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What Is "Ecumenism"?

by Matt Abbott

Ecumenism is a vital mission of the Church that needs to be understood more fully and correctly, especially as we enter this ostensibly pivotal third millennium. Does ecumenism require Catholics to compromise their faith?

The answer lies in whether we are talking about authentic ecumenism or false ecumenism.

Contrary to what some “traditionalist” Catholics say, there is such a thing as authentic ecumenism — and it is essential for Christian unity. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church states: “Christ bestowed unity on His Church from the beginning. This unity, we believe, subsists in the Catholic Church as something she can never lose, and we hope that it will continue to increase until the end of time. Christ always gives His Church the gift of unity, but the Church must always pray and work to maintain, reinforce, and perfect the unity that Christ will for her…. The desire to recover the unity of all Christians is a gift of Christ and a call of the Holy Spirit” (n. 820).

In Crossing the Threshold of Hope, Pope John Paul II also speaks of the urgent need for Christian unity: “By the year 2000 we need to be more united, more willing to advance along the path toward the unity for which Christ prayed on the eve of His Passion. This unity is enormously precious. In a certain sense, the future of the world is at stake. The future of the Kingdom of God in the world is at stake.”

So why is ecumenism so controversial? One central issue is the oft-misinterpreted and misrepresented teaching extra ecclesiam nulla salus (“outside the Church there is no salvation”).

The Catechism quotes Vatican II’s Lumen Gentium on this subject: “Basing itself on Scripture and Tradition, the council teaches that the Church, a pilgrim now on earth, is necessary for salvation…. Hence they could not be saved who, knowing that the Catholic Church was founded as necessary by God through Christ, would refuse either to enter it or remain in it. This affirmation is not aimed at those who, through no fault of their own, do not know Christ and His Church” (nn. 846-847).

The Catechism goes on to quote Vatican II’s teaching on what is known as Baptism of desire: “Those who, through no fault of their own, do not know the Gospel of Christ or His Church, but who nevertheless seek God with a sincere heart, and, moved by grace, try in their actions to do His will as they know it through the dictates of their conscience — those too may achieve eternal salvation” (n. 847).

And in its section on Baptism, the Catechism teaches what is known as Baptism of blood: “The Church has always held the firm conviction that those who suffer death for the sake of the faith without having received Baptism are baptized by their death for and with Christ. This Baptism of blood, like the desire for Baptism, brings about the fruits of Baptism without being a sacrament” (n. 1258).

In summary, we know that everyone’s salvation — Catholic and non-Catholic — is through the Catholic Church, either as faithful members of the Church (Baptism of water), or as persons who give their life for Christ (Baptism of blood), or who would belong to the Catholic Church if they knew it was the one, true Church founded by Jesus Christ (Baptism of desire).

There are, however, a considerable number of “traditional” Catholics, (known as “Feeneyites” in that they are followers of the late Fr. Leonard J. Feeney and his rigorist and thereby erroneous interpretation of extra ecclesiam nulla salus) who deny Baptisms of blood and desire. They often cite various quotations (mostly out of context) from early Popes, saints, and councils to “confirm” their erroneous position that Baptism of blood and Baptism of desire are false teachings.

Yet a historical examination demonstrates that Baptism of blood and/or desire was taught by such early Church fathers as Iranaeus, Tertullian, Cyprian, Cyril of Jerusalem, John Chrysostom, and Augustine, and also by the Council of Trent. And the teaching of Baptism of desire was reaffirmed by Pope Pius XII in his 1943 encyclical Mystici Corporis and by the Vatican’s Holy Office in 1949. Hardly could it be said that this teaching was “invented” by the Second Vatican Council!

It is also asserted by many “traditional” Catholics that ecumenism itself was an invention of Vatican II. This likewise is not the case.

Consider Pope Leo XIII, who tried to encourage an attitude of respect and friendship with the Eastern Churches and with our Protestant brothers and sisters. He never referred to them as heretics, but rather as “separated Christians.”

And consider Pope Pius XII, whose ecumenical outlook in regard to Protestants is most striking. In his 1939 encyclical, Summa Pontificatus, he says that “we cannot pass over in silence the profound impression of heartfelt gratitude made on us by the ...

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1 - 9 of 9 Comments

  1. Antonio Freitas
    1 year ago

    As an apologist for the Catholic faith, and dealing with many other Christian believers, and knowing much of the ancient beliefs of the church, it is really sad to read so many comments that are totally out of context; reminds me of the very same behavior of non-Catholic people I deal with have.

    The fact is that, when the apostles went into the world they didn't necessarily speak Latin, but Aramaic, Hebrew, and Greek. Hence, the earliest Masses were celebrated in all these languages, including Latin. As Latin was the international language of the time, so too, it became the official language of the Church. Even Jesus didn't celebrate the first Mass in Latin. Hence, if we are to have such a stringent attitude towards this, once the Mass was not celebrated in Aramaic it was null and void. This would mean centuries of NOTHING else but bogus Masses.

    Here are the facts. The Holy Spirit guiding this last Council, just as He has always done throughout the centuries, guided Peter and the Apostles (pope and bishops) just as He did to Peter many times in Acts. NEVER has the Church taught new things that were not there in its bosom. EVERY COUNCIL that has ever been held where the Pope is united with the Bishops is guided by the Holy Spirit and binding to every Catholic, I believe this 500%.

    Just as in Acts of the Apostles, God wants to reach everyone and has given us very clear directives through this council how to go about it. Those who do not try to understand the teaching and stand against the Church are really fighting God's wishes. These positions are many times born out of pride, even though not readily visible; the same sin that drove Lucifer to become Satan.

    Being an apologist and defender of the Catholic faith, I always have to use the Bible to prove these kind of points to non-Catholics, and it is so sad that those who should have the light (cradle Catholics) at times are just as blind as those outside the visual union of the One Church of Jesus. This behavior scares me for their own good.

  2. Gregory U.J.P. Nzeneri
    1 year ago

    My Populous Country Nigeria is full of many Protestant Churches, and as a Convinced Catholic, I really wish to Champion the Work of Ecumenism here, in a large scale through a trusted Organisation without Compromise of the Authentic Faith. I need the Aid of such Articles or Write-ups as this one, and other forms of Sponsorship. Keep it up, and more grease to your elbows. Thanks, and may God Bless you !

  3. Angel
    3 years ago

    Emily Sanchez:
    Latin mass was a change in tradition, for the early church fathers did not conduct mass in Latin. So for "traditional catholics" to say that mass should still be in Latin, I find it as a barrier to truly know Christ. At least now I have the chance to understand what the priest is saying. Language should not be part of dogma; it defeats the purpose of trying to evangelize the world. Besides, historically, it doesn't stand.

  4. Alan
    6 years ago

    1) Traditionalists don't deny that there is an authentic "ecumenism". That is, the "ecumenism of the return", as was taught prior to Vatican II, that all non-Catholics must convert to the Catholic Church to be saved.

    2)No traditionalist says false ecumenism was invented at Vatican II, otherwise how was in condemned as a denial of the Catholic Faith in 1928 by Pope Pius XI in his encyclical Mortalium Animos. Pope John Paul II's ecumenical meating such as Assisi 1986 were condemned by Pius XI.

    6 years ago

    Its interesting to see Ecumenism as a "means of joining hands with other Christians and people of goodwill to bring our nihilistic, hedonistic, anti-life, anti-family culture back to God, while at the same time acknowledging our obvious differences", but what if our differences promote the very 'culture' we want brought 'back to Go'?

  6. Samm Halliday
    6 years ago

    i hate religion

  7. Tom McGovern
    6 years ago

    Does this "baptism of desire" extend to all religious people? What about the 19 Islamic "martyrs" that went to their death crashing the planes they hi-jacked into the Twin Towers killing over 3000 people? What about the suicide bombers in Irag who believe they will go straight to heaven after they kill as many innocent people as they can. What about the Aztec indians who sacrificed many thousands of human beings to the god the "plummed serpent? What about all the denominations that believe that abortion, the homosexual lifestyle, contraception and divorce is ok?

    Of course, there are many other examples of people living in "ignoance". Will they all go to Heaven?

    Is the Catholic Church the deposit of all of the revealed truth from God necessary for salvation? If so, we should not be having a "dialog" we should be trying to convert others. Jesus never told us to go out and "dialog" with other religions. He told us, "Going therefore, teach ye all nations; baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost." Matt 28:19

    If ignorance can save us then there was no need for Christ to come to Earth and suffer on the cross for us.

    I'm sorry, you are gravely mistaken. I will do as Saint Paul told us, "Therefore, brethern, stand fast; and hold to the Traditions which you have learned, whether by word, or by our epistle." 2Thess 2:14

    Your new fangled Catholicism holds no TRUTH.

  8. emilysanchez
    7 years ago

    i hope u r not misleading the true church, and the faithful who believe on the dogma of the catholic church. i still strongly believe on the Catholic tradition and it latin mass and not the novos ordo, which happened to be the fruit of ecumenism, which is absolutely protestant in nature.

  9. allan
    7 years ago

    the article is short yet a lucid and fair presentation of catholic teaching on ecumenism. keep up the good work!

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