A collection of personal reflections. Copyright © 2005-2011 K. Gurries

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Bishop Ketteler: An Early Perspective on Ecumenism

The following is an extract dealing with the theme of Christian unity or “Ecumenism” taken from the concluding chapter of "Freedom, Authority and the Church" (1862) by Bishop Wilhelm Emmanuel von Kettler.  The highly esteemed 19th century Bishop of Mainz makes four fundamental points: (1) The tragic division within Christendom impedes the work of the Church and enables great evil to advance in the world.  (2) All Christians of good will ought to join in a "common prayer" and "unanimous petition" for the reunion of the Christian confessions, according to some "universally accetable" plan.  (3) For our part, Catholics should work to remove any obstacle to such unity by giving examples of saintly living and also by avoiding scandals and needless controversies among ourselves.  (4) "Catholics may never conceal the truth that such a reunion can mean nothing else but a return to the Catholic Church."  (Text taken from "The Social Teachings of Willhelm Emmanuel von Ketteler", University Press of America, 1981, Translation by Rupert J. Ederer.  Emphasis and footnotes mine.)

That wisdom which exists at the throne of God, which dwells in Heaven at the very Godhead, that Holy Spirit from on high personally came down to man in the person of Christ our Lord.  He Himself became the teacher of those who dwell here on earth so that they could mend their ways, and He sent the Holy Spirit so that man would continue to learn what is pleasing to God.  Along with true wisdom, He also bestowed upon mankind the greatest benefits which could affect its sanctification, Divine Love and the highest possible unity.  His entire exalted task is summed up in the words which he spoke to His Father on the night before He died: “It is not for them that I pray; I pray for those who are to find faith in me through their word; that they may all be one; that they too may be one in us, as thou, Father, art in me, and I in Thee…(John 17: 20-21).  God in His mercy could confer no higher benefit on mankind.  Therein is contained everything.  God is the source of all truth, all love, and all happiness.  However, mankind is enabled to share in these great benefits to the fullest extent only because Christ united man with God Himself. 


This descent of Divine Wisdom and Love from Heaven has not enjoyed the triumphant success which it should have on earth among the human beings which they were to liberate and make happy.  All too often men have rejected them; they loved darkness more than they loved the Light (John 3:19).  They nailed Christ to the Cross, and the same spirit which inspired that foul deed has worked unceasingly ever since to attack and damage Christ’s Church.  It prevented the Church from sharing her boundless treasures of God’s love and wisdom with mankind.  It has sundered Christianity itself and severed members from the Body of Christ.


Hence, we see the tragic division of the Christian churches[1] in the East and in the West, which has so enormously impeded the Church in her appointed task down through the centuries.[2]  Hence we have the unfortunate split of the Church in the West, which has for 300 years likewise eaten away at our own innards and wrought great havoc.  Hence there are the countless divisions in Protestantism itself that were prevented from proliferating even further only when temporal authorities erected some kind of external obstructions.  Hence, there is, finally, the newest enemy which has come into the world with deism and which has infiltrated Christendom and destroyed it from within.  It began by rejecting supernatural revelation, i.e., by denying a relationship between God and man that goes beyond nature and unaided reason.  Thereby Christ with His divine mission here on earth was stripped of its meaning.  He was no longer the wisdom which dwells at the very throne of God and condescended to reach down to mankind.  From that denial of supernatural revelation, the same spirit of the times proceeded to the denial of any supernatural order and finally to a denial of the very notion of a supernatural God.  That is the spirit with which we now stand face to face.  Serious souls like the Protestant Guizot have gone so far as to divide mankind into two camps.  In the one are those who believe in a personal God, and in the other are those who deny God’s very existence. 


This unhappy situation causes all the more concern to Christians over the division within Christendom.  They are coming to recognize that the nameless horror whereby, 1800 years after Christ lived on this earth, fools are able to proclaim in the very midst of Christian society that there is no God, not only in their hearts but from the very roof tops and from academic chairs, was made possible only by the division within Christendom itself.  Even Catholics ought to share in this deep suffering with all of their hearts and souls.  What a pathetic contrast between what Christ wished when he prayed, “That they may all be one; that they too may be one in us, as thou, Father art in me, and I in Thee…,” and the condition in which Christianity now finds itself. 


It is our obligation, so far as any of us is able, to do everything in our power to bring about the reunion of Christians.[3]  A structure, no matter how great, is made of small stones, and no Catholic should shirk from his obligation to work for this reunion, no matter how little he feels he may be able to contribute.


The first duty is to pray for the reunion of the Christian confessions.  May God show us ways and means to spread this unanimous petition among all Christian souls who yearn for Christian reunion, according to some universally acceptable plan.[4]  It is a petition which carries with it the great promise of Christ who Himself guaranteed: “Believe me, you have only to make any request of the Father in my name, and he will grant it to you” (John 16:23).  What great potency that prayer will have, therefore, if all of us unite with Christ as our High Priest, and join Him in that prayer which was his final and ultimate petition here on earth, “Ut omnes unum sint – that they may all be one; that they too may be one in us, as thou, Father, art in me, and I in Thee…”  The whole idea has created much excitement in recent years.  Pray that it will receive an ever warmer, more universal, more heartfelt acceptance.  We appeal to all true Christian hearts who read these lines to become apostles and spread this word about the circles in which they move.[5]  An attempt has been made recently by certain leading individuals toward the reunion of the separated brethren by personal meeting and dialogue.[6]  As happy as we are about such efforts, we have to express misgivings as to whether it is in God’s plan to bless them with success.[7]  What would please us most of all would be if men of all Christian confessions could address themselves to the problem of establishing a society for common prayer[8] among all of those who still believe that Christ was the incarnate Son of God.[9]  We believe that God could not refuse to hear the common prayer, “Ut omnes unum sint – That all may be one.”


The second method of working for Christian reunion consists in our avoiding all controversies among ourselves and in trying to depict the great supernatural truths of Christianity by the way we live our lives.  Nothing so hinders the world – to the extent that good will is present – from recognizing the Divine truth in the Catholic Church as when the sins of her children prevent this truth from becoming a living presence in the world.  Practically all of the accusations that are made against the Church are based on misunderstanding; and the sources of such misunderstanding are, by and large, the imperfections and sins of the Church’s members.


It is not yet enough for us in our time to oppose the controversies and irregularities with untiring zeal.  We have to strive to lead lives that reflect the highest Christian virtue and to present an example of the supernatural life that has been at all times the full blossoming of Christianity, to a world which has gone so far as to deny the existence of the supernatural.  This has always been the great strength of Christianity, and therein lies its power to conquer the world.  It is a rejection of the whole wonderful history of the Church to suppose that it is enough to just promote a condition of natural justice and to lead commonplace lives, avoiding the worst excesses, and that by such behavior we can overcome the spirit that is now dominant in the world.  In every century, beginning with the age of bloody martyrdom and of the anchorites in the wilderness – whenever Christendom achieved notable triumphs – the performance of its saints was the deciding factor.  Holy bishops and priests, monks and lay people overcame the world, and they were the ones who spread Christ’s kingdom.  That is how it will always be.[10]  We have to break away from the comfortable pattern of routine living and abandon ourselves to the ennobling grace of truly holy living if we really hope to achieve what our hearts crave for, the spread of Christ’s kingdom and the reunion of the Christian churches.  The cultivation of such a holy life is, first of all, the responsibility of the religious orders, and that is the reason why we insist on the freedom to establish religious orders, because they ought to be seedbeds of sanctity.  After the religious orders, the priesthood must be an instrument whereby the supernatural light must shine forth so that it may achieve the mission which Christ gave it.  What a challenge faces us!  Would that we might measure up to it.  That will be accomplished best, it is my deep-seated conviction, if priests are again united in heart and mind.[11]  That has always been the life-style prompted by the Holy Spirit in the Church for fostering the more perfect, supernatural, priestly life.


Whatever great zeal we may have for effecting a reunion of all Christian churches, we Catholics may never conceal the truth that such reunion can mean nothing else but a return to the Catholic Church.[12]




[1] A certain unity between the Catholic Church and dissident churches may subsist, however, in an imperfect state: “Insofar as the dissident Churches carried away with them fragments of the true Church and still retain genuine Christian elements, something of her nature may still be found there, in a debased state; and therefore also something of her influence.  The notes may then in a manner be present, no doubt attenuated and altered, even in the dissident Churches. Far from demonstrating the ineffectiveness of these notes to indicate the true Church, this imperfect presence attests the existence of remnants of the true Church in the very core of the sects that have left her. They enable us to recognize, under the debris, something of the splendor of the original design.  Catholic apologists have often recognized the presence of signs of a Christian origin in the separated Churches. They have even proposed to call them "negative notes", that is to say notes accompanying the true Church but insufficient to reveal her. It is, I think, preferable to think of them as debased or mutilated notes. When compared with the notes in their state of perfection and integrity they witness at once to the presence of Christian elements in the dissident Churches and to the alteration they have undergone.  One may say, for example, that the Oriental Churches, where the power of order has been validly transmitted, possess a partial and mutilated apostolicity.” (Cf. Journet, The Church of the Word Incarnate, Sheed and Ward, 1955, pp. 531-532)

[2] This point largely anticipates the Vatican II Decree on Ecumenism (Cf. UR 1)

[3] Pope Benedict XVI gives an historical perspective on the movement for the reunion of Christians: “Men and women formed in the Word of God and in prayer have been artisans of reconciliation and unity in every historical period. It was the way of prayer that opened the path for the ecumenical movement as we know it today. Indeed, from the middle of the 18th century various movements of spiritual renewal came into being, eager to contribute through prayer to the promotion of Christian unity. Groups of Catholics, enlivened by outstanding religious figures, played an active role in such initiatives from the outset. Prayer for unity was also supported by my Venerable Predecessors, such as Pope Leo XIII, who in 1895 was already recommending the introduction of a Novena of Prayer for Christian unity. These endeavours, made in accordance with the possibilities of the Church of that time, intended to put into practice the prayer spoken by Jesus himself in the Upper Room "that they may all be one" (Jn 17: 21). There is thus no genuine ecumenism whose roots are not implanted in prayer.” (Pope Benedict XVI, Homily on the Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul, January 25, 2008)

[4] “When Father Paul Wattson conceived and implemented the octave of prayer - which is regarded as the beginning of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity as it is currently celebrated - he saw unity as the return of the different churches to the Roman Catholic Church. This influenced his choice of dates for the octave, from 18 January, which was at that time in the Roman Catholic calendar the ‘Feast of the Chair of Peter’, up to 25 January, the Feast of the Conversion of Paul. After the Society of the Atonement had been corporately received into the Roman Catholic Church in 1909, Pope St Pius X gave the octave for unity his official blessing.  In the mid-1930’s, Abbé Paul Couturier of Lyons, France, gave a new orientation to the church unity octave. By this time, the observance of the octave had started to spread throughout the Catholic Church and in a small number of Anglican communities sympathetic to reunion with the bishop of Rome; but this approach was rejected on theological grounds by many Christians outside the Roman Catholic Church. Abbé Paul maintained the dates of 18–25 January, but changed the terminology; the ‘Universal Week of Prayer for Christian Unity’ which he promoted was to pray for the unity of the church ‘as Christ wills it’.”  (Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, Resources for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, 2008)

[5] This appeal to work for Christian unity anticipates the instruction on Ecumenism during the reign of Pius XII:  “In order that so noble a work as the "union" of all Christians in one true faith and Church may daily grow into a more conspicuous part of the entire care of souls, and that the whole Catholic people may more earnestly implore this "union" from Almighty God, it will certainly be of assistance that in some appropriate way, for example through Pastoral Letters, the faithful be instructed regarding these questions and projects, the prescriptions of the Church in the matter, and the reasons on which they are based. All, especially priests and religious, should be exhorted and warmly encouraged to be zealous by their prayers and sacrifices to ripen and promote this work, and all should be reminded that nothing more effectively paves the way for the erring to find the truth and to embrace the Church than the faith of Catholics, when it is confirmed by the example of upright living.” (Cf. Instruction from the Holy Office on the Ecumenical Movement, 1949)

[6] Cf. UR 4, 9, 11

[7] There is nothing wrong with dialogue, in itself, for purposes of discovering truth or coming to a deeper understanding of others:  “All the aforesaid conferences and meetings, public and non-public, large and small, which are called for the purpose of affording an opportunity for the Catholic and the non-Catholic party for the sake of discussion to treat of matters of faith and morals, each presenting on even terms the doctrine of his own faith, are subject to the prescriptions of the Church which were recalled to mind in the <Monitum, "Cum compertum>," of this Congregation under date of 5 June, 1948.  Hence mixed congresses are not absolutely forbidden; but they are not to be held without the previous permission of the competent Ecclesiastical Authority. The <Monitum>, however, does not apply to catechetical instructions, even when given to many together, nor to conferences in which Catholic doctrine is explained to non-Catholics who are prospective converts: even though the opportunity is afforded for the non-Catholics to explain also the doctrine of their church so that they may understand clearly and thoroughly in what respect it agrees with the Catholic doctrine and in what it differs therefrom.”  (Cf. Instruction from the Holy Office on the Ecumenical Movement, 1949)  On the other hand, taken to an extreme, this can lead to an attitude that Christian unity can be achieved merely by our own human efforts: “The Council moreover professes its awareness that human powers and capacities cannot achieve this holy objective-the reconciling of all Christians in the unity of the one and only Church of Christ. It is because of this that the Council rests all its hope on the prayer of Christ for the Church, on our Father's love for us, and on the power of the Holy Spirit” (Cf. UR 24).

[8] In this sense, prayer in common includes the possibility of joint-prayer: “Although in all these meetings and conferences any communication whatsoever in worship must be avoided, yet the recitation in common of the Lord's Prayer or of some prayer approved by the Catholic Church, is not forbidden for opening or closing the said meetings.” (Cf. Instruction from the Holy Office on the Ecumenical Movement, 1949)

[9] Later such a “society of common prayer” would be formed according to a “universally acceptable plan” for the reunion of Christians:  “In the 1930s, the Octave of Prayer underwent important adaptations subsequent to the impulse given to it in particular by Fr Paul Couturier of Lyons, another great champion of spiritual ecumenism. His invitation "to pray for the unity of the Church as Christ wills it and in accordance with the means he wills" enables Christians of all traditions to join in one prayer for unity.”  (Pope Benedict XVI, Homily on the Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul, January 25, 2008)

[10] In this sense, we are not talking about a “fad” or something extrinsic to the Church and her divine mission. 

[11] Original note from Ketteler: “See: Lettre de Monseigneur l’Eveque d’Orleans au sujet de la vie et des opuscules d’Holzhauser par l’Abbe Gaduel. Orleans, 1861 pp. I-XXII.” 


The implication here is that the priestly power of order can survive even the ruptures of schism and heresy: “The hierarchy is indivisible. But it can, in certain regions, be broken by force so that fragments of it subsist in a mutilated state beyond the field of the Church. Thus, in lands overrun by schism or by heresy we may find not only the sacramental powers deriving from Baptism and Confirmation, but the hierarchical power of order.  The violent disjunction of the power of order from the power of jurisdiction—which latter disappears of itself whenever there is a rupture with the Sovereign Pontiff—its persistence in the uprooted state to which it is then reduced, its transmission, valid but not licit, beyond its proper and natural sphere, is always the sign of a terrible spiritual catastrophe, a partial victory of the spirit of evil over the Church of Christ, which henceforth will move through history as though divided in herself, and become a scandal to the Gentiles.  However, the Church is not in reality divided. She is indivisible like the hierarchy from which she is suspended. Peoples who have received her and belonged to her can fall away from her in consequence of schism and heresy; yet, despite failing her in this way, they can still carry away with them some of her treasures and certain relics of her royalty. What then remains of her among them may, at first glance, suggest a division; but to a wider knowledge and a deeper perception these scattered riches will themselves witness to her unicity. They are rays from one same original centre of life and activity.  Those who are responsible before God for a schism or a heresy may carry away with them the valid succession of the sacrament of Holy Order. They do so in the darkness of a personal sin by which they partially rend the Church; and insofar as their own hearts are closed to the good influence of the sacraments they are like sick men taking to others medicines which they do not know how to use for their own benefit. But their followers in later times, who inherit a patrimony of schism or heresy from their birth, are not culpable on that account. They can grow in spiritual stature by remaining in good faith. The sanctifying influence of the sacraments, no longer finding the same obstacles in the will, can result in graces of a high order.[1048] What they still lack in order to be fully and openly of the Church is the divinely assisted orientation of the jurisdictional power. But, from this standpoint, the uninterrupted transmission of the valid exercise of the power of order within the dissident Churches is a moving witness to the depth of the salvific will of God. By thus continuing to dispense the graces of contact by way of His sacrifice and His sacraments, and thereby closely conforming to Christ many whose spiritual situation is in itself very precarious, He reveals an astonishing design: that of beginning, in a way, to form the Church outside the Church, to collect His "other sheep" as in a flock, and to draw them to the one fold by a strangely powerful ontological desire, a "virtual act" not far removed from ‘act achieved’.” (Cf. Journet, The Church of the Word Incarnate, Sheed and Ward, 1955, pp. 504-505)

[12] Such an ecumenism of “return” essentially entails unity of Faith, Sacraments and Government in communion with the successor of Peter.  This “ultimate goal” of Ecumenism as the “restoration of full ecclesial communion” has been stressed recently by Pope Benedict XVI on the occasion of his visit to the United Kingdom: "...The other matter I touched upon in February with the Bishops of England and Wales, when I asked you to be generous in implementing the Apostolic Constitution Anglicanorum Coetibus. This should be seen as a prophetic gesture that can contribute positively to the developing relations between Anglicans and Catholics. It helps us to set our sights on the ultimate goal of all ecumenical activity: the restoration of full ecclesial communion in the context of which the mutual exchange of gifts from our respective spiritual patrimonies serves as an enrichment to us all. Let us continue to pray and work unceasingly in order to hasten the joyful day when that goal can be accomplished." (Pope Benedict XVI, Address to the Bishops of England and Wales, September 19, 2010)


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