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The ecumenical legacy of the Second Vatican Council: a disciples perspective.

I. Introduction

It was a real honor to be asked by the planning committee of the North American Academy of Ecumenists to offer a presentation during the 2012 Conference in Halifax on the ecumenical legacy of the Second Vatican Council from my perspective as a member of the Disciples of Christ. I wish to dedicate this address to the memory of our colleague and friend, Dr. Margaret O'Gara, who served since 1983 as a member of the International Commission for Dialogue between the Disciples of Christ and the Roman Catholic Church. She was a great scholar and contributor to our dialogue; indeed, she represented the best of Vatican II in "opening a window" to God's spirit in the pursuit of unity in truth and love.

Over the past year as I prepared for this presentation, I have read a library shelf of books and documents about Vatican II (1962-65). I discovered a wealth of material written and published by Disciples, as we were included in Vatican II in that special category of "delegated observers." One of the most helpful resources was an early issue of Mid-Stream, a journal produced by the Council on Christian Unity (where I now serve as President), that was published in the summer of 1966 (just a year-and-a-half after the close of Vatican II), which brought together a series of articles addressing the overall topic, "Estimates of Vatican II."

It was interesting to read these articles, beginning with statements by three Catholics (including J. G. M. Willebrands), then by two Protestant observers (Albert C. Outler and Douglas Horton), then "estimates" by the official observers of the Christian Churches (Disciples of Christ), and, finally, statements by leaders in conciliar ecumenism, including Nikos Nissiotis from the Orthodox perspective, Lukas Vischer (Swiss Reformed Church) on behalf of the World Council of Churches, and an "Appraisal" from the perspective of the National Council of Churches and its Faith and Order Commission by William Norgren of the Episcopal Church, U.S.A.

As my first reflection on Vatican II's ecumenical legacy, I believe it established a benchmark on the way we would (or should!) do our ecumenical work, that is, including and engaging Christians of other traditions and churches to be part of the discussion and conversation, even in our internal work and deliberations. And, we should invite persons to share from the point of view of those most intimately involved--in this case, beginning with assessments by Catholics--and to listen first for understanding of others' positions before moving to express our own experiences, positions, or interpretations.

I was tempted to synthesize these rich articles from Mid-Stream into a summary of common themes, issues, or topics. However, in going back through the statements, I found that approach to be unsatisfactory, because it would wash out some of the soaring language and images and stories in the articles, and it would not do justice to differences embedded in the diversity of perspectives represented.

So, briefly, I want to share highlights from some of these different voices as they reflected on their experiences of Vatican II and as they projected those hopes and expectations into an ecumenical future. Then, I will draw together a series of reflections from the perspective of the Disciples of Christ on the legacy of Vatican II seen now from the vantage point of fifty years later.

II. Highlights from My Reading."

1. In his reflections on the results of Vatican II, then-Bishop Willebrands, who at that time was the secretary of the Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity at the Vatican, stressed that "[i]t may be interesting, and important, to study the development of theology between the announcement of the Council and its closure; or to evaluate the theological content of the conciliar discussions; but what the Roman Catholic must do, above all, is to accept gratefully and carry out courageously the task laid upon us by the Council." (1)

He went on to note that, for "[t]hose who have lived the Council ... it does not suffice to know the definitive texts of the Constitutions, Decrees and Declarations. The Council should be understood as an event" that is not finished but "has been given a decisive start." (2) Also,
      The Council should be seen as an encounter: as an encounter
   within the Roman Catholic Church ... [and] an encounter with the
   other Christian Churches and Communities which have participated in
   the Council through their official observers....

      The Council should also be understood as a prayer in which the
   Church has bowed before her Lord in contrition and supplication; in
   which she has daily confessed her preoccupation, her tensions and
   her inability before the altar of the Lord; a prayer in which, by a
   concelebration on solemn occasions, she could celebrate the
   Eucharist as a sign of her unity, and in which she could also
   confess, in service together with her brothers from the other
   churches, the unity which binds together all Christians in Christ,
   in the listening to his Word, in the praising of his Name." (3)


He pointed to the essential relationship of unity and the missionary task of the church, stating: "There is nothing more confusing for missionary activity, nothing more contradictory to mission towards all nations than the internal division of Christianity. The words of Paul: 'Has Christ been divided up?'" (1 Cor. 1:13). (4) He also described the importance of the Declaration on the Relation of the Church to the Non-Christian Religions (Nostra aetate), which included the condemnation of Antisemitism in the section on Judaism. Willebrands wrote: "I ask myself whether the Church has ever, since the speech of the Apostle Paul on the Areopagus, approached the non-Christian religions in such a positive way. There is nothing in God's world that is absolutely unchristian, because: 'all things have been created through and unto Him and He is before all creatures, and in Him all things hold together' (I Cor. 16:17)." (5)

2. In writing about Vatican II as the "Pastoral Council," the Rev. Edward Gaffney, an American Catholic priest studying in Rome during Vatican II, offered some key insights on the importance and nature of ecumenical dialogue, building upon the understanding presented in the Decree on Ecumenism (Unitatis redintegratio) that urges "every effort to avoid expressions, judgments, and actions which do not represent the condition of our separated brethren with truth and fairness." (6) He developed this understanding of ecumenical dialogue in quoting Fr. Thomas Stransky:
   To me this is just the ecumenical application of the eighth
   commandment. We should not bear false witness against our
   neighbors.... In the concrete, this means avoiding stereotypes that
   over-generalize and falsify the positions of the Orthodox,
   Anglicans, and Protestants.... More positively, it means that we
   must appreciate what non-Catholic communions are in God's eyes and
   in their own eyes; we must make an effort to understand them as
   they understand themselves to be. (7)


In this same context, Gaffney noted a statement by Oscar Cullmann that calls for honesty in our dialogue as an essential mark of ecumenical encounter: "The first condition for success in our dialogue is a great frankness on both sides. From the ecumenical point of view it is quite a mistaken policy to keep silent about what really separates us.... the interests of unity have always been served the best by mutual frankness." (8)

3. Outler, a professor of theology at Southern Methodist University and a Methodist observer at Vatican II, offered his assessment of the Council as a "Charter for Change." In his conclusion he asked,
   What about us non-Romans in the aftermath of Vatican II? ... [T]he
   blunt truth is that, with Vatican II, the Roman Catholic Church has
   leap-frogged the rest of us on at least two fronts: church renewal
   and ecumenical action.... [T]here is finally no evading the
   challenge of Vatican II that we [non-Catholics] go and do
   likewise--with our equivalents of renewal and reform. (9)


4. Horton, another delegated Protestant observer, from the United Church of Christ, presented some of the dramatic moments during Vatican II. The concluding sentence in his article, for me, summarizes much of the ethos that he believed marked the Council as a major achievement--not just for the Catholic Church but for the entire ecumenical movement: "This council is completely original in that [unlike previous councils] it framed no anathemas: oriented toward unity and peace, it condemned no one, excommunicated no one, but devoted itself to the good of all." (10)

5. One of the Disciples observers at Vatican II, William Baker, a pastor and professor from our churches in Great Britain, offered a very helpful analysis of the council, which he believed was marked first of all in a peculiarly spiritual quality of friendship, a "quality which makes it part of the fulfillment of the purpose of God. It is friendship 'in Christ."' (11) Baker concluded:
      Impressions of the Second Vatican Council? "Impressions" is a
   poor word for the convictions that burn within the honest observer:
   the conviction that a world which needs to see Christ's peace can
   see it only in the peace and unity among Christ's people; and the
   conviction that all the vast differences which separate Roman and
   non-Roman Christians are not to be compared with the unity which
   binds us together in the love of Jesus Christ, who is Lord of us
   all. (12)


6. Basil Holt, another Disciples observer, shared this observation that was echoed by several of the other authors (Catholics and Protestants):
      Most significant of all to me was the change in Rome's attitude in
   Religions Liberty. Imagine, in a Papal decree promulgated under the
   dome of St. Peter's, coming upon such sentiments as these:--

      "In all his activity a man is bound to follow his conscience, in
   order that he may come to God.... It follows that he is not to be
   forced to act in a manner contrary to his conscience. Nor, on the
   other hand, is he to be restrained from acting in accordance with
   his conscience, especially in matters religious." (13)


He went on to quote Cardinal Heenan of Westminster in England, who stated: "It is not correct to affirm flatly that error has no rights or that truth has. Rights are founded not in things but persons. It is every man's inviolable right to profess the faith dictated by his conscience." (14)

7. A final reflection I would share from my reading of Mid-Steam comes from W. B. Blakemore, Dean of the Disciples Divinity House of the University of Chicago, who, as a delegated observer to Vatican II, attended all four sessions. The title of his article already foreshadowed the content of his evaluation: "Vatican II Should Become Protestant Heritage--Also." In his article, Blakemore, a long-time Disciples ecumenist, shared an experience he had as a delegate to the Fourth World Conference on Faith and Order held in Montreal in 1963, where he became acquainted with Fr. Bernard Lambert, a Dominican priest from Quebec, who was an official "guest" at the conference. He noted that, as a Catholic "guest," Lambert refrained from participation in the discussion, but at the invitation of the conference he offered his commentaries. One afternoon, following thanks expressed to him for his observations and commentary, Lambert said: "'You who are in the World Council of Churches are my Christian brothers, and since you are my brothers what you say to each other interests me. Your council is my council.'" (15) In his reflection on that comment, Blakemore wrote that after his appointment as a guest, he said, "'The Catholics are my Christian brothers, and since they are, what they say to each other interests me. Their Vatican Council II is my Council also.' But what has that come to mean?" It meant that he was not simply an observer but also a consultant and colleague in the journey. It meant that Catholic thinking and statements are "part of the total consciousness of the whole church of Christ on earth." It meant we have to take each other, and each other's thoughts, seriously. (16)

8. In working on this presentation, I was interested to read a recent address that Dr. Walter Altmann, a Lutheran biblical scholar from Brazil and current Moderator of the World Council of Churches, delivered to the 2012 Central Committee of the W.C.C. in Crete. A major portion of his address was devoted to reflections on the fiftieth anniversary of Vatican II as an example and challenge to the W.C.C. as it prepared for its Tenth Assembly in Busan, South Korea, in late 2013. Altmann noted that he saw Vatican II not only as an extraordinary event but also as a source and inspiration to the whole ecumenical movement, "in the sense that it represents the most significant effort of the largest church in world Christianity to update its theology to the new times (aggiornamento, the term used by Pope John XXIII) and to renew its praxis." (17)

Altmann's hope was that the W.C.C.--facing challenges both in theological issues related to the nature of the church and the concept of mission and in diakonia and witness in today's world--might be guided by the same openness of mind and theological courage for renewal that prevailed at Vatican II. He lifted up several dynamics that for him marked Vatican II and that press the whole ecumenical movement today. As examples, he identified:

1. Vatican II's clear and clarion call and commitment to the vision of evangelical renewal must reside at the heart of the Christian commitment "to restore the unity of all Christians" (quoting Unitatis redintegratio, no. 1). (18)

2. Vatican II represented a dramatic shift in how the Catholic Church looked at and, indeed, included other Christian communions in its own life. At the beginning of the Council, "Pope John XXIII expressed the desire to have the presence [and participation] of 'separated brethren'"--a term that today may sound "strange, even discriminatory" or judgmental. However, Altmaun pointed out that we need to remember that "in past polemics Catholics and Protestants had even used terms such as 'heretics' or 'idolaters' to raise accusations against each other." (19) The term "separated brethren" had dramatically shifted to understanding other Christians as "siblings."

3. A third key dynamic from Vatican II was "the prominent role assigned to scripture" and the role that it plays in guiding church practice and in the ongoing unfolding of revelation contained therein. (20)

4. A fourth dynamic that penetrated the whole life of Vatican II and its four sessions was the recognition of the role of the Holy Spirit that "brings about the communion of the faithful with Christ and each other." (21)

III. The Legacy of Vatican II

With this as background, I want to summarize how I describe, define, and identify the ecumenical legacy of Vatican II from a Disciples perspective in a listing that offers a rich mosaic but one that is still being worked on and is yet to be completed. I have identified eight elements that stand as the legacy of Vatican II for the on-going quest in realizing our full unity in Christ for the sake of God's mission in the world:

1. Understanding the ecumenical movement essentially as an event that is not finished, an encounter with one's own tradition and with the traditions and gifts of other Christians and churches, and a prayer before God of contrition and confession in our inability to come together in celebration of the eucharist as a sign of our unity before a broken and divided world.

2. Affirming the critical and foundational relationship between our unity as Christians and churches and our effective and credible mission in and for the world.

3. Developing new understandings and approaches to non-Christian religions that are also to be seen as part of God's creation.

4. Creating and nurturing a context of frankness and honesty in our ecumenical dialogue and encounter.

5. Sharing a deep commitment to religious liberty and to the freedom of individual conscience.

6. Always maintaining an openness both to the movement of the Holy Spirit at the heart of our work and relationships and to theological courage for renewal.

7. Reclaiming the vital place and role of scripture in the life, witness, and tradition of the church.

8. As a member of the Disciples of Christ, I especially want to lift up a statement from the Directory for the Application of the Decisions of the Second Ecumenical Council of the Vatican concerning Ecumenical Matters (Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity, May 14, 1967), which, after quoting two passages from documents adopted by Vatican II, offers a statement that I would identify as a major legacy of Vatican II: "Baptism is, then, the sacramental bond of unity, indeed the foundation of communion among all Christians." (22)

In our Disciples-Catholic International Commission for Dialogue, we have experienced these elements first-hand as a positive contribution to our discussions and work together on our common goal of full visible unity between two communions. We have taken up most of the elements as specific topics for our dialogue (for example, the nature of the unity we seek, the meaning and practice of baptism, the missionary task of the church, the role of the Holy Spirit in the unity and transformation of the church's life, and the centrality of the eucharist for the life of the church and its unity). I believe our dialogue has grown over the years (1977--present) in greater honesty and frankness of our encounter with each other, which I believe can be directly traced to the on-going attention to the worship and common prayer life of the dialogue teams as we have truly engaged and experienced "spiritual ecumenism." We have not yet achieved all that we had hoped; while there have been genuine advances in mutual understanding between Catholics and Disciples, we also realize that deep and significant differences still remain.

Here I would affirm what Karen Westerfield Tucker stated in concluding her address to this NAAE conference:
   Perhaps, as some have suggested, fifty years is still too early to
   render a final judgment. Regardless, the call to the churches
   issued with the ecumenical movement, with Vatican II--and with
   Jesus himself--remains clear: to continue to work and pray that
   those who follow Jesus may truly and visibly be one. (23)


IV. Concluding Words

Cardinal Walter Kasper, president emeritus of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, in an article addressing "a vision for Christian unity for the next generation," looked back to Vatican II and asked:
   After 50 years of significant engagement what did we really
   achieve? The ecumenical enthusiasm of the decades after the Second
   Vatican Council is over. The previous enthusiasm in our Church and
   in most other churches and church communities has gone; many people
   are disappointed and ask: "Does it still make sense to engage this
   issue? Can we ever make substantial progress and reach the goal of
   visible unity? Is it not an unrealistic dream and a useless utopia?
   Is ecumenism a dead relic of the Second Vatican Council?" (24)


He immediately responded to the questions with a fundamental answer: "Ecumenism is not a human invention, not a political issue of interest. Ecumenism is founded on the words of our Lord, himself--'may they all be one.'" (25)

His answer echoed the message from the First Assembly of the W.C.C. in Amsterdam in 1948: "It is not in man's power to banish sin and death from the earth, to create the unity of the holy Catholic Church... But it is within the power of God. He has given us at Easter the certainty that His purpose will be accomplished. But, by our acts of obedience and faith we can on earth set up signs which point to the coming victory." (26)

I conclude with a statement from the "Rule of the Taize Community" that was offered by Dr. Paul A. Crow, Jr, in a recent address on contemporary ecumenism after Vatican II: "Never resign yourself to the scandal of divisions among Christians ... [But] be consumed with a burning zeal for the unity of the Body of Christ." (27) I believe these words represent the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ to the divided churches of our world--to all who bear the name "Christians." I pray that this vision, this calling, from Taize--and also from the legacy of Vatican II--may become the "rule of our lives" and of the life of our churches for the glory of God and for the mission of the gospel to a divided, broken, and fragmented world.

(1) J. G. M. Willebrands, "Ecumenical Aspects and Perspectives of the Second Vatican Council," Mid-Stream 5 (Summer, 1966): 1.

(2) Ibid., p. 2; emphasis in original.

(3) Ibid., pp. 2-3; emphases in original.

(4) Ibid., p. 5.

(5) Ibid., p. 4.

(6) Edward M. Gaffney, "Vatican II: The Pastoral Council," Mid-Stream 5 (Summer, 1966): 36; quoting Unttatis redintegratio, no. 4.

(7) Ibid., quoting Thomas Stransky in The Clergy Review, January, 1966.

(8) Ibid.; source of quote not given.

(9) Albert C. Outler, "Vatican II--Charter for Change," Mid-Stream 5 (Summer, 1966): 68.

(10) Douglas Horton, "Dramatic Moments at the Vatican Council," Mid-Stream 5 (Summer, 1966): 82.

(11) W. G. Baker, "The Delegate-Observer and Impressions of the Second Vatican Council," MidStream 5 (Summer, 1966): 113.

(12) Ibid., pp. 113-114; emphases in original.

(13) Basil Holt, "The Second Vatican Council," Mid-Stream 5 (Summer, 1966): 99-100.

(14) Ibid., p. 101; source not given.

(15) W. B. Blakemore, "Vatican II Shall Become Protestant Heritage--Also," Mid-Stream 5 (Summer, 1966): 120

(16) Ibid.

(17) Walter Altmann, "Signs of a Way Forward: Moderator's Address," World Council of Churches Central Committee, Kolympari, Greece, August 29, 2012, no. 11; available at http://www.oikoumene.org/en/resources/documents/ central-committee/2012/moderators-address.

(18) Ibid., no. 13.

(19) Ibid., no. 15.

(20) Ibid., no. 21.

(21) Ibid., no. 23.

(22) Ad totam ecclesiam, no. 11, in Austin Flannery, ed., Vatican Council 11, vol. 1 : The Conciliar and Postconciliar Documents, new rev. ed. (Northport, NY: Costello Publishing Co.; Dublin: Dominican Publications, 1996), p. 487. The two Vatican II documents quoted in Ad totam ecclesiam, no. 10, were the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Lumen gentiurn, no. 15), which states, "'The church knows that she is joined in many ways to the baptized who are honored with the name of Christian, but who do not profess the faith in its entirety or do not preserve unity or communion with the successor of Peter"; and the Decree on Ecumenism (Unitatis redintegratio, no. 3), which states that "all who have been justified by faith in baptism are incorporated into Christ; they therefore have a right to be called Christians, and with good reason are accepted as brothers by the children of the Catholic Church."

(23) Karen B. Westerfield Tucker, "The Ecumenical Legacy of the Second Vatican Council: Reflections of an Accidental Ecumenist," J.E.S. 48 (Spring, 2013): 165.

(24) Walter Cardinal Kasper, "May They All Be One? But How? A Vision of Christian Unity for the Next Generation," Ecumenical Trends 40 (April, 2011): 1.

(25) Ibid.

(26) W. A. Error! Main Document Only. Visser 't Hooft, ed., The First Assembly of the World Council of Churches HeM at Amsterdam, August 22nd to September 4th. 1948 [The Official Report], Man's Disorder and God's Design V (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1949), pp. 10-11. Also in Michael Kinnamon and Brian E. Cope, eds., The Ecumenical Movement: An Anthology of Key Texts and Voices (Geneva: W.C.C; Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1997), p. 22.

(27) Paul A. Crow, Jr., "Contemporary Ecumenical Issues in America after Vatican II: 1965-2012" (unpublished paper presented to Franciscan Friars of the Atonement, Garrison, NY, June 19, 2012), p. 7.
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Author:Welsh, Robert K.
Publication:Journal of Ecumenical Studies
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 22, 2013
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