Today is also the fiftieth anniversary of the promulgation of Unitatis redintegratio, Vatican II’s Decree on Ecumenism. I’ll begin with a few personal anecdotes about relations between Catholics and Protestants in the 1940s and 1950s.

I grew up in Nanuet, a small town in New York State about twenty-five miles from Manhattan. I attended the small public grammar school where of the twenty-six in  my graduating class (1952) three were Jews, seven or eight were Catholics, and the rest were Protestants. We all got along very well. The atmosphere was generally Christian–this was before the Supreme Court banned prayer in public schools--and we learned and sang Christian hymns at Thanksgiving (“We Gather Together”) and a month later Christmas carols. (I do not know what the three Jews made of it.) My older sisters remember that in the public grammar school they had attended, the day opened with the common recitation of the Twenty-third Psalm, in the King James version, of course.

In that small town, the chief social centers were the Volunteer Fire House and the Dutch Reformed Church, and I do not recall my parents, who were very good practicing Catholics, having any scruples about attending penny sales at that church. My parents had non-Catholic friends, and Catholics and Protestants got along very well.

On the other hand, the only indoor swimming pool in our small county was in the Nyack YMCA, and our priests forbade us to go to it because the small fee we’d have to pay would be contributing to a false religion. If a Catholic married a Protestant, the ceremony could not be held in the Catholic church. It was difficult for Catholics to get teaching positions in the public schools (my mother was told that this was the reason she wasn’t hired at one.). Both sets of my grandparents witnessed the KKK burning crosses against Catholics.

On a larger stage, during and after the Second World War, efforts at inter-religious cooperation were frustrated by Protestant suspicions of Catholic motives and by Catholic fears that publicly to collaborate with Protestants and Jews could suggest that their religions were on an equal basis with Catholicism, thus weakening the Church’s claim to be the only true religion. And I remember in high school hearing Ronald Knox’s quip that all the phonograph records in heaven were labeled “RC”.

The great bogeymen of the time were two men who seemed to be leading an anti-Catholic Protestant crusade: Paul Blanshard and G. Bromley Oxnam. (A friend’s Irish father advised: “Never trust a man who parts his name in the middle.”) A memorable exchange took place between Cardinal Spellman and Methodist Bishop Oxnam over a bill named after its sponsor, Rep. Barden, that would have restricted federal aid for education to public schools. Spellman, known for his love of alliteration, criticized his opponents as “unhooded Klansmen,” “disciples of discrimination,” and entitled the talk he gave on the matter at Fordham University: “The Barden Bill–Brewer of Bigotry.” Oxnam in reply argued that the Barden bill aimed at “the preservation of American public education and its protection from a prelate with a prehensile hand.”

All of which helps to understand why, when in September 1950 John Courtney Murray attended a meeting of Catholic ecumenists in Grottaferrata, Italy, he reported on the sorry state of Catholic-Protestant relations in the U.S. “I was obliged to report,” he later wrote, that practically no ecumenical activity was going on.... The atmosphere was one of mutual mistrust, suspicion, not to say hostility."  Six years later, Reinhold Niebuhr made a similar assessment: “The relations between Catholics and Protestants in this country are a scandal and an offense against Christian charity.”

What a revolution it represented, then, that the Second Vatican Council said in UR 3:

  Of the elements or blessings by which, taken together, the Church herself is built up and given life, some, indeed very many of them, and outstanding ones, can exist outside the visible boundaries of the Catholic Church: the written Word of God, the life of grace, faith, hope and charity, and other inner gifts of the Holy Spirit and visible elements. All these things, which come from Christ and lead to him, belong by right to the unique Church of Christ.

  More than a few of the sacred actions of the Christian religion are also carried out among the brethren separated from us, and these, in various ways according to the different condition of each Church or Community, can without doubt really generate the life of grace and must be said to be capable of opening the way into the fellowship o f salvation.

  These separated Churches and Communities, even if we believe they suffer from certain lacks, are not deprived of significance and weight in the mystery of salvation. For the Spirit of Christ does not refuse to use them as means of salvation whose power derives from the fullness of grace and truth which was entrusted to the Catholic Church.

Put simply, the Council was in effect saying that a Lutheran, say, is not saved in spite of his being Lutheran (as we were taught), but precisely because of the ecclesial elements that the Lutheran Church had retained.

What, then, of the Catholic Church’s claim to be the one in which Christ’s Church was said to “subsist” (LG 8)? The Decree on Ecumenism explains it further on in the same paragraph:

Only through the Catholic Church of Christ, which is the general help toward salvation, can the fullness of the means of salvation be attained (UR 3).

Notice that this is a statement about the means of salvation; it is not the claim that the Catholic Church better embodies the reality of Christ’s salvation than do other Churches or Communities. It is speaking about the elements that constitute the Church as an instrument of salvation, the elements that might conveniently be identified in the pillars of the Catholic understanding of the Church: the canon of the Scriptures, the Creed, the sacraments, and the apostolic ministry. It is the claim that the full list of these means of salvation can be found only in the Catholic Church.

These remarkable statements, which concentrate on what Catholics and other Christians have in common rather than on the areas where they disagree and are divided, provided the initial impetus for the remarkable engagement of the Catholic Church in an ecumenical movement from which it had fought shy for over a century.

One way in which this conciliar revolution was brought home was through “Living Room Dialogues,” little books that provided materials for groups of people from different Christian Churches to discuss together. I started such a group in a parish, and I remember some of the members remarking that although they knew one another very well on other grounds before, this was the first time they had ever engaged in conversations about their religious beliefs and practices. What twenty years earlier had been impossible was now being done, and not only in learned symposia or in parishes but in living rooms. I do not think it is too much to speak of a revolution in Catholic attitude and practice.

Rev. Joseph A. Komonchak, professor emeritus of the School of Theology and Religious Studies at the Catholic University of America, is a retired priest of the Archdiocese of New York.

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