Modern Catholics often hear the word “ecumenism,” and most understand that it refers to efforts to unite the various Christian denominations. In Unitatis Redintegratio or Decree on Ecumenism, the Vatican II Fathers lay out the principles, limits, methods, and goal of ecumenism.
Here are some of the topics and ideas you'll find in Unitatis Redintegratio.
* Christ founded only one Church. The division that exists in Christianity is a scandal that damages the spread of the Gospel and stands in opposition to the will of Christ.
* The ecumenical movement, which is guided by the Holy Spirit, seeks the “restoration of unity among all Christians” that all may be fully in communion with the visible and universal Church of Christ.
Catholic Principles on Ecumenism
* Jesus prayed for the unity of His Church. He also instituted the Eucharist, which both signifies that unity and brings it about.
* The Holy Spirit is the “principle of the Church's unity,” for He brings about communion between Christ and the faithful and among the faithful themselves.
* Apostolic succession assures the unity of the Church in faith, worship, and governance.
* The goal of ecumenism is full communion of all Christians in the Catholic Church, for the Church of Christ subsists [i.e., stands firm] in the Catholic Church.
* Those born into Christian communities that are separated from the Catholic Church are not guilty of the sin of separation. In fact, if they are baptized, they are in “some, though imperfect, communion with the Catholic Church” and are brothers and sisters of Catholic Christians.
* Elements of Catholicism “can exist outside the visible boundaries of the Catholic Church.” These elements belong to the Church by right and necessarily lead back to the Church.
* The means of salvation pour from Christ through the Catholic Church to other Christian communities, but the Catholic Church with its apostolic succession contains the fullness of the Christian faith and “all the blessings of the New Covenant.”
* The Catholic faithful should take an active role in ecumenism.
* The following five “initiatives and activities” are essential to the ecumenical movement: 1. avoiding unfair and untrue judgments about separated communities; 2. dialogue between the Catholic Church and separated communities; 3. cooperation in service for the “good of humanity”; 4. common prayer; and 5. self-renewal.
* While it is very important to reach out to other Christians, Catholics must first and primarily focus on self-renewal and living the fullness of faith and love so that they may show forth the “radiance of the Church's face.”
* Catholics should recognize and appreciate the gifts that God has given to separated Christian communities but also strive for true unity in Christianity.
The Practice of Ecumenism
* The practice of ecumenism must begin with a renewal of the Church and “an increase of fidelity to her own calling.”
* Interior conversion is a key element of ecumenism. Catholics must grow in love, holiness, prayer, repentance, humility, service, and generosity under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. This interior conversion is the “soul of the whole ecumenical movement” and is called “spiritual ecumenism.”
* Ecumenical prayer services are “a very effective means of petitioning for the grace of unity.” Common worship [i.e., sharing in the Eucharist], however, is generally forbidden except in certain cases.
* Catholics with a firm understanding of the Catholic faith ought to study the doctrines and practices of the separated Christian communities that they may better engage in dialogue with them.
* The Catholic faith must always be presented clearly and entirely and explained profoundly and precisely that others may understand. The fullness of the faith must never be watered down even as members of various Christian communities strive together for “a deeper realization and a clearer expression of the unfathomable riches of Christ.”
* One of the best means of ecumenism is “cooperation in social matters”; this allows all Christians to work together for the common good and better understand each other through their love in action.
The Special Position of the Eastern Churches
* The Eastern Churches, even those separated from Apostolic See, maintain a valid priesthood, the true Eucharist, devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary, and a rich treasury of liturgical and spiritual traditions.
* Catholics should study the history and spiritual riches of the Eastern Churches as they seek full unity with those that are separated.
* The diversity of the Eastern Churches is beautiful and must be preserved. These Churches should “have the power to govern themselves according to their own disciplines.”
* Theological variations in the Eastern Churches are complementary rather than contradictory and contribute to a deeper, richer understanding of Divine Revelation.
* The Catholic Church must work diligently to achieve unity with the separated Eastern Churches and ought to “impose no burden beyond what is indispensable” upon those entering into full communion with the Catholic Church.
The Separated Churches and Ecclesial Communities in the West
* There is a close relationship between the Catholic Church and the separated Christian communities of the West. These communities, however, “differ considerably” from Catholic Church and among themselves.
* The “very weighty differences” between the Catholic Church and other Christian communities include “historical, social, psychological, and cultural” differences as well as significant differences in the interpretation of Divine Revelation, liturgy, and doctrine.
* The Catholic Church recognizes the positive characters of the separated communities, especially their Christocentric nature, love of Holy Scripture, and Baptism.
* Baptism is the first step toward fullness of unity. The separated communities are strengthened by Baptism, by the Word of God, by prayer, by their active faith, and by their strong moral sense. They do not, however, have the true Eucharist or a valid priesthood.
* The Catholic Church must enter into an “ecumenical dialogue” with the separated Christian communities, but it must remain “fully and sincerely Catholic” and loyal to the truth and the fullness of the faith.
* The goal of the ecumenical movement, namely, the “reconciliation of all Christians into the unity of the one and only Church of Christ,” is ultimately God's work. We cooperate through our prayer, hope, and ecumenical activities.
The full text of Unitatis Redintegratio is available at the Vatican website.