Vatican II on Ecumenism and the Eastern Orthodox Church

Article excerpt

Since its beginning the Christian church has had a propensity toward unity--one Christ, one church, one salvation. That is, the struggle for unity was a very strong motivation for Christian communities that forced the development of doctrines and the resolution of heresies. However, diversity of opinions, differences in cultural and political life, and personal ambitions often threatened this unity. The Christian Church historically and presently comprises a very divergent and sometimes heterogeneous group of believers. The level of diversity varies through the centuries. We still have Monophysite churches in Egypt, Ethiopia, and Armenia; the great division of 1054 between East and West is not fully resolved, and there are a multitude of Protestant denominations and sects.

The purpose of this essay is to present a concise analysis of the Roman Catholic approach to ecumenism as it is presented in the documents of Vatican II and in the post-conciliar documents related to this subject. A brief assessment of the theological and practical issues related to ecumenical dialogue between Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches from the convocation of the Council to the present is also included in this research.

In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, we see no official church-to-church attempts to search for unity. Instead, ecumenical witness was initiated by some individuals such as John Amos Comenius, who developed a plan for union among Protestants that was based upon scripture as a ground for all doctrine and state structure as well as the integration of all human culture. Others--such as John Dury and Richard Baxter in England, George Calixtus in Germany, and Nicholas von Zinzendorf in Moravia--also attempted to unify some Protestant denominations. Gottfried Leibniz made a great effort to reconcile Protestants and Roman Catholics. Even in Russia in the nineteenth century, Metropolitan Philaret of Moscow and Russian Orthodox theologian Aleksey Khomyakov expressed enthusiasm for Christian unity. However, all these attempts accomplished nothing of significance.

Historical Excursus

The movement toward greater unity among Christian churches received its primary impetus in the nineteenth century from the missionary movement, which was predominantly initiated by and affiliated with Protestant denominations. A world conference on Christian missions held in Edinburgh in 1910 inspired ecumenical concern and resulted in the creation of ecumenical organizations that combined in 1948 to form the World Council of Churches. Some Orthodox theologians and high clergy were more or less actively participating in the ecumenical movement prior to Vatican II, which served to launch active Catholic involvement in the work of this movement. Joachim III of Constantinople, in his "Patriarchal and Synodical Encyclical of 1902," addressed the issue of unity in the church and that of Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant relations. Joachim referred to this issue in his other documents as well. (1) Even more, the idea to establish a "koinonia of churches" belongs to the Ecumenical Patriarchate, as was stated in its 1920 encyclical. (2) However, only three Eastern churches and one Orthodox episcopate participated at the inaugural Assembly at Amsterdam in I 943. (3) The rest of the Orthodox churches, with the exception of the Russian Orthodox Church, were actively involved in the work of both the Faith and Order and the Life and Work movements during the 1920's and 1930's. In the period between 1961 and 1965 all autocephalous and autonomous Eastern Orthodox churches became members of the W.C.C. (4)

The Catholic Church remained aloof from these developments. There were Roman Catholic centers in Europe that observed the ecumenical movement, but Rome did not participate in the movement. Every year, from January 18-25, however, the Catholic Church prayed for Christian unity. The general idea of those days, until 1959, was particularly centered on the return and union of other Christians with the Roman Church. …