The Oberlin conference on The Nature of the Unity We Seek, which met fifty years ago, in September 1957, marked an important stage in the ecumenical movement. For the first time, the churches in North America in large numbers committed themselves to the quest for Christian unity. The composition of the conference was diverse, including delegates from several Orthodox churches and the Protestant Episcopal Church, as well as Lutherans, Reformed, Methodists, Baptists, Disciples of Christ, Adventists, and others.
The delegates heard thoughtful addresses by a brilliant array of theologians from North America, Europe, and Asia, including a sermon by the secretary-general of the World Council of Churches, Willem A. Visser 't Hooft. After some days of discussion, the delegates came up with a "Message to the Churches," which recommended steps toward a greater visible manifestation of the unity of the Church.
Although I had to leave the United States in June 1957 for a three-year sojourn in Europe, I can recall the interest that the scheduled Oberlin Conference aroused in the Catholic Church even before I left. My own professor and mentor in ecumenism, Fr. Gustave Weigel, S.J., took part in the conference as one of the two Catholic observers. The other was my good friend the Paulist editor of Catholic World, John B. Sheerin.
At the time, H.P. Van Dusen judged that the Oberlin Conference "cast virtually no light on the theme which the gathering was summoned to examine," which remains theologically defensible. But, in my estimation, the conference achieved all that could reasonably have been expected of it. Large multilateral conferences of this type, gathering for the first time, cannot be expected to come up with profound new consensus statements. The delegates were effectively exposed to the complexities of the problem in the areas of faith, liturgy, and the Christian life. They became conscious of the length of the road ahead but at the same time were eager to bring their respective churches, with God's help, as far as they could along that road.
The ecumenical movement, which had been going on for a generation in Europe, was formally launched in the United States. Oberlin stands near the beginning of a half century of thriving ecumenical activity. The impetus toward unity was strengthened, four years later, by the General Assembly of the World Council of Churches at New Delhi and then, in 1963, by the Fourth World Conference on Faith and Order at Montreal. The full and official entry of the Catholic Church into the ecumenical movement came with the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965).
In those early days, Catholic ecumenists, like their Orthodox colleagues, were conscious that their participation in the ecumenical movement was in some ways problematic because of the claims of their own Church to possess all the means of salvation entrusted by the Lord to his Church. The Central Committee of the World Council of Churches in its Toronto statement of 1950 indicated that such claims to exclusivity were not an obstacle to membership in the World Council of Churches, provided that the churches in question were at least able to recognize "vestiges" or "elements" of the true Church in communities other than their own.
Without concealing or minimizing the specific claims of the Catholic Church, the Second Vatican Council found ways of showing how that Church could and should pursue ecumenism. Four important insights, all expressed by Vatican II, undergirded the commitment of Catholics to this new apostolate.
First of all, the scandal of Christian division posed difficulties for the Catholic Church's own missionary work. It was a stumbling block that impeded what the council called "the most holy cause of proclaiming the gospel to every creature." Non-Christians often reacted to missionary efforts with the feeling that, before asking them to convert, the missionaries ought to agree among themselves about what Christianity is. Why should the past quarrels among European or American Christians, some asked, be visited upon young churches from other parts of the world? Did it make any sense for an African, for example, to join the Swedish Lutheran Church or to become a Southern Baptist?
In the second place, the Catholic Church recognized that the divisions among Christians impoverished her catholicity. She lacked the natural and cultural endowments that other Christians could have contributed if they were united with her. Catholicity required that all the riches of the nations should be gathered into the one Church and harvested for the glory of God.
Third, the fullness of Christianity in Catholicism did not imply that all other churches were devoid of truth and grace. For all their differences, they shared considerable commonalities in faith, worship, and ministerial order. The council taught, in fact, that non-Catholic churches and communions were "by no means deprived of significance and importance for the mystery of salvation" because the Holy Spirit could...