indeed a risk and that the end result may not be accomplished. In other words, an evil means justifies a possible end. How disturbing is that?
At the more fundamental level of doctrine, however, the short answer to the charge of contradiction between MA and UR is that what Pius XI condemned is by no means the same thing that Vatican II affirms.
SPERAY’S COMMENT: In one of his classic moves to rectify the problem, Harrison will now change the argument. He already admitted that UR is a complete reversal of MA. Now, he’s going to say that the two documents are referring to two different subject matters. He’s also going to suggest that UR doesn’t mean what he just said it means.
What, exactly, did Pope Pius condemn as false doctrine? Basically, the liberal Protestant theology that dominated ecumenical initiatives in the early 20th century. More specifically, this theology embodied – explicitly or at least implicitly – several specific theses censured by Pius XI.
1. Early pan-religionists usually took a “lowest common denominator” approach: they envisaged a world-wide religious ‘unity’ in which all would agree on a few basic beliefs while ‘agreeing to differ’ on others. The Pope observes that these religious liberals apparently “hope that all nations, while differing indeed in religious matters, may yet without great difficulty be brought to fraternal agreement on certain points of doctrine which will form a common basis of the spiritual life”. This hypothetical ‘unity’ in one ‘world religion’ would of course include non-Christians of all types.
2. Pius XI insisted that the above error involves another at a deeper level: denial of the very principle of revealed truth, which requires assent to God’s Word on his own authority. Contemporary pan-religious efforts operating on principle (1), the Pope says,
presuppose the erroneous view that all religions are more or less good and praiseworthy, inasmuch as all give expression, under various forms, to that innate sense which leads men to God and to the obedient acknowledgment of his rule. Those who hold such a view are not only in error; they distort the true idea of religion, and thus reject it, falling gradually into naturalism and atheism. To favor this opinion, therefore, and to encourage such undertakings, is tantamount to abandoning the religion revealed by God.
This idea that all religions are just varying (and fallible) human expressions of a natural religious impulse or instinct was one of the fundamental errors of that modernism which had been so recently condemned by Pope St. Pius X.
SPERAY’S COMMENT: Yet, this is precisely what the conciliar popes are teaching and promoting. The Assisi Events are a perfect example. Vatican 2 also promotes that all religions are more or less good and praiseworthy, at least, the Buddhists, Muslims, Jews, and other various religions, in its document Nostra Aetate.
3. Turning from the inner nature of faith to outward forms of visible organization, Pius XI found another related error. In those initiatives limiting the quest for unity to those who already professed faith in Christ – what the Church today calls “ecumenism” as distinct from “interreligious dialogue” – the Pope discerned a false ecclesiology (theological understanding of the Church). For the visibly united ‘Christian Church’ that these liberal Protestant ecumenists dreamed of would be “nothing more than a federation of the various Christian communities, even though these may hold different and mutually exclusive doctrines”.
SPERAY’S COMMENT: It’s not hard to find Vatican 2 theologians and the conciliar popes teaching such a thing. For instance, Cardinal Dulles (who was never censored but praised) wrote, “it can be defended that the Council implicitly taught that the united church of the future will not come about by a capitulation of the other churches and their absorption into Roman Catholicism. The desired una sancta can be a joint creation, which will simultaneously complete and transform all the churches that enter it. The Catholic Church, without being dissolved in any way, would modify herself by entering this embracing unity.” (Avery Dulles, “Ecumenismo: Problemi e Possibilita per il Futuro,” in Verso la Chiesa del Terzo Millennio, Brescia: Queriniana, 1979, pp. 112-3).
4. The Pope pointed out that such an ecclesiology in turn involves the related idea that the unity which Christ prayed for – ut unum sint – “merely expressed a desire or a prayer which as yet has not been granted. For they [the contemporary ecumenists] hold that the unity of faith and government which is a note of the one true Church of Christ has up to the present time hardly ever existed and does not exist today. . . . [I]t must be regarded as a mere ideal”.
SPERAY’S COMMENT: Yet, Vatican 2 echoes the same error in UR: 1. “Yet almost all, though in different ways, long for the one visible Church of God, that truly universal Church whose mission is to convert the whole world to the gospel, so that the world may be saved, to the glory of God.” 4. “Nevertheless, the divisions among Christians prevent the Church from realizing in practice the fullness of Catholicity proper to her, in those of her sons and daughters who, though attached to her by baptism, are yet separated from full communion with her. Furthermore, the Church herself finds it more difficult to express in actual life her full Catholicity in all its bearings.”
Before looking at UR in the light of these condemned ideas, we can consider another common complaint. Traditionalist critics often claim that UR leaves the key concept of ecumenism dangerously undefined. I suspect this concern arises from a faulty translation in the common Flannery edition of the documents, which has the Council merely “indicating” what “the ecumenical movement” involves. A more faithful translation of the opening of UR 4’s second paragraph, bringing out its character as a definition, would be this: “The term ‘ecumenical movement’ is understood to mean (Per “motum oecumenicum” intelleguntur) those activities and initiatives which are encour-aged and organized, according to the various needs of the Church and when suitable occasions arise, in order to promote the unity of Christians.”
SPERAY’S COMMENT: When Vatican 2 refers to the Church, is it speaking about the Church of Christ or the Catholic Church since it already taught that they’re not one and the same? Fr. Edward Schillebeechx, Walter J. Bughardt, S.J., Fr. Gregory Baum, and Ratzinger have all repeated in a roundabout way the teaching of Avery Cardinal Dulles that: “The Church of Christ is not exclusively identical to the Roman Catholic Church. It does indeed subsist in Roman Catholicism but it is also present in varying modes and degrees in other Christian communities.”Therefore, the Church is not unified yet or else there would be no reason to promote the unity of Christians as UR is teaching.
The Council then makes this definition more precise by setting out the kinds of “activities and initiatives” it has in mind: (a) avoiding all misrepresentations of separated Christians’ beliefs and practices; (b) dialogue between scholars of different denominations for the purpose of better mutual understanding; (c) a more extensive collaboration in carrying out duties toward the common good recognized by “every Christian conscience”; (d) meeting for common prayer, where this is permitted; and
SPERAY’S COMMENT: Point (d) is the crux of the problem as explained before about the Divine Law and the actual practice of the conciliar popes.
(e) renewing and reforming the Church herself in faithfulness to Christ’s will. It seems clear enough that while (b), (c) and (d) do indeed relax the disciplinary prohibitions of MA, none of these five points contradicts any doctrinal truth laid down by Pius XI in his encyclical.
SPERAY’S COMMENT: Ah, but it does! It contradicts the doctrinal truth laid down by Christ and taught in MA. Truth doesn’t mix with error. Light doesn’t mix with darkness. Christ doesn’t mix with Satan.
Now we can go on to consider UR in the light of the four above-mentioned doctrinal errors reprobated by Pope Pius:
I. Does Vatican II adopt a “lowest common denominator” approach to ‘balance’ unity and truth? Not at all. UR, 3 affirms that while the separated brethren have many elements of truth, God’s will is that they all come to that plenitude which can be found only in Catholicism:
For it is through Christ’s Catholic Church alone . . . that the fullness of the means of salvation can be obtained. It was to the apostolic College alone, of which Peter is the head . . . that we believe the Lord entrusted all the benefits of the New Covenant in order to establish on earth the one Body of Christ, into which all those who already in some way belong to the people of God ought to be fully incorporated.
The Decree also recalls that while there is a “hierarchy” of Catholic truths, insofar as these vary in “their relationship to the foundation of the Christian faith”, this does not mean that the less ‘fundamental’ Catholic beliefs – those not shared by Protestant and/or Orthodox Christians – are ‘negotiable’ or can be swept under the rug. On the contrary, “It is of course essential that [Catholic] doctrine be presented in its entirety. Nothing is so foreign to the spirit of ecumenism as a false irenicism which harms the purity of Catholic doctrine and obscures its genuine and certain meaning.”
SPERAY’S COMMENT: If salvation can be found only in the Catholic Church then it can’t be found anywhere else even partially. Salvation is salvation. If you’re saved in the fullness of truth or in partial truth, you’re still saved, nonetheless. UR is attempting to balance the salvation field to include an outside means. UR is stating that although salvation if found fully in the Catholic Church, it is found partially outside of Church. To say that the people of God must be fully incorporated in the Church implies that the people of God can be found outside of the Church. Although, they “ought to be fully incorporated” into the Church, they don’t have to be fully incorporated to be saved. This is the implication of the Vatican 2 document. UR IS HERETICAL! Benedict XVI even teaches it: “The question that really concerns us, the question that really oppresses us, is why it is necessary for us in particular to practice the Christian Faith in its totality; why, when there are so many other ways that lead to heaven and salvation, it should be required of us to bear day after day the whole burden of ecclesial dogmas and of the ecclesial ethos. And so we come again to the question: What exactly is Christian reality? What is the specific element in Christianity that not merely justifies it, but makes it compulsorily necessary for us? When we raise the question about the foundation and meaning of our Christian existence, there slips in a certain false hankering for the apparently more comfortable life of other people who are also going to heaven. We are too much like the laborers of the first hour in the parable of the workers in the vineyard (Mt. 20:1-16). Once they discovered that they could have earned their day’s pay of one denarius in a much easier way, they could not understand why they had to labor the whole day. But what a strange attitude it is to find the duties of our Christian life unrewarding just because the denarius of salvation can be gained without them! It would seem that we – like the workers of the first hour – want to be paid not only with our own salvation, but more particularly with others’ lack of salvation. That is at once very human and profoundly un-Christian.” (Ratzinger, Co-Workers of the Truth, Ignatius Press, 1990, p. 217.)
II. Does UR imply a gradual descent into naturalism at the expense of divine revelation, leading to an abandonment of all revealed truth? No, because it never accepts the premise that Pius XI says leads to that ‘dead end’, namely, the modernist idea that the different religions all just “give expression, under various forms, to that innate sense which leads men to God”. The conciliar teaching, in contrast to this naturalistic account of religion, stresses the supernatural realities of revelation and faith. UR asserts that “the Catholic Church has been endowed with all divinely revealed truth and with all means of grace”.
SPERAY’S COMMENT: Here is another example that the conciliar popes believe in that “modernist idea that the different religions all just “give expression, under various forms, to that innate sense which leads men to God.” In his message on Sept. 2, 2006, Benedict stated: “This year is the 20th anniversary of the Interreligious Meeting of Prayer for Peace, desired by my venerable Predecessor John Paul II on 27 October 1986 in Assisi. It is well known that he did not only invite Christians of various denominations to this Meeting but also the exponents of different religions. It constituted a vibrant message furthering peace and an event that left its mark on the history of our time… attestations of the close bond that exists between the relationship with God and the ethics of love are recorded in all great religious traditions. Among the features of the 1986 Meeting, it should be stressed that this value of prayer in building peace was testified to by the representatives of different religious traditions, and this did not happen at a distance but in the context of a meeting… We are in greater need of this dialogue than ever… I am glad, therefore, that the initiatives planned in Assisi this year are along these lines and, in particular, that the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue has had the idea of applying them in a special way for young people… I gladly take this opportunity to greet the representatives of other religions who are taking part in one or other of the Assisi commemorations. Like us Christians, they know that in prayer it is possible to have a special experience of God and to draw from it effective incentives for dedication to the cause of peace.”
Furthermore, “Christ entrusted to the College of the Twelve the task of teaching, ruling and sanctifying. . . . And after Peter’s confession of faith, he determined that upon him he would build his Church . . . [and] entrusted all his sheep to him to be confirmed in faith”. The Fathers who promulgated UR were of course also those who, just one year later, promulgated the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, which serves as an interpretative key to other conciliar documents touching on that subject.
SPERAY’S COMMENT: The conciliar popes are rejecting the task Christ entrusted the Twelve, and are promoting the opposite.
III. Does UR envisage a united ‘Church’ of the future as being a “federation” of different Christian denominations agreeing to differ in at least some doctrinal matters? Nowhere is there any such suggestion. Vatican II presents the unity willed by God as one in which everyone is . . . surprise, surprise! . . . Catholic! Having made it clear that by “the Church” they mean the body led by “the bishops with Peter’s successor at their head” – i.e., the Roman Catholic Church – the Fathers continue:
The Church, then, God’s only flock, like a standard lifted high for the nations to see it, ministers the Gospel of peace to all mankind, as it makes its pilgrim way in hope towards its goal, the fatherland above. This is the sacred mystery of the unity of the Church, in Christ and through Christ, with the Holy Spirit energizing its various functions.
SPERAY’S COMMENT: Perhaps UR isn’t on this point, but the conciliar popes most certainly are.
IV. From what has been said already, it should be clear that the Decree on Ecumenism does not teach the fourth heresy censured by Pius XI in MA, namely, the idea that Church unity is a mere future ideal which separated Christians must work to construct, insofar as it does not yet exist. Of course, we need to distinguish carefully here between the unity of the Church as such, and unity among Christians. Obviously, if we understand the word “Christian” to cover everyone who professes faith in Christ, the latter unity does not exist yet – and never has existed since the first schisms arose already in New Testament times! But such divisions do not imply that the Church herself is – or ever could be – disunited, in the sense of being divided into different denominations holding different doctrines. Our credal article of belief in “One, holy Catholic, apostolic Church” rules this out. And so does UR when it expresses the hope that, as a result of ecumenism,
little by little as the obstacles to perfect ecclesiastical communion are overcome, all Christians will be gathered, in a common celebration of the Eucharist, into the unity of the one and only Church, which Christ bestowed on his Church from the beginning. This unity, we believe, exists completely in the Catholic Church as something she can never lose, and which we hope will continue to increase until the end of time.
SPERAY’S COMMENT: Harrison was careful here to define the terms “Christian” and “Church.” However, UR understands the Church of Christ and the Catholic Church as two different entities based on the “subsists” expression found in Vatican 2’s Dogmatic Constitution Lumen Gentium. UR already implied that the one visible Church of God doesn’t exist yet, and that the Church can’t practice the fullness of Catholicity proper to here until the divisions of other “Christian” communities cease. MA’s condemnation that, “The idea that Church unity is a mere future ideal which separated Christians must work to construct, insofar as it does not yet exist” is precisely what UR is suggesting.
* * * * * * *
Whether or not, in the decades since Vatican II, ecumenism as UR expounds it has always been faithfully implemented – even by the Church’s own leadership – is of course a distinct question. A further one is whether or not the results achieved after about half a century vindicate, with the benefit of hindsight, the prudence of UR’s ‘window-opening’ disciplinary changes. I think Catholics can now legitimately debate both these questions. In any case, if this brief comparison has helped to show that the Council did not fall into the doctrinal aberrations reprobated by Pius XI in 1928, it will hopefully have served a useful purpose.
SPERAY’S COMMENT: We need to get back to the original point of the controversy, because Harrison’s four points were nothing more than a giant red-herring. Harrison has admitted that UR undid the long-standing practice of condemning participation in inter-church or inter-religious worship meetings and activities. Pope Pius XI explained that it was contrary to the Divine Law and Harrison omitted those references in MA that implies it. Harrison even attempted to defend the change by UR, implying that the Church determined that it would promote a scandalous practice if the possible end result outweighed the evils that would come from it. The entire history of the Catholic Church, much less MA, forbade what UR promotes as an intrinsically evil practice. The Church cannot reverse a practice and teaching that is conformity to the Divine Law. Again, St. Paul taught, “Do not be mismated with unbelievers. For what partnership have righteousness and iniquity? Or what fellowship has light with darkness? What accord has Christ with Be’lial? Or what has a believer in common with an unbeliever? What agreement has the temple of God with idols? For we are the temple of the living God; as God said, “I will live in them and move among them, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.” (II Cor. 6:14-16)
 MA (Gregorian Press edition, Berlin, New Jersey, 1988), p. 2. (The sections of the encyclical are not numbered in this edition, which contains 15 pages.)
 Ibid., p. 5.
 Ibid., p. 6
 Far from being a post-conciliar ‘novelty’, referring to heretical or schismatic Christians as “brethren” goes back as far as St. Augustine, who is cited to that effect in footnote 18 to UR, 3.
 UR, 3, emphasis added.
 The revealed truths about Our Lady, for instance, derive from the Incarnation, not vice versa.
 UR, 11.
 UR, 4. See also the quotation referenced by note 6 above.
 UR, 3.
 UR, 2, final paragraphs, emphasis added.
 Latin subsistit.
 UR, 4, third paragraph, emphasis added.