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The Vatican and the Ecumenical Movement: From Stern Condemnation to Enthusiastic Approval

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“Hermeneutic of Continuity” Update…

The Vatican and the Ecumenical Movement:
From Stern Condemnation to Enthusiastic Approval


The Second Vatican Council in session (image: manhai/Flickr/CC BY 2.0; cropped)

The Second Vatican Council (1962-65) is the Modernist robber synod that was presided over by Angelo Roncalli (“Pope John XXIII”) and Giovanni Battista Montini (“Pope Paul VI”) to usher in the new religion that has since replaced Catholicism not only in the Vatican but also in all dioceses and religious orders under its jurisdiction.

To this very day there are still people who claim that the documents released by this fateful assembly, typically abbreviated as “Vatican II”, do not represent a genuine rupture in Catholic doctrine compared to the prior magisterium of 1,900 years. Whereas things were obviously not as clear in 1966 as they are today, especially since the council employed ambiguous language that allowed for multiple interpretations, the official acts of the post-conciliar “Popes” and their magisterium for the past few decades demonstrate that the Vatican itself understands the council in terms of discontinuity and rupture.

Thus there is no denying that Vatican II was truly a council of apostasy. Its long-term effects and ripe fruits are nowhere more visible than in the “pontificate” of Jorge Bergoglio (“Pope Francis”), who proclaims that God desires a diversity of religions, that the savior of humanity is fraternity, that obedience to God could require one to commit adultery (see Amoris Laetitia, paragraph 303), that “Mother Earth” is wounded, and that life-long fornication with one and the same individual constitutes a valid marriage. Furthermore, Bergoglio is concerned about God’s judgment only when it comes to humanitarian efforts, the environmentalist agenda, proselytism, and “going backwards” — but not when it comes to the true Faith or the sins of the flesh. Roughly 60 years after Vatican II, that is where are now.

That the Second Vatican Council marked a genuine rupture with the prior magisterium under Pope Pius XII (r. 1939-58) and his predecessors, is not merely the contention of a few “radical traditionalists”, as is sometimes suggested. In fact, virtually everyone familiar with the topic understands on some level that the Catholicism before the council is substantially different from the “Catholicism” after the council. In fact, a good number of people are happy with the rupture and wouldn’t be “Catholic” today had that rupture not occurred.

Whether they approve or disapprove, most people admit the discontinuity is real, and it is only a handful of conservative Novus Ordos, such as Dr. Robert Fastiggi, who still insist that there was no substantial change, a position that is becoming more and more indefensible by the day.

Among Novus Ordo theologians who concede that there has been a clear departure from the prior magisterium we find, for example, Fr. Avery Dulles (1918-2008), who noted in 1976 that “Vatican II quietly reversed earlier positions of the Roman magisterium on a number of important issues”, including ecumenism: “…the Council cordially greeted the ecumenical movement and involved the Catholic Church in the larger quest for Christian unity, thus putting an end to the hostility enshrined in Pius XI’s Mortalium animos” (Dulles, “Presidential Address: The Theologian and the Magisterium”, Proceedings of the Catholic Theological Society of America, vol. 31, p. 240).

The Jesuit Fr. Francis Sullivan (1922-2019) is another theologian who candidly acknowledged that

on several important issues the council clearly departed from previous papal teaching. One has only to compare the Decree on Ecumenism with such an encyclical as Mortalium animos of Pope Pius XI, or the Declaration on Religious Freedom with the teaching of Leo XIII and other popes on the obligation binding on the Catholic rulers of Catholic nations to suppress Protestant evangelism, to see with what freedom the Second Vatican Council reformed papal teaching.

(Francis A. Sullivan, S.J., Magisterium: Teaching Authority in the Catholic Church [Mahwah, NY: Paulist Press, 1983], p. 157)

The Rev. Thomas Guarino concedes this as well:

Surely the council represents a significant volte-face [about-face] on ecumenism. Mortalium animos casts doubt on the entire ecumenical enterprise, forbids Catholics from engaging in the movement, and comes close [sic] to calling Protestantism “a false Christianity, quite foreign to the one Church of Christ”… The Decree on Ecumenism [Unitatis Redintegratio of Vatican II], in contrast, warmly welcomes ecumenism, encouraging intelligent and active participation in it (UR §4). The discontinuity between the two documents is the source of consternation for some [sic] Catholics.

(Thomas G. Guarino, The Disputed Teachings of Vatican II: Continuity and Reversal in Catholic Doctrine [Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2018], pp. 108-109)

To be fair, we must mention that Guarino proceeds to attempt to smooth over and justify the reversal, but that is beside the point for our purpose, which is to establish that there is evident rupture, contradiction, discontinuity between Vatican II and the pre-conciliar magisterium, and that not only traditionalists can see that.

Aside from religious liberty, the most glaring discontinuity in Vatican II vis-à-vis the pre-conciliar Catholic magisterium exists in the area of ecumenism. Ecumenism is the attempt to arrive at religious unity among all “Christians”, chiefly by overcoming disagreements through dialogue. What exactly this future religious unity should look like the parties involved do not agree on — the one thing they all do agree on, however, is that it does not mean the conversion of non-Catholics to Catholicism.

Here are links to some important posts in that regard:

In this post we would like to draw attention to how a Protestant theologian involved in the ecumenical movement decades ago saw the clear rupture before and during/after the council with regard to ecumenism, as it happened.

The man in question is Lukas Vischer (1926-2008), a minister of the so-called Swiss Reformed Church. In 1970 he published the article “The Ecumenical Movement and the Roman Catholic Church”, which was published in full in Harold E. Fey, ed., The Ecumenical Advance: A History of the Ecumenical Movement: Volume 2: 1948-1968 (London: SPCK, 1970), pp. 311-352.

It is from that article that we will now quote some excerpts. Notice how clearly Vischer recognizes the contradictions between pre-conciliar and post-conciliar views of ecumenism.

Beginning with a presentation of how the ecumenical movement was viewed during the pontificate of Pope Pius XII, Vischer refers to the encyclical Humani Generis (1950) and points out, somewhat startled, how what the Pope condemned re-emerged at Vatican II a few years later:

Particular errors were enumerated [in Humani Generis]. They included the idea that dogma is subject to development and has to be constantly reformulated; the relativizing of the concept as distinct from the truth as such; scepticism about the inspiration of Scripture, with a particular reference to Genesis 1-11; and distinguishing between the mystical body of Christ and the Roman Catholic Church. All these views were branded as dangerous and there was an emphatic reminder of the obligatory norms of Catholic doctrine.

This text makes a rather strange impression on anyone re-reading it now [1970], twenty years later. Is it not precisely the ideas which were then rejected which later were to play a decisive role at the Second Vatican Council? Has not almost everything which the encyclical then mentioned only to condemn now been favourably received by the Council? The encyclical was not successful in uprooting and destroying the ideas which it regarded as emerging dangers. In one sense, Humani generis already contained the themes of the Second Vatican Council.

(Lukas Vischer, “The Ecumenical Movement and the Roman Catholic Church”, in The Ecumenical Advance, p. 317; underlining added.)

Indeed, various ideas of the “New Theology” that were rejected in Humani Generis ended up being included in Vatican II. It is a case of clear rupture.

In the next excerpt, Vischer notes how serious the Vatican’s rejection of ecumenism was under Pius XII, illustrated by the fact that theologians favorable to ecumenism were silenced:

Official statements about the ecumenical movement and negative reactions to signs of renewal in theology were clearly only the outward expression of the spirit which dominated in Rome. Theologians participating in the ecumenical movement found themselves increasingly in trouble. The Holy Office intensified its surveillance and, especially from 1950 onwards, many of them were proceeded against. During these years many of the theologians who had made a decisive contribution to the advance of ecumenical thought were warned, forbidden to publish their works, or forced to give up their work as teachers. To mention only a few who were affected in one or the other way: Yves Congar, Henri de Lubac, Karl Rahner, John Courtney Murray, M. D. Chenu, Pierre Yves Féres. A period of mistrust and suspicion began. In some instances it lasted even into the pontificate of John XXIII. As late as 1962, immediately prior to the opening of the Council, two professors of the Papal Biblical Institute in rome were temporarily suspended from their chairs.

(“The Ecumenical Movement and the Roman Catholic Church”, p. 319)

Obviously, then, the issue of ecumenism was not merely a matter of theological or pastoral “approach”, it was a matter of denying or endangering Catholic doctrine.

That was also made very clear by Cardinal Samuel Stritch in his 1954 pastoral letter rebuffing the World Council of Churches and the entire ecumenical movement. The issues at stake are doctrinal, not merely disciplinary. That is significant, for whereas discipline can change (within certain bounds), doctrine cannot.

Let us look at a few more quotes from Vischer’s article. He observes that Vatican II changed the prior stance on ecumenism, without any serious effort to reconcile the two competing views:

The discussions of the First Session had projected a new picture of the Church. Three distortions of its nature — legalism, hierarchism, triumphalism — had again and again been condemned. … Nobody questioned the binding force of the First Vatican Council’s doctrinal statements for the Church, but opinion was divided as to how those statements were to be interpreted today. Even the texts finally agreed upon are not fully clear on this point. Old and new stand side by side, often unconnected, and leave unanswered the question whether the new is to be interpreted in terms of the old or vice versa.

There were also obvious ecumenical reasons pressing this theme to the fore. If genuine relationship with other Churches were to be established, was not fresh clarification needed as to the nature of the Church and especially as to the nature of its unity? Hitherto the Roman Catholic Church had stood aside from the ecumenical movement mainly for ecclesiological reasons. Was it not incumbent on her now to explain why participation in that movement was not only possible even mandatory today?

(“The Ecumenical Movement and the Roman Catholic Church”, p. 335; underlining added.)

Here Vischer underscores that the Vatican’s opposition to ecumenism under the pre-conciliar Popes had been based on theology, on doctrine, not merely on discipline or pastoral style.

In order to be able to have an ecclesiological basis for ecumenism, therefore, the council had to introduce a doctrinal change in its teaching on the nature of the Church. This it did in the dogmatic constitution Lumen Gentium (1964), where it changed Pius XII’s teaching that the Church established by Jesus Christ is the Catholic Church to the novel idea that it subsists in the Catholic Church, whereas it exists also in elements in other religions.

In addition to Lumen Gentium, Vischer identifies two more of the conciliar documents that have significance for ecumenism:

At the end of the Third Session, three conciliar texts were approved which are particularly important for the ecumenical movement: the Dogmatic Constitution of the Church [Lumen Gentium], the Decree on Ecumenism [Unitatis Redintegratio], and the Decree on the Eastern Catholic Churches [Orientalium Ecclesiarum]. In these texts the Council expressed the essence of its understanding of the ecumenical movement. The texts had been several times discussed and frequently revised during the Second and Third Sessions. The Council had been able to formulate in these documents a series of agreed statements which hardly anyone would have thought possible at the beginning of the Council or even after the Second Session. Taken as a whole, the Decree on Ecumenism presents an understanding of the ecumenical movement which makes encounter with other Churches possible in a way which is convincing. The new attitude can be illustrated by a change which was adopted in the course of the debates. An earlier version of the Decree still spoke of presenting the principles of Roman Catholic ecumenism whereas the final text reads “Roman Catholic principles of ecumenism”. This change expresses in the shortest possible way that the Roman Catholic Church does not wish to rival the ecumenical movement but to align itself with it.

(“The Ecumenical Movement and the Roman Catholic Church”, p. 337; underlining added.)

The changes Vischer describes here are revolutionary. They represent a substantial departure from the prior magisterium, not merely a shift in emphasis or a change in outlook. Here is more information on them:

Antipopes Paul VI and John Paul II themselves confirmed the 180-degree turnabout concerning ecumenism.

In 1949, Pope Pius XII had stated very clearly that the only kind of ecumenism that Catholic doctrine allows for is that which seeks the conversion of Protestants to Catholicism, without compromising on doctrine even one iota. He told the world’s local bishops that they must

be on guard lest, on the false pretext that more attention should be paid to the points on which we agree than to those on which we differ, a dangerous indifferentism be encouraged, especially among persons whose training in theology is not deep and whose practice of their faith is not very strong. For care must be taken lest, in the so-called “irenic” spirit of today, through comparative study and the vain desire for a progressively closer mutual approach among the various professions of faith, Catholic doctrine — either in its dogmas or in the truths which are connected with them — be so conformed or in a way adapted to the doctrines of dissident sects, that the purity of Catholic doctrine be impaired, or its genuine and certain meaning be obscured.

Also they must restrain that dangerous manner of speaking which generates false opinions and fallacious hopes incapable of realization; for example, to the effect that the teachings of the Encyclicals of the Roman Pontiffs on the return of dissidents to the Church, on the constitution of the Church, on the Mystical Body of Christ, should not be given too much importance seeing that they are not all matters of faith, or, what is worse, that in matters of dogma even the Catholic Church has not yet attained the fullness of Christ, but can still be perfected from outside. They shall take particular care and shall firmly insist that, in going over the history of the Reformation and the Reformers the defects of Catholics be not so exaggerated and the faults of the Reformers be so dissimulated, or that things which are rather accidental be not so emphasized, that what is most essential, namely the defection from the Catholic faith, be scarcely any longer seen or felt. Finally, they shall take precautions lest, through an excessive and false external activity, or through imprudence and an excited manner of proceeding, the end in view be rather harmed than served.

Therefore the <whole> and <entire> Catholic doctrine is to be presented and explained: by no means is it permitted to pass over in silence or to veil in ambiguous terms the Catholic truth regarding the nature and way of justification, the constitution of the Church, the primacy of jurisdiction of the Roman Pontiff, and the only true union by the return of the dissidents to the one true Church of Christ. It should be made clear to them that, in returning to the Church, they will lose nothing of that good which by the grace of God has hitherto been implanted in them, but that it will rather be supplemented and completed by their return. However, one should not speak of this in such a way that they will imagine that in returning to the Church they are bringing to it something substantial which it has hitherto lacked. It will be necessary to say these things clearly and openly, first because it is the truth that they themselves are seeking, and moreover because outside the truth no true union can ever be attained.

(Pope Pius XII, Holy Office Instruction Ecclesia Catholica, section II; underlining added.)

That is a very clear rejection of ecumenism as it has been understood since Vatican II, and this rejection is clearly based on Catholic doctrine. For that reason alone, it could never change in any substantial way.

And yet, it is precisely this condemned anti-Catholic notion of ecumenism that was embraced at the council by Paul VI, out of the blue. The prior, pre-conciliar condemnations of ecumenism were not explained away, much less properly rescinded — they were simply ignored, as if they had never existed.

Not only did Vatican II and the post-conciliar magisterium accept ecumenism, however, they actually continually emphasized that ecumenism had now irrevocably become part of the Church’s solicitude. Whereas they had just effectively revoked 1,900 years of Catholic teaching and discipline on religious unity, the new position was immediately declared irrevocable. How ironic — and how arrogant!

Vischer quotes Paul VI gushing over his newfound commitment to ecumenism:

The Pope [Paul VI] himself often acknowledged that the whole Church was committed to the ecumenical movement. For example, in a speech to the members of the Secretariat for Unity: “The ecumenical problem has been raised by Rome in all its urgency, in all its magnitude, and in all its doctrinal and practical aspects. It is not just glanced at occasionally or incidentally. On the contrary! It has become the object of continuing concern, systematic study, and unlimited love. It has become a line which from now on is part of the programme of our apostolic office” [28 April 1967, AAS LIX (1967), pp. 494f.]. Shortly after the end of the Council the Pope announced that the Secretariat for [Christian] Unity, which had originally been created only for the duration of the Council, was to continue in existence.

(“The Ecumenical Movement and the Roman Catholic Church”, p. 346)

In 1995, “Pope” John Paul II published a lengthy encyclical on ecumenism, in which he confirmed the permanence of the post-conciliar obsession with with the ecumenical program: “At the Second Vatican Council, the Catholic Church committed herself irrevocably to following the path of the ecumenical venture, thus heeding the Spirit of the Lord, who teaches people to interpret carefully the ‘signs of the times’” (Ut Unum Sint, n. 3). Thus the radical doctrinal reversal is smoothed over by an obscure appeal to having recognized the “signs of the times”, as if Divine Revelation were an ongoing process — an idea condemned by Pope St. Pius X in his decree Lamentabili Sane (see error no. 21; Denz. 2021).

The fact remains, however, that no one can take seriously an institution that claims in 1958 that ecumenism is at odds with 1,900 years of Catholic Tradition and therefore poses a great danger threatening to undermine the foundations of Catholic dogma, and then a few years later declares that not only is this no longer so but that in fact participation in the ecumenical movement is now permissible and laudable — more than that, it is now even mandatory and irrevocable! What absurdity!

The only way such a blatant and radical reversal on the question of religious unity and the nature of the Church is possible is if the man who ultimately decreed it (Paul VI) was not in fact the Pope but a mere impostor. For it is clear that the man who imposed this doctrinal revolution was not acting with the authority of Christ, and that is only possible if he was not in fact the Pope (cf. Mt 16:19).

As Pope Leo XIII taught:

In the Catholic Church Christianity is incarnate. It identifies itself with that perfect, spiritual, and, in its own order, sovereign society, which is the mystical body of Jesus Christ and which has for its visible head the Roman Pontiff, successor of the Prince of the Apostles. It is the continuation of the mission of the Saviour, the daughter and the heiress of His redemption. It has preached the Gospel, and has defended it at the price of its blood, and strong in the Divine assistance, and of that immortality which have been promised it, it makes no terms with error, but remains faithful to the commands which it has received to carry the doctrine of Jesus Christ to the uttermost limits of the world and to the end of time and to protect it in its inviolable integrity.

(Pope Leo XIII, Apostolic Letter Annum Ingressi)

Vatican II had its forerunner, its prototype, in the 18th-century Synod of Pistoia. That regional assembly, held in 1786, was already proposing an aggiornamento (“updating”) of the Church. It was condemned by Pope Pius VI in the magnificent Apostolic Constitution Auctorem Fidei (1794). The theological connection between the two councils is almost uncanny, and has recently been recognized in an academic work put out by Oxford University Press: The Synod of Pistoia and Vatican II by Shaun Blanchard (Full disclosure: Purchase through Amazon link benefits Novus Ordo Watch).

Thus we have another piece of historical testimony to the fact that the Catholicism of Pope Pius XII and his predecessors is not the same as the “Catholicism” found in the Vatican since the council.

Image source: flickr.com (manhhai; cropped)
License: CC BY 2.0

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