The Second Session of Vatican II returned to work on November 25, 1963, the day of President Kennedy’s burial. After some distracting fuss about passing the relatively minor schema on “Communications Media,” a topic which might be much more profitably explored in a Synod in this decade, if it is not too late already, the Council turned to the major schema on Ecumenism. This was one of the most intense debates of the Council, with positions among the fathers ranging from broad inclusion of all who regard Christ as savior (or even “anonymous Christianity”) to the other extreme of “outside the [Catholic] Church there is no salvation.” (See Wikipedia’s excellent discussion of this maxim here.)
My guess is that most Catholics have given this issue some thought, especially parents whose adult children have embraced wholeheartedly anonymous Christianity, whether they know it or not. The term, by the way, is attributed to the Catholic theological giant Father Karl Rahner, though I have not been able to track down the original literary source. The term “anonymous Christian” was and is not universally accepted; another famous Catholic theologian, Hans Kung, makes an interesting case that the term is demeaning to members of non-Christian religions. If I may paraphrase him, “How many Catholics would be comfortable termed ‘Anonymous Buddhists’ or ‘Anonymous Muslims?’”
The Council’s discussion on Ecumenism has significant influence on life in the Church today, in ways we can hardly enumerate. Part of the problem at the Council was the various levels at which the matter was discussed. Cardinal Ritter of St. Louis, now becoming the leading U.S. voice at the Council, began the discussion on precisely this point: there were pastoral, doctrinal, and ecumenical considerations all coming to bear in one schema. I am taking the liberty here of using a not uncommon problem at the time to demonstrate the perplexity of the debate. The example is a very sad and thus very personal issue for many in the Church.
Catholic Doctrine at the time of Vatican II—and for most of its history—had taught that membership in the Church was necessary for salvation. But as has happened often throughout history, there are instances where an infant dies in childbirth or immediately afterward without the benefit of baptism, for any number of reasons. A strict reading of Catholic doctrine would hold that since the child was never baptized, he or she never joined the Church by receiving the necessary water cleansing of original sin.
However, from the pastoral side of the Church, this bedrock teaching was frequently mitigated in countless number of ways. We find in third century documents that pagans, witnessing the martyrdoms of faithful Christians, were so moved as to join them spontaneously in death, and the term “baptism of blood” worked its way into Christian tradition, along with “baptism of desire.” The medieval theologians of the Church helpfully introduced the concept of Limbo, a state of natural happiness for unbaptized infants. Limbo was never defined doctrinally. The term does not appear in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, and Pope Benedict gave it proper burial in 2007. Today’s official Church documentation extends God’s saving mercy to these helpless souls.
But in 1963 there was a third leg along with the doctrinal and the pastoral to consider in the debate: the validity of sacramental acts by Christian ministers not in the Roman Catholic Church. The Church allows for the contingency that anyone can baptize in danger of death (Catechism para. 1256). Thus a hospital chaplain of the Methodist tradition may validly baptize an individual into the Roman Catholic Church, all things being equal. In theory, at least, this was true even before Vatican II, but now the Ecumenism schema discussion forced the Church fathers to look at the nature and efficacy of sacraments (or ordinances) celebrated in churches professing faith in Jesus Christ. Were such congregations “real churches” from the Catholic perspective? Were their ministers validly ordained or commissioned in some way by the Holy Spirit? This proceeded to open further and further debate on very basic questions: when we talk about “Church Unity,” do we understand this to mean that all other Christian Churches must fold up operations and prostrate themselves for forgiveness to Rome? Or did Christ intend Christianity to look something like a botanical garden consisting of multitudes of theological and pastoral hybrids? (The answer is a generic no to both options, but that leaves an awful lot of space in between.)
Now to further cloud the picture, consider this. The Council was working on multiple documents simultaneously, and one of these was the schema de ecclesia, or “On the Church.” This committee was working on the language of how to define the nature of the Church. Around 1900 a Catholic scholar named Alfred Loisy was excommunicated for his modern ideas, but he left a phrase that can be interpreted as an eternal truth or the mother of all parodies. "Jesus came proclaiming the Kingdom, and what arrived was the Church." Today the term is used mostly in historical parody, but it does get to the heart of the question of what the Church is in relationship to God’s intent and other Christian assemblies, not to mention the billions in other world religions.
The challenge was to find a terminology that would put the Catholic Church at the center of God’s redemptive plan while respecting and even interacting with other Christian assemblies of faith, including the Eastern Orthodox. The key, it turned out, was the introduction of the Latin phrase, subsistit in or in English “subsists.” So instead of saying that the Church founded by Christ is the Catholic Church, the Vatican II document Lumen Gentium (para. 8) would eventually read that Christ’s Church subsists in the Roman Catholic Church. It may sound like a very minor adjustment, but the majority of Church fathers eventually signed off on a definition that identified the Catholic Church as possessor of the fullness of everything Christ expected from his followers without denying the (partial) validity and dignity of faith and ministry in other Christian churches.
This theological breakthrough, was still some way off as the Second Session continued heated debate over Ecumenism; it appeared that the pope was satisfied to let the clock run down to the closing date of December 4, 1963. Xavier Rynne observed a sense of great discouragement among the bishops that they would be sent home without as much as a straw vote on the matter they had labored over so intensely, ecumenism. The final day’s ceremonies included the promulgation or official release of the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, along with a strict warning from Cardinal Ottaviani that no individual or diocese was to jump the gun, so to speak, on liturgical change without official approval from his Holy Office. He might have saved his breath; when I returned to my seminary in September 1964 just nine months later, our new English language hymnals with innovated services and Bible vigils were waiting for us.