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 Religious Unity - Instruction of the Holy Office 
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New post Religious Unity - Instruction of the Holy Office
Problems In Canon Law – Classified Replies to Practical Questions
by William Conway, D.D., D.C.L.
St. Patrick’s College, Maynooth
Newman Press, Westminster, Maryland, 1956. pp. 328-335.

This is a direct transcription of the original, except that all footnote text has been incorporated into the body, enclosed in each case within square brackets.


In 1949 the Supreme Congregation of the Holy Office published an important ’Instruction’ on the question of Christian unity. The following commentary is based on the Latin text as published in the Acta Apostolicae Sedis. [Suprema S. Congregatio S. Officii, ‘Instructio. Ad Locorum Ordinarios: “De motione oecumenica,” 20th December, 1949, A.A.S., xlii (1950), P. 142. The date on this issue of the Acta Apostolicae Sedis is 31st January, 1950, and on that date, in 1953, the faculty given for three years in paragraph IV of the Instruction lapsed. Actually this issue of the Acta was not issued till the beginning of March.]

1. Purpose of the Document.—The problem with which this document is concerned arises from the fact that there are, at the present time, many millions of people who profess belief in Christ but who are actually cut off from the Church of Christ. The divine mission of the Church ‘to preach the gospel to every creature’ applies to these ‘non-Catholics’ no less than to the millions of ‘non-Christians’ who are also outside the Church; the Church has a divinely-given duty to do everything in her power to bring back into the fold all those who are outside it. This is a duty which, resting on the Church as a whole, pertains in a particular way to Bishops, ‘whom the Holy Ghost has placed to rule the Church of God.’ (Acts, xx. 28.)

But it is obvious that the fulfilment of this duty towards non-Catholics has certain attendant dangers. Firstly, there is the danger that action by the Church in this matter may be misconstrued — it may be regarded as an acceptance of that principle of religious unity which looks on all religions as ‘more or less good and praiseworthy.’[‘Inasmuch as all give expression, under various forms, to that innate sense which leads men to God and to the obedient acknowledgment of His Rule’: Pius XI, Encyclical Mortalium Animos. ‘To favour this opinion,’ continued Pius XI, ‘and to encourage such undertakings, is tantamount to abandoning the religion revealed by God.’] Secondly, there is the danger that those who are most anxious for the return of ‘separated brethren’ may, in their anxiety to make that return easy, express Catholic truth in a way that tends to obscure its purity and clarity. The Church’s supreme mission, to preserve the truth of Christ from error and corruption in the minds of her children, demands that the one aim must always be pursued without danger to the other.

There is a twofold duty resting upon Bishops: a duty to strive for the return of those outside the Church and a duty to ensure that efforts to achieve this do not in any way cloud or distort the grasp of divine truth in the minds of men. The present document is issued in order to give some guidance and norms to local Ordinaries as to how this twofold duty may be fulfilled in the circumstances of the present time.

2. Means towards furthering the return of non-Catholics. — Certain Press reports which appeared at the time of the publication of this document tended to imply that the Holy Office considered what may be described as ‘round-table conferences’ between Catholics and non-Catholics as the principal and most effective means towards achieving the return of those outside the Church. Such a view seriously misconceives and distorts the whole tenor and purport of the document. We shall discuss presently the very precise directions given by the Holy Office in this matter; but it may be said at once that these conferences are considered by the document, not as the most effective, but as the most dangerous means of furthering the work of ’reunion.’ The use of this means is therefore hedged around with restrictions and cautions which do not directly apply to the other means which are mentioned. It may be useful at this stage to give a list of these other means.
(a) Prayer. Both at the beginning and the end of the document the Holy Office urges that the whole Catholic world should pray to God that non-Catholics be given ‘light and strength’ to return to the true Church of Christ. In a supernatural work of this kind it is obvious that prayer must take precedence over every other means. The ‘Church Unity Octave’ is a useful occasion for reminding the faithful of their duties in this matter.
(b) Good example. ‘Nothing,’ says the Instruction, ‘will contribute more towards preparing the way for those who are in error to embrace the truth and the Church, than the faith of Catholics being testified to by their edifying lives.’
(c) Facilities for the instruction of prospective converts, as well as facilities for the further instruction of neo-conversi after they have been received into the Church.
(d) Books, pamphlets, and other literature designed to explain Catholic teaching and practice to those outside the Church.
(e) Information centres, where those interested in Catholic truth may receive accurate information as to Catholic belief and practice. In some countries such centres take the form of bureaus, open to the public (such as ‘The Open Door’ in Amsterdam), where qualified priests are in attendance to give information to inquirers.
(f) Lectures on Catholic truth for non-Catholics. Such, for example, are the courses of lectures given in recent years by the Redemptorist Fathers in Belfast and various ‘one-day retreats’ given under the auspices of the Legion of Mary.

The above are the principal and most obvious means towards fulfilling the Church’s mission towards non-Catholics and they are all commended to local Ordinaries in the Instruction. The document also mentions, though it does not positively recommend, ‘round-table conferences’ on religion, between Catholics and non-Catholics. These conferences, says the Instruction, ‘call for exceptional vigilance and control’ and it gives precise rules in regard to them which we shall discuss below. Before dealing with this particular question, however, it may be well to outline certain general directives which the Holy Office gives for the entire work of fostering the return of those outside the Church.

3. General Directives.

(a) The first general directive is to the effect that the competent ecclesiastical authority in this entire field is the Bishop.
‘As to the method to be followed in this work, it is for the Bishops themselves to prescribe what is to be done and what is to be avoided and their prescriptions are to be observed by all.’
‘Religious Superiors must see to it that their subjects adhere, strictly and faithfully, to the norms given by the Holy See or by local Ordinaries.’ [Instruction, pars. II, VII.]
This directive is simply an application of a fundamental principle in canon law, namely, that the office of teaching divine truth and of preserving the deposit of faith from error pertains primarily and principally to the Pope and the Bishops.
'The duty of preaching the Catholic faith is committed principally to the Pope for the Universal Church, and to Bishops for their dioceses.' (Canon 1327.)
'Local Ordinaries must take care that … nothing alien to the faith is introduced into the daily lives of the faithful….' (Canon 1261.)

(b) The second general directive given is that in all efforts towards ‘reunion’ it must be made crystal clear that there is no question of restoring a unity which has been lost, but simply of a return by non-Catholics to a unity which has always existed and which can never cease to exist. The unity of the Church of Christ is absolute and indivisible and that Church has never lost its unity, nor, for so much as a moment of time, ever can. There is question, therefore, of non-Catholics returning to the Catholic Church and becoming Catholics; there can be no question of Catholics and non-Catholics uniting to form some kind of Christian federation. From this point of view, therefore, the term ‘reunion’ is apt to be misleading, and when used in the present Instruction it is always put in inverted commas.

(c) Thirdly, the Instruction stresses that the Catholic truth must be presented to non-Catholics totally and integrally. The Instruction explicitly condemns that method of approach which concentrates on stressing points of doctrine on which Catholics and non-Catholics are agreed rather than those on which they disagree. To quote the Encyclical Mortalium Animos, to which the present Instruction refers:
'All true followers of Christ, therefore, will believe the dogma of the Immaculate Conception of the Mother of God with the same faith as they believe the mystery of the august Trinity, the infallibility of the Roman Pontiff in the sense defined by the Oecumenical Vatican Council with the same faith as they believe the Incarnation of Our Lord. That these truths have been solemnly sanctioned and defined by the Church at various times, some of them even quite recently, makes no difference to their certainty, nor to our obligation of believing them. Has not God revealed them all?'

In particular the Instruction contains a warning against 'certain dangerous modes of expression,' such as saying 'that what the Popes have written in their Encyclical letters about the return of our separated brethren to the Church, about the Mystical Body or about the constitution of the Church, is not to be taken too seriously, for after all not everything is de fide; worse still, saying that in the realm of dogma not even the Catholic Church yet possesses the fullness of Christ, but can be perfected from other sources.' The Instruction also stresses that in treating of the history of the Reformation, the essential issue, that it was a falling-away from the Catholic faith, must not be allowed to become obscured.

These general directives cover all activities in this field, whether instructions to prospective converts, books and pamphlets written for non-Catholics, lectures and instructions for, or conferences with, non-Catholics. In addition the Instruction directs Bishops to appoint suitable priests to make a special study of the whole question and its past history in their dioceses, these priests to report back to their Bishops from time to time.

4. 'Round-table' conferences and meetings with non-Catholics. — On this subject the Instruction is very precise and cautious. The type of conference or meeting which is envisaged is one in which Catholics and non-Catholics meet together to discuss religious questions, each religious group having, so to speak, equal rights at the meeting. Such conferences and meetings have been held from time to time in various countries in recent years and their precise form has varied somewhat from place to place. Sometimes a paper is read by a Catholic on a selected religious theme and this is followed by the reading of another paper on the same theme by a non-Catholic, the conference concluding with a general discussion on the two papers. In other cases each delegate to the conference expounds the views of his own denomination on the selected subject and this is again followed by a general discussion.

It is obvious that this type of meeting differs radically from a lecture on the Catholic faith given by a Catholic to non-Catholics — even though members of the non-Catholic audience may subsequently put questions, orally or in writing, to the lecturer. Even if the non-Catholic, in order to clarify the point of his question, explains the non-Catholic position on the point at issue, the essential character of the meeting is unchanged; the exposition of Catholic truth is the principale; the statement of non-Catholic views is accessorium and is made only to elucidate the question. The Instruction makes clear that in speaking of ’conferences‘ it has not got such ‘lectures with answers to questions’ in mind. The type of meeting contemplated, and conditionally forbidden, is one in which Catholic and non-Catholic speakers are, so to speak, aeque principales, at the meeting.’ [‘Par cum pari agens’ (Instruction, par. IV).]

Anyone can see the dangers involved in round-table conferences of this kind. There is the danger that the Catholics, in accepting merely equal rights of speaking at the meeting, may give the impression that they accept the principle that the Catholic Church is on an equal footing with other religious bodies. There is also the danger that those who attend such meetings may come to regard them almost as diplomatic conferences, where each side having stated its position an attempt is made to arrive at a formula which will be acceptable to both sides. Such an attitude of attempting to reach a compromise between truth and error would, of course, involve a fatal misconception of the whole Catholic faith and might have the serious effect of blurring the outlines of Catholic dogmas even in the minds of Catholics.

For these reasons canon law has always taken up a much less tolerant attitude towards these ‘round-table’ conferences than to the other means outlined above. [These meetings were the subject of a special ‘Warning’ by the Holy Office in 1948, A.A.S., x. (1948), p. 257, and attention is directed to that document in the present Instruction.] Catholics are forbidden to arrange, attend or take part in such conferences without the previous permission of the Holy See (Canon 1325). For the next three years [This faculty was not renewed up to 1956.] local Ordinaries were empowered to grant this ‘permission of the Holy See’ for conferences of a local character but not for conferences of an interdiocesan, national or international character. The existing legal position in regard to such conferences may be stated as follows:
(a) No Catholic may participate in, attend, organize, or even make preliminary arrangements or proposals for such conferences without the previous permission of the Holy See or the local Ordinary. This applies to all Catholics, lay, cleric, or religious. [The rule applies to exempt religious because the prohibition is not episcopal but pontifical. The prohibition remains until it is raised by someone with authority to do so and this authority is given only to local Ordinaries.]
The required permission of the local Ordinary must always be given beforehand; it may never be ‘presumed.’

(b) This permission may be given only for a conference which has for its object the clear statement and elucidation of different religious points of view. If the implied object of the conference is to further or achieve some kind of federal union between persons or denominations who will continue to hold different religious beliefs, co-operation with such an object is forbidden by divine law. [‘…there seems little doubt that they would do so only on condition that no pact into which they might enter should compel them to retract those opinions which still keep them outside the one fold of Christ. This being so, it is clear that the Apostolic See can by no means take part in these assemblies, nor is it in any way lawful for Catholics to give to such enterprises their encouragement or support. If they did so, they would be giving countenance to a false Christianity quite alien to the one Church of Christ.’—Pius XI, Mortalium Animos.]

(c) No attempt may be made at such conferences to achieve ‘agreed formulae’ which will embrace different Catholic and non-Catholic points of view on religious matters. [‘Cavendum est enim ne spiritu, qui irenicus hodie dicitur, doctrina catholica—sive de dogmate sive de veritatibus cum dogmate connexis agatur— studio comparativo et desiderio vano assimilationis cuiusdam progressivae variarum professionum fidei ita conformetur vel quodammodo accommodetur doctrinis dissidentium, ut puritas doctrinae catholicae detrimentum patiatur vel eius sensus genuinus et certus obscuretur.’]

(d) Permission may be granted only to those ‘who are known to be well-instructed and firmly grounded in the faith’; the discussions themselves must be duly supervised and controlled.

(e) All communicatio in sacris, i.e. participation with non-Catholics in an act of religious worship, is forbidden. This prohibition, of course, being a prohibition of the divine law, is absolute; the necessity for recalling it is underlined by the fact that at certain ‘reunion ‘ meetings on the Continent in recent years non-Catholics have received the Eucharist during Mass celebrated by a Catholic priest while Catholics have communicated during ‘Mass’ celebrated by a non-Catholic minister. [Cf. Hurth in Periodica, xxxvii (1948), p. 175.] Moral theologians have always taught, of course, that it is not forbidden for Catholics, on occasion, to join with non-Catholics in private prayer and for this reason the Instruction mentions that ‘it is not forbidden to open or close such meetings with the common recitation of the “Our Father” or some other prayer approved by the Catholic Church. A meeting which opens and closes with prayer of this kind is obviously something quite different from a “religious service.”’

(f) The above prescriptions apply also to conferences between theologians; but only priests may be sent to such conferences and these must have proved their fitness for such tasks by their knowledge of theology and by their close adherence to the Church’s principles and regulations in this matter.

(g) At the end of each year a report must be sent to the Holy Office giving a list of the places where such meetings have been held and an account of what experiences have been gained.

In conclusion it may be pointed out that the Instruction contains no direction or recommendation, expressed or implied, that such ‘round-table’ conferences be authorized or attended. It reminds local Ordinaries of their duty to do all in their power to further the return of non-Catholics to the Church, but it leaves it to each local Ordinary to decide what means are practicable and prudent in his own diocese; the principal means, which the Instruction stresses and recommends, are those listed in paragraph 2 of this note.

Sat Sep 08, 2007 6:39 am
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