Yves Congar, Vatican II, ecumenism: finding the right balance

Yves Congar, Vatican II, ecumenism: finding the right balance

Andrew Kania

The noted ecumenist, Cardinal Yves Congar, once pointed out that the desire to seek unity with all Christians does not lessen a Catholic's responsibility to preserve the truth of the Catholic Church. Congar wrote: 'One cannot conclude from this that these religions are divinely legitimated in themselves and as such. Their value derives from the persons who live them'.

In essence what Congar was saying is that a non-Catholic Christian may quite possibly be a better follower of Christ than a Catholic - but this does not justify acceptance of all the tenets of that particular non-Catholic's denomination, nor the continued fragmentation of the world's Christians.

Congar's interest in ecumenism stemmed from personal experiences as a child and adult. In his youth he attended a local church shared between Catholics and Protestants on alternate weeks; and during World War II, while a prisoner of war, he rubbed shoulders with believers and non-believers alike.


In his 1961 book, The Wide World My Parish, Congar commented that one does not need to be a Catholic in order to achieve sanctity: 'While the Church is the sacrament of the reality, the presence, the clear promise of salvation, others can find in life an intimation of grace, an incipient salvation.

'Those people who walk in the way of salvation through an encounter with God of which the [Catholic] Church was not corporeally the minister, those who are at any rate 'related to the mystical Body', such are not strangers to her ...

'The Spirit of grace and salvation is not confined within one religious history nor is it a sullen recluse in periods of time before or after Bethlehem. The Holy Spirit, 'dominating time as well as space', can be present to many people in many ways'.

Similarly a document released by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in July 2007, titled Questions regarding Certain Aspects of the Doctrine on the Church, echoed Congar's sentiments when it stated, 'It is possible, according to Catholic doctrine, to affirm correctly that the Church of Christ is present and operative in the churches and ecclesial communities not yet fully in communion with the Catholic Church, on account of the elements of sanctification and truth that are present in them.

'Nevertheless, the word 'subsists' can only be attributed to the Catholic Church alone precisely because it refers to the mark of unity that we profess in the symbols of the faith (I believe ... in the 'one' Church); and this 'one' Church subsists in the Catholic Church ...

'It follows that these separated churches and communities, though we believe they suffer from defects, are deprived neither of significance nor importance in the mystery of salvation. In fact the Spirit of Christ has not refrained from using them as instruments of salvation, whose value derives from that fullness of grace and of truth which has been entrusted to the Catholic Church'.

However, such a mystical Church unity engendered by the power of the Holy Spirit, as Congar and the Congregation allude to, must be married to an earthly unity. Christ taught this when he spoke to his disciples: 'May they all be one, just as, Father, you are in me and I am in you, so that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe it was you who sent me' (John 17:21).

In Congar's summation, we must be careful not to dupe ourselves and one another in avoiding the issues that divide in order to achieve conviviality: 'What is today called 'ecumenism' is the introduction of a certain unitedness into an already existing diversity - oneness in multiplicity as [Swedish Lutheran] Archbishop Söderblom called it: it is but a mirage of Catholicity for those who cannot recognise among 'the churches' the Church of Jesus Christ, visibly one with that visible unity which Christ willed and prepared for her' (Congar, Divided Christendom, p. 101).

For a Catholic to consider that ecumenism is about forgetting the truth of Church teaching, in order to be on good terms with all people, is in fact a rejection of the letter and spirit of Vatican II, a Council so often misquoted and misinterpreted.

If we close our eyes to the truth of the Catholic Church in a 'spirit of ecumenism' we are in fact delaying any path to Christian unity by not addressing the hard and very real issues that divide the various Christian denominations from the Catholic Church. We become useless to our Protestant brothers and sisters who cannot see on what ground we actually stand so as to open up a worthwhile ecumenical dialogue.

Be Catholic

For this reason the outstanding Methodist theologian, Stanley Hauerwas, wrote in the American Methodist Theologian (1990, p. 25), 'I want you to be Catholics. I also believe that there is nothing more important for the future of the unity of the Church than for you to be Catholic ... You have been so anxious to be like us that you have failed in your ecumenical task to help us to see what it means for any of us to be faithful to the Gospel on which our unity depends'.

Hauerwas' words reinforce those spoken during the Second Vatican Council, when Pope Paul VI, in Ecclesiam Suam (par 88), declared: 'The desire to come together as brothers must not lead to a watering down or whittling away of truth. Our dialogue must not weaken our attachment to our faith. Our apostolate must not make vague compromises concerning the principles which regulate and govern the profession of the Christian faith both in theory and in practice'.

Andrew Kania, who is from Perth, WA, is at present studying at Oxford University.

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