The Ecumenical Movement In The Catholic Church: A Historical Review And Analysis

The Catholic Church has had a significant interest in the ecumenical movement since the Second Vatican Council of 1961 to 1965. This paper will present the history and analysis of the Catholic Church by examining the important historical topics of the ecumenical movement from a Catholic perspective.


Ecumenism states that Jesus Christ founded only one Church at Pentecost. The Catholic position is that we are that one church and have followed the apostolic traditions passed down from Christ to his Bride, the Church. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishopsstates to fellow Christians at the celebration of the Mass: “We pray that our common baptism and the action of the Holy Spirit in this Eucharist will draw us closer to one another and begin to dispel the sad divisions that separate us. We pray these will lessen and finally disappear, in keeping with Christ’s prayer for us ‘that they may all be one’ (Jn 17:21).2”

Church unity is a gift from God, but it is something that must never be taken for granted. The Church must continue to pray and refine the unity that Christ has willed for her. We know this unity was upmost in Christ’s heart from His prayers at the passion; “…that they may all be one…so that the world may believe that you have sent me.” (Jn 17:21)2  The desire to call all Christians to unity is a gift of Christ and the work of the Holy Spirit (CCC #820).3

Early Ecumenism-Before the Second Vatican Council

Before the Second Vatican Council, ecumenism was defined as a relationship with other Christian groups for the goal of unity of the Church. The purpose of these relationships was to draw misguided Christians back to the Holy See to a unity that they had broken as a result of their disobedience to the Church.4  The duty of maintaining the unity of the Christian Church was considered imperative before the Second Vatican Council. As early as A.D. 1274 at the Council of Lyons and again in A.D. 1438 at the Council of Florence, the Eastern Churches developed a plan with Rome for reunion. The plans for unity from both councils were unsuccessful in convincing the leadership of the Eastern Churches to reunite with Rome.5

Although before the Second Vatican Council, the Church saw unity with separated fellow Christians as a premium duty, the Church had its main focus on rejecting what she saw as promiscuous and false in doctrine outside the Church. The Church cited violations in canon 1258 and the 1917 Code of Canon Law from other Christian groups and Churches that were not consistent with the teachings of the Bible or the Sacred Traditions of the Catholic Church. Canon law forbade the faithful to assist in, participate in or join in any non-Catholic religious service. Canon law allowed the faithful to passively attend or be merely present at non-Catholic funerals, weddings, and similar occasions provided there was no danger of perversion or scandals with the teachings of the Church.5

After the Second Vatican Council

The Second Vatican Council opened up a period where Catholics were not only able to explain the teachings of the Church to non-Catholics, but also to understand the spiritual perspectives of non-Catholic people. Pope John XXIII, who opened the Second Vatican Council, had the aim of extending an invitation to disenchanted Catholics and to non-Catholics to find the Christian unity for which Jesus so ardently prayed to His heavenly Father. The Second Vatican Council recognized that elements of salvation are found in other Churches, too, although the Catholic faith was still the one, holy, universal, and apostolic Church. In paragraph #8 of Lumen Gentium, the Dogmatic Constitution of the Church,the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council stated that the Church constituted and organized in the world as a society, subsists in the Catholic Church. Many elements of sanctification and of truth are found outside of the Church’s visible structure. These elements, as gifts belonging to the Church of Christ, are powers impelling us towards catholic unity. 7

The Second Vatican Council acknowledged that many elements of sanctification may be found outside the Catholic Church. The gifts of the Spirit as evidence of God’s blessings belong to the Church of Christ and thus, press the issue of Christian unity. From the ecumenism of the Second Vatican Council, the Church seeks to reach out to other Christian faiths to find reconciliation at the highest level possible. For example, the Lutheran World Federation and the Catholic Church signed a joint declaration in 1999 on the doctrine of justification; Rome and the Anglican church have agreements on baptism, ministry, and the holy Eucharist. The Second Vatican changed the 1917 Code of Canon Law that forbade Catholic priests from cooperating with clergy of a different Christian faith. Canon 908 now allow allows Catholic priests to share in the sacraments of other Christians under defined circumstances, but the  concelebration of the Eucharist was not approved. “Christians may be encouraged to share in spiritual activities and resources, i.e., to share that spiritual heritage they have in common in a manner and to a degree appropriate to their present divided state.”8

Relationships with the Orthodox Churches

Catholic unity with the Orthodox Churches is the most likely of all the Christian Churches due to the similarity in doctrine. Within the Orthodox Churches, the communion and unity in faith is so identical to the Catholic Church, “that it lacks little to attain the fullness that would permit a common celebration of the Lord’s Eucharist.”9  Practical matters are more of a damper on full unity with the Orthodox Churches. The Church of Rome remains the largest single body of Christians in the world. The ultimate authority of the Pope and the absorption of the much smaller (an estimated 225–300 million people adherents of Orthodoxy that reflects approximately one-quarter to one-third the size of the Catholic Church) 10 Eastern Church by the Latin rite would cause the Orthodox Churches to lose much of her own autonomy.

Three divisions or rites are within the Orthodox Church: 1) the Byzantine, 2) The Pre-Chalcedonian, and 3) the Nestorian Churches. Of the 21 Ecumenical Councils of the Catholic Church, the Byzantine rite accepts the first seven, the Pre-Chalcedonians accept the first three and the Nestorian rite accepts the first two Ecumenical Councils. The Orthodox and Catholic differences occurred as far back as the Council of Ephesus in A.D. 431. The Council of Chalcedon  in A.D. 451  and the schism with Constantinople in A.D. 1054 were due to differences in nomenclature and not due to meaningful doctrinal issues. For example, two Churches- Roman and what would become the Nestorian Church- argued over the expression Mother of God versus Mother of Christ for the Virgin Mary at the Council of Ephesus in A.D. 431. The 1994 Common Christological Declaration between the Catholic Church and the Assyrian Church of the East (also known as the Nestorian Church) signed by Pope John Paul II and Mar Dinkha IV recognized the legitimacy and truth in the difference expressions of faith in each Church’s liturgical life and piety.11

Relationship with the Anglican Churches

Conflict between Rome and the Anglican Church arose due to King Henry VIII’s declaration of royal supremacy over the Church of England. Hostilities increased due to the confiscation of Catholic Church property by the Anglican Church, the dissolution of the English monasteries, the execution of priests, forced attendance at Anglican worship, and the mandated payment of tithes to the Anglican State Church. In 1560, the Anglican Church declared the Catholic faith illegal in England.12

During the reign of Mary I (A.D. 1553-1558) a brief restoration of communication with the Catholic Church occurred. Mary’s death marked the end of the Catholic attempt to reconcile by regulations the English and Catholic Churches. In 1570 Pope Pius V excommunicated Elizabeth I and authorized rebellion against Elizabeth I and English Catholics. The actions led to restrictive laws against the civil and religious rights of Catholics. Not until the Catholic Emancipation in A.D. 1829 did the legislative reform occur from the Elizabethan era. Still today, Catholics are prevented from marrying into the royal family.13

Apostolicae Curae

An edict of Pope Leo XIII issued in 1896 declared Anglican orders to be “absolutely null and utterly void.”14 In 1897, the Archbishop of Canterbury responded to the arguments in Apostolicae Curae with the publication of Saepius Officio.15   The invariable practice also of the Catholic Church supposed their invalidity, since, whenever clergymen who had received orders in the Anglican Church became converts, and desired to become priests in the Catholic Church, they have been unconditionally ordained. In recent years, however, several members of the clergy and laity of the Anglican Church set forth the plea that the practice of the Catholic Church in insisting on unconditionally ordaining clerical converts from Anglicanism arose from want of due inquiry into the validity of Anglican orders, and from mistaken assumptions which, in the light of certain historical investigations, could not justly be maintained. Those, especially, who were interested in the movement that looked toward Corporate Reunion thought that, as a condition to such reunion, Anglican orders should be accepted as valid by the Catholic Church. A few Catholic writers, also, thinking that there was at least room for doubt, joined with them in seeking a fresh inquiry into the question and an authoritative judgment from the Pope. His Holiness Pope Leo XIII, therefore, permitted the question to be re-examined. He commissioned a number of men, whose opinions on the matter were known to be divergent, to state, each, the ground of his judgment, in writing. Pope Leo XIII then summoned them to Rome, directed them to interchange writings and placing at their disposal all the documents available, directed them to further investigate and discuss the issue. Thus prepared, he ordered them to meet in special sessions. Twelve such sessions were held, in which “all were invited to free discussion”. He then directed that the acts of those sessions, together with all the documents, should be submitted to a council of cardinals, “so that when all had studied the whole subject and discussed it in our presence each might give his opinion”. 16 The final result was the edict Apostolicae Curae, in which Anglican orders were declared to be invalid. The judgment remains today and was reaffirmed in 1988 by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who later became Pope Benedict XVI.

Relationships with the Protestant Churches

In 1915, Pope Benedict XV approved a British legation to the Vatican as an attempt at ecumenical dialogue. With the start of World War I, the British were concerned about the possible German and Austrian influences over Vatican policy. The Malines Conversation informally explored the corporate reunion between the Catholic Church and the Church of England. The legation was led by an Anglican and a Catholic, but by 1925 the potential reunion in the Malines Conversations failed. In spite of the failure, the spread of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity occurred and visits with the Bishop of Chichester and the Cardinal of Milan, later Pope Paul VI began.17

In 1960, Archbishop Geoffrey Fisher, of Canterbury, visited the Vatican under the ecumenical leadership of Pope John XXIII. The Pope founded the “Secretariat for the Promotion of Christian Unity” as a meaningful means of ecumenism. Thereafter, the Bishop of Ripon, John Moorman, led a delegation of Anglican observers to the Second Vatican Council. In 1966, Archbishop of Canterbury Michael Ramsey made an official visit to Pope Paul VI. In 1967 the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission (ARCIC) was established. The Commission concentrated on the authority of the Bible, and yielded nine statements of agreement. In 1981, phase one of the ARCIC work ended with the publication of a final report entitled, “Elucidations on Authority in the Church.” Phase II of the ARCIC has been ongoing since 1983. In 2004, statements of agreement on Marian theology were published by the ARCIC. The Anglican Church was referred to as “our beloved sister Church” by Pope Paul VI. A different light on the Anglican Church was noted by Cardinal Ratzinger in A.D.2000, when he stated he did not agree with the use of the term “sister Church” with any but the Orthodox Churches. 18

In the 1980s a dialogue was established between the Lutheran and the Roman Catholic Church. The leaders have had 11 rounds of discussions. One major publication, a joint doctrine of justification was published in 1999, entitled, the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification. Current discussions are focusing on the doctrines associated with eternal life.19

Relationships with the World Council of Churches

The Catholic Church is not a member of the World Council of Churches (WCC), although Catholic theologians are members of the Commission of the WCC. As a participant, the Catholic Church faith was heard in the 1982 WWC publication of one of the most important ecumenical papers, Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry.20  The document found common grounds on critical Christian  traditions, i.e., the rite of initiation, or Baptism; the sacrament of the Eucharist; and the nature of Holy Orders. Naturally, differences occurred within the WCC’s participants and all the Churches were asked to express their reaction to the ecumenical document of Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry. Each Church was also asked to indicate the implications of the document on their faith in order to have the issues discussed at future WCC conferences on Faith and Order.  

Outcomes, Concerns and the Current State of the Ecumenical Movement

A total of eight major documents on the ecumenical movement in the Catholic Church have been written and promulgated. See Table 1.

TABLE 1: Ecumenical Documents of the Catholic Church

Pre-Second Vatican Council Post-Second Vatican Council
Quanta Cura and Syllabus Errorum1864 by Pope Pius IX Unitatis Redintegratio1964 by Second Vatican Council/Pope Paul VI
Testem Benevolentiae Nostrae1899 by Pope Leo XIII Ut Unum Sint1987 by Pope John Paul II
Mortalium Animos1928 by Pope Pius XI The Balamand Declaration1993 by Pope John Paul II
Humani Generis1950 by Pope Pius XII Dominus Iesus2000 by Pope John Paul II

Quanta Cura and Syllabus Errorum was issued by Pope Pius IX in 1864 to combine earlier papal documents. The document condemned latitudinarism, which held that matters of doctrine, liturgical practices and ecclesiastical organizations were of little importance. Testem Benevolentiae Nostrae was an encyclical by Pope Leo XIII in 1899 that stated that American Catholics were to avoid full assimilation or ecumenical overtures towards Protestants. The encyclical Mortalium Animos by Pope Pius XI in 1928 denounced the dream of a “federation of Christians in which each member retains his own opinions…in matters of Faith,” and stated that the only ecumenism allowed was that which had the goal of converting the world to Catholicism.21

In 1950 Humani Generis by Pope Pius XII spoke of the Church’s Magisterium as the only valid teaching authority. The encyclical provided hope for the Christian faithful in permitting them to engage in empirical research but retain all authority on matters of morality and religion. Unitatis Redintegratio was a decree dealing with ecumenism handed down in 1964 by the Second Vatican Council under Pope Paul VI. The decree was the first conciliar document ever to deal with Catholic ecumenical efforts towards wards both Orthodox and Protestant believers. Ut Unum Sint (that they may be one) was an encyclical by Pope John Paul II in 1987 that provided a commitment by the Catholic Church to ecumenism where Christ calls all disciples to unity in light of the approaching turn of the century. 22

The Balamand Declaration was ratified in 1993 by the Joint International Commission for  Theological Dialogue between the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church. Under Pope John Paul II, the document was the official teaching of the Church and  had the goal of creating a dialogue towards the re-establishment of full communion between the Catholic and Orthodox Churches. Dominus Iesus was published by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith under Pope John Paul II in A.D. 2000. Dominus Iesus was on the unicity and salvific universality of Jesus Christ and the Church.  The document affirmed that  Christian mystery  overcomes all barriers of time and space, and accomplishes the unity of the human family.

The ecumenical movement in the Catholic Church has increased her faithfulness to Christ’s call for unity between His people. The movement has resulted in changed hearts and a new openness towards pure love and selflessness that arises with a change of heart. According to the 1964 document, Unitatis Redintegratio (UR), “We should therefore pray to the Holy Spirit for the grace to be genuinely self-denying, humble, gentle in the service of others, and to have an attitude of brotherly generosity towards them…”23 The Gospel of St John speaks about the sins of our separation, “If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.”20 We must humbly pray for forgiveness from God for our separated brothers, just as Christ forgives our trespasses against others.23   Ut Unum Sint (UUS) points out that misgivings from the past have left a long-standing burden on Christian unity. The ecumenical movement must be grounded in prayer and the conversions of hearts that will foster mutual forgiveness and reconciliation from past pains and regrets.24

In ecumenical conferences, Catholic theologians have stood by the teaching of the Church while knowing there are still divine mysteries that separate brothers in Christ. Any fruitful discussions required love of truth, charity and humility. The Catholic faith has a hierarchy of truths that often differ from Protestants. This difference produces fraternal rivalry while presenting a clearer understanding of the vast riches of Christ.23  UUS maintains that the unity of Christians will be obtained only if the total content of the faith is revealed. Compromises in faith are contradictions to a God who is Truth, so that no legitimate reconciliation in the body of Christ can occur at the expense of truth. Doctrine needs to be presented in a manner that is understandable to others and as God intended.24 The Catholic Church hopes in UR that the obstacles to perfect ecclesiastical communion be overcome, so that all Christians can celebrate a common Eucharist. The Catholic position is that this unity subsists in her, she will never lose it and hopes it will increase until the return of our Lord.23


The current level of commitment to ecumenism at local levels and throughout the Catholic Church has grown in intensity and extension. The Catholic Church is a full member of three regional Councils of Churches and a member of 14 national Christian Councils. In a global perspective, most Christians and Churches feel a need to overcome the state of division between them. The Post-Second Vatican Council world has changed much with a new realism on the restoration of unity of the faithful based on supported doctrinal truths and serious dialogue between divided Christians. Christian spirituality based on hope and courage has allowed ecumenism to flourish. Pope Francis I has clearly demonstrated his commitment to ecumenism. In his first ecumenical meeting in March 2013, the new pope greeted representatives from Christian Churches and other religions, including Jewish and Muslim leaders. Pope Francis stated that he intends to follow “on the path of ecumenical dialogue” set for the Catholic Church by the Second Vatican Council (A.D.1962-65).25


  1. Guidelines for the Reception of Communion. United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 1996.
  2. Holy Bible, The New Revised Standard Version, Catholic Edition. (Nashville, TN:  Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1993).
  3. United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. United States Catholic Catechism for Adults. Washington, D.C.: USCC Publishing Services, 2006.
  4. Orlando O., Nickoloff J. An Introductory Dictionary of Theology and Religious Studies, p.439. Liturgical Press, 2007.
  5. Union of Christendom. Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. 1913.
  6. The  Holy See- Vatican,                  (, 1964, accessed March 12, 2013.
  7. Ocariz F. Christ’s Church Subsists in the Catholic Church, (, 2005, accessed March 20, 2013.
  8. Code of Canon Law. (, 2007. accessed March 21, 2013.
  9. The Holy See-Vatican. The Profession of Faith. ( )2006, accessed March 21, 2013.
  10. Fairchild M. Eastern Orthodox Church Denomination.                                                  (,2013, accessed 21 March 2013.
  11. Green. B. Nestorius and Cyril:  5th Century Christological Division and Recent Progress in Reconciliation. Villanova University,                                                         ( 2002, accessed 22 March 2013.
  12. Longenecker, D. Catholics and Anglicans. n.d. accessed 22 March 2013.
  13. Greene J. Between Damnation and Starvation: Priest and Merchants in Newfoundland Politics, 1745-1855, McGill Queens University Press. 1745-1855. 1999.
  14. O’Riordan, Michael. “Apostolicae Curae.” The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 1. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1907. 11 Apr. 2013., accessed 23 March 2013.
  15. Answer of the Archbishops of England to the Apostolic Letter of Pope Leo XIII (Saepius Officio). Longmans, Green, and Co. New York: 1897.
  16. Pope Leo XIII, Bull Apostolicae Curae, On the Nullity of Anglican Orders, 15 September 1896.
  17. Halifax, L. The Conversation of Malines: 1921-1925. Allan Press: London: 1930.
  18. Ratzinger, J. Theological Highlights of Vatican II. New York: Thomas P. Rausch, SJ, 2009.
  19. Lutheran World Federation and the Catholic Church. Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification, accessed March 23, 2013,                                                                               
  20. World Council of Churches. Baptism, Eucharist, and Ministry. Faith and order paper no. 111, Geneva: World Council of Churches, 1982.
  21. The  Holy See- Vatican, Ut Unum Sint, accessed March 24, 2013,
  22. The Holy See- Vatican, Humani Generis, accessed March 24, 2013, 
  23. The Holy See- Vatican, Unitatis Redintegratio, accessed March 24, 2013,
  24. The Holy See- Vatican, Ut Unum Sint, accessed March 24, 2013,
  25. Kenny. P, Pope Forges Closer Ties with Orthodox after Meeting Patriarch. Ecumenical News, March 20, 2013, accessed March 24, 2013,

The post The Ecumenical Movement In The Catholic Church: A Historical Review And Analysis appeared first on Catholic Journal.


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