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From a Christian point of view, the twentieth century might well be called the century of ecumenism. Several dates serve to mark the crucial stages of development. Among them are 1910, when the World Missionary Conference met at Edinburgh; 1925, the date of the Universal Christian Conference on Life and Work at Stockholm; 1927, the first World Conference on Faith and Order at Lausanne in Switzerland; and 1948, the first Assembly of the World Council of Churches at Amsterdam. Of equal importance with these dates is 1964, the adoption of the Decree on Ecumenism at Vatican Council II, the step that thrust the Roman Catholic Church into the midstream of the ecumenical movement.


The ecumenism of Vatican II goes far beyond the Decree itself; according to the wish of Pope John XXIII, it permeates all the council documents. The Decree on Ecumenism stands out as a wonderfully concise and balanced summary of Catholic principles. It bears up extremely well after the passage of a quarter of a century.

The ultimate goal of ecumenism, according to the Decree, is the full visible unity of all Christians in a single communion. The starting point is the imperfect communion that already exists among Christians by virtue of their shared faith in Christ, their practice of baptism, their use of the same Scriptures, and many other bonds. Ecumenism is intended to increase the communion that now exists by overcoming doctrinal divisions and by a whole series of measures that could lead to mutual recognition of membership and ministries, and eventually to pulpit and altar fellowship. These objectives may be viewed as intermediary goals of the ecumenical movement. The means to be used include prayer, theological dialogue, and practical cooperation.

In its program for ecumenism, Vatican II adopted what is frequently called the communio model. The Latin term communio, like the Greek term koinonia, lacks a precise English equivalent. It may be roughly translated by “communion,” but that term has become rather narrowly identified with eucharistic sharing. Communio or koinonia better conveys the ecclesial and theological overtones; it means a fellowship based on a common sharing of divine life. This fellowship, although primarily spiritual and interior, is mediated, sealed, and strengthened by external signs, such as common professions of faith, joint sacramental worship, shared pastoral leadership, and collaborative action.

The Extraordinary Synod of 1985 reaffirmed the ecumenical vision of the council. “The ecclesiology of communion,” said the Final Report, “is the central and fundamental idea of the council’s documents.” A little later the same report went on to say: “After those 20 years we can affirm that ecumenism has inscribed itself deeply and indelibly in the consciousness of the church. We bishops ardently desire that the incomplete communion already existing with the non-Catholic churches and communities might, with the grace of God, come to the point of full communion.”

Although different models of ecumenism, such as the federal and the conciliar, continue to compete for influence, the communio model is increasingly dominant in ecumenical circles today, not only among Roman Catholics but also among Anglicans, Orthodox, and some Protestants. Long before Vatican II the Anglicans at several Lambeth conferences depicted themselves as a communion seeking full fellowship with other Christian bodies. The Orthodox have repeatedly asserted that the una sancta, the one holy Church of God, is essentially a communion of local or regional churches. The Seventh Assembly of the World Lutheran Federation at Budapest in 1984, in its “Statement on the Self-Understanding of the Federation,” referred to the “Lutheran communion of churches,” terminology used again at the Eighth Assembly in Curitiba, Brazil, in the first week of February 1990.

A similar shift toward a communio model may be found in the history of the proposed Church of Christ Uniting, hitherto known as the Consultation on Church Union. According to a new plan drawn up in 1988, it intends to establish a “covenant communion of churches” to which communities of various denominational allegiances may belong as they “seek to form a visible unity that will be at once truly catholic, truly evangelical, and truly reformed.” It remains to be seen how, and to what extent, churches such as the Roman Catholic could relate to such a covenant communion. Can there be agreement, for instance, about the requirements of true catholicity?


During the twenty-five years since the adoption of Vatican II’s Decree, the Catholic Church has been heavily involved in ecumenical activity. To a remarkable extent this activity has been stimulated and directed from Rome. Pope Paul VI and John Paul II, following in the footsteps of John XXIII, have both given high priority to ecumenism, and have repeatedly met with the ecumenical patriarchs of Constantinople, the archbishops of Canterbury, and other Christian leaders. The Secretariat for Promoting the Unity of Christians, under the direction of Cardinal Augustin Bea and his associate and successor, Cardinal Johannes Willebrands, gave steady, prudent, tactful, and progressive leadership. There is every sign that this will be continued under the Archbishop Edward Cassidy, who was named in December 1989 to take charge of the new Pontifical Council for Promoting the Unity of Christians.

Among the more fruitful ecumenical efforts, a place of special prominence belongs to the ecumenical dialogues. The Holy See itself has sponsored important international dialogues with the Orthodox, the Anglicans, the Lutherans, and others. Statements such as the final report of the Anglican/Roman Catholic International Commission (ARCIC I) and the documents of the Lutheran-Roman Catholic Joint Commission on the Eucharist, on Ministry, and on several other themes have become part of the theological heritage of all ecumenically involved churches. The international dialogues have been replicated on the national level, notably in Germany, France, and the United States. In this country the Lutheran-Catholic Dialogue has produced a valuable series of volumes on topics such as the Nicene Creed, Baptism, the Eucharist, Ministry, Papal Primacy, Teaching Authority in the Church, and Justification by Faith. On February 17, 1990, this Dialogue unanimously approved a long and detailed statement on “The One Mediator, the Saints, and Mary.”

The bilateral conversations, both on the national and on the international level, have fed into multilateral statements, such as those of the Faith and Order Commission of the World Council of Churches. The Holy See has collaborated with the World Council on several joint theological commission reports. It has also appointed Catholic members of the Faith and Order Commission. At Lima in 1982 that commission completed a landmark paper on Baptism, Eucharist, and Ministry that harvested, in a brilliant manner, the fruits of fifty years of dialogue. This document strongly recommended the adoption of the threefold pattern of ministry (bishops, presbyters, and deacons) and the ordination of bishops in the historic succession as a sign and symbol of the apostolic succession of the Church itself.

In the United States the Bishops’ Committee for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs submitted a basically favorable report on the Lima text in September 1985. The Vatican Secretariat for Promoting the Unity of Christians, in its response of July 1987, characterized the Lima text as “perhaps the most significant result of the [Faith and Order] Movement so far.” But it raised a number of difficulties. In particular the Secretariat remarked that in view of persisting disagreements about apostolic succession and the ordination of women, the proposals regarding the mutual recognition of ministries were premature.

The work of the theological dialogues has been supported by intensive theological research, much of it conducted or sponsored by ecumenical institutes such as those at Rome, Strasbourg, Graymoor on Hudson, and Collegeville, Minnesota. To an increasing degree, ecumenism has penetrated the teaching of theology and seminary formation. The Boston Theological Institute is typical of similar consortia existing in major theological centers such as Chicago, Berkeley, and Washington, D.C.

These cursory observations may suffice to illustrate the Catholic involvement in ecumenism in the two and a half decades since Vatican II. If additional evidence were required, it would be possible to mention the many ecumenical societies and discussion groups that exist throughout the country, and the activities of the National Association of Diocesan Ecumenical Officers, including the annual meetings of the National Workshop for Christian Unity. Reference could also be made to the strong Catholic presence in the Faith and Order Commission of the National Council of Churches, to the growing Catholic participation in state and metropolitan councils of churches, and to the covenants being made between Catholic parishes and dioceses and their Episcopal and Lutheran counterparts. In view of all these developments, talk about ecumenical stagnation would be, to say the least, exaggerated.


On the other hand, it must be acknowledged that the ecumenical movement is today facing severe problems. The excitement of the honeymoon period of the 1960s has definitely abated. New difficulties have arisen on a number of fronts.

The theological dialogues have moved beyond the stage at which the various Christian groups were rediscovering each other, experiencing surprise at how much substantive Christianity they could find outside their own tradition. They have seen and expressed the unity that already exists in Christian beliefs and practices. Now that the easy agreements have been achieved, it becomes necessary to face the hard questions. Thus far none of the dialogues has been able to come up with a striking convergence, let alone a consensus, on thorny issues such as papal primacy of jurisdiction, the Mass as propitiatory sacrifice, purgatory, the Immaculate Conception of Mary, the invocation of saints, or the ordination of women to the ministerial priesthood. To an increasing extent the dialogues are running up against hardcore differences on which the theologians of each side do not feel authorized or even inclined to change the established positions of their churches.

It is not altogether easy to separate the agreements from the disagreements. Just as the dialogues, in their first phase, were able to bring to the surface hidden agreements in the previous disagreements, so now, in their second phase, they are exposing hidden disagreements within the previous agreements. Let me take some examples from the Lutheran-Catholic dialogue in this country. The dialogue partners in 1965 allegedly reached agreement on the Nicene dogma of the divinity of Christ, but how solid is the agreement if one group understands the dogma as an infallible decision of the Church while the other regards it as a correct but reformable interpretation of Scripture? Do the two parties really agree on whether Christ has a divine nature, or does one group understand the divinity in terms of a merely functional Christology in which Jesus is God “for us” but not in his ontological constitution?

Or again, to turn to a different area, do Catholics and Lutherans agree about the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, as was claimed in 1967, if one group finds Christ present only in the actual administration of the sacrament while the other is committed to a real presence that persists after the eucharistic service is concluded? Do we agree about ministry, as the 1970 statement seemed to suggest, if one group sees ordination as an official recognition of a ministry already conferred by God, while the other looks upon ordination as a sacrament, effectively conferring radically new powers? And with reference to the 1983 statement on justification by faith, how complete is the agreement if one group maintains that justification consists in faith alone whereas the other holds that faith does not justify unless it is animated by charity and fruitful in good works? And finally, to mention a question that was asked in our latest dialogue, can we really agree about Christ as the sole Mediator of salvation if we do not agree about whether the invocation of the saints and Mary detracts from the sole mediatorship of Christ? The agreements are frail, and are in danger of coming unraveled when the contentious questions are raised. If they do become unraveled, we could easily fall hack into the polemics of the past.

A further source of difficulty, compounding those already mentioned, is the fact that the most ecumenically involved churches have been suffering a decline in numbers and in vigor. Conversely, churches that adamantly stand by their confessional positions, and polemically attack all other groups, seem to be gaining in commitment and in membership. If the mainline churches are not to lose out to un-ecumenical churches and sects of a fundamentalist or Pentecostal character, they need to recover their confessional nerve and offer their own distinctive witness more clearly. Some have suggested that the ecumenical movement needs to be reconfessionalized, but it remains to be seen whether a reconfessionalized Christianity can maintain its ecumenical thrust.

In some circles the ecumenism of the past fifty years is being accused of excessive confessionalism. It is often said that ecumenism has been too defensive, over-concerned with the preservation of distinctive identity, unwilling to take risks for the sake of inclusiveness. Rome and the Catholic bishops are often criticized for being too intransigent. The existing churches, according to this view, should be willing to make sacrifices and even to die in order for the coming great Church to be born.

The internal problems currently faced by most Christian churches constitute a further obstacle to ecumenism. In Roman Catholicism the Holy See and many of the bishops have felt obliged to exert themselves to maintain an acceptable degree of unity within the Church and to keep the growing pluralism of doctrine and practice from destroying the very identity of the Church. Some ecumenists fear that the restoration of intra-Catholic discipline may make the Catholic Church less ecumenically hospitable. Some non-Catholics might be willing to consider entering into a closer union with Catholicism if it could accommodate a broader spectrum of opinions and practices.

Still other problems stem from the collapse of Eurocentrism and the new sense of planetary unity. Christians today find themselves challenged to take the non-Christian religions seriously. The interest shown in ecumenism a generation ago has shifted, in great part, to interreligious dialogue. The two concerns are sometimes felt to be competitive. Christian ecumenists tend to emphasize the dogmas of the Trinity and the Incarnation as pillars of Christian unity, and thus to insist on the very things that divide Christianity from all other religions. The ecumenical movement, to the extent that it succeeds, draws Christians together in a solidarity that is experienced as threatening to Jews and other non Christians. Some Christians, concerned for the success of interreligious dialogue, propose that the Christian dogmas be put into question or even treated as myths on a par with those of other religions. Disputes rage among Christians about whether non-Christians are dependent on Christ for salvation. Radical questioning of this type tends to remove the ground from under Christian ecumenism.

Finally, objections come from social activists. Ecumenism has traditionally been motivated by a concern to spread the faith. Christians must be one, according to the Lord’s own saying, “so that the world may believe that you have sent me” (John 17:21). Many contemporary Christians seem to be less concerned with spreading the faith than with solving social and environmental questions. Something of this pragmatic orientation was already present in the Life and Work movement of the 1920s, but it was turned back by the neo-orthodox tide of the next generation and by the accession of Catholics, with their doctrinal preoccupations, to the ecumenical movement. Today, however, the doctrinal ecumenism represented by the Lima paper of 1982 no longer arouses broad popular interest. Typical of the current trend is the subject of the world conference that met on March 6-13, 1990, at Seoul, South Korea, under the sponsorship of the World Council of Churches. Its themes were “Justice, Peace, and the Integrity of Creation.”


These mounting difficulties seem to indicate that the ecumenical period inaugurated for Catholics by Vatican Council II may be coming to an end. The programs set forth in the Decree on Ecumenism have borne excellent fruits, but some reassessment of the agenda may now be in order. Possibly we stand on the verge of a new ecumenical moment in which we shall have to generate new options and reread the Decree on Ecumenism with new eyes. Although the choice of the right course is still to be determined. I shall take the risk of trying to delineate several directions.

1) The Primacy of Truth. In order to meet popular and journalistic expectations, the churches are under pressure to bury their doctrinal scruples and come up with dramatic new consensus statements. The prevailing intellectual climate, deeply infected by relativism and agnosticism, increases this pressure and makes ecumenism appear as a mere exercise of diplomacy. Differences between the churches and even between the religions tend to be written off as matters of taste, culture, or historical conditioning. The danger is that a unity purchased at the expense of deeply held convictions may turn out to be illusory. By seeking to accommodate all points of view we may cheapen the value of communion itself.

Many theologians involved in ecumenical dialogue are coming to reject this easy relativism. The dialogues, they find, have shown the continuing importance of the traditional doctrinal issues. After working for a generation to build up mutual confidence and friendship, the dialogues have matured to the stage at which the divisive issues can be squarely faced. Such theologians are today eager to explore the most controversial areas with a frank recognition that the prospects of full agreement are minimal. The differences turn out not to be merely cultural and linguistic, but substantive and important. The dialogues can usefully clarify the issues; they should not be asked to produce ambiguous compromises that paper over the real disagreements. If faith is, as we believe, a matter of fidelity to the truth given in Jesus Christ, unity must not be purchased at the expense of honest conviction.

It follows, then, that we should not be in too great haste to overcome our diversities. In order to act responsibly we must first of all get possession of ourselves. For a powerful statement of the case for distinctiveness, I recommend the article by the Methodist Stanley Hauerwas in these pages (“The Importance of Being Catholic: A Protestant View,” March). Hauerwas says to Catholics: “I want you to be Catholics. I . . . believe that there is nothing more important for the future unity of the Church than for you to be Catholic. . . . You have been so anxious to be like us that you have failed in your ecumenical task to help us see what it means for any of us to be faithful to the Gospel on which our unity depends.”

2) Mutual enrichment. The ecumenism of recent generations has suffered from the tendency to reach agreements on the basis of the lowest common denominator. In the name of the “hierarchy of truths” mentioned in the Decree on Ecumenism, some theologians expect the churches to settle for agreement on a limited number of fundamental dogmas. Prominent theologians such as Karl Rahner have even called for immediate union among all the major churches and confessions on the basis of the Bible and the creeds of the early Church, provided only that the churches do not attack one another’s dogmas as manifestly opposed to the gospel. Such proposals are in my estimation excessively reductionist.

The Decree on Ecumenism did indeed speak of a hierarchy of truths in which primacy was given to the triune God and to the Incarnation of his Son, our divine Redeemer. The Decree also maintained that for the sake of unity “one must ‘impose no burden beyond what is indispensable’ (Acts 15:28).” But the fathers at Vatican II, when they referred to the hierarchy of truths, surely did not envisage that the Catholic Church should treat all the dogmas defined since the sixteenth century as optional. On the contrary, they warned against a “false conciliatory approach” that could harm the purity of Catholic doctrine, which must be presented, according to the Decree, in its entirety.

No church seeking to promote ecumenism would do well to jettison its distinctive heritage. A nondescript union of churches on the basis of a common minimum would be impoverishing to all concerned. The world does not need a gigantic supermarket church that stands for nothing in particular, while offering everything to everybody. Much of the hostility and suspicion encountered by the ecumenical movement comes from the fear that it aims at such a diminishment.

My own involvement in ecumenism over the last forty years has led me to cherish other values. I have acquired a deeper realization of how much the Catholic Church has to contribute from the wealth of its own heritage. At the same time I have gained an enormous respect for the other churches that have rich traditions of their own. The Orthodox, I have found, possess an immensely rich heritage of trinitarian and sacramental piety handed down from the Eastern Fathers. They have a sense of spiritual communion or koinonia that supplements and partly corrects the more legalistic approach characteristic of the West. From Lutherans and other Protestants I have learned the spiritual power of a theology of the Word of God and its capacity to complete and balance the more sacramental vision of the Catholic and Orthodox churches. The task of ecumenism, as I see it, is not to choose among legalism, sacramentalism, and evangelicalism, but to see how these various approaches can be harmoniously integrated, without loss of their respective strengths, into a plenitude that is, in the best sense of the word, Catholic.

Too often the ecumenist is perceived as asking how little we need to accept in order to be faithful to Christ and the gospel. In the perspective I am proposing the question is rather: how much can the various churches give to, and accept from, one another? Authentic ecumenism is not a matter of whittling away from one’s heritage in order to get back to the supposed simplicity of the gospel. More appropriately it is a matter of sharing from our own riches while seeking to receive as much as we responsibly can from others. In their Common declaration on October 2, 1989, Pope John Paul II and Archbishop Runcie put the matter very succinctly: “The ecumenical journey is not only about the removal of obstacles, but also about the sharing of gifts.”

3) New Alignments. Hitherto the principal participants in ecumenism have been the more liberal churches, those with the least demanding doctrinal and liturgical heritage. Churches with firm doctrinal standards and stable traditions were considered at best dubiously ecumenical. In an ecumenism of mutual enrichment, such as I am here recommending, the priorities are reversed. The churches that have held most steadfastly to the deposit of biblical and patristic faith, and those that have successfully resisted the trends of the times, may have the most to offer to an age that is surfeited with the lax and the ephemeral. The time is ripe to welcome the more traditional and conservative churches into the dialogue. For the Catholic Church it may not prove easy to reach consensus with either the Orthodox or the conservative evangelicals, but these churches and communities may have more to offer than some others because they have dared to be different. The adequacy of their positions may and must be challenged, but they should be invited to challenge us in their turn.

Through earnest dialogue among communities that hold fast to their own heritage of faith, it may be possible to effect a new kind of fellowship, very valuable in its own way. A community of witnessing dialogue cutting across denominational barriers is one of the finest fruits of ecumenism. In such a community each church can profit from listening to clear and unambiguous presentations of the others’ points of view; it stands to gain from hearing its own doctrines criticized from the perspective of outsiders. In this way individual believers may achieve a deeper realization of the ecclesial character of their own faith-commitments; the churches can learn to formulate their distinctive doctrines more circumspectly, and all can acquire a deeper appreciation of other Christian traditions. As a result the participating churches may be able to find a path toward greater convergence in the truth.

4) Spiritual Renewal. With our characteristically Western bias toward activity and measurable results, we Americans are often guilty of excessive reliance on our own abilities and projects. Our ecumenical experience of recent years, with its difficulties and setbacks, has taught us to respect the teaching of the Decree of Ecumenism to the effect that the goal of the ecumenical movement “transcends human energies and capacities.” The Church must consequently place all its hope in Christ’s prayer for unity and in the power of the Holy Spirit to bring about what lies beyond merely human powers. According to the Decree, the soul of the entire ecumenical movement is spiritual ecumenism, which consists in a “change of heart and holiness of life, along with public and private prayer for the unity of Christians.”

This aspect of ecumenism has been less conspicuously pursued in the post-conciliar period than have the activities of theological dialogue, common witness, and practical collaboration. We have tended to overlook the wise admonition of the Decree that “every renewal of the Church essentially consists in an increase of fidelity to her own calling.” As a commentary on this passage I should like to quote a word of advice given by the great French ecumenist, Yves Congar, speaking to Catholics in 1943:

I believe more than ever that the essential ecumenical activity of the Catholic Church should be to live its own life more fully and genuinely; to purify itself as far as possible, to grow in faithfulness, in good works, in depth of prayer and in union with God. In being fully herself, in the full strength of her vigor, she will develop her ecumenical power.

This advice, fully consonant with the teaching of the Decree of Ecumenism, remains as valid today as when it was originally given. Catholics who desire to contribute to the apostolate of Christian unity cannot do better than to gain a thorough grasp and deep love of their own distinctive heritage. More than this, they must be open to the renewing power of the Holy Spirit, who alone can impart the wisdom and strength needed for overcoming the remaining obstacles.


My recommendations have been limited to ecumenism in the traditional sense as an endeavor to bring the Christian churches into more harmonious and fruitful relationships with a view to eventual unity. I have not tried to comment here on interreligious dialogue and on the apostolates of peace, justice, and ecology. All of these pursuits have their own importance, but they should not be seen as substitutes for the kind of ecumenism I have been discussing. The quest for visible unity will always remain necessary as long as Christianity is divided. The separated churches and communities can seriously hinder the cause of Christ if they are mutually indifferent or hostile. But by entering into dynamic and positive relationships, sustained by sincere fidelity to the truth as it has come to them through their respective traditions, the churches can revitalize one another and draw closer to the full unity that Christ intends for all who believe in him.

Avery Dulles, S.J., holds the Laurence J. McGinley Chair at Fordham University. This essay was originally presented as the annual Charles K. Von Euw Lecture at St. John’s Seminary, Brighton, MA, on March 18, 1990.

Photo by Lothar Wolleh licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped.