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The Vatican, Ecumenism, and Tolerance

by James Hitchcock
August 4, 2007

The phrase “Vatican II” has long been a mantra that shuts off real thinking, used to imply that somehow that Council negated almost everything in the Catholic past and uncritically embraced everything modern.

As usual with such slogans, those who use it don’t really care whether it reflects reality, so that when they encounter the real Vatican II they are often offended.

Their most recent offense has been caused by a Vatican document stating that the fullness of divine truth is found only in the Catholic Church and that other groups possess truth in proportion to how close they are to Catholicism, something that implies that other groups are partly in error. Pope Benedict is therefore accused of leading the Church back into the Dark Ages, by repudiating the Church’s commitment to ecumenism.

(The document, issued by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in June, 2007, is Responses to Some Questions Regarding Certain Aspects of the Doctrine on the Church)

Where does the commitment to ecumenism come from? From Vatican II of course, specifically from its decree on ecumenism, Unitatis Redintegratio (The Restoration of Unity). But then where does the idea that the Catholic Church alone possess the fullness of divine truth come from? From the same Vatican Council, from the same decree on ecumenism. Thus those who reject the latest Vatican statement must logically also reject the very document that committed the Church to ecumenism in the first place.

One of the main criticisms of the recent statement is that it offends some people.  But although it may be heresy to say so, offending people is not the worst of all possible sins - it depends on why they are offended. It is necessary to speak the truth, no matter how much it offends.

The people who accuse the Vatican of being intolerant cannot themselves avoid being intolerant, since they demand that everyone share their own view of the matter. Increasingly the fetish of “tolerance” (a much over-rated virtue to begin with) is itself a cloak for intolerance. Those who condemn the Church’s claim to posses the fullness of truth are in effect charging that the Church teaches pernicious error, which, whatever else it is, is a peculiar manifestation of “tolerance.”

Such people do not seem to recognize that they are simply pushing their own theological agenda, which is the assumption that all religions merely represent human opinion, that no one can claim real divine truth. Is there one God (Judaism, Christianity, Islam) or many (Hinduism)? It doesn’t really matter.

Significantly, a leading Protestant, Albert Mohler, has said that he is not offended by the controversial Vatican statement, a fact that is especially significant because Dr. Mohler is a Southern Baptist, which is America’s largest Protestant group and one that is hardly soft on Catholicism.

He observes that the Catholic Church is only being true to itself when it states that other faiths are partly in error and that the appropriate Protestant response is not indignation but for Protestants to assert their own claims to truth. “I appreciate the Roman Catholic Church’s candor on this issue, and I believe that Evangelical Christians, with equal candor and clarity, should respond in kind,” he concludes.

This is real ecumenism, of the kind Vatican II originally envisioned – the ecumenism of those who take their own faith very seriously and do not feel threatened when adherents of other faiths confess their own beliefs. 

James Hitchcock, professor of history at St. Louis University, writes and lectures on contemporary Church matters. His column appears in the diocesan press. Dr. Hitchcock's The Supreme Court and Religion in American Life, Vol. 1 The Odyssey of the Religion Clauses and Vol. II From 'Higher Law' to 'Sectarian Scruples', were released by Princeton University Press September 2, 2004.

E-Mail: Dr. James Hitchcock

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