CathBlog - Vatican II's rejected child


Over the next three years we have an opportunity to reflect on the Second Vatican Council as we commemorate fifty years since it took place. One of its principle concerns was “the restoration of unity among all Christians” (Unitatis redintegratio 1). 

What does that mean? 

The Council’s vision of unity was far from myopic: it looked to the far and broad horizons of Christ’s own liberating work offering “new life and unity to the entire human race” (ibid. 2). 

Far from reducing ecumenism to church unity as an end in itself, much less a special interest for the eccentric few, the Council situated ecumenism in this much larger and more challenging context of a global, “catholic” unity, where ecumenism and catholicity meet, the church and the world embrace, “globalisation” is set free from its captivity to commercialisation, cultural superficiality and imperialism.

Or it would be if we took the Council seriously.

Let’s be honest: ecumenism is a “special interest of the eccentric few”, and it has become little more than being “nice” to the Protestants (and obsequious to the Orthodox!). Why has it become that? May I suggest that the core (though not sole) reason is because it has been cut off from the other stated aims of the Council:

defining the concept of the church (and the role of the bishop) renewing the Catholic Church and bringing it up to date engaging the Church in dialogue with the contemporary world

The four aims — concept of church, its renewal, dialogue, and ecumenism—are all interconnected. But in cutting them off from each other, we have made little progress in realising any of them.

As long as our “concept of church” remains in practice defined as an institution that functions as a “multinational corporation” run by bishops who see themselves as its “branch managers”; as long as this institution focuses on itself and its own survival in a defensive and self-pitying posture with regard to the contemporary world; it doesn’t much matter what theologically correct formulas we mouth about it being “the People of God” or “the Body of Christ” or “communio/koinonia”. 

As anyone who is serious about ecumenism knows, the biggest obstacles to Christian unity are no longer the old doctrinal ones that divided and splintered the church into so many sects. These have been largely worked out (largely, not completely, I grant).

The issues that not only keep us separate, but divide us even further, all have to do with our failure of nerve to rise to the challenge of offering a realistic and honest hope to a world spiralling into crisis of unprecedented proportions; our failure to realise that “Christian unity” is inseparable from the unity of the human race — the unity that is at the heart of any genuine renewal for the church as it rediscovers its own identity as the “catholic” (universal) people of God.

One of the twentieth century’s most important, influential and provocative thinkers, René Girard, is in no doubt that the contemporary world is spiralling towards disintegration, and that the unity of the human race hangs, as it were, on the cross:

There is something Christian in all myths. However, by revealing the victims’ innocence, the Passion makes positive what was still negative in myths: we now know that victims are never guilty… This is why Vatican II accomplished a decisive action: it eliminated God’s violence but not the reality of evil. (Battling to the End, xvi)

The only genuinely Christian ecumenism, the kind the Council called for, is one that seeks the unity of all humankind in the struggle against injustice, oppression, mindless consumerism and spiritual vacuity; unity beyond the violence by which humankind bestows unity upon itself, and which conventional religion attributes to the god(s) it makes in our own violent image and likeness. Christian unity must be in the service of the world (not the church) for the love and glory of God (not religion).

In his encyclical, Ut unum sint, Pope John Paul II stated: 

Thus it is absolutely clear that ecumenism, the movement promoting Christian unity, is not just some sort of ‘appendix’ which is added to the Church’s traditional activity. Rather, ecumenism is an organic part of her life and work, and consequently must pervade all that she is and does; it must be like the fruit borne by a healthy and flourishing tree which grows to its full stature. (20)

If we’re serious about receiving the fruit of ecumenism we have to be serious about the unity of humankind as the focus of the mission to the men and women of our times for whose sake the church exists. Anything less than that and the (western) church will die along with the rest of the (western) world.

Drasko DizdarDr Drasko Dizdar is a member of the Emmaus monastic community, and a theologian with the Tasmanian Catholic Education Office.

Disclaimer: CathBlog is an extension of CathNews story feedback. It is intended to promote discussion and debate among the subscribers to CathNews and the readers of the website. The opinions expressed in CathBlog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the members of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference or of Church Resources.

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