World Council of Churches

A worldwide fellowship of churches seeking unity, a common witness and Christian service

Rome and ecumenism

Rev. Fr Jean-Marie Tillard outlines with clarity and élan the history of, and the evolution of perspectives within, the Roman Catholic involvement in ecumenism.

11 August 1995

by J. M.-R. Tillard, O.P.

This paper was prepared for a Faith and Order consultation with Younger Theologians held at Turku, Finland, 3 - 11 August 1995.

Personal note from the author: "I received only a few days ago the letter inviting me to reflect on the Roman Catholic involvement in ecumenism. But I was on an island, helping the local bishop, without the documentation and the personal notes I have been collecting for nearly thirty years. Consequently I wrote this paper from my memory alone."

From conversion to Rome to conversion of Rome

I After the stupid [sic] schism of the eleventh century which divided Christianity into two huge blocks of churches - Eastern churches and Western (or Latin) churches - Western Christianity never ceased to look for reunion. This cause of unity inspired many initiatives, both individual and collective, but also on the official level. Examples of official concern are the so-called councils of union (Lyon, Florence) . Without any significant success, they tried to recreate communion in doctrine and leadership. An important witness of individual and collective ecumenical concern is Humbert of Romans, at the end of the 13th century. Being the head of the Dominican Order (from 1254-1263), he asked the superiors of all the Provinces to be ready to send some brothers to the countries under the jurisdiction of Eastern churches, in order to study the traditions of these churches and understand their mentalities. In 1274 (just before the general council of Lyon), he gave a list of the most burning or difficult ecumenical issues and explained what would be the best way to deal with them. He even asked the Bishop of Rome to visit the Eastern part of Christianity and to learn how these churches were humiliated by their Latin sisters.

For, while incessantly affirming its supremacy, the See of Rome continued to consider the Eastern churches as a part of the same family. They shared together the patristic inheritance. This is why the unity that some of the Latin scholars were looking for was quite often conceived more as the happy solution of a rivalry than as the return of some heretical churches to the authentic Tradition. It would be illuminating to quote the encyclical letter In Suprema Petri Sede (6 January 1848) of Pius IX and the encyclical letter Praeclara gratulationis (20 June 1894) of Leo XIII.


Quite different is the attitude of Rome towards the group of the former Western and Latin Patriarchates which broke their communion with the Holy See. In this case, its own authority, in its own patriarchal jurisdiction, in its own area of political influence, in its own missionary field was at stake. Churches have a persistent memory.

1. Particularly after the Reformation, churches which broke the koinonia with Rome were not considered as sister churches, angry with their most prestigious sister, but as sons or daughters leaving the home of their father and mother. They were called prodigal sons because they were perceived as refusing or repudiating the family. Sometimes, they were accused of wasting the inheritance of centuries of faithful communion with the Tradition of the Church. Consequently, the only way for them to be coherent with their Christian situation was to return to the mother-house they left or the father whom they left outraged, still waiting for them. A serious survey of the official statements of the Catholic Church on this matter, from the Council of Trent until the Decree on Ecumenism produced during the Second Vatican Council (including even the first declarations of John XXIII) makes clear two points. The first point is the persisting awareness that Christian division is probably the most scandalous in the situations which hinder the salvation of men and women. The second point is that there is (at least for Western Christianity) only one solution: the "return" to the Roman Catholic Church, mainly through individual conversions. It is very significant that whilst the general councils of Latran, Lyon, Florence, dealing with the Eastern churches, were dreaming of a corporate "return" to koinonia, the official catholic documents alluding to so-called Protestant Christianity were, generally, looking for individual conversions. For the official Catholic mind, the communities of the Protestant ethos went so far in refusing essential elements of the Tradition of the Church that it was illusory to hope for a corporative return. Only, perhaps, with the Anglican Church would it be possible to establish some links because she kept the Catholic structure.

Actually, the Gallican Church and William Wake (Archbishop of Canterbury) tried, during the eighteenth century, to prepare the way for a kind of corporate reunion of the two churches, but without any success. At least the desire of a corporate reunion between the Catholic Church and another Western Church was here at work. At the same time, Bossuet and Leibniz were discussing the possibility of a corporate union of the Catholic Church as such with the Reformed churches. Nevertheless, the official Roman doctrine was still the necessity of the return to Rome by individual conversion.

2. The nineteenth century is - until the Pontificate of Leo XIII (1878-1903) - the theatre of new oppositions, new agressions, even new walls of division between the Roman Catholic Church and the other Christian groups. This happens for two main reasons: the definition of primacy and infallibility of the Bishop of Rome in 1870 (First Vatican Council) and the missionary expansion of all the Western churches - which became very soon a cause of conflicts. Pius IX keeps repeating Catholic views about the necessary "return" of all Christians to the Roman See. In 1865, the Holy Office reacts quite negatively even when a movement of prayer for Christian unity is proposed.

A. I am personally convinced that the turning point in the history of Catholic ecumenism is the pontificate of Leo XIII. Indeed, Leo continues to share the official Catholic position: unity means return to the See of Rome. For him, this unity is so radical a necessity that all the local churches have to be involved in its search and that the Holy See itself needs to take initiatives in order to "promote" this necessary task. But something is changing. He considers the other churches with sympathy, discovering the richness of their traditions, stressing the quite crucial distinction between the attitude of those who, in the past, broke their relations with Rome and the sincerity of all those who, here and now, do their best to be faithful to Christ in their own community now separated from Rome. Leo XIII does not think only in terms of individual conversions. Indeed, like the father of the prodigal son, he is still waiting, with his heart full of compassion. But what he expects is not only the conversion of the individuals; he desires above all the coming back of the confessional families as such, keeping all their gifts, all their richness. It is during this pontificate that Lord Halifax and Portal work intensively for the reunion of Anglican and Catholic Churches. We know now that the failure of this enterprise is due to other causes than an opposition of the Holy See.

Following the cold winds of the Pontificate of Pius X (1903-1914), the Pontificate of Benedict XV (1914-1922) coincides with the famous Anglican Lambeth call (or appeal) for Unity (1920) . Benedict XV, who is aware of the ecumenical problems and follows the policy of Leo XIII, is not insensitive to this appeal. Through the influence of the Cardinal of Malines, Mercier, he looks with sympathy at the reopening of the discussions between Anglicans and Roman Catholics (in 1921) . But his successor, Pius XI (1922-1939) will, in reaction to the challenge of the ecumenical movement, publish a disappointing encyclical letter called Mortalium animos (1928) . This document seems to identify the ecumenical movement - in full blossoming since the conferences in Edinburgh (1910), Stockholm (1925), Lausanne (1927) - with a kind of Protestant indifference. According to this encyclical letter, it is therefore impossible for Roman Catholics to share this conception of unity, even to take part in any of the activities of the so-called ecumenical movement. The only way to realize the will of Christ ( "Ut sint unum" ) is to make possible the "return" of all the "dissidents" to the Roman See. Discussion with other Christians is useless, even dangerous. The Roman Catholic Church has its own way of working for unity ... conversion to Rome.

This letter surprised all those who in the Catholic Church were involved in ecumenical discussions and reflection. For, at the beginning of his pontificate, it is Pius XI himself who, with his positive and constructive attitude, made possible a handful of initiatives, whose consequences on the Roman Catholic mind will be enormous. In fact they will be the seed of the most important declarations and decisions of the Second Vatican Council. But these initiatives were taken neither by the Holy See nor by the local bishops. They all came from what Americans describe today as "the grassroots." It is ecclesiologically crucial to stress this short remark. The sensus fidelium has been the main agent of the Holy spirit for the move of the Catholic Church towards a more authentic ecumenism.

B. Among the promoters of a new spirit in local communities, one of the most important is certainly Father Paul Couturier (1881-1953), a French priest from the city of Lyon. He is probably the father of what is now called spiritual ecumenism. He started it especially through two very basic decisions.

The first of these decisions was the radical modification of the custom, established since 1908 in the Roman Catholic Church, to pray every year, during one week, for Christian unity. Born in the USA, this custom had the blessing of Pius X and Benedict XV. Its explicit goal was "the return of heretics and schismatics to the Church of Rome." But in 1935 Fr Couturier asked Christians of all the confessions to pray together, asking Christ to re-unite his Church, according to his will and to his mysterious choice and method! In 1936, the French Reformed Church said yes to this initiative and, in 1940, Faith and Order approved it. This modification of the Catholic custom by Fr Couturier was based on three main convictions: 1) praying together is an authentic form of communion already possible; 2) God alone has the power to realize the full communion of the disciples of Christ and these have to pray for it; and 3) the prayer of the humble faithful is as important for the realization of God's purpose as the discussion of the theologians. Moreover, an authentic Christian prayer is certainly the fruit of an authentic presence of the Spirit of Christ (the Spirit of Unity) in the community which prays, even if this community is not in communion with the Bishop of Rome. Christians who pray together show that they are brothers and sisters in spite of their canonical divisions. The great success of this renewed week of prayer is one of the main factors which changed the way the Roman Catholic parishes and religious communities came to relate themselves to Protestant parishes or communities. And vice-versa. I remember my own experience, as a young boy scout. I suddenly discovered that Protestants share the same Lord's Prayer, the same Cross, the same Baptismal Font, the same canticles, the same Bible... My generation is probably - thanks especially to the Catholic organization of youths - the first one to have been deeply puzzled and challenged by this ecumenical situation made explicit through the praying together of all the Christians. This prayer has existed since 1935!

The second initiative of Fr Paul Couturier was the gathering of a group of theologians and ministers meeting every year in a Cistercian monastery called Les Dombes, since 1937. Prayer and theological investigation will open the two doors through which the ecumenical Spirit will invade the Catholic Church.

C. Theologically, Paul Couturier was not the first one. Theologians of great stature had already in spite of great suspicions, played a crucial role for this opening of the doors. After the declarations of Vatican I, and in the turmoils of the modernist crisis, a lot of outstanding scholars in Church History, Patristic theology, Biblical Literature, liturgical sources explored the Tradition, studied the causes of the great divisions. Moreover they did not work in isolation but in a real trans-confessional scholarship. As well as the experience of prayer, the field of theological research became the place of an authentic ecumenical sharing. The insights of Leo XIII were not forgotten. But they were now in osmosis with a broader ecumenical spirit. The Russian emigration brought there the essential element of a serious Orthodox theology. In 1926, a Dominican, Fr Christopher Dumont, opens the Istina centre. Around it the Catholic theological intelligentsia and, quite soon, ecumenically minded Christians of all the confessions will gravitate . At the same time, the Benedictine monastery of Amay-sur-Meuse (now Chevetogne) is created (in 1925), and Fr Lambert Beauduin refuses to separate ecumenical efforts from serious theological reflection.

It is thus clear that what I like to call the cradle of Roman Catholic ecumenism was made of serious and concerted threads . Furthermore, as wel1 as those which gave birth to the liturgical renewal, these threads were woven into the sensus fidelium of the People of God.

4. In this cradle a Catholic ecumenical ethos takes form. In the Roman Catholic faculties of theology a movement of sympathy, of strong interest for what is at work in the other churches is growing. One of the disciples of this impressive movement, Fr Yves Congar, a Dominican born in 1904, will launch in 1937 the collection Unam Sanctam, with his great book Chrétiens désunis. This collection will precisely apply to Catholic ecclesiology the results of that research. From another point of view, in Lyon, Fr Henri de Lubac renews the Catholic understanding of Western tradition. Far less ecumenical in his main insights, in Germany, Karl Rahner embarks on a new approach of the doctrinal issues at stake in the divisions of the confessional churches.

The World War of 1939 will have a strange ecumenical influence. For it will make possible interconfessional encounters and, quite often, strong interconfessional friendships, principally in the rude solidarity of prisons, of military groups, of concentration camps. After the war, this kind of solidarity will meet the theological efforts I just described. The confluence of these two streams, together with the strong impact of the newly-constituted World Council of Churches (Amsterdam, 1948) on the opinion, the influence of eminent ecumenical personalities (Visser 't Hooft, the first brothers of Taizé (founded in 1940), Pastor Marc Boegner, Oscar Cullmann, William Temple, Bishop Bell, ...), the persistant attraction exercised by Anglicanism (on persons like Montini), the presence of some important Orthodox theological centres in the Orthodox diaspora, create in the Catholic Church a new spirit, a new way to look at the others. They are not the enemies of Christ! they are not working against the Church! they are not false Christians! What they keep saying concerning the Roman Catholic Church is not necessarily wrong, and theologians know that many of their views are confirmed by serious and objective researches. Thus, Vraie ou Fausse Réforme dans l'Eglise.

Pius XII is the Bishop of Rome since 1939. In 1948 he does not agree with the invitation he receives to make the Roman Catholic Church a member of the World Council of Churches. Nevertheless, in 1950, an important Instruction of the Holy Office recognizes (for the first time!) that the ecumenical movement is a fruit of the action of the Holy Spirit, even if it continues to affirm that unity requires the "return" of the dissidents to the Holy See. Roman Catholics may take part in joint meetings with other Christians, provided questions concerning Christian dogmas are not discussed. Congar's Vraie ou Fausse Réforme is not condemned but, in 1954, it becomes forbidden to sell it. The encyclical Mystici corporis of Pius XII continues to identify the whole Church of God with the Roman Catholic Church, even if its main development is a significant step forward in Catholic ecclesiology. Another encyclical letter, Humani generis, repeats the same view. The word "ecumenism" is avoided, because it is not considered as a theological notion. Unity means return to the Church, that is the Roman Catholic Church, even if other churches deserve consideration.

But, since the foundation of the World Council of Churches, some groups work to maintain, without any official repudiation of the Vatican's policy, a permanent and active relationship with the World Council of Churches. In Holland, a priest called John Willebrands (who is a friend of Visser 't Hooft) creates an International Catholic Conference on Ecumenical Affairs. Many theologians are attracted by this Conference, and the activities of the World Council are now discussed, quite often praised, in theological Catholic circles.


1. John XXIII, elected Bishop of Rome in 1958, will continue to repeat the warm invitation addressed to the other churches: "Come to Rome, we are ready to receive you with love and to give you the place you deserve, without any rancour!" When, in 1959, at the end of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, he reveals his intention to gather a general council, and when in 1961 (at Christmas) he officially convokes the Second Vatican Council, the question of the Unity of the Church is explicitly among his primary goals. But in 1960, one year before this official convocation, he has created, in order to prepare the Council, a Secretariat for Christian Unity. Its activities have to be, now at the official supreme level, nearly what were the activities of the International Catholic Conference on Ecumenical Affairs created many years before, by John Willebrands, Yet, John Willebrands is chosen as the Secretary of this Secretariat for Christian Unity whose Father Augustin Bea (a Jesuit who was a friend of Pius XII) is the President. From now on, Roman Catholic ecumenism will go out of its cradle. It will walk steadily, and friendly, on all the main ecumenical roads.

2. Probably the most important decision of Bea, Willebrands and the first members of the Secretariat for Christian Unity was the invitation of non-Catholic theologians and pastors as observers at the four official sessions of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965). These observers were not passive guests. They were consulted. Sometimes they were asked to criticize the first drafts of the documents. They were invited to speak to the bishops especially at St Louis-des-Francais and at the Centro Pro Unione, near Piazza Navona. It is evident that they contributed to the understanding and discussion of the main questions subject to close scrutiny. Moreover they were treated by the Secretariat as real brothers. Without this group - whom they gradually learned to trust - some bishops would have been afraid to accept many affirmations of the Decree on Ecumenism, one of the most crucial documents of the Vatican Council. I remember how, on a cold December morning, I asked Nikos Nissiotis to explain to a group of hesitant Canadian bishops the Orthodox theology of the epiclesis before an important vote. And I remember my joke, which was quoted by one of the newspapers: "The next Prefect of the Holy Office will probably be Karl Barth, but we are not sure he will accept the job, let us pray!"

3. The ecumenical challenge and ecumenical infiltration can be detected in the main document produced by the Council. This is not true only for the Decree on Ecumenism. The three main dogmatic institutions (on the Church, the Liturgy, the Revelation) are certainly actualizing in many of their statements what I described in the first part of this paper as the conscience of the action of the Holy Spirit outside the visible borders of the Catholic Church. During the discussions, for instance, of the crucial declarations (Lumen Gentium 8) concerning the presence of the Church of God in the Roman Catholic Church, the ecumenical argument played an important role. It is also clear that the conclusions on Scripture, Tradition and traditions of the Fourth World Conference of Faith and Order (Montreal) were present in the mind of those who wrote the document on Revelation. Speaking of my own experience, I may affirm that the Decree on Religious Life was deeply influenced by the study of Eastern monasticism and the discussion with some Reformed religious communities. One may say that Vatican II "received" many of the wishes of the Eastern churches (the epiclesis, the meaning of koinonia) and of the Reformed churches (vernacular, both kinds, . . . ) . This "reception" is ecclesiologically highly significant: the Roman Catholic Church is now living, like the other churches, within the ecumenical stream. This is why Vatican II was followed by important decisions concerning the collaboration between the Roman Catholic Church and the World Council of Churches: Joint Working Group, full partnership in Faith and Order, presence of individuals in some departments of Faith and Order. During the last session of the Council, Paul VI and the Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras restored the official mutual love of their two sister churches and initiated a common walk towards full sacramental unity. This was the first official actualization of the Council. And this is a sign. . .

4. No one will deny that, since Vatican II, the Roman Catholic Church is involved in the ecumenical task. The last encyclical letter of John Paul II, Ut Unum Sint, is a solemn and explicit reaffirmation of this Catholic ecumenical concern. It is grounded, essentially, in the conscience of the action of the Holy Spirit in all the communities of the disciples of Christ. One amongst the signs of this trustworthy involvement is the response of the Holy See to the Lima document on "Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry" and the way this document is used in many Catholic schools of theology or catechetics. Especially the first part, dealing with the Eucharist, is quite often quoted and studied.

Indeed, it is clear that like other strong and firmly structured ecclesiastical traditions, the Roman Catholic Church is convinced of being the guardian, the keeper, of essential elements radically required for the Church to be truly the Church of God. The Catholic Church is not ready to renounce these elements because (together with the Eastern churches) she knows that they belong to the authentic nature and mission of the visible unity all the Christian communities are looking for. Let us be frank. She wants the other churches to rediscover the necessity of these elements. She will not agree with a conception of koinonia within which any of these essential elements would be excluded.

Nevertheless - and the last encyclical letter of John Paul II is clear on this point the Roman Catholic church invites all the other traditions to discuss with her, in order to study together the necessity of these elements and find together the authentic way of actualizing them. Why? Because at this point of her conversion to an ecumenism very different of the one I described in the first part of this paper (the ecumenism of "return"), she understands that she needs not only to consult others but to work with them, even when elements as specific as the Roman primacy are at stake. She wants not only to hear other churches, but to "receive" from them, and for this purpose she needs to discuss not in an apologetic manner but in an authentic "frankness", their own views. The goal of this process is to find, through the sensus fidei of all the Christian traditions, the will of Christ. Such a process is already at work with the Eastern churches, and it is now clear that the International Commission will study quite soon the burning issue of the exercise of primacy in a re-united Church.  

I hope that this paper will help to understand the difficult, slow, but very honest way the Roman Catholic church changed her understanding of what we now call the ecumenical enterprise. I said that the movement started at the local level, not at the level of the ones with supreme power. But, after the discussions and decrees of the Second Vatican Council, it became (principally thanks to the work of the Secretariat for Christian Unity) one of the primary items on the Roman Catholic official agenda. Let me say that this huge change of Roman Catholic mentality is certainly in great part due to the high quality of the work done by the World Council of Churches, and especially Faith and Order. It is mainly the seriousness and commitment of the Faith and Order documents which helped reticent or perplexed Catholic people to understand that the Holy Spirit was there at work, particularly after the World Conference of Montreal.