Good Shepherd Sunday is the ideal occasion to recall that the ecumenical movement within Christianity began in earnest in the 1920s when the various Protestant communities met to discuss agreements and disagreements concerning the Christian faith and similarities and differences regarding church order.
The varieties of beliefs and structures, so long the glory of Protestantism, were becoming an obstacle to Christian witness in a world that even a century ago was becoming more and more materialistic. A worldwide Christianity promoting a common Gospel would be the best way to deal with a world that was losing its appreciation of the sacred and embracing secular philosophies.
Toward this post World War I, non-Catholic Christian effort to restore the diminished aspects of church faith and order, Pope Pius XI revealed a negative attitude. He issued his encyclical “Mortalium Animos” in 1928, in which he imposed a stern attitude toward non-Catholics and the nascent ecumenical movement among Protestants. Church unity is not something to be sought in the future, Pius wrote, since it already exists in the one, holy, Catholic, and apostolic church. Church unity was to be recognized and embraced within the already existing framework of Roman Catholicism, insisted this pope who served the church from 1922 until 1938. Almost half a century later the Second Vatican Council in its decree on ecumenism, “Redintegratio Unitatis,” offered similar thoughts in gentler words. The Roman Catholic Church has maintained the fullness of revealed truth down through the ages. The original deposit of faith entrusted by Christ to his apostles has certainly developed and intensified over the centuries but no portion of Christianity’s basic truths have been abandoned or altered by the church. The council was both magnanimous and realistic in acknowledging that other churches, other ecclesial communities and even other cultures possessed assorted rays of truths that derived from the fullness of truth entrusted by Christ to his church.
Certainly the Orthodox churches, while lacking certain aspects of unity, glow brightly with authentic sacraments, a sacrificing priesthood, bishops dating back to the apostles, credal and scriptural wholeness and moral integrity. Traditional Protestant communities are rich in scriptural appreciation, prayerful fellowship and community involvement. The more liberal faith communities reflect a concern for social justice and a respect for God’s creation. The faith communities of the Middle and Far East have great prayer traditions, respect for family, and a reverence for the supernatural. Even non-believers who embrace the objective truth found in the natural order cannot be denied some link with God who is the source of all truth and with the church which is the teacher and guardian of the truth necessary for salvation.
The church addressed the ecumenical movement most recently in the provocative document entitled “Dominus Jesus.” This instruction made headlines when it referred to other churches and ecclesial communities as “imperfect” in their possession and understanding of the truth. The document actually addressed a tendency toward a certain pluralism whereby separate churches and faith communities would contribute various aspects of the truth to each other eventually leading to a fullness of truth. This tendency toward religious complementarity suggests that the Catholic Church is not already the complete and full possessor of essential truth and that other communities could add something fundamental to the Catholic Church’s beliefs and practices. This statement affirmed that the full and definitive revelation of Christ is found uniquely in the Catholic Church. Because this claim to uniqueness violated modern notions of freedom, choice and tolerance, the church's traditional claim to be the distinctive and universal means to salvation was immediately viewed as controversial. The document also expressed a concern that a false ecumenism would obscure the need for missionary activity and the necessity of conversions. The church’s latest challenging stance declined to put all religious beliefs on the same plane. True respect for other religions cannot be based on indifference to the truth but only on a respect for the authentic revealed truth entrusted by Jesus Christ to his church and shared to some extent by other communities.