All the World Sub Petro: The Goal and Scope of Roman Catholic Ecumenism

With the approaching 500th anniversary of Luther’s 95 theses and the concomitant efforts to ecumenically declare, in the wake of initiatives such as the joint Lutheran-Catholic statement on justification, the end of the Reformation, it is important that non-Roman Christians, especially Protestants, be aware of the overarching goal and scope of Rome’s ecumenism. A century ago, the Catholic Church refused any involvement in the burgeoning ecumenical movement that was actually born among Protestants. Today, especially under the leadership of Pope Francis, the Catholic Church is perhaps the foremost advocate of ecumenical unity. What accounts for this change? Does it download-e1477092858100even represent a change from the decisively Rome-centric form of post-Tridentine Catholicism? What does the Catholic Church hope to accomplish in relegating the Reformation to the pages of history?

To answer these questions, it is important to understand how the Catholic Church defines itself and its mission. The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) plainly states that “the Church is catholic because Christ is present in her”, a reality visibly manifested in three primary ways: “correct and complete confession of faith, full sacramental life, and ordained ministry in apostolic succession” (830). While the first two marks are utterly important, serving as the indispensable bonds of unity and means of salvation, the Catechism emphasises that only the third can ultimately guarantee their integrity and efficacy (837, 861, 1087). Therefore, the Catechism, citing Vatican II’s Lumen Gentium, affirms that “the Roman Pontiff by reason of his office as Vicar of Christ, and as pastor of the entire Church” is “the perpetual and visible source and foundation of the unity both of the bishops and of the whole company of the faithful” and thus “has full, supreme, and universal power over the whole Church, a power which he can always exercise unhindered”(882). So foundational is the apostolic hierarchy to Catholic identity that other “ecclesial communities which have not persevered the valid Episcopate” are consequently not considered by Rome to be “Churches in the proper sense” (Dominus Iesus 17). Rather, “Catholics are bound to profess that…they belong to the Church which Christ founded and which is governed by the successors of Peter and the other Apostles” (Mysterium Ecclesiae 1). The Church, in other words, is ‘Catholic’ insofar as it is ‘Roman’.

Roman Catholicism’s clear sense of identity imbues it with an equally clear sense of mission as “a sacramental sign and an instrument of intimate union with God, and of the unity of the whole human race” (Christus Dominus 42). According to Rome’s missionary manifesto Ad Gentes (1), the Church is “driven by the inner necessity of her own catholicity…to save and renew every creature, that all things may be restored in Christ and all men may constitute one family in Him”. On the one hand, therefore, Rome’s ‘Catholic’ identity propels it outward to redemptively embrace all the peoples of the world who are at enmity with God and with each other. On the other hand, however, Rome’s particular notion of catholicity, inseparably bound to the apostolic authority exercised by Peter’s successor, requires that its mission remain inseparably tethered to its Roman centre.

Thus, although recognising that salvific grace “can exist outside the visible boundaries of the Catholic Church” among “the separated Churches and Communities”, Rome declares that “it is only through Christ’s Catholic Church, which is ‘the all-embracing means of salvation,’ that they can benefit fully from the means of salvation” (Lumen Gentium 3). Indeed, whatever “elements of sanctification and of truth are found outside of its visible structure” are ultimately “gifts belonging to the Church of Christ” and “forces impelling toward catholic unity” (Dei Verbum 8). Undoubtedly, Vatican II signalled a new degree of receptivity to the outside world; nevertheless, as Pope John Paul II (Ut Unum Sint 87, 97) enunciated, “the desired goal of the journey we are making” is “full and visible communion” of which “an vatican-1_wide-99824f48ff0590cf1e349e13f88d0e5ed5631e46-s900-c85essential requisite” is “the communion of the particular [i.e. separated] Churches with the Church of Rome”.

At first glance, Catholicism’s centripetal ‘Romanising’ force may seem incompatible with its centrifugal, and more ecumenical, ‘Catholic’ impulse, especially for those who construe Vatican II’s unprecedented openness as a radical break from Tridentine intolerance and isolationism. Nevertheless, Roman Catholicism is able to resolve this tension on account of its essence as a complexio oppositorum (combination of opposites) – manifested in its et-et (both-and) epistemology – that permits it to absorb and assimilate (i.e. catholicise) seemingly contradictory components and reincorporate (i.e. Romanise) them within its existing framework Rome is thus capable of reconciling various “customs, views on life, and social order…with the manner of living taught by divine revelation” such that “[p]articular traditions, together with the peculiar patrimony of each family of nations…can then be taken up into Catholic unity” (Ad Gentes 22).

As Italian theologian Leonardo De Chirico, an expert on Roman Catholicism, explains:

The Roman Catholic mindset is characterized by an attitude of overall openness without losing touch with its Roman center. It is inherently dynamic and comprehensive, capable of holding together doctrines, ideas and practices that in other Christian traditions are thought of as mutually exclusive. By way of its inclusive et-et (both-and) epistemology, in a catholic system two apparently contradicting elements can be reconciled into a synthesis which entail both. In principle, the system is wide enough to welcome everything and everyone. The defining term is not the Word of God written (sola Scriptura) but the Roman Church itself. From a catholic point of view, then, affirming something does not necessarily mean denying something else, but simply enlarging one’s perspective of the truth…

Catholicity allows doctrinal development without a radical breach from the past and also allows different kinds of catholicity to co-exist. Each Pope has his own catholicity project. John Paul II pushed for the church to become a global player, thus expanding geographical catholicity and its profile with the media. Benedict XVI tried to define catholicity in terms of its adherence to universal ‘reason’, thus trying to remove the chasm between faith and reason that Western Enlightenment had introduced…

After the initial years of his pontificate, it is becoming apparent what kind of catholicity Francis has in mind. He wants to build on John Paul II’s global catholicity while shifting emphases from Wojtyla’s doctrinal rigidity to more inclusive patterns. He pays lip service to Ratzinger’s rational catholicity, but wants to move the agenda from Western ideological battles to ‘human’ issues which find appeal across the global spectrum. If Ratzinger wanted to mark the difference between the Church and the world, Francis tries to make them overlap…Francis has little time for ‘non-negotiable’ truths, and gives more attention to the variety of people’s conscience. He is more interested in warmth than light, more in empathy than judgment. He focuses on attitude rather than identity, and on embracing rather than teaching. He underlines the relation over the doctrinal. For him proximity is more important than integrity. Belonging together has priority over believing differently. Reaching out to people comes before calling them back. Of course, all these marks are not pitted against each other, but their relationship is worked out within a new balance whereby the first one determines the overall orientation. Roman catholicity works this way: never abandoning the past, always enlarging the synthesis by repositioning the elements around the Roman center…

However, lest we think that Pope Francis represents a radical reversal in Catholicism’s Roman-centricity, De Chirico cites the pope’s reference

to a ‘full’ and ‘visible’ unity as the goal of ecumenism. According to the Roman Catholic view, ‘full’ means sacramentally full, i.e. the same baptism, same eucharist, same ministry. Given the self-understanding of the Roman Church, it means adhering and submitting to the sacramental theology of Rome and the hierarchical nature of its priesthood. ‘Visible’ means that unity needs to accept the visible Papal structure of the Roman Catholic Church as the divinely appointed way for the One Church of Christ. The ecumenical price for full and visible unity is the acceptance of the Roman Catholic view of the Church. All other views are defective and, in the end, partial and invisible.[2]

Therefore, while at one level discontinuous with the past, Catholicism’s post-conciliar receptivity may actually reflect its efforts to achieve deeper coherency with its own et-et nature and greater recognition as “the global Church” (pace Karl Rahner) in the modern era, a vocation that its ‘catholic’ identity has always entailed . Whereas Trent sought to francis-interfaithachieve this goal through condemnation and excommunication (an approach more suitable to medieval society), Vatican II and Pope Francis seem to do so more effectively by giving Rome a more irenic and welcoming image (indispensable for its mission in contemporary society) and by enabling it to claim those outside its traditional boundaries whether they acknowledge it or not. Thus, Rome can now consider former heretics as “separated brethren” in partial communion (Dignitatis Humanae 3) and even define non-Christian religions as, again in Rahner’s  words, “anonymous” forms of Catholic Christianity that have not yet reached full maturity. From this perspective, the contemporary form of Roman Catholicism may actually be considered as its most true and powerful iteration, most capable of fulfilling its inner mandate to become the One Church of the whole world sub Petro, under Peter and his papal successor.

Indeed, as De Chirico further explains, this movement toward Roman Catholic universality can be seen in the way in which the pope is increasingly becoming a global figure whose influence extends beyond the merely religious and touches the political and the cultural, a worldwide leader to whom more and more people, both Christians and non, are looking as their advocate and spokesperson:

The debate on the prospects of the Papacy is not confined to ecumenical circles. Since present-day Popes are global figures, well known far beyond the borders of Christianity, the discussion has taken an inter-faith dimension too…In these inter-faith circles, the Pope is increasingly considered to be the highest representative of Christianity and the most authoritative figure in the religious world. Some religious leaders (e.g. from the Muslim world) go as far as saying that the Pope represents the whole of humanity when he advocates for the poor of the world or when he makes appeals for peace. The symbolic importance of the Pope as embodying the unity of mankind further stretches the Papacy into a pan-religious service. The fact that many secular people, though not recognizing the outward religious elements of the Papacy, are ready to acclaim the Pope as a ‘star’ (at least when he makes politically correct statements) is a further indication that the contours of the debate over the future of the Papacy go far beyond the traditional intra-ecclesiastical boundaries. The world, religious and secular, seems to need a global figure that no political institution and no international organization can provide at the moment. Could the Papacy become such a universal leadership structure? [3]

In conclusion, I would simply like to say, in reference to Revelation 13:18, that De Chirico’s provocative question is a “call for wisdom” that the Protestant “who has understanding” should heed: could the papacy become such a universal leadership structure at the head the world’s global church?


[1] De Chirico, L., 2015. A Christian’s Pocket Guide to Papacy: Its Origin and Role in the 21st Century. Ross-shire: Christian Focus, pp.90-92.

[2] Ibid., p.99.

[3] Ibid., pp.101-102.