Cardinal Léger: ‘Disunited Christians’ Part I

Today an important pastoral letter of Cardinal Paul-Émile Léger, Archbishop of Montréal, was published in Québec. Dated January 15, 1962, the letter outlines a bold new approach to relationships with non-Catholic Christians. En français.

Paul-Émile Léger
Cardinal Priest of the Holy Roman Church,
under the title of Saint Mary of the Angels in Thermis
By the divine mercy and authority of the Apostolic See
Archbishop of Montréal
To the diocesan and regular clergy,
the religious communities and to all the faithful of our Archdiocese,
health and benediction in the Lord
Pastoral Letter on the Responsibilities of Catholics with Regard to Christian Disunity

Dear Brethren:

The day before he died, after having instituted the Eucharist, sacrament of unity, Jesus Our Saviour offered up to his Father this prayer which was also the testament of the love which he had for his own: “That they all may be one, as thou. Father, in me, and I in thee; that they all may be one in us; that the world may believe that thou hast sent me”.1 This last will of the Master has always been considered an obligation for his Church. At the very’ beginning of the Christian era, the brethren of the first Christian community, Jerusalem, “had but one heart and one soul”.2 The apostle Paul urged the communities which he founded, to be “eager to preserve that unity the Spirit gives you, whose bond is peace” and to avoid all discord and coterie because “you are one body with a single spirit; each of you…called in the same hope; with the same Lord, the same faith, the same baptism, with the same God, the same Father of all of us, who is above all beings, pervades all things, and lives in all of us”.3

Unfortunately, from the very beginning, the sin of men introduced into the first communities ferments of disunity. The sad history of the separation of Christians is well known, especially the history of the schism between the East and the West in the eleventh century, and that which shattered the unity of Western Christianity in the sixteenth century as well as the innumerable divisions which followed in the various Protestant Churches.

The Church of Christ has never resigned itself to this state of things She, and all Christians who set their heart upon following the will of the Lord, have constantly sought to heal the wounds caused by disunion.

I believe it would not be an exaggeration to say that concern for unity has become the major quality of contemporary Christianity.

I believe it would not be an exaggeration to say that concern for unity has become the major quality of contemporary Christianity. All are aware of the extraordinary extension of the ecumenical movement. In this respect, and just recently, two events of great importance took place: the Pan-Orthodox Conference of Rhodes In September 1961, which gathered together the Bishops of all the Orthodox Churches of the Eastern Rites; and a short time later, in November of last year, the general meeting of the World Council of Churches at New Delhi which brought together delegates of the great majority of non-Catholic Churches and, for the first time, five official Catholic observers. You will recall that, on November I4th last, we had recommended to your prayers this general assembly of the World Council of Churches.

Cardinal Paul-Émile Léger, archbishop of Montréal

Cardinal Paul-Émile Léger, archbishop of Montréal

A third event—this one concerns us more directly—has been in preparation for several years: the Second Vatican Council. This Council has as its principal object the internal renewal of the Church and, consequently, it aims to facilitate the reconciliation and reunion of Christians. The Council, according to John XXIII “will surely be a wonderful manifestation of truth, unity and charity: a manifestation indeed which we hope will be received by those who arc separated from the Apostolic See as a gentle invitation to seek and find that unity for which Jesus Christ prayed so ardently to the Heavenly Father.4

Ii is with great pleasure that We behold in Our diocese, a strengthening of the ecumenical spirit. For the last several years, thanks to the apostolic zeal of the St. Paul Committee, the Church Unity Octave of prayer for unity has been more widely observed. There is more sympathy between the leaders of the various Christian religions, and it is with pleasure that we behold Catholic priests and Protestant clergymen gathering together more frequently for fraternal dialogue. The press and modern communications media, radio and television, have shown a great interest in the problems of Church unity and have given them wide diffusion.

Conscious of the importance of this movement, We feel it a duty of Our pastoral charge to give it the leadership which it needs. We invite you to reflect with US upon this mystery of Church unity and the division of Christians and We urge you to seek out with Us the ways which will help us all to continue, according to our abilities, in this great work of God.

Cathedral of Mary, Queen of the World, Montréal, Québec

I. The Unity and Disunity of Christians

When we consider the population of the world, we arc astonished to see, after nearly twenty centuries of Christianity, that barely one third of humanity is Christian. In a world population of about three billion, there are only about one billion who are Christians. At first sight, this latter group might seem large, but we find that, besides being limited nearly entirely to the Western world, it is divided in three: Catholics (about 510,000. – 000), Orthodox (about 200.000,000) and Protestants (about 240,000,000). There are further divisions among the Christians of this latter group such as: Anglicans, Lutherans, Calvinists, without mentioning the many other Protestant groups which are less numerous.

The external disunity of the Christian world is itself the manifestation of more profound differences of belief concerning the hierarchical government of the Church, divine worship and some essential points of doctrine. Though we believe firmly that the Roman Catholic Church is the only one which is “apostolic”, this is not the conviction of members of the Protestant or Orthodox faiths. Though the Orthodox share our belief in the episcopal structure of the Church of Christ, they refuse to grant to the Bishop of Rome the rights which are recognized as his in Catholic doctrine. As for the great majority of Protestants, they do not agree with us or with the Orthodox concerning the very structure of the Church of Christ. And yet all claim to be followers of Christ and are proud lo be called Christians.

By baptism validly received, men are inserted into Christ and become one body with him: “we too, all of us, have been baptized into a single body by the power of a single spirit.”

By baptism validly received, men are inserted into Christ and become one body with him: “we too, all of us, have been baptized into a single body by the power of a single spirit.” 5 Moreover, the Council of Florence echoed this doctrine of Saint Paul when it declared that baptism “is the gateway to the spiritual life; by it, in fact, we become members of Christ and belong to the Body of the Church.”6

Grafted onto Christ, become one body with him, Christians are members one of the other. But their unity must also be effected in the same belief, in the reception of the same sacraments and in the charity which unites all baptized Christians under the guidance of the same shepherds, united among themselves, and with the one who continues the mission of Peter who was the unifying element in the apostolic college.

And it is here that division occurs. If it is true thai every serious sin introduces between the sinner and the Body of Christ a ferment of disunity, there are some sins that go directly against unity: sins against the faith and against Church union. Thus, the one who voluntarily breaks away from the faith and from Church union places himself, with reference to Christ and his Church, In a slate of violent separation. Even the one who is separated from the true Church through no fault of his own, finds himself involuntarily deprived of full communion with Christ. Herein lies the paradox and the tragedy of the situation: a tear in the seamless robe of Christ!

On the one hand all Christians, by virtue of their baptism, are attached to Christ and his Church for the baptismal character is indelible; on the other hand, because of divergence of belief and the breaking off of communion within the Church, they are deprived of the plenitude of benefits which can be reaped only in complete unity. Deprived of unity, how can they avoid dispersion and error?

See Part II

© Archdiocese of Montréal. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

  1. John XVII, 21
  2. Acts IV, 32
  3. Ephesians IV, 3-6
  4. Encyclical Ad Petri Cathedram, June 29, 1959
  5. I Corinthians XII,13
  6. Council of Florence, Decree to the Armenians, Denziger 696.

2 thoughts on “Cardinal Léger: ‘Disunited Christians’ Part I

  1. Pingback: Cardinal Léger: ‘Chrétiens Désunis’ la partie I | Conciliaria

  2. Pingback: Cardinal Léger: ‘Disunited Christians’ Part II | Conciliaria

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