Protestants on the Council

Though the delegate-observers at the Second Vatican Council have respected the confidence of their hosts by maintaining discreet silence on the inner workings of the first session, recent statements from a number of them now reveal the basic reactions they reported back to their non-Catholic constituencies. These reactions, whether publicly or privately communicated, will certainly be the object of careful and sympathetic study by the Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity and by a vast number of interested Fathers of the Council.

At the close of the first session, Rev. Dr. Lukas Vischer, research secretary of the Faith and Order Commission of the World Council of Churches, expressed to Amleto Cardinal Cicognani the “gratitude and hope” felt by all the delegate-observers because of what they had witnessed at the Council. He summed up this experience in saying: “We have had free access to all sessions and we have been able to see repeatedly the great efforts made to understand our conviction, our own character, our experiences and our difficulties.” This sentiment came also from Dr. George A. Lindbeck, a Lutheran delegate-observer, who remarked: “Most moving of all, we have been entrusted to an astonishing extent with information about the inner difficulties of the Roman Catholic Church, in the confidence that we will use this knowledge with Christian love and understanding rather than maliciously.”

Repeatedly, too, observers testified to their gratification with the spirit of freedom prevailing in the Council’s debates. Some were frank to admit that this factor, among others, contributed to a sweeping revision of preconceptions, expectations and, in instances, prejudices they had entertained before the Council met. Thus, Pastor Herbert Roux, a French observer for the World Presbyterian Alliance, wrote that the Church has made a “remarkable effort of spiritual intelligence, humility and loyalty” in taking the initiative in ecumenical contacts with other Christians. And Prof. James H. Nichols of Princeton Theological Seminary, also a Presbyterian observer, described as “the single most striking impression” he brought home, “the maturity, depth, intellectual grasp and spiritual discipline” represented by the theologians assigned to lead discussions with non-Catholics. Other observers also spoke of the new image they have of ecumenical awareness in some Catholic circles where they never thought it existed.

The observers generally spoke with enthusiasm of the Council’s handling of the topic of liturgical practice in the Church. Dr. Vilmos Vajta of the Lutheran World Federation noted, however, that some of the emphasis on liturgical participation seemed lacking in the religious ceremonial of the Council, with the exception of occasions when the great Eastern liturgies were conducted. Similarly, the pivotal debate on revelation in mid-November won praise, though Anglican Bishop John Moorman, who had described the project on the liturgy as “hopeful—really forward-looking,” found the one on revelation “less hopeful.”

In general, non-Catholic reaction emerges as one of hopeful, yet guarded, expectation of the final outcome. Rev. Dr. Douglas Horton, observer for the International Congregational Church, said that an “ecclesiastical iron curtain” has been pierced “in prayer, in biblical scholarship and in contact with individuals.” And Dr. W. A. Visser’t Hooft, general secretary of the World Council of Churches, recently affirmed that the Catholic Church “has a greater capacity for renewal than had been considered possible.” Yet he added that the great question is “whether the ecumenism of the Human Catholic Church will only take the form of different terminology and a more friendly attitude, or whether it will develop into a readiness to enter into real dialogue.”

This, for the Protestant world, means opening up such questions as religions liberty, mixed marriages and the like. No informed Protestant or Catholic expects that such discussions will be easy. Beginnings have been made, however, and more was accomplished in a few months than even the optimist would have thought possible only a few years ago. Right now it must be remembered, as Fr. Gustave Weigel, S.J., recently recalled, that “it is not the purpose of ecumenical action to make a single, organic church. Rather it is the hope of those engaged in the conversation that their work might, if it so please the Lord, bring about some kind of unity.”

From America, March, 2, 1963.

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