THE PONTIFICAL COUNCIL
Icon given by Patriarch Athenagoras I to Pope Paul VI
The origin of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity is closely linked with the Second Vatican Council. It was Pope John XXIII’s desire that the Catholic Church’s involvement in the ecumenical movement be one of the Council’s chief concerns. Thus, on 5 June 1960, he established a “Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity” as one of the preparatory commissions for the Council, and appointed Cardinal Augustin Bea as its first President. This was the beginning of the Catholic Church’s formal commitment to the ecumenical movement.
At first, the main function of the Secretariat was to invite the other Churches and World Communions to send observers to the Second Vatican Council. Then, during the first weeks of the Council, Pope John XXIII placed the Secretariat on an equal footing with other conciliar commissions. The Secretariat thus prepared and presented to the Council documents on ecumenism (Unitatis redintegratio), on non-Christian religions (Nostra aetate), on religious liberty (Dignitatis humanae) and, together with the doctrinal commission, the dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation (Dei Verbum).
In 1963, the Holy Father specified that the Secretariat would be made up of two sections dealing respectively with the Orthodox Churches and ancient Oriental Churches on the one hand and with the Western Churches and Ecclesial Communities on the other.
In 1966, after the Council had ended, Pope Paul VI confirmed the Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity as a permanent dicastery of the Holy See. Cardinal Bea continued in office as President until his death in 1968. In 1969, Cardinal Johannes Willebrands was named President to succeed him. Twenty years later, he retired and became President Emeritus. Cardinal Edward Idris Cassidy was then named President of this Pontifical Council. In 2001 Cardinal Walter Kasper became President, and he was succeeded in 2010 by Cardinal Kurt Koch.
In the Apostolic Constitution Pastor Bonus (28 June 1988), Pope John Paul II changed the Secretariat into the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity (PCPCU).
The Council exercises a double role. First of all, it is entrusted with the promotion, within the Catholic Church, of an authentic ecumenical spirit according to the conciliar decree Unitatis redintegratio. For this purpose an Ecumenical Directory was published in 1967-1970 and a revised edition issued in 1993 entitled Directory for the Application of Principles and Norms on Ecumenism.
At the same time, the Pontifical Council is active in all areas that can contribute to promoting Christian unity by strengthening relationships with other Churches and Ecclesial Communities. It organizes and oversees dialogue and collaboration with the other Churches and World Communions. Since its creation, it has also cooperated closely with the World Council of Churches (WCC) based in Geneva. From 1968, Catholic theologians have been full members of the “Faith and Order” Commission, the theological department of the WCC.
Similarly, it is the task of the PCPCU to name Catholic observers at various ecumenical gatherings and in turn to invite observers or ‘fraternal delegates’ of other Churches or Ecclesial Communities to major events of the Catholic Church.
At present, the PCPCU is engaged in an international theological dialogue with each of the following Churches and World Communions:
In 2009, Cardinal Walter Kasper published Harvesting the Fruits, a synthesis of the achievements and challenges of forty years of dialogue between Catholics, Anglicans, Lutherans, Reformed and Methodists.
In order to make known as widely as possible the result of its work for Christian unity, the PCPCU publishes on the Vatican website a bulletin called Information Service.
The Pontifical Council is under the direction of the Cardinal President. He is assisted by a Secretary and an Under-Secretary. Relations with other Churches and Ecclesial Communities are divided into two sections:
- the Eastern section deals with Orthodox Churches of Byzantine tradition and the Oriental Orthodox Churches (Coptic, Syrian, Armenian, Ethiopian and Malankara), as well as the Assyrian Church of the East;
- the Western section is responsible for relations with the different Churches and Ecclesial Communities of the West.
Collaboration for the Diffusion of the Bible
Following the then Secretariat’s work in the preparation of the dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, the PCPCU was entrusted with promoting ecumenical collaboration for the translation and diffusion of Holy Scripture (Dei Verbum, n.22). In this context, it encouraged the formation of the Catholic Biblical Federation, with which it is in close contact. Together with the United Bible Societies it published the Guidelines for Interconfessional Cooperation in Translating the Bible (1968; new revised edition 1987).
Catholic Committeefor Cultural Collaboration
Founded in 1963, the Committee seeks to promote, between the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Churches of the Byzantine tradition and the Oriental Orthodox Churches, exchanges of students who wish to follow theological studies or other ecclesiastical disciplines at Catholic institutions. An international Committee for the awarding of scholarships meets every year in March.
Relations with the Jews
On 22 October 1974, Pope Paul VI established a Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews as an office distinct from but closely linked with the PCPCU. In fact, the Cardinal President of the PCPCU presides over this Commission; the Secretary of the PCPCU is similarly its Vice-President. A full-time executive Secretary ensures the day-to-day running of the Commission. In order to implement the teachings of the Second Vatican Council, the Commission published Guidelines and Suggestions for Implementing the Conciliar Declaration “Nostra aetate” n.4 (1974); Notes on the Correct Way to Present the Jews and Judaism in Preaching and Catechesis in the Roman Catholic Church (1985); and We Remember: A Reflection on the Shoah (1988). In 2016 the Commission published “The Gifts and the Calling of God are Irrevocable” (Rom 11:29). A Reflection on Theological Questions Pertaining to Catholic–Jewish Relations on the Occasion of the 50th Anniversary of “Nostra aetate” (n.4).