The Second Vatican Council, recessed by Pope John XXIII for resumption on May 12, has already been acclaimed “the greatest ecclesiastical event of the twentieth century.” Certainly it will be remembered as the most-publicized religious spectacle in a century engrossed in scientific research and social revolution. What effect its debates, decrees, and declarations will have upon the unresolved tensions of our fear-ridden nuclear age is, at this stage, unpredictable. Though answers will understandably vary, we may ask which of the council’s actions seem most significant, and why.

In the fourth General Congregation, October 22, the Secretary General called the council fathers’ attention to the following information:

“The Secretariate for the Promotion of Christian Union has been granted a position of complete equality with the conciliar commissions in the work of the Council. This means: first, the Secretariate itself will present its schemata in the Council assembly; second, the schemata will be discussed, emendated, and edited in an equal manner with those presented by the other commissions; third, in mixed matters the Secretariate will be invited to cooperate with the other commissions in matters related to its competence.”

New Strategy for Unity

Prior to this announcement the secretariate functioned solely as a public relations office serving non-Catholics desirous of following the work of the council. It now has been given full commission status within the council itself plus the authority to speak in the sessions of all other commissions whenever their deliberations bear upon the delicate and complex question of reunion. The action has the double effect of making the cause of unity central in all council discussions and of putting the secretariate’s president, Cardinal Bea, in a position to influence every draught resolution or decree prepared by the other commissions for final adoption (thereby protecting whatever gains his unity efforts have achieved for the church).

The direction in which the new Commission on Unity will move to achieve its ultimate goals remains to be seen, but its present strategy seems to be in sharp contrast to that followed by the sixteenth-century Jesuits under St. Ignatius Loyola. Dominating the Council of Trent, they persuaded the church fathers to denounce Protestant heresies and to damn all who embraced their heretical doctrines.

Dogma and Dialogue

In his opening address at the present council, however, Pope John XXIII made special mention of the change of posture assumed by the church toward theological errors and those who hold them. “At the outset of Vatican Council II,” he declared, “it is evident as always that the truth of the Lord will remain forever. We see, in fact, as one age succeeds the other, that the opinions of men follow one another and exclude each other and errors often vanish as quickly as they arise, like fog before the sun.

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“Ever has the Church opposed these errors. Frequently she has condemned them with the greatest severity. Nowadays, however, the spouse of Christ prefers to make use of the medicine of mercy rather than that of severity. She considers that she meets the needs of the present day by demonstrating the validity of her teaching rather than by condemnations.

“That being so, the Catholic Church, raising the torch of religious truth by means of this Ecumenical Council, desires to show herself to be the loving mother of all, benign, patient, full of mercy and goodness toward the children separated from her.”

Today, then, men are urged to engage in polite dialogue with their “separated brethren,” for though there are serious doctrinal differences at the root of all ecclesiastical divisions, the theological disagreements are but the tragic result of sixteenth-century mistakes, misunderstanding, and misinformation about the Roman Catholic Church. Let theology be recast in the friendly atmosphere of Christian dialogue, and the disgrace of a divided Christendom will be replaced by the reunion of all Christians in the one Church founded by Christ. For we are living, the argument runs, “in a modern renaissance, an age of inquiry, of science, of new concepts. Almost every day brings some new discovery about or for our existence.

“So in this climate, theologians of all Christian groups are inspired to re-examine those things which separate Christians.

“To do so, they must reach out to each other, look at each other’s doctrines and in so doing begin the process of rediscovery. This the Council will encourage in a variety of ways.

“Rather than look backward too long into why and how Christians became separated, the Council will look forward to the ways they may be reunited.”

Questions That Remain

Despite his enthusiasm for the dialogue, Cardinal Bea is not blind to its limitations for achieving ecumenical goals. Discussions can lead to an impasse at which men must abandon all further debates until new procedural methods can be devised for continuing their consultations. If such a situation does develop, will the new commission then apply dialectical methods to the problems of unity? Will separated brothers seek to achieve a practical synthesis of their opposing theologies and emerge from their confrontations confessing but one faith and pledged to but one sovereign Head, the Lord Jesus Christ? And can such a practical synthesis of theological viewpoints ever produce what Pope John describes as a “visible unity in truth”?

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Someone betrayed Him with a kiss

Today, in this metropolis

Of paint encrusted clammy lips

And odious undulating hips

And deep eye shadow of disguise

The shallows of lackluster eyes.

Someone denounced Him in the courts

Of lush and infamous resorts

Where corpulent affluence meets

The filthy flotsam of the streets

And both condemned Him in a breath

To suffer ignominious death.

Someone denied Him with an oath

Of broken vows or plighted troth

And crucified Him with a curse

Of infidelity and worse.

Yet, of His worst tormentors, He

Forgiveth even thee and me!


The answers that might be given to these questions would be as speculative as they are profitless at this point. The question of unity is not primarily a reconciliation of brother to brother but the rediscovery of the Father’s purpose to embrace all his prodigal sons and have them share together the full bounty of his love and grace. Quarreling over their respective rights to the Father’s favor or the relative merits of their service under his roof will only serve to spread discord in the household of faith. The secret of unity is discovered in the purpose of God which is simply: “Christ in you! Yes, Christ in you bringing with Him the hope of all the glorious things to come” (Col. 1:27).

But tensions may arise from another source and serve a purpose unappreciated by quarreling brothers. Oscar Cullmann, professor of New Testament and early history in the University of Basel, calls attention to this when he writes: “The Church will fulfill its assignment if it remains faithful to the fundamental eschatological attitude of the New Testament.” That eschatological attitude is discovered in the conviction of the early Christians that the prophetic purpose is “already fulfilled” and “not yet completed.” The eschatological hope of the early Church was “not merely a waiting for the future,” but “neither was it merely faith in the present” as already fulfilling the prophetic program. For the individual Christian it means that “now are we the sons of God” and “it does not yet appear what we shall be.” The tensions encountered in our pursuit of personal holiness arise from this chronological dualism, between “what we are” and “what we are to become.”

The Church likewise, in the collectivity of all its members, shares the same eschatological tensions. “I will build my Church,” says Christ, but he looked forward to that prophetic hour when he will “present it [the Church] to himself a glorious Church, not having spot, or wrinkle, or any such thing, but that it should be holy and without blemish” (Eph. 5:27).


Executive Director

Christ’s Mission

New York City

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