The second of the topics I mentioned as causing consternation among a minority of bishops at the Second Vatican Council was ecumenism. We have some clergy today who not so secretly would have been pleased had this topic not been placed on the agenda at all. But it was one of the topics explicitly spoken of by Pope (St) John XXIII as a prime reason for calling the Council in the first place.
What was the problem? The idea of dialoging with other Christian denominations (whom the minority of bishops still referred to as “heretics and schismatics”) was, to them, a backpedaling of the papal encyclical Mortalium Animos, written by Pope Pius XI, which pretty well condemned all such dialogue (unless conducted by bishops with the explicit permission of the pope). Pius XI was reacting to a number of contexts—unofficial contacts were going on in Europe under the title “Malines Conversations,” and the formation of what would become the World Council of Churches was underway. The popes for about 100 years were terrified that any accommodation of Protestants would imply a relativism that one church was as good as another. This was the “Liberal” view that Cardinal Newman so strongly opposed (more about him in a later essay). The papal view then (and the minority view during the Council) was pretty well expressed by England’s Cardinal Vaughn in the 1890s (in the context of a dispute about Anglican Orders): there are 2 options— 1) compromise—never! We have the truth. 2) submission.
Pope John had made a passionate plea at the beginning of the Council: he begged that we stop the historical inquisitions of who said/did what, and simply move forward toward the unity desired by Jesus Christ. His dying words were Ut Unum Sint (Jesus’ prayer for unity in John 17; also the title of an encyclical by Pope (St) John Paul II in 1995). The bishops could not ignore this, but the minority were afraid that this kind of move was change, and this was not permitted (from their point of view) because it would imply that the Church, and more importantly, the popes, had been if not been wrong, at least seriously deficient in their teaching. It is significant that one of the leaders of the minority party, Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani, had as his episcopal motto Semper Idem (“Always the Same”). For them, change in teaching or attitude or behavior must mean the previous teaching/attitude/behavior was wrong, and this was something they would not accept. For them, the Catholic Church was a perfect society that could not err, and so could never change. And they were its guardians against “liberal” attacks.
As early as Pope Leo XIII at the end of the 19th century, the phrase “separated brethren” was used—certainly much more charitable than “heretics and schismatics.” Separated, yes; but also brothers and sisters. This was more clearly seen when the Council declared that the fundamental relationship of believers in Christ was not our sharing of the Eucharist but our sharing of common (and commonly recognized) Baptism. This being the case, the document on ecumenism (Unitatis Redintegratio) stressed that all baptized in water in the name of the Holy Trinity are in a “real, even if imperfect, communion.” In any event, as the Council noted, it is impossible to impute the sin of separation to people of our own times who have never separated but who have been born into a different denomination and are striving to live lives faithful to Christ. This principle was also deeply opposed, and not only with regard to non-Catholics. But more on that in another essay.