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For Catholics, the word ecumenism refers to all of the activities and initiatives of the Church and her members to promote mutual understanding and, ultimately, unity among all Christians. Ecumenism is based on the unity and universality of the Church, which possesses all the goods given by God for salvation, and on the Church’s proper relationship with non-Catholic Christian bodies which share some of these goods, including baptism.
The three core principles of proper ecumenical activity are succinctly stated in our online Catholic Dictionary. Those who fail to maintain these principles fall into one of two errors: Either they reject ecumenism altogether because they believe it is wrong to recognize salvific gifts outside the Catholic Church, or they pursue a false ecumenism which seeks unity at the expense of truth.
The shortest route to a proper understanding of ecumenism in the modern context is to read Vatican II’s Decree on Ecumenism, which is a relatively brief and eminently clear document. The principles on which the decree is based are rooted in Scripture, the Fathers of the Church, and ideas set forth in modern times by such popes as Leo XIII and Pius XII.
Modern popes have repeatedly insisted on the importance of ecumenism. After thirty years of experience with the mandate of Vatican II, Pope John Paul II issued a longer and deeper document on the subject, Ut Unum Sint (That They May Be One) in 1995.
Although the term ecumenism is widely used outside Catholic circles to refer to efforts at mutual understanding among all religions, or even between religion and atheism, the Catholic Church treats relationships with non-Christians very differently, because non-Christians have a fundamentally different relationship with Catholics than do other baptized Christians. Vatican II also issued a Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions (Nostra Aetate).
In 2000, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (under Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, later Pope Benedict XVI) found it necessary to re-emphasize the centrality of the one and only universal Catholic Church for true ecumenism in Dominus Iesus (On the Unicity and Salvific Universality of Jesus Christ and the Church).
Recent popes, including Benedict XVI, have devoted many addresses, homilies and weekly audiences to ecumenism. Other authors have commented on various problems and misunderstandings connected with the ecumenical movement. Many such documents may be found by searching on “ecumenism” or “ecumenical” in the Library.