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This is Part I of a three-part series examining the Church's view of ecumenism.
In a letter marking the 25th anniversary of Pope John Paul II's 1995 encyclical Ut Unum Sint, Pope Francis called for a renewed commitment to ecumenism, according to the Church's "irrevocable" commitment to the task of ecumenism.
Pope Francis invited everyone to "ask the Spirit to guide our steps and to enable everyone to hear the call to work for the cause of ecumenism with renewed vigor." Vatican News reported that the pope has reminded the faithful that "ecumenism is not something optional."
As Catholics faithful to the Church Magisterium, we may find it profitable to read what the Catholic tradition — the Sacred Tradition — has to say about true ecumenism.
First of all, all councils of the Church have been ecumenical, that is, have fostered true ecumenism — especially when they condemned heresies — because there is a true ecumenism and a false one. True ecumenism means the bringing together of all peoples under one single faith, that they may be one, so that there may be one Lord, one Faith, and one baptism (Ephesians 4:5) in the one Church of God (1 Timothy 3:15).
False ecumenism, on the other hand, means to bring together all faiths under the same people, regardless of creed, origin or preference. This is utter nonsense.
The Vatican II decree on ecumenism, quoted in the Catholic Catechism, states:
It is through Christ's Catholic Church alone, which is the universal help towards salvation, that the fullness of the means of salvation can be obtained. It was to the Apostolic College alone, of which Peter is the head, that we believe that Our Lord entrusted all the blessings of the New Covenant, in order to establish on earth the one Body of Christ into which all those should be fully incorporated who belong in any way to the People of God (Unitatis Reintegratio, 3:5).
But dissenters emerged into the Body of Christ and caused division.
As noted in section 817 of the Catechism: "In fact, 'in this one and only Church of God from its very beginning there arose certain rifts, which the Apostle strongly censures as damnable. But in subsequent centuries much more serious dissensions appeared and large communities became separated from full communion with the Catholic Church'" (Unitatis Reintegratio, 34:1).
But the ruptures that wound the unity of Christ's Body do not occur without sin — here we must distinguish heresy, apostasy and schism.
The Catechism, in section 817, quotes Origen: "Where there are sins, there are also divisions, schisms, heresies and disputes. Where there is virtue, however, there also are harmony and unity, from which arise the one heart and one soul of all believers."
Therefore, true ecumenism spurs Catholics to bring together the dissenters into full union with the Catholic Church, and not only indulge in praying together with them in ecumenical gatherings.
This is the goal from the Church's very inception — unity in the truth, not in error. For instance:
The great problem with dissenters is that they misrepresent some truths of the Catholic faith, and thus promote discord and division. The Catholic Catechism, in paragraph 2464, is clear about the fidelity to the truth as a necessary consequence of the Eighth Commandment: "The eighth commandment forbids misrepresenting the truth in our relations with others. ... Offenses against the truth express by word or deed a refusal to commit oneself to moral uprightness: They are fundamental infidelities to God."
Not just misrepresentations, but ambiguities — when one says things that can be understood in two or three different ways, one orthodox, the other heretical and the other confusing — are also a great disservice to true ecumenism. Case in point:
The conclusion of these papal teachings is evident: Only the truth, the true Faith preached by the authentic preachers of the Church, will make us free from sin and safe from perdition. No number of opinions of dissenters will save our souls. The ecumenical efforts of the Church must be oriented to preaching the truth — and only the truth — and refuting error.
It is important to emphasize that the doctrinal mission of the Church consists not only in teaching the truth but also in condemning error. No teaching of the truth is sufficient unless it includes the enunciation and refutation of the objections which may be brought against that truth.
As Pope Pius XII, in a 1947 Christmas radio message, said, "The Church, ever overflowing with charity and kindness toward those who go astray, but faithful to the word of her Divine Founder, who said: 'He that is not with me is against me' (Matthew 12:30) could not fail in Her duty of denouncing error and unmasking the sowers of lies ... ." (Discorsi e Radiomessagi, Vol. IX, p. 393).
Pope Pius XI expressed the same thought in his March 14, 1937 encyclical against Nazism, Mit Brennender Sorge, saying, "The first gift of love of the priest to his milieu, and which is incumbent upon him in the most evident manner, is the gift of serving truth, the whole truth, and to unmask and refute error under all the forms, masks and disguises in which it is presented" (AAS, Vol. XXIX, p. 1 , 63).
The false maxim that teaching the truth does not require attacking or refuting error is of the essence of the heresy of religious liberalism. There is no adequate Christian formation without apologetics. That is what authentic Catholics promote by way of Christian unity in the truth. Therefore, ecumenism can be mandatory only if it is true ecumenism, centered on the truth, not in opinions, however sincere they may appear to be.