From the August 11, 1962 issue of America by Eugene C. Bianchi, S.J.: What are the problems that will be discussed at the coming Vatican Council?
Out on Rome’s Via Aurelia, in a modest study on the second floor of the Brazilian College, works a man who reflects a vitality, optimism and foresight that belie his 81 years. Augustin Cardinal Bea, as president of the Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity, is one of the truly outstanding personalities in pre-conciliar Rome. People marvel that this quiet biblical scholar, once confessor to Pope Pius XII, has become the dynamic and articulate champion of the cause of Christian unity.
As teacher and superior of the Pontifical Biblical Institute for more than a quarter-century, Father Bea, SJ., contributed much to the renewal of scriptural studies among Catholics. His many scholarly works and his inspiring direction have left their mark on a whole generation of Rome-trained exegetes. It seems eminently fitting that the Cardinal’s escutcheon should feature a dove hovering over a book. For the dove unintentionally symbolizes his very important contribution to Pius XII’s epoch-making encyclical. Divino Afflante Spiritu, the modern Magna Charta for Catholic biblical research.
But it is since 1960, when the scholarly Cardinal became head of the Unity Secretariat, that he has shot into the forefront of the world religious scene. The purpose that Pope John wished to engrave on the coming Council—that of a renewal of Catholic life in view of greater Christian unity—is perhaps best mirrored in the tireless activity of Cardinal Bea. His secretariat was established to keep non-Catholics abreast of Council preparations, to receive their suggestions, and to see to the delicate task of inviting non-Catholic observers to Vatican II. The secretariat also formulates proposals for the Council on such important topics as religious liberty, membership in the Mystical Body and the dialogue with the non-Catholic world.
Journalists calculate that Cardinal Bea has contributed more articles, interviews and conferences to the press than all the Curia Cardinals together for the last fifty years. His traveling schedule sets a pace that would make many a younger man quail. With unflagging determination he has carried his hopes for Christian unity back and forth across the face of Europe, addressing Christians of many confessions. This summer he will lecture at Heythrop College, England, and later he will speak at the Katholikentag in Hanover, where he will also celebrate his 50th year as a priest. During the past year he has sat on five permanent Vatican Congregations and received more than 500 visits from non-Catholic leaders, managing the while to keep his usual calm and to charm his visitors with his extraordinary smile. One of the more striking symbols of his ecumenical commitment is the large photo of the Greek Orthodox Patriarch Athenagoras perched on a bookcase in an office anteroom.
The following interview gives some insight into the Church’s hopes for Christian unity as she enters into the solemn moment of Ecumenical Council for the 21st time in nearly two thousand years. The dedicated efforts of Cardinal Bea remind us vividly of the words of the great second-century Bishop of Lyons, lrenaeus, who described the Holy Spirit as constantly renewing and rejuvenating the Church. And it is with this vision of the Spirit of Pentecost that the Holy Father has repeatedly prayed that the Council may be a new Pentecost for our time, making us all one in the Paraclete.
Eugene C. Bianchi, S.J.
Rome, July, 1962
Q Your Eminence, from your broad experience in ecumenical matters, what would you say were the outstanding obstacles to Church unity today?
There is, above all, an immense accumulation of misinterpretation, of resentment and of misunderstanding between separated Christians. There are also bitter historical memories that provoke mutual suspicion and aversion. One finds, too, among us, widespread ignorance of one another’s religious tenets. The errors and equivocations that our separated brothers of the Eastern Churches attribute to us seem incredible. But, on the other hand, we Catholics lack a just appraisal and a spirit of fraternal charity toward our separated brethren; these failings are often due to a lack of knowledge. And what I said about our relations with the Orient is quite applicable to our relations with Western confessions.
But it is encouraging to note that when cries of “Romanism” and “papism” were heard in some quarters at the announcement of the Second Vatican Council, the World Council of Churches refuted these claims with the following statement: “All Christians, whatever be their confession, hope and pray that this historic event will serve to advance the cause of unity for which our Lord prayed.” Similar attitudes were echoed by many other leaders of non-Catholic communities throughout the world.
I might also add that a further obstacle to unity is the unexemplary life of many Catholics. Our separated brothers are not attracted to us when they see us immersed in pursuits that contradict the values of the Gospel.
Q I suppose that the lack of authoritative structure inmost Protestant churches is a hindrance to unity.
Yes, in most Protestant churches there is no supreme authority in matters of faith. Each Christian follows the inspiration he has received directly from the Holy Spirit. As a result, there is among Protestants no one authority with which the Catholic Church can deal officially concerning questions of faith. There is no authority which could oblige the Protestant faithful in conscience to accept eventual agreements between leaders of their churches and the Catholic Church.
One begins to see the magnitude of the problem when he considers that in the United States alone there are no less than 250 denominations, some of which belong to the WCC, and many others which do not. And the World Council itself holds that it would be a dangerous deviation from its proper task to enter into doctrinal parleys with Rome. This, of course, does not exclude fruitful discussion among theologians. On this whole question we must be patient and prepare carefully for talks with some separated group or other which presents a more developed plan of internal unity.
Q In this time just prior to Vatican II, Christians of all confessions are wondering if the Council will fulfill certain ecumenical expectations. Would you like to say a word about this, Your Eminence?
First, I would like to make it clear that the approaching Council is not directly intended as a Council of union, as were those of Lyons and Florence in the Middle Ages. Perhaps the best way to characterize the ecumenical aims of the coming Council is to see it, in the perspective of our Holy Father, as “a kindly invitation to seek and find that unity for which Christ addressed to the Heavenly Father so ardent a prayer.”
The Council’s main ecumenical task will be to prepare for an eventual union, God willing, by bettering relations between Catholics and non-Catholic Christians. We hope that it will pave the way toward greater union by resolving certain problems that presently impede Church unity. In other words, the Church must first strive to revitalize its own inner life so that it can manifest to our separated brothers an even clearer image of Christianity according to the Gospel.
Q Could you specify some of the positive steps toward ecumenical rapprochement? For example, what might be expected of the Council in the field of dogma?
Of course, there is no question of seeking compromises in the realm of dogma, as though we could use doctrine revealed by Cod as an indifferent means to Church unity. This would be a most contradictory procedure. We would in effect be seeking the unity of Christ while at the same time sacrificing the truth of Christ. We would be exercising a very misguided charity toward our separated brethren, and we would undermine real unity. Our Lord sent the Spirit to His Church, not to alter revealed truths, but to preserve and explain them. The apostles and their successors have no sovereign power over the deposit that has been confided to them; they are only “administrators and dispensers” of the Word.
Q But does this necessary dogmatic intransigence mean that the door is closed to steps the Council might take in furthering doctrinal union with our separated brothers?
By no means. Without sacrificing any revealed truth, the Council could help us to understand more clearly the whole of revealed truth. Pius XI pointed out that both Catholics and non-Catholics are victims of prejudices and misunderstandings. The latter arise in part from the theological controversies of the Reformation, and in part from later developments. Religious thought and scientific theology have developed differently among Catholics and among non-Catholic Christians.
Protestantism has also felt the strong influence of modern philosophical systems, because it is less bound to tradition and less subject to authoritative control. Consequently, it is most difficult, not to say impossible, for our separated brothers to understand Catholic doctrine when it is presented in traditional terminology.
On the other hand, it is very hard for Catholics to grasp the real sense of Protestant thought, for reasons bound up with our own history. Therefore, the Council could explain Catholic doctrine in a way that would take account of the changes of language that have occurred among our separated brothers from the time of the separation up to now. Apropos of this, the Holy Father has stated that the Council should be mindful of the pure sources of revelation and tradition. Thus the Council can put into lucid focus the substance of Christian thought and life, of which the Church has been the depositary and teacher through the ages.
Besides, due to a similar historical evolution in our own theological formulations, through which definitive and immutable doctrine is expressed, only a particular aspect of any given doctrine is elaborated. Thus our theological propositions do not always express the full depth and richness of revealed doctrine. The Council could, therefore—with an eye to the aspirations of our separated brothers, their problems and difficulties—develop especially those aspects of revealed truth which answer their deepest needs and expectations.
Q Your Eminence, you speak of a clearer formulation of Catholic doctrine. What are the currents of modern thought that might particularly contribute to such a renewed perspective?
I think that our age is eminently favorable to such an enterprise. There is a remarkable renewal of interest in history and in the social structures of life. Scholars are bent on discovering the origins of ideas and their historical evolution. They are studying the milieus in which these ideas were born, the channels by which they have reached us, and the influences they have undergone in the process. This historical and sociological method has contributed greatly to the development of biblical research in our day. Biblical studies have already made it possible for Protestants and for Catholics to understand more adequately such doctrines, for example, as the mystery of the Church. This contemporary theological approach can be a means by which the Council will make Catholic doctrine more accessible to non-Catholics.
Q As you have just remarked, it seems imperative, before Christians can go very far on the road to unity, to clarify the meaning of the Church itself. Often the juridical and organizational aspects of the Church seem to mask, for our separated brothers, her sacramental and spiritual aspects. Do you foresee any conciliar activity on this point?
Yes. The doctrine on the nature of the Church is certainly the main point of cleavage among Christians. Neither the Council of Trent nor Vatican I were able to treat this fundamental question as profoundly and completely as might be desired. It will be a task of the coming Council to explain more fully the nature of the Church. Today this task has been made easier by important studies of theologians. We owe special thanks, moreover, to Pius XII’s penetrating explanation of the Church as the Mystical Body of Christ.
A number of Protestant authors have admitted that the encyclical on the Mystical Body gave a view of the Catholic Church little realized until then. The doctrine of the Mystical Body, with its scriptural basis, illustrates and explains, in a way that is not simply juridical and organizational, many important points with which Protestants experience difficulty. For example, this doctrine throws light on the infallibility of the Church, of her Head, on the hierarchical structure of the Church, on the relations between the Pope and the bishops, on the indispensable place and function of the laity, and on the efficacy of the sacraments.
I might add that, on the touchy subject of the primacy of the Pope, John XXIII has already contributed to a better understanding by exercising his primacy in an impressive spirit of humility, charity and good will. He has shown that the Roman Church understands and exercises its primacy not out of any desire to dominate, but as an evangelical service, a “diaconia.”
Q Last year, Your Eminence, you published an important statement on the relation of all Christians to the one Mystical Body of Christ. This, too, seems to be an all-important starting point for the ecumenical dialogue. Would you like to comment on this Christian attachment to the Church?
Gladly. We use the term “separated brothers” very frequently today. This term is much more than a courteous manner of speaking; it expresses a profound Christian truth.
All those who have been validly baptized in Christ, even outside the Catholic Church, are organically bound to Christ, to His Mystical Body. They belong in a true sense to the Church, though not in the fullest sense. Those who, in all sincerity, accept and live the faith in which they were born and educated, receive—in virtue of their baptism—the necessary aids for a truly Christian life. And they are on the road to salvation by reason of their fundamental adherence to the Church of Christ. We hope that the Council will make this very clear.
On the other hand, however, we must also clearly state that these separated brethren do not form part of the visible organism of the Church, and thus they are deprived of many graces. In effect they lack the full unity of faith, the use of various sacraments which they do not recognize as such, as well as the efficacious direction of the hierarchy instituted by Christ. Therefore, they are deprived of many graces that Christ dispenses by means of the Church to those who belong to it in the fullest sense. We should, consequently, desire, work and pray unceasingly that all the baptized may participate in the fullness of the truth and grace that emanate from Christ and His Church.
Q Your Eminence, do you foresee any concrete steps that the Council could take to further the ecumenical movement itself?
I think the Council could especially emphasize the serious duty of Catholics to take an active interest in the welfare of their separated brothers.
Three means of promoting unity are at the disposal of all. First, constant prayer for fellow Christians everywhere in the world. The Holy Father has strongly urged this means, as has the World Council of Churches in its New Delhi meeting. Secondly, this prayer should be accompanied by sacrifice, that daily offering of our sufferings and hardships for the intention of unity. Finally, we must develop toward our separated brethren an attitude of sincere Christian charity. Too often our dogmatic intransigence—an attitude absolutely necessary toward doctrines of faith— and the memory of resulting struggles and hurts have closed and hardened our hearts, if not to the point of hatred, at least to that of indifference and suspicion.
Pope John has given us an excellent example of such charity. When he was taking leave of Bulgaria (which is 85 percent Orthodox Christian) after ten years as Apostolic Delegate, he alluded in his farewell address to an ancient Irish custom. It consists in placing a lighted candle in the window at Christmas to indicate to Joseph and Mary that within lives a family that welcomes them. The Holy Father said: “Wherever I am, be it at the very ends of the earth, if a homeless Bulgarian should pass by my house, he will see a lighted candle in the window. Let him knock at the door and it will be opened to him, be he Catholic or Orthodox. ‘A brother from Bulgaria’—this is all he needs to say. He can enter and receive in my house the warmest and most affectionate hospitality.”
From this charity will spring the necessary understanding, as well as profound and reciprocal religious esteem. It will allow us to overcome resentment and false prejudice. From it will flow an authentic fervor for union as well as the desire to do all that is in our power for our separated brothers. In this way we will bring nearer that much desired hour when there will be “only one flock and one shepherd.”
Q What could the Council do to encourage actual collaboration with non-Catholic Christians?
First, in the domain of theology, it could encourage ecumenical discussions among those adequately prepared for this task.
There is also the realm of collaboration in civic and social life. Here, too, the Council could take a stand. Think of what a wonderful thing it would be if Christians of all confessions would work in close harmony for international peace; for the achievement of human rights of minority groups and racial groups; for disarmament; for the social progress of developing nations. Such collaboration could do much, indeed, to further eventual union. We will never be one in faith until we become one in charity.
The American Scene
Q A key question that came to the fore in the 1960 Presidential election in the United States was that of the Catholic Church and religious liberty or tolerance. Do you think it would be ecumenically helpful for the Church to take au official, positive stand on tolerance in general, and especially in a pluralistic society?
Undoubtedly you are aware, from a recent press bulletin concerning the last session of the Central Commission, held in the month of June, that a position paper concerning the Church-State question was considered. In this connection our secretariat presented its own proposal on religious liberty.
Please note that I do not say “tolerance,” which is a rather negative thing, but religious liberty, which consists in positively recognizing a man’s right to follow the dictates of his own conscience in matters of religion. It consists also in a recognition of the duties of civil society (the state) to respect and protect in practice the citizen’s inalienable right to religious liberty.
In our proposal we were dealing with the problem that Pope Pius XII of holy memory treated in his celebrated Address to the Catholic Jurists in 1953. As you can readily see, our position paper proposes for discussion a theme of great importance for today’s pluralistic society. And I would add that our notion of religious liberty has a universal value and application; it is not just for this or that country. Of course, great prudence is required in applying these principles to particular circumstances.
Q One sometimes hears it said that American Catholics have a sort of “religious enclave” mentality. In this view, Protestants are, at worst, to be avoided; at best, to be converted. Without losing sight of the values of conversion, do you think, Your Eminence, that this mentality could be broadened toward dialogue and co-operation?
We should above all be disposed to show greater respect for our separated brothers, to seek sincerely to understand their positions, and to manifest to them that charity which the New Testament tells us we owe to our brothers baptized in Christ. The Holy Father has given us an example of this attitude in such a way as to touch the heart of the world. Evidently, this attitude must find its way into concrete applications according to various situations. Obviously, we must hold firmly to our faith, without trace of false irenics or indifferentism. But if we cultivate this attitude of openness, we shall certainly find many occasions for contact and co-operation, especially in areas that do not directly involve the faith.
Q Perhaps there has been a tendency to doubt the good faith of Protestants. Do you feel that this is true, Your Eminence, and if so, what do you suggest should be done?
This tendency has certainly existed, and I’m afraid it is still too prevalent today. Because of the sad experiences of the past, and for other reasons, we have let ourselves be led into a way of judging that is all too naturalistic, that smacks of the world and not of the Gospel. If we look at things from a purely human point of view, we should not forget that in past centuries the great majority of our separated brothers were simply forced into this or that confession because their political ruler chose it for them. They had to comply or emigrate. Besides, the great majority of separated Christians today find themselves with a long religious heritage handed down for generations. Just as we Catholics cannot boast because we were born in a Catholic family, so it is no shortcoming of theirs to be sons of parents separated from our Church. Consciously accepting the heritage that is theirs, these non-Catholics believe in good faith that they are on the right road.
But, all this aside, have we any right to judge the good faith of our brothers? To do so would not be in keeping with the teaching of Jesus; thus St. Paul reminds us: Consider others as superior to yourselves! Such an attitude is indispensable and of inestimable value for ecumenical contact and dialogue.
Q It would seem that education for Church unity should begin on the primary and secondary school level (and even before that, in the home). What are the attitudes that parents and teachers should convey to the young in order to foster greater ecumenical understanding?
Your observation is well taken, Father. Ecumenical education, as all other schooling, must begin in the home and be continued in the school. I would say that it is even more important for such education to begin in the family because we are dealing here with a problem of how to overcome long-standing prejudice and resentment. I urge parents especially to assume their responsibilities in this matter. Remember that the Holy Father himself recommended the general intention of the Apostleship of Prayer for the month of May: that mutual respect and knowledge may prepare the way of Christian unity. Yes, this sums it up. But there remains so very much to be done.
Q On the Catholic university and seminary level what are the opportunities for a more active dialogue with Protestant and Orthodox teachers and students?
On the level of the university, I would say that there are as many opportunities as there are disciplines. I spoke about this last year at the opening of the academic year at the Catholic University of Fribourg.
The possibilities are evident in the area of theology and of biblical science. Philosophy, too, can contribute much. It is sufficient to recall the influence that various philosophical systems have had and continue to have on religious mentality, language and thought among both Protestants and Catholics. This philosophical influence is one of the reasons why mutual comprehension has become steadily more difficult. Let us hope, then, that philosophy will no longer be an obstacle but a help to mutual understanding.
There can also be fruitful co-operation in two other realms: in that of the natural moral law and in those things that constitute the Christian patrimony common to many confessions in matters touching family, social, national and international life. Together we should seek and serve the truth. The eventual result of such co-operation would be to create and reinforce among the participants a fraternal spirit and a more unified mentality. Obviously, the latter benefit is of capital importance for a gradual rapprochement—in absolute fidelity to Christ and His truth—even in the domain of doctrine.
I would like to say a word about seminarians. Future priests especially should be equipped with the tools needed for ecumenical work: knowledge of the main confessions with which they will come in contact—their doctrine, life and activity. Seminarians should develop above all a broad vision concerning the opportunities for action and co-operation, such as we pointed out when speaking of universities.
I would also like to say something about theological discussions between Catholic theologians and those of other confessions. I am referring particularly to dialogues on specifically doctrinal problems. As you know, such discussions have taken place for some time now in various countries, for example, in Belgium, Germany and Switzerland. The results have been encouraging. These are not theological debates or disputes, as was the case in the 16th century and later. They are friendly conversations among specialists in a limited area of research. Their purpose is not, as in political discussions, to formulate compromises on disputed points. This would be an infidelity to Christ and His doctrine. It is rather a question of understanding the other’s point of view, and of presenting one’s own position, in order to see more clearly the areas of agreement and difference; thus one can direct and deepen his own studies on various points. Such discussions are highly regarded and desired by our separated brothers. Just recently, for example, the Central Committee of the WCC expressed a wish to continue them.
The importance of these conversations appears above all in the fact that they are held between university professors who, on the one hand, have considerable prestige, and, on the other, are charged with the formation of future church ministers. These latter, in their turn, can hand down to their faithful the benefits of these discussions. Only in this way can we little by little influence the roots of our division.
Q Do you think it wouldbe profitable, Your Eminence, for Protestant and Catholic moralists to hold common discussions and seek co-ordinated goals in such matters as aid to emerging nations, racial justice, nuclear development, and the like?
Yes, by all means. The Church has already recommended the co-operation of Catholics and non-Catholics in the area of moral law and of our common Christian patrimony, which I mentioned a while ago. Therefore, it is necessary that specialists consult in those problems that are today the preoccupation of all mankind. For example: the developing nations, racial discrimination, disarmament and the defense of peace.
Q A few American dioceses have set up commissions to foster Christian rapprochement. Would you care to comment on this kind of activity?
These are most welcome initiatives. They have already borne fruit in such countries as France, Holland and England. But the activity of these commissions will depend on the particular concrete situation, and it would not be wise to seek too great a uniformity in this, nor should one country simply imitate another. In general, I would say that these commissions should be the organ by which the hierarchy keeps abreast of and contributes to ecumenical developments. In ecumenical work we are treading on relatively new ground where mistakes are easy to make; therefore, it is imperative to maintain close contact with the hierarchy, those whom the Holy Spirit has charged to rule the Church of God. This doesn’t mean that we want to centralize and standardize. If these diocesan commissions allow sufficient freedom in ecumenical matters, there will be a healthy sharing of common experiences and mutual activity between Catholics and their separated brethren. Thus the commissions will stimulate activity where necessary and see that it is wise and prudent.
Q What would he some of the outlets for ecumenism at the parish level?
Well, it would seem that the main type of collaboration with separated brothers on the parish level would be that of charitable activities. Perhaps, here and there, the occasion might present itself for a common defense of public morality and similar actions. Once again I would insist that such initiative must be adapted to the needs of the concrete situation and carried out according to the wishes of the hierarchy. I would like to add, though, that parish priests could contribute much to better ecumenical understanding through their sermons and other teachings.
Q Your Eminence, since so much of American Protestantism is biblically oriented, should not our religious teaching, sermons and reading also be directed toward the Bible?
I’m not in a position to judge the de facto situation of American Catholicism regarding the use of Sacred Scripture. I know that your biblical movement has seen a fine development. The most I would venture to say is: whatever be the attitude and situation of American Protestantism, all true Catholicism is and should be based on the Word of God in Scripture. Scripture should be the source of spiritual life for every Catholic and especially for every priest. Scripture will thus become the mainspring of his preaching, teaching and pastoral activity. The Church has especially during the last fifty years, insisted on a biblical orientation for Catholics. Take, for example, the providential instruction of Pius X on the teaching of Sacred Scripture in seminaries and the erection of the Pontifical Biblical Institute. In our own time we have the great encyclical of Pius XII on Holy Scripture and the instruction of the Biblical Commission, which traces the practical norms for teaching the Bible in seminaries.
Q Do you think the Church could, without encouraging indifferentism, broaden its present legislation on praying (and prayer services) with non-Catholic Christians?
At present these practices vary greatly from nation to nation, according to different situations. At any rate, I think the matter will be studied at the Council or after it.
Q Is there any special message that you would like to convey to American Catholics concerning the movement toward Church unity?
Above all, I would like to say a word of sincere congratulations for the wonderful development of American Catholicism in recent decades, and for the enormous good that this development has done and continues to do in the world. And I wish to congratulate American Catholics especially for their work of charitable assistance, directed most recently toward Latin America.
To this word of congratulation I add the hope that American Catholics will continue to grow in the realization of their responsibility on the world scene.
Because of their singular position, Americans should strive all the more to understand the movement of those ideas that are shaping the future and the spiritual problems of humanity. Then they will be able to choose and promote those means that will provide an answer to the problems that torment mankind. Among these problems we can surely list that of a divided Christianity.
How important, then, is the movement for the union of Christians! For it is this union that Christ intended as a sign to the world that He had been sent by the Father, and that in Him men could find salvation. I hope, therefore, that American Catholics will place themselves in the forefront of the Christian unity movement, for the glory of God and the greater good of all men.
Father Eugene C. Bianchi, S.J., is a California Jesuit who completed his theological studies at Louvain University. His conversation with Cardinal Bea took place in Rome early in July.