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The Role of Canon Law in the Ecumenical Venture: a Roman Catholic Perspective

  • Brendan Leahy (a1) (a2)


One of the main goals of the Second Vatican Council (the 50th anniversary of whose opening will be celebrated in 2012) was the unity of all Christians. Not least among its achievements was the fact that it launched the Catholic Church into the Ecumenical Movement and also paved the way for a global revision of the Church's Code of Canon Law. This article reflects from a Roman Catholic perspective on aspects to do with canon law and ecumenism. It does so in the light of the Council's teaching and reception. Conciliar hermeneutics and questions left open at the Council are considered. In conclusion, the author suggests that greater attention to the Church's charismatic principle and missionary mandate underlined at the Council offers wide scope for continuing exploration among Anglican and Roman Catholic canonists in the cause of unity.



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2 ‘A Decade of Ecumenical Dialogue on Canon Law’, (2009) 11 Ecc LJ 284328, p 296.

3 In my research particularly for the first part of this article I have drawn on Cardinal Kasper's reflection on precisely this theme. He is one of the Catholic Church's most accomplished theologians and former President of the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of Christian Unity. See Kasper, W, ‘Canon Law and Ecumenism,’ The Jurist 69 (2009) 171189.

4 See Paul, John II, Apostolic Letter at the Beginning of the New Millennium, Novo Millennio Ineunte (6 January 2001), n 57 and Pope Benedict XVI's dialogue with the clergy of the diocese of Belluno-Feltre, Treviso, 24 July 2007.

5 See Paul, Pope John II's Encyclical on Commitment to Ecumenism, Ut Unum Sint (25 May 1995), n 8.

6 The ‘Harvesting the Fruits’ project was launched by the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity to review the fruits of forty years of ecumenical dialogues since the Second Vatican Council. See Kasper, W, Harvesting the Fruits: Basic Aspects of Christian Faith in Ecumenical Dialogue (London, 2009).

7 See Groupe des Dombes, , Pour la Conversion des ‘Eglises’: identité et changement dans la dynamique de communion (Paris, 1991). English translation: For the Conversion of the Churches (Geneva, 1993). See also the reference to a ‘change of heart’ in the Second Vatican Council's Decree of Ecumenism, Unitatis Redintegratio, 7 and Ut Unum Sint, 15, implying collective conversion as well as personal conversion.

8 See studies published in (1999) 59 The Jurist 329–468 and (2004) 64 The Jurist 1–360.

9 Unitatis Redintegratio, 1 and Ut Unum Sint, 3.

10 Acta Synodalia Concilii Vaticani Secundi II/5, p 473.

11 See Sullivan, F, ‘The Decree on Ecumenism: Presuppositions and Consequences’, (1990) 26 One in Christ 719.

12 Other documents published after the Council that have a direct bearing on ecumenism are listed in the Directory for the Application of Principles and Norms on Ecumenism published by the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of Christian Unity (London, 1993), fn 3, p 7.

13 (1983) 75 Acta Apostolicae Sedis xi.

14 Ibid.

15 See Kasper, ‘Canon Law and Ecumenism’, p 172.

16 Ibid, p 182.

17 See the position of Rudolf Sohm taken up by Karl Barth, E Wolf and Hans Dombois. Catholic authors writing in this area include Klaus Mörsdorf, Antonio Rouco Varela, Eugenio Coreccio and Libero Gerosa.

18 Kasper, ‘Canon Law and Ecumenism’, p 175.

19 Ibid, p 184.

20 See Ott, L, Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma (Rockford, Illinois, 1960), pp 810.

21 At n 11.

22 Unitatis Redintegratio, 3; Ut Unum Sint, 10.

23 Kasper, ‘Canon Law and Ecumenism’, p 179.

24 Ibid, p 186.

25 See Wijlens, M, ‘“That all my be one …” (John 17:21). The Lord's Prayer in the Work of Canon Lawyers: A Mere Option?’ (2005) 65 The Jurist 181204.

26 See Lumen Gentium, 13, Ut Unum Sint 28, 57.

27 See Unitatis Redintegratio, 4.

28 See Kasper, W, ‘Communio: The Guiding Concept of Catholic Ecumenical Theology’ in That They May All Be One (London, 2004), 5074. See also Renken, J, ‘Duc in Altum!” Communio: Source and Summit of Church Law’, (2003) 63 The Jurist 2269.

29 Kasper, ‘Canon Law and Ecumenism’, p 180.

30 See AS III/IV, 14; AS II/VII, 35.

31 Unitatis Redintegratio n 8.

32 Kasper, ‘Canon Law and Ecumenism’, p 181.

33 See Lumen Gentium 4 and 12.

34 See Kasper, ‘Canon Law and Ecumenism’, p 189.

35 See Coriden, J, ‘The Holy Spirit and Church governance,’ (2006) 66 The Jurist 339373 at 354.

36 Hegge, C, Rezeption und Charisma (Würzburg, 1999) and Il Vaticano II e i Movimenti Ecclesiali: Una Recezione Carismatica (Rome, 2001).

37 See Eugenio Corecco on the need to reflect more on the juridical value of charisms, ‘Aspects of the reception of Vatican II in the code of canon law,’ in Alberigo, G, Jossua, J-P and Komonchak, J (eds), The Reception of Vatican II. Translated by O'Connell, M (Washington, 1987), 249296, at 266.

38 See Beyer, J, ‘I “movimenti ecclesiali”’, (1987) 23 Vita Consacrata 143156, at 156.

39 On the reception of the Council see further Pottmeyer, Hermann J, ‘A new phase in the reception of Vatican II: twenty years of interpretation of the Council’ in Alberigo, , Jossua, and Komonchak, (eds) The Reception of Vatican II, pp 2743.

40 Decree on the Missionary Activity of the Church, Ad Gentes, 5.

41 Lumen Gentium, 9.

42 See Vatican II's Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, Gaudium et Spes, 1.

43 Matthew 18:20.

44 See Lumen Gentium, 9.

45 Galatians 6:2.

46 Novo Millennio Ineunte, 43.

1 This article is based on a paper presented to the Eleventh Colloquium of Anglican and Roman Catholic Canon Lawyers, held at Walsingham, Norfolk, 24–27 April 2010.

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The Role of Canon Law in the Ecumenical Venture: a Roman Catholic Perspective

  • Brendan Leahy (a1) (a2)


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