From the introduction to a lecture presented at the Gregorian University in Rome on the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of the Second Vatican Council’s Decree on Ecumenism, 21 November 2014.

On 21 November 1964, the Decree on Ecumenism, Unitatis Redintegratio, was approved by the Second Vatican Council. Although this document had been much debated and revised through several drafts, the final vote by the Council fathers was overwhelming: 2,137 in support and only eleven in opposition. This confirmed what everyone knew as the Council approached the close of its third session, namely, that one of the principal concerns of only the second ecumenical council convened since the Protestant Reformation was “the restoration (or reintegration) of unity among all Christians.”

Among the Protestant observers present in St. Peter’s Basilica that day was Dr. Douglas Horton, sometime dean of Harvard Divinity School and a delegated observer of the International Congregational Council. In his published diary of the Council, Dean Horton made this observation about the great expectations raised by the Decree on Ecumenism half a century ago:

The obstacles to church unity loom, I think, larger than ever—but not larger than our hopes. We are started on a long journey for which some of the legislation now signed, sealed, and delivered by the Council will serve as passport and guide. I have never before been a party to undertaking a task quite so specific, which I knew in advance could not be accomplished in my lifetime. It has been good to be in at the start of it—and every fifty years or so I intend to look back on this terrestrial scene, if the looking is good from where I am, to see how the work is getting on.

Pope—now Saint—John XXIII has been rightly called “the spiritual father of the Decree on Ecumenism.” It was he, of course, who convened Vatican II and made sure that ecumenism was central to its deliberations by creating the new Secretariat of Christian Unity and engrafting it into the structure of the Council. At the pope’s insistence, both Protestant and Orthodox observers were invited to the Council. Although an early draft of the Decree on Ecumenism was shown to Papa Giovanni shortly before his death in 1963, by the time it was finally accepted, he had left this world for a better place. He wrote these words in his diary: “Shall it be given me to see the end of the Council? Then God be praised! Shall it not be given? Then in that case I shall experience the blessed conclusion of the Council from heaven, to which the divine mercy shall have called me.” Without transgressing the limits of what we know about the state of the blessed departed, could we perhaps think that not only St. John XXIII and Douglas Horton but also a host of others within the company of the redeemed have some special interest in our gathering today?

I am honored by the invitation to speak as a Protestant on this occasion, but I speak as a Protestant who is also an evangelical and a Baptist, both latecomers to the ecumenical conversation. This itself is some indication of how far we have come for, although the Baptist World Alliance was invited to send official observers to the Council in 1962, the leaders of the BWA decided, after a full day of deliberations, that it would cause too much division within their own ranks to do so. In recent decades, however, the Baptist World Alliance has completed two phases of bilateral dialogues with the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity. The most recent dialogue, “The Word of God in the Life of the Church,” dealt with communion and covenant, with the authority of Christ in Scripture and tradition, with baptism and the Lord’s Supper as the visible words of God in the koinonia of the Church, with Mary—affirmed for the first time in a Baptist document as Theotokos—as a model of discipleship in the communion of the Church, and with oversight as a gift of Christ to the Church to enable the ministry of the whole people of God.

In retrospect it is clear that the Second Vatican Council was the most momentous religious event of the twentieth century—and not only for Catholics. However, at the time of its announcement by Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli on 25 January 1958, less than three months after his election as Pope John XXIII, everyone was surprised, and many were puzzled if not worried. At the time, Cardinal Giovani Battista Montini, the Archbishop of Milan, who would succeed John as pope, promulgate the Decree on Ecumenism in 1964, and bring the Council to a close in the following year, placed a call to a friend and said, “This holy old boy doesn’t realize what a hornet’s nest he’s stirring up.”

What the Holy Father was hoping to stir up—or rather to pray down—was a new Pentecost. But less discerning souls, especially many in the media, found other ways to frame what by Catholic reckoning would be the twenty-first ecumenical council in the history of the Church. These included existentialism, closely linked to individualism, a philosophy stressing subjective self-realization and rejecting any generally valid truth as totalizing and repressive; others invoked internationalism, with the demise of colonialism and the rise of new nation-states; still others spoke of universalism, not so much in Origen’s sense of apokatastasis but rather as a denial of particularity, tradition, and history that could in any sense claim to be privileged.

In its own way, of course, the Council would attend to these issues—conscience and freedom, especially religious freedom, are among its great concepts. And during the fourth session Pope Paul VI would become the first reigning pontiff to address the General Assembly of the United Nations. But the historic significance of Vatican II is this: It was the first ecumenical council in twenty centuries to address as its main theme the doctrine of the Church and to do so not in response to an external crisis such as the Protestant Reformation (Trent) or the French Revolution (Vatican I) but rather in terms of its own internal and spiritual renewal.

At Vatican II the Catholic Church entered the ecumenical movement and by doing so transformed it. The Council was not called to address the problem of Christian disunity as such, but it soon became clear that the kind of reform that was required ad intra could not be carried forward without serious attention to the scandalous divisions among the people of God. Thus, chapter one of Unitatis Redintegratio cites what has become the locus classicus of all ecumenical endeavors for the Orthodox, Catholics, and Protestants alike, namely, the prayer Jesus offered to his heavenly Father for all who believe in him “that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me” (John 17:21).

The fact that Christians today are divided—most outrageously at the Table of the Lord—contradicts the prayer of Christ and countermands the Church’s missionary task to communicate and display the love of God to all peoples. Today, even more urgently than in 1964, the quest for Christian unity and the task of world evangelization are inseparable.

So, looking back at a half-century of ecumenical work, how do we answer the question posed by Douglas Horton fifty years ago today? How are things getting on? While the road ahead toward full visible unity remains long and difficult, there are many milestones along the way for which we can give thanks and celebrate, including the landmark document, Baptism, Eucharist, and Ministry (1982), and Pope John Paul II’s great encyclical on ecumenism, Ut Unum Sint (1995). Today, one of the challenges to Christian unity is the growing divide not only between but within churches on matters related to marriage and family, sexual ethics, bioethics, and religious freedom. When I am tempted to become discouraged about progress along the way toward the unity for which Jesus prayed, I am reminded of a word of wisdom the late Fr. Richard John Neuhaus once shared with me. “Timothy,” he said, “lift up your heart. Remember: We may well be living in the last days of the early Church!”

Timothy George is the dean of Beeson Divinity School of Samford University (Birmingham, Alabama, USA) and chair of the Doctrine and Christian Unity Commission of the Baptist World Alliance. His email address is tfgeorge@samford.edu.

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