Evangelization, Ecumenism and Religious Liberty

Source: FSSPX News


On December 14, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued a Doctrinal Note “on some Aspects of Evangelization.” On December 21, Benedict XVI gave his traditional address to the Curia during which he reviewed the past year, referring to his visit to Brazil and the Aparecida Document. The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity will run from January 18 to 25 -- which celebrates its 100th anniversary this year -- on the theme “Pray without ceasing” (1 Thess. 5:17).

Every time, they speak of evangelization and ecumenism. Can these two things be reconciled? Is the missionary work of the Church compatible with the religious liberty promoted by the Second Vatican Council? Reading the Note from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and the Pope’s Declaration to the Curia allows us to see how difficult it is to establish any continuity between traditional evangelization and conciliar ecumenism.

The evolution undergone by the Week of prayer for Christian Unity over the past hundred years shows the change wrought in the Church by Vatican II and help us to understand the dead end reached by today’s ecumenism.


The Doctrinal Note on some Aspects of Evangelization (December 14, 2007)

At the beginning of its Note, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith points out its intention “to clarify certain aspects of the relationship between the missionary command of the Lord and respect for the conscience and religious freedom of all people.” It considers, and rightly so, that the relationship between religious freedom and the necessity of evangelization is not clear. This means that, in the minds of many, one excludes the other, as is self-evident from the note.

“There is today, however, a growing confusion which leads many to leave the missionary command of the Lord unheard and ineffective (cf. Mt 28:19). Often it is maintained that any attempt to convince others on religious matters is a limitation of their freedom. From this perspective, it would only be legitimate to present one’s own ideas and to invite people to act according to their consciences, without aiming at their conversion to Christ and to the Catholic faith. It is enough, so they say, to help people to become more human or more faithful to their own religion; it is enough to build communities which strive for justice, freedom, peace and solidarity. Furthermore, some maintain that Christ should not be proclaimed to those who do not know him, nor should joining the Church be promoted, since it would also be possible to be saved without explicit knowledge of Christ and without formal incorporation in the Church.”

While recalling the necessity of evangelization, the doctrinal note intends the safeguard of the religious freedom promoted by Vatican II:

The Second Vatican Council, after having affirmed the right and the duty of every person to seek the truth in matters of religion adds: “The search for truth, however, must be carried out in a manner that is appropriate to the dignity of the human person and his social nature, namely, by free enquiry with the help of teaching or instruction, communication and dialogue. It is by these means that people share with each other the truth they have discovered, or think they have discovered, in such a way that they help one another in the search for truth”[1]. In any case, the truth “does not impose itself except by the strength of the truth itself”[2]. Therefore, to lead a person’s intelligence and freedom in honesty to the encounter with Christ and his Gospel is not an inappropriate encroachment, but rather a legitimate endeavour and a service capable of making human relationships more fruitful.”

A little further on, we find the affirmation that religious liberty does not exclude the search for the truth, nor missionary zeal:

Respect for religious freedom[3] and its promotion “must not in any way make us indifferent towards truth and goodness. Indeed, love impels the followers of Christ to proclaim to all the truth which saves”[4].

In its “ecumenical implications”, the doctrinal note tries to reconcile the respect due to the tradition and spiritual riches of non-Catholic Christians with the possibility of a conversion, in point of fact a renunciation to the said tradition and spiritual riches. Conversion is here justified as a work of the Holy Ghost and an expression of religious freedom:

“In addition, there is evangelization in countries where non-Catholic Christians live, including those with an ancient Christian tradition and culture. In this context, what is required is both true respect for the tradition and spiritual riches of such countries as well as a sincere spirit of cooperation. Catholics, ‘avoiding every form of indifferentism or confusion, as well as senseless rivalry, through a common profession of faith in God and in Jesus Christ before all peoples – insofar as this is possible – may collaborate with their separated brethren in social, cultural, technical and religious matters in accordance with the Decree on Ecumenism’.[5]

“In this connection, it needs also to be recalled that if a non-Catholic Christian, for reasons of conscience and having been convinced of Catholic truth, asks to enter into the full communion of the Catholic Church, this is to be respected as the work of the Holy Spirit and as an expression of freedom of conscience and of religion.”


Benedict XVI’s Address to the Roman Curia (December 21, 2007)

The pope spoke of his visit to Brazil and the document published on that occasion in Aparecida: Disciples and missionaries of Jesus Christ:

“A disciple of Jesus Christ, the document tells us, must also be a "missionary", a Gospel messenger. It is here, furthermore, that the objection arises: is it still legitimate today to "evangelize"? Should not all the world’s religions and conceptions rather coexist peacefully and seek together to do their best for humanity, each in its own way? Well, that we must all coexist and cooperate in tolerance and reciprocal respect goes without question. The Catholic Church is actively committed to this and, with the two meetings in Assisi, has left evident signs of it, signs that we renewed again at this year’s Meeting in Naples. On this topic, I would like to mention the kind letter sent to me last 13 October by 138 Muslim religious leaders, testifying to their common commitment to promoting world peace. I responded joyfully, expressing my convinced adherence to such noble intentions, and at the same time emphasized the urgent need for a binding accord to safeguard the values of reciprocal respect, dialogue and collaboration. Shared recognition of the existence of one God, the provident Creator and universal Judge of everyone’s conduct, constitutes the premise of a common action in defence of the effective respect of the dignity of every human person in order to build a more just and united society.”

After having recalled the two interreligious meeting at Assisi, of which the meeting at Naples was along the same lines, and  having pointed out what, in his opinion unites Muslims and Catholics, Benedict XVI wished nevertheless to maintain the missionary demands of the Church:

“But might not this desire for dialogue and collaboration also mean at the same time that we can no longer transmit Jesus Christ’s message, no longer propose to humanity and to the world this call and the hope that derives from it? Those who have recognized a great truth or discovered a great joy have to pass it on; they absolutely cannot keep it to themselves. These great gifts are never intended for only one person. In Jesus Christ a great light emerged for us, the great Light: we cannot put it under a bushel basket, we must set it on a lampstand so that it will give light to all who are in the house (cf. Mt 5: 15). St Paul travelled tirelessly, taking the Gospel with him. He even felt under a sort of "compulsion" to proclaim the Gospel (cf. I Cor 9: 16) - not so much out of concern for the salvation of the single non-baptized person who had not yet been reached by the Gospel, but rather because he was aware that history as a whole could not attain fulfilment until the Gospel had reached the full number (pléroma) of Gentiles (cf. Rom 11: 25). To reach its completion, history needs the proclamation of the Good News to all peoples, to all men and women (cf. Mk 13: 10).”

The pope does not seem to think that interreligious meetings like those of Assisi and Naples -- as well as the prayer in the Blue Mosque of Istanbul, in 2006 -- carry in themselves, irrespective of the subjective intentions of their instigators, a teaching which, in fact, goes against the missionary demands of the Church. As Bossuet used to say: la chose parle d’elle-même (the thing speaks for itself, it is self-evident).


The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity (January 18 to 25, 2008)

 In 1908, in the United States, the Anglican Episcopalian Paul James Francis Wattson launched an “Octave of Prayer for Unity” which was later to become The Week of Prayer for the Unity of Christians. The evolution of this initiative in one hundred years, demonstrates how an unprecedented change has taken place in the Church. It would be useful to refer to the study which Fr. Claude Pellouchoud devotes to this page of the Church’s history in the latest edition of Le Rocher, the French speaking bulletin of the Swiss district of the Society St. Pius X. Here are some particularly informative extracts.

 The Octave of Prayer for Unity was launched by Paul Wattson, the founder of the Society of the Franciscan Friars of the Atonement, to run from January 18 to 25, in 1908. “To his way of thinking, this unity meant in fact, the return of the different denominations into the Roman Catholic Church. This is the reason why he chose the dates of the octave in order that it would begin on January 18- in the Roman Catholic calendar, the date of the feast of the Chair of Peter- and end on January 25- the feast of the Conversion of St. Paul.(…)

“After the entry into the Catholic Church in 1908 of the Society of the Atonement, pope St. Pius X gave his official blessing to the Octave for the return of the different denominations into the heart of the Roman Catholic Church. On the other hand, he condemned  the ecumenical efforts indulged in from the beginning of the century in certain circles, which were strongly permeated  with Marxist and Masonic ideologies and very close to global organizations.

 “In 1915, in the united States, at the beginning of the pontificate of Benedict XV (1854-1922), on the occasion of the world conference on ‘Faith and Constitution’, a prayer manual for the unity of Christians was published by the Protestant Episcopal Church. (…)

“From 1921, the Permanent Committee of the World Unity of Christians’ and suggested that it take place during the eight days preceding Pentecost.(…)

“In 1932, Fr. Paul Couturier (1881-1953), from the diocese of Lyon (France), endeavored to give a new objective to the Octave for the Unity of the Church. Convinced that the other Christian communities would never come to the Church, with novel audacity, he made himself the apostle of ‘a communion in the Praying Christ’. (…)

“Fr. Couturier, while keeping the same dates of January 18 to 25, succeeded in modifying the terminology : the object of the ‘Universal Week of Prayer for the Unity of Christians’ which he intended to promote, was to for people to come together in the heart of Christ, to pray for the visible unity which God wants and that He will bring about ‘when He wants and by the means He wants’-…

This new formula  allowed many Protestants to pray ‘in communion’ with Catholics, but without for all that, wanting to return into the fold of the Roman Catholic Church.(…)

“In 1941, the Protestants of the commission ‘Faith and Constitution’ changed their dates to the month of January so that they coincide with the Catholic initiative, and  that Protestants and Catholics might pray at the same time. In his encyclical, Mystici Corporis (June 29 1943) pope Pius XII (1876-1958) recalled once again, the true sense which these prayers should have : ‘we want the common supplication of the entire mystical Body of Christ to rise up to God so that all of the lost sheep may rejoin as soon as possible the unique fold of Jesus Christ’ (…)

“After an initial meeting in Basel, in 1946, of students from the countries which had been involved in the war, the Ecumenical Council of Churches (COE) was founded in 1948 : it became an instrument of reconciliation and unity between Protestants who had opposed each other during the conflict and a medium for the promotion of peace.

“On the Catholic side, some looked favorably on the initiative, envisaging perhaps the admission of the Catholic Church into the COE, taking up the teaching of the encyclical Mortalium Animos, the pope Pius XII had published an ‘Instruction on the ecumenical movement’. Promulgated by the Holy Office on December 20 1949, this instruction recalled that ‘one should not pursue union by the method of a progressive assimilation  of diverse professions of faith, nor by means of an adaptation of Catholic dogma to something else , that the true unique union of the churches can be achieved only by the return (per reditum) of the separated brethren to the true Church of God’. (…)

“Following the election of pope John XXIII (1881-1963), the innovators hoped to bring about the entry of the Catholic Church into this ecumenical movement. From 1958, the preparation of material proposed by ‘Faith and Constitution’ was done for the most part in coordination with that of the texts drawn up by the Ecumenical Center for Christian Unity (Catholic) of Lyon. Their hopes were not disappointed  : it was on January 25 1959 that John XXIII convened Vatican Council II which would allow the Catholic Church to enter into this ‘new version’ ecumenical movement, so decisively : Furthermore, the COE were invited to the Council as observers.

“In the spirit of the Council, which was continued in the same vein by pope Paul VI (1897-1978), the collaboration became official between COE and the Secretariat for the Promotion of the Unity of Christians at the Vatican. Following a joint consultation, organized by these two bodies, in 1966, a mixed group was set up for preparation of texts for the Week of Prayer for the Unity of Christians. The Roman Catholic Church and COE subsequently adopted a francophone ecumenical version of the Our Father. (…)

 Since 1973, each year a different ecumenical group, from different parts of the world , who is invited to prepare for the Week of Prayer, a draft of a text which the joint international preparatory group will then revise. Today, the collaboration between Anglicans, Catholics, Orthodox and Protestants in the preparation of this Week of Prayer for Unity is a familiar practice, but not at all in the sense of a return to the fold!”

 Is there any need to point out that in the doctrinal note of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, there are no quotes from Mortalium Animos of Pius XI nor from Mystici corporis of Pius XII, neither from the Instruction on the Ecumenical Movement from the Holy Office in 1949? On the other hand, Vatican Council II is lavishly quoted, as by their own reckoning the authors of the note presuppose “as understood, the entire Catholic doctrine on evangelization, amply dealt with in the Magisterium of Pope Paul VI and John Paul II”. Consequently the question must be asked : has the Church only truly understood her relationship with other religions since Vatican II?


The integral text of Fr. Pellouchoud’s article appears in Le Rocher, the bi-monthly bulletin of the Swiss District of the Society of St. Pius X.


[1] Conc. œcum. Vat. II, Décl. Dignitatis humanae, n. 3

[2] Ibidem, n. 1

[3] Cf. Benedict XVI, Address to the Roman Curia offering Christmas Greetings (22 December 2005): AAS 98 (2006), 50: “…if religious freedom were to be considered an expression of the human inability to discover the truth and thus become a canonization of relativism, then this social and historical necessity is raised inappropriately to the metaphysical level and thus stripped of its true meaning. Consequently, it cannot be accepted by those who believe that the human person is capable of knowing the truth about God and, on the basis of the inner dignity of the truth, is bound to this knowledge. It is quite different, on the other hand, to perceive religious freedom as a need that derives from human coexistence, or indeed, as an intrinsic consequence of the truth that cannot be externally imposed but that the person must adopt only through the process of conviction”.

[4] Second Vatican Council, Pastoral Constitution Gaudium et spes, 28; cf. Paul VI, Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii nuntiandi, 24: AAS 69 (1976), 21-22.

[5] Second Vatican Council, Decree Ad gentes, 15.