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VATICAN CITY (ChurchMilitant.com) - Engaging ecumenically with Protestant and Orthodox denominations will no longer be "optional" but "a duty and obligation" for bishops, the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity declared Friday.
The Vatican document, titled "The Bishop and Christian Unity: An Ecumenical Vademecum," extends the bishop's pastoral ministry "not just to the unity of his own church, but to the unity of all the baptized into Christ."
Directing Catholics to join Protestants "in each other's non-Eucharistic services," the handbook is a historic reversal of Pope Pius XI's encyclical Mortalium Animos (1928), which deemed it unlawful for Catholics to worship with Protestants "for if they do so they will be giving countenance to a false Christianity, quite alien to the one Church of Christ."
For Pius XI, engagement with non-Catholics meant recalling the "erring sons" of Holy Mother Church, "who has indeed nothing more at heart than to lead them back to her bosom."
"It is clear why this Apostolic See has never allowed its subjects to take part in the assemblies of non-Catholics: for the union of Christians can only be promoted by promoting the return to the one true Church of Christ of those who are separated from it, for in the past they have unhappily left it," wrote Pius XI.
"As a convert to the Catholic Church from Anglicanism it was the authority of the Church and the splendor of truth that drew me. I am sure this is the case for many other converts," Fr. David Palmer, from the Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham, told Church Militant.
"Had I believed her to be one player amongst others, all searching for a, as of yet unattained, 'fullness of faith,' I don't think her appeal would have been so convincing," Palmer stressed.
Father Palmer elaborated:
Now while I will accept we may learn something from dialogues with other Christians, Catholic understanding has always been that the Catholic Church already possesses the truth, for she is the Church (not just a part of the Church) and she calls all Christians into union with her, in order that they may share the fullness of the faith.
"Indeed," he warned, "many other Christian ecclesial communities are abandoning the historic faith, they are not equal partners to the Church, we should be calling them home," Palmer observed, citing the Church of England's ordaining of women priests and bishops and move to formally approve same-sex relationships.
The new ecumenical directive, rather than urging Catholics to evangelize "separated brethren," acknowledges "those situations in which Christians move from one Christian community to another" and addresses "changing ecclesial affiliation as an ecumenical challenge and opportunity."
Instructing the faithful to "welcome with joy those who wish to enter into full communion with the Catholic Church," it warns against avoiding "triumphalism."
"In some circumstances it is possible to agree a 'Code of Conduct' with another Christian community, especially when addressing the challenging issues raised when clergy change affiliation," the vademecum states, noting the case of Anglican ministers being re-ordained as Catholic priests.
Alluding to Catholic apologetics, the directive urges laying aside "the polemical language and prejudices of the past," taking "as the point of departure the common tradition," and warning against "polemical presentations of Christian history and theology."
It insists on prioritizing ecumenism at all levels of the Church, including seminary and laity formation, diocesan websites, and "envisages this formation taking place through Bible study, the preached Word, catechesis, liturgy and spiritual life, and in a variety of contexts, such as the family, parish, school and lay associations."
The Vatican appeals to Jesus' prayer in St. John's gospel "that they may all be one so that the world may believe" as the theological basis for ecumenism.
However, rather than calling the faithful to evangelize people of other religions, the Pontifical Council insists on "interreligious dialogue" since "increasingly, at both the national and local levels, Christians are finding the need to engage more closely with other religious traditions."
Speaking to Church Militant, theologian Fr. Athanasius St. Michel noted that "ecumenism" was "a balancing act between the mandate to recognize the authenticity of Trinitarian baptism and the impossibility of organic unity with heretical and distorted ecclesial bodies."
"This vademecum confuses this essential distinction which is fatally problematic when so many Protestant bodies have surrendered to the anti-Christian zeitgeist," Athanasius cautioned, again citing the lack of instruction in the document regarding relations with denominations who endorsed female clergy, same-sex relationships and gender ideology.
"The proper corrective would be St Paul's advice to avoid being yoked with unrighteousness (2 Corinthians 6:14) and "ecumenism cannot adopt a lesser standard," Athanasius urged.
The handbook does not mention Mortalium Animos but frequently quotes Vatican II's Decree on Ecumenism (Unitatis redintegratio), Pope John Paul II's encyclical on ecumenical commitment (Ut unum sint), the Directory for the Application of Principles and Norms of Ecumenism and the Code of Canon Law (1983).