{22}     Contemporary Orthodox & Catholic churches

ERA 7 << Modern Church (3): Ecumenism & Adaptations (AD 1900–2000) >> SESSION 1

Reference: Gonzalez, volume 2, chapters 31-33

        22.1.1  Undercurrents

·         Optimism: The 19th-c was a century of optimism in the West. Western civilization had considered itself destined to lead the world into an age of happiness, with wealth and relative peace.

·         Undercurrents: Yet beneath the surface were destructive currents: end of colonialism and political instability as the breakup of the Turkish Empire had created many unstable states.

        22.1.2  Drastic historic events [1914–1945]

·         World War I [1914–1918]—The 4-year war involved 30 nations and 65 million soldiers.

·         Russian Revolution [1917]—Lenin (1870–1924) installed a communist government.

·         United States: 2 social issues drew attention: prohibition of alcoholic beverages and women’s suffrage.

·         Great Depression [1929–1939]—The crash of the stock market in the United States [1929] caused an economic downturn in the whole world for a decade.

·         Fascism: Mussolini in Italy, Hitler in Germany, and Franco in Spain rose to power.

·         World War II [1939–1945]—In the 6-year world war, 57 nations declared war on each other. A total of 15 million soldiers were killed, plus another 55 million civilian deaths.

        22.1.3  Impact of the historic events

·         End of optimism: A casualty of the turbulent years was the optimism about the future western civilization.

·         End of colonialism: Another impact was the worldwide revolt against colonialism. Nationalist movement suddenly took on new life, and in two decades, every colonial empire was dismantled.

·         Domination of communism: Europe was dominated by the communist system in the east and capitalist system in the west, with the “Iron Curtain” separating the two.

·         Women & blacks: The demand for greater leadership among women and blacks led to the post-war civil rights movement and feminist movement demanding great power and equality.

·         Unity vs division in the church: The church, on one hand, became more universal and more united with the ecumenical movement. On the other hand, war, racial and class strife divided the church.

        22.2.1  Developments since the 15th century

·         Russian Orthodox Church: It became independent from the Patriarchate of Constantinople [1448].

·         Cyril Lucaris (1572–1638)—He was the patriarch of Constantinople after the Reformation. He published a Confession [1629] that included mild Calvinism. After his death, he was eventually condemned [1672].

·         National churches: In 19th-c, the Ottoman Empire broke down and national orthodox churches were formed, such as Greece and Rumania. Their autonomy was later recognized by the Patriarchate of Constantinople.

·         Monophysites: Some churches do not subscribe to the Chalcedonian definition which accepts the two natures of Christ. They are “monophysites” including the Coptic Church of Egypt, the Church of Ethiopia, Syrian Monophysite Church, and the Armenian Church.

·         Reconciliation with the RCC [1965]—Pope Paul VI and the Eastern patriarch Athenagoras revoked the mutual excommunication of 1054.

        22.3.1  Recent developments in the Catholic Church

·         Negative reaction: Before 20th-c, the RCC reacted to the modern world with fear and condemnation due to. loss of papal states, fear of nationalism, fear of heresy, fear of Protestantism.

·         Pope Pius XII [1939–1958]—He was silent about Nazi atrocities against the Jews. He proclaimed the dogma of the Bodily Assumption of Mary into heaven [1950], invoking ex cathedra papal infallibility.

·         Pope John XXIII [1958–1963]—He called an ecumenical council for a total updating of the church.

·         Pope John Paul II [1978–2005]— As a Pole, he was the first non-Italian pope since 16th-c. While his theology was conservative, he spoke strongly about the injustice of the oppression of the poor and powerless.

·         Pope Benedict XVI [2005–2013]—He is a German and a conservative theologian.

·         Charismatic Catholics: The charismatic movement in the RCC is widespread in North America. There is also growth in an evangelical Catholic movement which emphasizes a personal and experiential religion.

        22.3.2  Council of Vatican II [1962–1965]

·         Expectation: Few expected that this council would make radical changes but it did. The council did not bring major changes in doctrine or polity but created new attitudes.

·         Reports: The final documents were fairly progressive. The council brought the RCC to a new epoch.

o        Liturgical renewal: The use of vernacular languages is authorized in most occasions.

o        Religious freedom: All religious groups have the right to organize according to their own principles. Protestants were described as “separated brethren” rather than as schismatics and heretics as in the past.

o        Emphasis on the Bible: The laity is encouraged to study the Bible but under the watchful care of the church.

o        Affirmation of extra-Biblical traditions: These included papal infallibility, past affirmations about Mary, 7 sacraments, and the authority of tradition.

        22.4.1  New directions

·         Catholic theologians: A new direction developed but they were either rejected or ignored by the papacy.

·         Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881–1955)French Jesuit: He reinterpreted Christian theology in evolutionary terms. There is some similarity of this with process theology.

·         Henri de Lubac (1896–1991)—French Jesuit: He revived interest in the spiritual exegesis of Scripture.

·         Yves Congar (1904–1995)—French Dominican: His influence was mostly on ecumenism, and on the nature of the church in the modern world. He encouraged openness to Protestant ideas.

·         Karl Rahner (1904–1984)—German Jesuit: He was perhaps the greatest RC theologian of the 20th-c. He tried to bring mystery back to everyday life. He believed that all people have the chance to believe. These “anonymous Christians” are saved not by their natural morality but they have experienced Jesus Christ’s grace without realizing it. This concept is a dangerous one because it serves to justify “secular Christianity”.

·         Edward Schillebeeckx (1914–  )—Belgian Dominican: He was a reformist arguing for the ordination of women and against priestly celibacy. He stressed on experience and revelation in experience.

·         Hans Küng (1928–  )—Swiss priest: His theology has been mostly disapproved by Rome. He found Barth’s doctrine of justification similar to Catholic. He attacked papal infallibility, arguing that it should be indefectibility. He seemed to present Christ more as an example to follow than a divine Saviour. He denied the infallibility of the Scripture. His theology resembles a liberal Protestant.


[1] treasure our heritage

The church stood firm despite the drastic historic events.

[2] appreciate God’s providence

Despite low expectations, Council of Vatican II moved the RCC to a new openness, although still very far from possible reconciliation.

[3] avoid past errors

The RCC’s compromise with fascism and communism proved eventually to be unwise decisions.

[4] apply our knowledge

Even Küng, a wellknown Roman Catholic theologian, attacked papal infallibility, using Biblical evidence and church tradition.

[5] follow past saints

Lucaris, Congar, and Küng came to conclusions similar to the Protestants and were not afraid to speak out.