BEHIND the Via della Conciliazione, the great avenue which Mussolini pushed through a maze of narrow streets after the Lateran Treaty of 1929 to open a view of St. Peter's— is a modest building with a spiral staircase and one of those cage-like lifts one prefers to ignore.
On the first floor is the entrance to what can he described only as one of the great powerhouses of the Catholic Church today, the Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity.
Here work the members of Cardinal Bea's team. hand-picked men from many parts of the world. They are trying. as one of them put it to me this week. to discover how much unity there is in the Catholic Church about unity among the Churches.
For the past three years, the Secretariat has been perfecting the instrument it requires for this task. This week it has been presented to the world in the form of a schema for debate in the Vatican Council.
De E(.14111eItiSMO, which the world's bishops began discussing on Monday morning last. is one of the key documents of Vatican H.
For non-Catholics it is the most important of the Council, For almost two whole sessions of the Council they have watched the Fathers discussing the internal nature of the Catholic Church and its workings — examining the machinery, as Archbishop Heenan put it last week-end.
Now the Church is turning its gaze outwards to examine one of the great movements of our time and to decide our own atti4ide towards it.
Rank-and-file Catholics, we can freely admit, have been late to join the ecumenical movement. though individual Catholics have led it from the beginning. There are many historical reasons for this.
But now that it has become respectable to embrace it. they have done se with an enthusiasm and single-mindedness which is both the delight and the envy of the other Christian churches.
The non-Catholic observers at the Council make no secret of their satisfavtion with the Ecumenism schema now under discussion. One leading American observer told me that in his view it was a magnificent document which took scrupulous care of the beliefs and sensitivities of the other Christian churches.
It is no secret that the schema was discussed chapter by chapter and line by line with the observers and their views were carefully considered.
The basic idea of the schema is to take notice of the fact which is apparent to all—the stirring among all Christians of a desire for more activity in common and of the hope that this activity might one day be concretised in formal union. This movement is a particular characteristic of this century.
The schema goes on to examine the part which the Catholic Church, by her nature and mission, can play in this movement and to provide concrete principles by which Catholics can participate in the movement now and can help to develop it in the future.
The drafting of the schema was entrusted to the Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity which was originally established for two purposes:
(a) to interpret the Vatican Council to non-Catholics and to give them a means of contact with the work of the Council; and
(b) to suggest those ideas and principles which would serve the Council in fulfilling its ultimate objective — the achievement of Christian Unity.
It may be recalled that at the first session of the Council, three separate proposals on ecumenism were prepared (the others coming from the Theological Commission and the Commission on Oriental
Churches) and one was briefly discussed and accepted in principle by.the Fathers on December 1, 1962, But the Fathers also directed that the proposal be referred back and that the Secretariat should work the three different proposals into one, De Ecumenism° is the result of their work.
The schema is divided into five chapters and falls into three distinct parts. The first three chapters, which will be considered more fully below. deal with the principles and practice of ecumenism from the Catholic point of view.
Chapter 4, entitled "On the attitude of Catholics towards nonChristians. particularly towards the Jews" was summarised in the CATHOLIC HERALO last week and the title explains itself.
Chapter 5 is still being printed and will be distributed to the Fathers shortly. It deals with religious liberty, one of the most delicate questions to come before the Council and one which is bound to cause a great deal of controversy.
It is reported in Rome that the Theological Commission itself divided 18-5 on the question of including it in the schema.
The chapter on religious liberty would recognise the right of every man to worship as he pleased. It would also acknowledge his right to do so publicly.
Such a freedom concerns not Catholics in Communist countries but also non-Catholics in some predominantly Catholic countries where restrictions are placed on the worship of non-Catholic churches.
The schema starts off by describing the ecumenical movement. Significantly there is no attempt to define it since the drafters of the schema felt that this was impossible. suggesting that they knew the
beginning and the end of the movement.
The predominant advance in the schema is that it recognises the first requirement in ecumenism from the Catholic viewpoint as consisting in interior renewal in the Church.
In the past. the Catholic attitude was that the Church was unchangeable in all its aspects and the only ecumenical movement required was that of non-Catholics to the Church while no movement was required in the Church.
The new ferment in the Church. the mature acceptance that if the Church has, as we believe. the fullness of Christ's gifts, it should manifest them. is a phenomenon of our own times.
It is. too. a vindication for the ideas of men like Fr. Hans Kung who have held that the need for renewal is rooted in the nature of the Church.
And it corresponds to the ideas of Pope John XXIII and his successor who have charted the course of the Church as reform leading to renewal leading to Christian unity.
The basic assumption of the schema, therefore. is that ecumenism is not the work of a group of specialists but an integrated movement in the Church in which the Church manifests more clearly what Christ has given to it.
The second chapter of the schema goes on to give practical directives to Catholics as to how they should engage in the ecumenical movement.
We are not to look at the nonCatholic Christians solely as individuals and to deny their churches any spiritual, theological or ecclesiological value. In these churches are elements which Christ gave to his Church, such as the Bible..
Perhaps the most revolutionary section in the schema is that which states that the Holy Spirit does speak to us through out separated brethren and for our own renewal we must listen to Him when He does so.
Catholics, the schema goes on. must co-operate with the separated brethren not only in the ecumenical dialogue but in practical social work in such matters as housing and the fight against hunger, By this sort of co-operation. we can all give Christian witness.
F.cumcnism is. therefore. seen as a daily conversion of every Catholic. The more that individual Catholics are humbly grateful for the gifts they have. the more they practise self-denial and the more they manifest love for all men, the more they do to achieve Christian unity.
The ecumenical movement. then. is not something for the future since there already exist many elements which can contribute to it.
The third chapter goes on to describe the Christian reality outside the Catholic Church and to discuss our relationship with the other Christian churches.
Since there are wide divergencies between these groups, they are discussed under two broad headingsthe Oriental Churches which are not joined to the See of Peter and the Christian churches in the West.
The schema pays particular attention to the Eastern Churches because of the links that still bind us. It recalls that in early times Rome was called on to arbitrate differences between local churches.
It stresses the place of the local church. a tradition still greatly honoured in the East. And it refers to the fact that many Roman Catholic practices and traditions had their origins in the Orient—in such things as liturgical matters spiritual teaching, monasticism and canon law.
It recalls the definitions of faith made in early Church Councils which werepredominantly Eastern and urges Catholics to revere and encourage the traditions of these Eastern Churches,
With the Western Churches. too, there are many things in common. particularly the memory of the long period when the Christian Church lived in peace and harmony.
We share particular elements with them in which we can find truth—their profession of Christ. their zeal for the Scriptures which they have deeply studied and meditated and which can serve as a precious instrument for dialogue and achieving unity.
Baptism serves as a bond for all Christians but it is seen as only a beginning on the way to unity which requires a complete profession of faith and eucharistic communion.
While public official religious services. particularly the eucharist which is the ultimate sign of unity. is ruled out. we can and should cooperate with other Christians in joint prayer.
These elements. the schema stresses. already exist and form a basis for our dialogue. We have to seek to create new elements of unity and we turn our eyes to the future with confidence.
This is the document which the Vatican Council Fathers arc now discussing. Their debate is expected to go on until at least the end of the present session. No one doubts that the document will he accepted substantially as it stands.
But acceptance of a document is only the beginning. It puts the Church on record as taking a certain line or encouraging certain practices. Rut it cannot of itself create a spirit.
This is where the bishops themselves come in. It is when they come back to their dioceses that the real work of the Vatican Council will beein. when they start to disseminate the spirit of the aggior11aMelf/O.
It is extremely encouraging that Archbishop Heenan has already pledged the English Hierarchy to take the lead in following the Council's directives on ecumenism.
This is the spirit which gives us hope that England, which in many ways has seen some of the worst and most protracted results of the tragic division of Christendom. will play a major part in pulling down the wall which separates us from our brethren and in reuniting the Church of Christ.