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Pope Pius XI and Ecumenism

On the occasion of the death of Pope John Paul II, Bishop Bernard Fellay, superior general of the Society of St. Pius X wrote a press release (posted at In it he commended the Holy Father for his incredible work in the moral arena, but he condemned him for his “indefatigable efforts . . . toward ecumenism.” Fellay, along with many other radical traditionalists, frequently criticize the Second Vatican Council and the subsequent popes because of their support of the ecumenical movement. They claim that to support ecumenism directly contradicts the position of previous popes (particularly Pius XI) who refused to participate in any of the ecumenical efforts of their day. But a closer examination of history shows that their claim is unfounded.

Pius XI’s 1928 encyclical Mortalium Animos did condemn some of the ecumenical efforts of his day, but in order to understand Mortalium Animos it is necessary to understand the historical context in which it was written. Additionally, a more comprehensive study of the writings and statements of Pius XI shows that he held ideas more akin to the position of the magisterium today than the SSPX would have us believe.

That They May All Be One

The modern ecumenical movement can be said to have its roots in the 1910 meeting of the World Mission Conference in Edinburgh, Scotland. This meeting came about primarily because of problems that missionaries were discovering in the field. Missionaries from many different denominations were trying to convert people in the same areas, running into conflicts with each other. The organizers of the Edinburgh conference specifically sought to avoid questions of doctrine; their point was to show a united front, a united Christianity, to combat the issues of the day.

Two major groups grew out of this conference:

Life and Work focused primarily on missions and service. They more or less avoided questions of doctrine, focusing instead on social issues.

Faith and Order, on the other hand, concentrated on manner of worship and ecclesiology—i.e., what a church is and how it works. While Faith and Order did discuss matters of doctrine, it was purely in the capacity of comparison; it did not seek to settle the differences. Each community, according to Faith and Order, was entitled to its own beliefs, even if they were contradictory. It specifically stated that the purpose of the movement was not to convert any community to the ideas of another.

The work of Faith and Order was put on hold for a time during World War I. In the tension before the war, politics made a meeting of people from many different countries impossible. It wasn’t until 1927 that the movement was able to organize its first major conference. A group of representatives went to the Vatican to invite Pope Pius XI to participate in the conference. The Holy Father warmly welcomed the visitors and encouraged the spirit that led them to seek unity. At the same time, he firmly refused to attend and forbade any Catholics to participate.

While there were no Catholics at the conference, 450 people representing ninety different denominations did attend. The program called for discussions on unity, ecclesiology, sacraments, and ministry. Not surprisingly, little was accomplished. Doctrinal differences were not really discussed at all, and opposition between the “high church” and “low church” views kept the conferees from agreement on even the nature of the ecumenical movement. In the end, the most significant feature of the conference is that it took place at all.

“A Most Grave Error” 

This, then, was the situation that Pius XI was facing when he set out to write Mortalium Animos, which strongly condemned the errors the Holy Father saw being manifested in the ecumenical movements of the day. He acknowledged that, superficially, these efforts appeared good and worthy. But, he warned:

In reality beneath these enticing words and blandishments lies hid a most grave error by which the foundations of the Catholic faith are completely destroyed (MA 4).

He went on to describe the errors. First, those encouraging these efforts denied the visible reality of the Church of Christ, maintaining that the true Church is only invisible:

They understand a visible Church as nothing else than a federation composed of various communities of Christians, even though they adhere to different doctrines that may even be incompatible with each other (MA 6).

Second, he criticized efforts that seek to deny the contradictions found in the beliefs of many Christians. By maintaining that only a handful of doctrines, or “fundamentals,” actually require unity of belief, they allowed for direct contradictions within their invisible “Church of Christ.” They saw these differences and contradictions as unimportant:

They add that the Church in itself, or of its nature, is divided into sections; that is to say, that it is made up of several churches or distinct communities that still remain separate and, although having certain articles of doctrine in common, nevertheless disagree concerning the remainder. . . . Controversies, therefore, they say, and longstanding differences of opinion that keep asunder till the present day the members of the Christian families, must be entirely put aside and from the remaining doctrines a common form of faith drawn up and proposed for belief (MA 7).

It is in light of these errors that the Holy Father condemned these efforts at “pan-Christianity,” as he called it:

This being so, it is clear that the Apostolic See cannot on any terms take part in their assemblies, nor is it anyway lawful for Catholics either to support or to work for such enterprises (MA 8).

Looking East

Instead, Pius XI focused his ecumenical efforts on reunion with the Eastern Churches. From the beginning of his papacy he worked toward union with the East, encouraging study of Eastern theology and thought. The same year he was elected, Pius XI reorganized the Oriental Institute for just this purpose. A year later, Pius XI issued Ecclesium Dei, in which he encouraged study and the setting aside of prejudices:

We are convinced that from a correct knowledge of the facts there will come a just appreciation of men and, at the same time, that upright spirit of goodwill that, when joined with love of Christ, cannot but assist greatly, God aiding, in the achievement of religious unity (ED 20).

What is much more important is that if men scrupulously obey the teachings of the same Apostle they will not only put aside their prejudices but will also conquer their vain suspicions of one another, their deceits and hatreds, in a word, all those animosities so contrary to the spirit of Christian love, which divide the nations one from another (ED 21).

Pius XI wrote Ecclesiam Dei to reach out to the Eastern Churches, which have valid holy orders and apostolic succession. This is clearly a different situation to that of the ecclesial communities that developed out of the Protestant Reformation, although the principles for dialogue and mutual respect expressed in the encyclical can easily be translated to the Protestant communities.

Opening Discussions with Protestants

Another indication of Pope Pius XI’s true attitude toward ecumenism is the Malines Conversations, a series of meetings held over a period of six years between Anglicans and Catholics for the purpose of ecumenical dialogue. They were not initiated primarily to negotiate terms of reunion but rather to discuss doctrinal differences for the sake of clarity. In fact, the participants in the conversations had no authority regarding reunion; they met simply as theologians.

Pius XI expressed support for these conversations. The Vatican secretary of state, Pietro Cardinal Asparri, wrote Joseph Cardinal Mercier, archbishop of Malines, regarding the conversations:

The Holy Father authorizes Your Eminence to tell the Anglicans that he approves and encourages your conversations and prays with all his heart that the good God will bless them.

In the Malines Conversations, the principles set out by Pius XI in regard to the Eastern Churches were applied to the Anglicans. The focus was to study, to clarify, and to increase charity, not to convert or express the superiority of the Catholic Church. His support of these conversations demonstrates that he believed that Catholics could discuss doctrine with non-Catholics in charity and understanding and that not all conversations with non-Catholics needed to have the sole purpose of converting them to the Catholic faith.

In Keeping with Tradition

With this more complete view of Pius XI, we can see that he did not oppose ecumenism in general, as it may appear from isolated excerpts of Mortalium Animos. He did condemn the errors and excesses that characterized the early ecumenical movement, and he actively defended the doctrine of the Church against those who denied its visible existence and inherent unity. He refused to participate or to allow Catholics to participate in congresses that sought to join all churches into a single church—that would have required the Catholic Church to change its doctrines. Indeed, the zeal and premature hope of the fledgling ecumenical movement led to confusion and theological shallowness. Pius XI chose a prudent path to keep the Catholic Church safe from the errors of “pan-Christianity.”

But he also laid out principles for true ecumenism. In his relations with the Eastern Churches and the Anglican communion, he demonstrated a balance of reserve and openness. Dialogue, according to Pius XI, must be based on serious, doctrinal study. No dialogue can be fruitful if the actual positions of the parties are not understood and clearly expressed. Precise knowledge of the doctrines of the other side is key to any efforts at reunion. Dialogue must aim at understanding and correcting misunderstandings. In addition, mutual respect and charity are characteristic of any true ecumenism.

These principles set out by Pius XI form the basis of ecumenism in the Church today. Doctrinal discussion, understanding, and charity are still the keys to effective ecumenism; a denial of need for unity of belief as the basis for the unity of the Church is still condemned. Decades later, the Second Vatican Council affirmed this principle. Unitatis Redintegratio states:

The way and method in which the Catholic faith is expressed should never become an obstacle to dialogue with our brethren. It is, of course, essential that the doctrine should be clearly presented in its entirety. Nothing is so foreign to the spirit of ecumenism as a false irenicism, in which the purity of Catholic doctrine suffers loss and its genuine and certain meaning is clouded (UR 11).

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