Featured Image
Pope Francis, Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby and Iain Greenshields give a joint blessing in South Sudan, on February 4, 2023.Screenshot/Vatican News

(LifeSiteNews) — Since the early 20th century, the Vatican has observed what is now called “the week of Christian unity.” Held from Thursday, January 18, until Thursday, January 25, the 8-day long initiative is intended to bring about the realization of Our Lord’s prayer in the Gospel of John: “That they all may be one.” 

While such an event might sound like something Catholics can rally behind, they cannot support it in any way. Not only is it at odds with the purpose for which it was established under Pope St. Pius X in 1908, it is directly contrary to the Church’s ordinary and universal magisterium as defended and taught by multiple popes before Vatican II. 

What have modern churchmen said? 

In 1997, John Paul II wrote a letter to Anglicans, Protestants, and the Orthodox to celebrate the occasion. In his message, he told them that God is “at work in us.” He also insisted that recent “ecumenical developments” give them “a foretaste of the joy that full communion will bring when it is finally achieved.” 

Benedict XVI repeated his predecessor’s outlook in 2012. “The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity is in itself one of the most effective expressions of the impetus the Second Vatican Council gave to the search for full communion among all Christ’s disciples.” 

Benedict wrote about the need for “all Christians” to be in “full communion” during his 2008 message as well. “When the prophetic wind of the Second Vatican Council began to blow, the urgent need for unity was felt even more deeply. The patient journey of the search for full communion between all Christians continued after the Council.” 

Pope Francis has repeated those words and has followed through on them with his actions over these last ten years. In May 2015, he welcomed to the Vatican a delegation from the Lutheran Church of Sweden. He referred to their leader, “Archbishop” Antje Jackelén, as his “esteemed sister.” That same month, he sent the following message to an ecumenical meeting in the United States: 

I feel like saying something that may sound controversial, or even heretical, perhaps. But there is someone who ‘knows’ that, despite our differences, we are one. It is he who is persecuting us. It is he who is persecuting Christians today, he who is anointing us with (the blood of) martyrdom. He knows that Christians are disciples of Christ, that they are one, that they are brothers! He doesn’t care if they are Evangelicals or Orthodox, Lutherans, Catholics or Apostolic… he doesn’t care! They are Christians. 

What is the goal of this year’s week of unity? 

The theme for this year’s event is “You shall love the Lord your God… and your neighbor as yourself.” A PDF with instructions for Catholics on how to celebrate the week (including tips for an “ecumenical worship service”) has been released by the Vatican’s Dicastery for Christian Unity. The document notes the influence that non-Catholics have exerted on the event following Vatican II. “Since 1968, the texts have been prepared by the Faith and Order Commission of the World Council of Churches and the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity,” it reads.   

As part of the 2024 celebration, last Friday Francis welcomed representatives from Finland. “Thanks to ecumenism, we use 25 different temples that are non-Catholic; they’re Lutheran or Orthodox churches,” Bishop Raimo Goyarrola of Helsinki told Catholic News Agency at the time. “This is a gift. This is ecumenism in Finland.” 

To cap off this year’s event, a seven day “Growing Together” summit will be held at the Vatican with Anglican and Catholic clergy. They will spend time together in prayer and touring holy sites. On January 23, Anglicans will sing Evensong, the equivalent of Catholic Vespers, inside St. Peter’s.

On January 25, Justin Welby of Canterbury, the head of the Anglican community, will perform an “Anglican Eucharist at the Basilica of St. Bartholomew in Rome. This has earned criticism former Apostolic Nuncio to the United States Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, who described the act as a form of desecration. 

According to Vatican News, later in the day on Thursday, Welby and Pope Francis will send out Anglican and Catholic clergy “in pairs to be witnesses to Christian unity.” 

Where did this understanding of ‘unity’ and ‘full communion’ come from? 

Unitatis Redintegratio, the Second Vatican Council’s document on ecumenism, says that non-Catholic “ecclesial communities” can “enrich” the “Church of Jesus Christ.” Baptized members of these communities, it further claims, are “in communion with the Catholic Church even though this communion is imperfect.” 

The Council’s document Lumen Gentium reiterates this outlook. Christ’s Church “subsists in the Catholic Church” and “many elements of sanctification and truth can be found outside her structure.” These “elements” are “gifts properly belonging to the Church of Christ” and “impel towards catholic unity.” 

Taken collectively, the council says that there exists a larger structure than the Catholic Church called the “Church of Christ” and that it includes all baptized Catholics, Protestants, and other self-identified Christians. Catholics should therefore not act “polemically” towards non-Catholics and instead work for “visible unity” with “all Christians” so the “Church of Christ” can be realized. 

Since the close of Vatican II, this attitude has been adopted throughout the Church. 

“A basic unity… must replace the idea of conversion, even though conversion retains its meaningfulness for those in conscience motivated to seek it,” Father Joseph Ratzinger, who later became Pope Benedict XVI, wrote in 1966, one year after the close of the council.  

“The deliberate targeting of another Christian or group of Christians for the sole purpose of getting them to reject their church to join another, is not allowed,” a press release issued by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops on September 18, 2009, said. “Some people may feel called in conscience to change from one tradition to another, but ‘sheep stealing’ is unacceptable,” it also remarked.  

Francis himself has instructed Catholics to not convince others that their beliefs are wrong. 

“Proselytism is solemn nonsense, it makes no sense,” he infamously remarked in October 2013. While visiting the nation of Georgia in October 2016, he said it is a “very grave sin against ecumenism” for Catholics to try to convert the Orthodox. While still a cardinal, he urged Pentecostal minister Tony Palmer to not become Catholic. He told Palmer that the Church needs “bridge-builders” instead. Francis repeated that attitude when at a meeting with Lutheran pilgrims in the Vatican in October 2016, he rebuked an 8-year-old girl who asked about converting her friends. “It is not licit that you convince them of your faith; proselytism is the strongest poison against the ecumenical path,” he said. 

What did the popes before Vatican II teach about ‘Christian unity’? 

Christian unity has always been desired by the Catholic Church. Division is certainly not what Christ wants for His children. Up until the Second Vatican Council, the Church consistently taught that unity can only come about not when different sects put aside doctrinal questions but when non-Catholics give up their erroneous ideas and embrace the one true faith.  

If “those who are separated from Us… humbly beg light from heaven, there is no doubt but that they will recognize the one true Church of Jesus Christ and will, at last, enter it, being united with us in perfect charity,” Pius XI affirmed in his 1928 encyclical letter Mortalium Animos (On Religious Unity). 

Pius XII reiterated that teaching in Mystici Corporis Christi (On The Mystical Body of Christ) in 1943. Those who are divided in faith or government cannot be living in the unity of the true Church of Jesus Christ,” he recalled. “They err in a matter of divine truth who imagine the Church to be intangible, by which many Christian communities, though they differ from each other in their profession of faith, are united by an invisible bond.” 

Catholics were not only being taught this definition of Christian unity from the popes in the first half of the 20th century, they also learned it from those who reigned in the 19th century. 

In 1899, Leo XIII consecrated the human race to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. The prayer he recited begged Our Lord to be a King to those who “are deceived by erroneous opinions, or whom discord keeps aloof, and call them back to the harbor of truth and unity of faith, so that soon there may be but one flock and one shepherd.” 

“Scattered and separated members cannot possibly cohere with the head so as to make one body,” he also taught in his encyclical Satis Cognitum (On the Unity of the Church) three years prior.

The Fathers of the First Vatican Council, which was held in St. Peter’s from 1869 until 1870 and presided over by Pius IX, definitively declared the same: “The whole multitude of believers should be held together in the unity of faith and communion.” 

The Catholic Church is the Church of Christ 

The popes before the Second Vatican Council would not have agreed with the council’s definition of the Church of Christ. For them, the “Church of Christ” was synonymous with “the Catholic Church.” As such, they, like every pope before them, understood that when Christ prayed “that they all may be one” He was praying that all men would be Catholic. 

“There is but one Church, who alone is called Catholic, and it is she who begets by virtue of that which remains her property in those sects who are separated from her unity, no matter who possesses them,” Saint Augustine taught

“The Church of Christ is one and the same forever,” Pope Leo XIII affirmed in 1896. “Those who leave it depart from the will and command of Christ… leaving the path of salvation they enter on that of perdition.”  

“To the one true Church of Christ, we say, which is visible to all, and which is to remain, according to the will of its Author, exactly the same as He instituted it,” Pius XI reiterated. 

Two American priests helped lay Catholics living in the United States before the 1960s greatly understand the teachings of these popes. Their names are Fathers Leslie Rumble and Charles Carty. Together, they published a three volume-set titled Radio Replies in the 1930s and ’40s. The series included thousands of answers to pressing theological, doctrinal, and moral questions. The books were endorsed by the late Archbishop Fulton Sheen and serve as a reminder of the power of the Church’s doctrinal clarity before the 1960s. Below are just a few of the many responses Rumble and Carty made to inquiries they received about the meaning of “Christian unity.”

“Christ established a definite Church to last for the rest of time… and that definite Church of Christ is the Catholic Church. To her men must return,” they plainly observed in the Volume III edition. “Non-Catholic Churches are not members of this one true Catholic Church,” they added. “All true followers of Christ should be united in one great Church which is not national, but international. There is such a Church – the Catholic Church.” 

They continue: “If men really wish for unity, the remedy is there before them. Let them return to the Catholic Church.”  

“Non-Catholic Churches will never secure unity,” they summarize. “Unity will be possible only when they renounce their independent existence, and their members, one and all, return to the Catholic Church.” 

This wholly rebukes what is and has been taught by post-Vatican II churchmen. 

“The old concept of ecumenism of return today has been replaced by that of a common journey, which directs Christians towards an ecclesial communion comprised as a unity in reconciled diversity,” Walter Cardinal Kasper said in the year 2000. 

“The Council implicitly taught that the united church of the future will not come about by a capitulation of the other churches and their absorption into Roman Catholicism,” the late Cardinal Avery Dulles (1918-2008) stated during a conference in the 1970s.  

Dulles would have surely won the ire of St. Pius X, who in a 1910 letter directed to the Orthodox, declared that all who wish “to defend the cause of unity… to work unceasingly in this most heavenly enterprise, and God… will hasten the day when the nations of the East shall return to Catholic unity… after casting away their errors.” 

It is entirely correct for Philippine Cardinal Luis Tagle to have admitted in 2015 that “the understanding of Church changed radically” at Vatican II.  

‘Discontinuity’ with what came before 

It is clear that what “Christian unity” means before and after the Second Vatican Council are two radically different things. This is confirmed not only by the teachings and papal pronouncements regarding “the Church of Christ” and “full communion” already mentioned. It is evident in the remarks of those who were at the council as well. 

In the 1970 book “Dissent in and For the Church: Theologians and Humanae Vitae,” co-authored by Charles Curran (born 1934), the following paragraph is found on page 80: 

Pius XII, in Mystici Corporis (1943) and again with more emphasis in Humani Generis (1950,) insisted that the mystical body of Jesus on earth was simply identical with the Roman Catholic Church. In Humani Generis, the Pope insisted that his teaching on the matter was to settle the discussion among theologians. Vatican II has produced a different teaching. The theology adopted by Vatican II acknowledges the ecclesial reality of other Christian churches, and does not exclude that the Church of Christ in some way exists in them and, therefore, that the mystical body of Christ cannot be simply identifiable with the Roman Catholic Church. 

Belgian Cardinal Leo Joseph Suenes (1904—1996) was one of the leading progressives at the council. He confessed in the 1966 book Twelve Council Fathers that certain changes were adopted because they were what non-Catholics wanted: 

By our attention to the fact of the collegiality of the bishops, we will show the Orthodox what we are thinking along a line that means so much to them. Moreover, by stressing the role of the laity in the Church, we will reassure the Protestants that we hold something very dear to them – the sharing of the people in the royal priesthood of Christ. Thus, the Second Vatican Council will be an act of charity to our separated brethren – Orthodox, Anglicans, and Protestants. 

Cardinal Richard Cushing, the Archbishop of Boston during Vatican II, likewise admitted in the same book that “we are not trying to make converts. We are not yet at the state of discussing practical means of union. We are just trying to understand each other… we are not attacking the assertions of other faiths… The unity willed by Christ and sought by the Church is not an absorption, not a Latinization, not a diminution.” 

Author Thomas Guarino conceded in The Disputed Teachings of Vatican II that there is a “discontinuity” with what came after the 1960s and what came before. 

Mortalium Animos casts doubt on the entire ecumenical enterprise.” It “forbids Catholics from engaging in the movement,” he writes. On the other hand, the conciliar document Unitatis Redintegratio “warmly welcomes ecumenism, encouraging intelligent and active participation in it.” The “discontinuity between the two documents is the source of consternation for some Catholics.” 

Catholics need to promote authentic Christian unity 

19th century English Cardinal Henry Edward Manning once said that “separation from the visible Body of Christ is separation from the presence and assistance of the Holy Ghost Who inhabits it.” He advised Catholics to “choose your friends from among the friends of God. Be not united with any that are separated from Him.” 

Catholics today wishing to stay faithful to the Church’s traditional teachings on Christian unity should listen to Manning’s wisdom and remind those who occupy positions of authority in the post-Vatican II church that true unity can only come about when non-Catholics return to the one true faith. As 19th century English Bishop John Cuthbert Hedley (1837-1915) once said: 

The religion of Jesus Christ – which Catholicism alone adequately presents to the world – is intended to take possession of every heart, to influence all the actions of men, and to be the grand rule and arbiter in all the world’s concerns, whether public or private, whether social, commercial, or political.

Catholics should take seriously the true implications of the theme of this year’s Week of Christian Unity: “You shall love the Lord your God… and your neighbor as yourself.” Below is the original prayer the Church composed for the initial Week of Christian Unity established in the early 1900s. It expresses a true love of neighbor in that it seeks to help souls who are in ignorance about the Catholic faith and bring them out of spiritual darkness and into the life of grace so they can get to heaven. Full text below:

For the conversion of those in error; for the recomposition of all schisms and the return of the Orthodox and the Eastern Church under papal authority; for the conversion of the Lutherans and Protestants of Europe; for the conversion of the Anglicans; for the conversion of the Protestants of America; for the conversion of lapsed Catholics; for the conversion of Jews; for the conversion of Muslims and the faithful of other religions.