In January of this year, a controversy erupted over a Virginia bishop’s decision to allow an Episcopalian diocese to use a Catholic parish for the consecration of an Episcopalian bishop, Susan Haynes.
Bishop Barry Knestout of the Catholic diocese of Richmond defended the decision to allow the Episcopalian Diocese of Southern Virginia to use St. Bede Catholic Church in Williamsburg, citing Vatican II documents on ecumenism. But the location of the event was changed after an internet petition objecting to the event drew national attention.
The new document may help bishops navigate situations like this in the future.
The guide for bishops also addresses what it calls “interchurch marriages,” when a Catholic and a non-Catholic Christian marry. It says these marriages “should not be regarded as problems for they are often a privileged place where the unity of Christians is built. However, pastors cannot be indifferent to the pain of Christian division which is experienced in the context of these families, perhaps more sharply than in any other context.”
The document recommends that bishops meet with and listen to interchurch families in their dioceses, especially during marriage preparation and as couples have children and prepare them to receive the sacraments.
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Koch said that the idea for the vademecum came about during the pontifical council’s 2016 plenary meeting, attended by bishops from around the world. He explained that some members of the council asked for a practical document for bishops to learn from and reference on the topic of ecumenism. The guide then took three years to write, in consultation with other curial departments.
“The ministry of the bishop is the ministry for unity,” the cardinal said. “Not just for his own diocese or for the Catholic Church, but unity for the whole of Christians.”
The new document also notes the obligation of lay Catholics to work for unity with other Christians and promotes “practical ecumenism,” which it describes as Christians serving together to promote a common cause or to address injustices, such as human trafficking, mistreatment of immigrants, and attacks on the sanctity of life, among other issues.
“The experience of bishops in many parts of the world is that cooperation between Christian communities in service of the poor is a driving force in promoting the desire for Christian unity,” it says.
“Our common service manifests before the world, therefore, our shared faith, and our witness is more powerful for being united.”
Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle, prefect of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, emphasized the importance of Christians being united in order to give authentic witness to people of other religions.
“Lack of unity among followers of Jesus … undermines evangelization and obscures the person of Jesus. The non-Christians are confused: ‘How many Christs are there?’” he said in the press conference.
“The non-Christians are scandalized, really scandalized, when we all claim to be followers of Christ and they see how we are fighting one another,” he continued. “It weakens -- the lack of unity and even this almost outright anger toward one another -- it weakens evangelization.”
The vademecum stresses “the long history of Christian divisions and the complex nature of the theological and cultural factors that divide Christian communities” and the challenges they present to those engaged in ecumenism, noting that “the obstacles to unity are beyond human strength; they cannot be overcome by our efforts alone.”
“But the death and resurrection of Christ is God’s decisive victory over sin and division, just as it is His victory over injustice and every form of evil. For this reason Christians cannot despair in the face of Christian division, just as they cannot despair in the face of injustice or warfare. Christ has already defeated these evils,” it says.
“The task of the Church,” it continues, “is always to receive the grace of the victory of Christ. The practical recommendation and initiatives suggested in this vademecum are ways in which the Church and, in particular, the bishop can strive to actualise Christ’s victory over Christian division.”
The document highlights prayer, noting that by “praying for unity, we acknowledge that unity is a gift of the Holy Spirit and not something we can achieve through our own efforts.” It also lays out some of the common beliefs among different Christian communities, such as in the saints and martyrs, liturgical feasts, and Sacred Scripture.
It also explains that ecumenism is not based on compromise, “as if unity should be achieved at the expense of truth. On the contrary, the search for unity leads us into a fuller appreciation of God’s revealed truth.”
“The bedrock of ecumenical formation, therefore, is that ‘the Catholic faith must be explained more profoundly and precisely, in such a way and in such terms as our separated brethren can also really understand,’” it states.
Ecumenism also requires the virtue of charity, the guide says, urging Catholics to “avoid polemical presentations of Christian history and theology” and to “seek to emphasize the Christian faith that we share with others and to present the theological differences that divide us with balance and accuracy.”
The guide ends with an appendix of the names and descriptions of different Christian communities with which the Catholic Church conducts bilateral dialogue, as well as a list of the ecumenical groups with which it engages in multilateral dialogue.
Hannah Brockhaus is Catholic News Agency's senior Rome correspondent. She grew up in Omaha, Nebraska, and has a degree in English from Truman State University in Missouri.