Pope John XXIII leads the opening session of the Second Vatican Council in Saint Peter's Basilica Oct. 11, 1962. (CNS photo/L'Osservatore Romano)
Letters to the Editor

Christian unity: The past encounters the future

Originally Appeared in : 9722-10/26/17

Something virtually unthinkable happened during the Second Vatican Council in the early 1960s. Numerous Christians who were not Roman Catholics were invited to serve as formal observers of the council proceedings in Rome.


These observers’ surprising presence at the council confirmed that a centuries-long polemical era of disputes and contention, a time when divided Christians basically turned their backs to each other, was undergoing a profound transformation.


The council offered the world’s Catholic bishops and its official observers many opportunities to turn toward each other in conversation and friendship. The observers included Lutherans, Methodists, Presbyterians, Anglicans, representatives of the world’s Orthodox churches and others.


Simply put, the council enabled the bishops and the observers to get to know each other and sometimes, no doubt, really to understand each other’s faith convictions for the first time. Did more unite divided Christians than separated them? The realization that this was the case would take deeper and deeper root in the decades to follow.


No longer, for example, would conflicts of Reformation and Counter-Reformation times be allowed easily to devour the relationships of divided Christians.
One U.S. council observer was the Rev. Albert Outler, a United Methodist theologian. In a 1986 speech he told how Vatican II opened “a new era of cordial coexistence between Roman Catholics and other Christians,” and “moved us beyond grudging ‘tolerance’ toward truly mutual love.”


George Lindbeck, then a theologian at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, was a Lutheran observer. Seven years after the council, he spoke of the “remarkable amount” of agreement being witnessed on official levels in the churches regarding the values a Christian way of life implies.


One October evening in 1963, Blessed Paul VI met in his private library with the Vatican II observers. “What could be simpler, more natural or more human,” this pope asked, than “to speak to one another and to get to know one another.”


But “there is more,” he remarked. The council provided opportunities “to listen to each other, to pray for each other and, after such long years of separation and after such painful polemics, to begin again to love each other.”


He shared his assurance that “we are turning toward a new thing to be born, a dream to be realized.”


It was time, Blessed Paul proposed, for divided Christians “not to look to the past but toward the present, and above all toward the future.” Remaining fixed on the past meant running the risk of “getting lost in the maze of history and undoubtedly reopening old wounds which have never completely healed.”


The pope did not spell out which “old wounds” he meant. But among them, surely, were points vigorously disputed in the 16th century when dividing lines between denominations of Western Christians were drawn and so much that they shared in terms of faith began to recede from view.


One line of division involved the doctrine of justification. “Opposing interpretations and applications of the biblical message of justification were in the 16th century a principal cause of the division of the Western church,” says the “Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification” signed in 1999 by the Lutheran World Federation and the Catholic Church.


At issue was Luther’s insistence, central to his theology, that Christians do not earn salvation through good works but are saved through faith.


If the presence at Vatican Council II of official observers who were not Catholics had been nearly unimaginable, given the realities of past times, the degree of agreement on the doctrine of justification reached on the eve of the 21st century by Lutherans and Catholics was earthshaking!


Yet, Lutherans and Catholics confessed together in the 1999 declaration that “by grace alone, in faith in Christ’s saving work and not because of any merit on our part, we are accepted by God and receive the Holy Spirit, who renews our hearts while equipping and calling us to good works.”


Much later, in a 2016 statement, Pope Francis and Bishop Munib Younan, president of the Lutheran World Federation, agreed that divided Christians seeking greater unity must not get detoured by past conflicts. Instead they should look to the present moment and to the future. Their statement anticipated the 500th anniversary of the Reformation being observed in 2017. 


“We emphatically reject all hatred and violence, past and present,” the two leaders stressed. They prayed for the healing of “memories that cloud our view of one another.”


They recommended that at this time Catholics and Lutherans should work together for “dignity, justice, peace and reconciliation” in the world, welcoming the stranger, coming to the aid of those forced to flee their homelands and defending refugees’ rights.


Scholars still will study the important points of faith that erected walls between Christians in the 16th century and afterward. But, as Pope Francis and Bishop Younan said, “what unites us is greater than what divides us.”


Instead of “conflicts of the past,” their advice now is to allow “God’s gift of unity among us” to “guide cooperation and deepen our solidarity.”


Gibson served on Catholic News Service’s editorial staff for 37 years.

Letters published do not necessarily reflect the views of the Southern Cross or of the Diocese of Savannah.

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