A History of the Desire for Christian Unity Online

A History of the Desire for Christian Unity Online is the online version of a multi-volume reference work on the history of the Ecumenic movement. Scholars from across continents and disciplines address the question how a "desiderium" has been driving theologians, hierarchs, pastors, philosophers, historians and the common faithful to seek visible unity.

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Volume 1: Dawn of Ecumenism

Introduction. Premises for a History of the Desire for Christian Unity

Table of Contents

1. Foreword
2. On the History of Ecumenism
3. For a History of the Christian Desire for Unity


1. Foreword

The experience of Christianity does not and cannot claim to be immune to history. It cannot because it has inherited from Israel the principle of the narratability of its past (what the biblical Greek calls λόγος),1 and that instance of the intelligibility of its unfolding in time has even entered the New Testament canon (Luke’s διήγησις).2 It cannot do so moreover because, in the encounter with the cultures of the peoples in which the claim for the universality of the gospel of Jesus and the gospel about Jesus was honed, that link between the Christian life and the construction of traditions has become reality in an ever-varying and equally intrinsic manner.

What we have always called Christianity since the gospel of Jesus until today, is in its factual dimension an intrinsically plural, transcultural, and rationally comprehensible event (res gestae), another present-time to be entrusted to others,3 not because an academic discipline (historia rerum gestarum) has constituted it as the object of its investigation, but rather thanks to a dynamism of its own, because it is what places in history a gaze like that of Klee’s angel: “Where we see a series of events, he sees a single catastrophe” from which emanates the expectation “to reunite the shattered.”4

This is such that at every stage – even in its current situation as a salaried university discipline within the liberal-bourgeois paideia of the West – history reveals itself to be an instrument to which Christian experience reacts as if the discipline, which has an entirely modern critical physiognomy, could recognize it per quandam connaturalitatem.5 This is seen in the fact that, throughout its entire tradition, the history of Christianity has elaborated epistemological paradigms that have changed in the course of time,6 becoming an apologetics of Christian power,7 a controversial argumentum,8 or part of the loci communes,9 or of erudition.10 Yet, after the secularization of theodicy became grafted onto historical-critical knowledge,11 Christianity itself has discovered in history a way of being understood and of understanding itself as a non-theological object. This has triggered hostile reactions to, aroused diffidence towards, and suggested domestication of, trust in a relationship that has in any case been so fertile that today no one, not even the most bigoted integralist, can do without it entirely.12

The relationship has been a fertile one because history unmasks the providentialist shortcuts that exempt themselves from the hard work of understanding objects and causes, appealing to a “sense” that resembles a pietist amulet rather than Christian faith. History reveals the symmetrical phobias of those who think that belonging to a faith, and even more, to the Christian faith, constitutes an impediment to a fully “secularized” history,13 requiring an ideological auto-da-fé as a prerequisite for methodological rigor, which is incompatible with a scholarly approach.14 History produces an understanding that claims to attain a certain degree of truth,15 able to be built upon or judged by that “more than” of a knowledge and of an awareness of things that has no other effect than to entrust such knowledge (like any other knowledge) to responsibility. With that “more than,” lost hopes, retrograde mechanisms, reformative potentialities, even nostalgia, which only become a critical asset if soundly identified, are made to resurface; and only if they are sound can they be essential to the gospel’s journey through time,16 that is, to the way in which the subject receiving the gospel has historically surrendered to every possible interpretation (theological, sociological, philosophical, etc.).17

Every experience that aspires to be Christian, therefore, “exposes” itself to being known in space and time, by analytically examined roots and developments, by rigorously dated regresses and progresses, through the history of texts and figures, cults and doctrines, and institutions and conceptions understood by adhering to the sources. In short, this experience must be able to be known historically “in the calm telling of a tale, in the resurgence and denial of the origin, the unfolding of a dead past and result of a present practice.”18

The Christian desire for unity that is the object of this historical oeuvre belongs to the same order of problems. It is not the history of ecumenism, not another history of ecumenism, nor the history of another ecumenism,19 not the history of a splinter of historicizable ecumenism, distinguished by an adjective, not the history of a phenomenon that can be postulated as historicizable only because it is glorified by its triumphs or imprisoned by its aporias.20


2. On the History of Ecumenism

This work, however, intends to be a work of history. It therefore searches in history and in its sources its proper object, taking into account the seasons, the narratives, and the articulations that have constructed a vast historiography of the movements, figures, doctrines, experiences, institutions, and processes for which the adjective “ecumenical” can be legitimately used according to its common meaning.21

2.1 Seasons of Ecumenical Historiography

In this historiography, belonging to the 20th century by production or culture, we can distinguish infinite variations and an irreducible variety of epistemological approaches.22 This is a vast bibliographic ocean where many seasons can be identified. I shall mention only three, ignoring many nuances, because they are useful in order to reveal some tendencies to which the path we would like to undertake is much indebted.

2.1.1 The Victorious Historiography of the Prophets

In the 20th century, in point of fact, there was a militant season of historiography, written by figures who were prophets – or almost like prophets – of church unity. The season of 1954 was personified by Ruth C. Rouse and Stephen C. Neill, the editors of A History of the Ecumenical Movement.23 It was a generation of people convinced – and rightly so – of living at a time when the overwhelming four decades that separated the Edinburgh Missionary Conference from the first assembly of the wcc in Amsterdam in 1948 had shone a light on an effort of which, among other things, they had been the blessed protagonists, hence capable of bringing into focus – in an effort that was neither overly nor solely historiographical – the framework of the historical problem that saw harbingers, impulses, moments of discontent, and, in the end, a dawn. They were figures with an ecumenical life beyond their function as historians of ecumenism.

The first female student admitted to Girton College, Cambridge, Ruth Rouse (1872–1954) was a proponent of the women’s student movement and its leading figure in a vibrant season of evangelical Anglicanism.24 In 1899, she went as a missionary to India and returned, in ill health, to England two years later: she became secretary of the wscf25 from 1905 to 1924 at the insistence of John R. Mott,26 and was one of the female protagonists27 who would continue to exert an influence by establishing the European Student Relief in 1920 in a postwar utopia of reconciliation.28 Rouse remained the educational secretary of the missionary body of the National Assembly of the Church of England until 1939. A member of the executive committee of the ywca from 1908 – that is, during the time of the greatest fervor of interdenominationalism – she was its president from 1938 to 1946 and, after her retirement, earned recognition not only for her works in the missionary apostolate29 but also for editing that History of the Ecumenical Movement which, beyond the historical-critical relevance of each single section, was to establish a way of conceiving as a unified “movement” a process that, at that moment in time, was an infra-Protestant fact to which Orthodoxy was extraneous and Roman Catholicism hostile.30

Its coeditor was a generation younger. Bishop Stephen C. Neill (1900–1984)31 was born into a family of Anglican missionaries in India. He was a student of Trinity College, Cambridge, and arrived in India in 1924 with his parents, coming into conflict with the legendary Amma (mother) Amy Carmichael32 who ran a large refuge for children who had been orphaned or entrusted to the temples in Dohnavur. After joining the cms, Neill became a professor of Tamil in Palayankottai, in southern Tamil Nadu, and was elected bishop of Tinnevelly in 1939. He was forced to resign in 1944, accused of having beaten an Indian leader.33 From 1947 to 1954, Neill worked at the wcc where he edited the first volume of the history of the ecumenical movement with Rouse. His academic career continued, however, first in Hamburg, as a professor of missiology (1962–1967) and then in Nairobi (1969–1973), before he retired to Oxford. He was thus able to add to his bibliography34 an updated edition of the history of the ecumenical movement in 1967 and the editorship of its continuation, together with Harold E. Fey, from 1948 to 1968.35 Published under the patronage of the Committee on Ecumenical History in Geneva, that volume was joined by a further continuation edited by John Briggs, Mercy Amba Oduyoye, and Georges Tsetsis for the years up to 2000.36 From Ruth Rouse onward, the work maintained its unity because, volume after volume, one expiry date after another, it reproposed the same working hypothesis: the existence of one powerful, historical, and spiritual impetus driving towards unity, the protagonist of which was an active and multifaceted movement, inflamed by a “consecrated” ardor, in which will, dedication, and ability produced results. Both internally and externally, it was a culture unlike that of research, which, while placing its sterile scalpel on those facts and processes, could not fail to recognize in that living historiography, pulsing with Christian passion, the clues and insights which question the provincialism of this age that believes it has become globalized.

2.1.2 The Historiography of the Professional Historians

A new, but shorter and more sparsely populated, season in ecumenical historiography was one in which the protagonists were historians tout court. They studied the path of Christian unity when the hope of a possible ecumenical surprise was still felt and some of the great figures of Christian unity were still on the scene, although disappointments had marred the surface of the utopia; it was a period, therefore, when a historical maturity demanded a place for itself.

It was a season exemplified by Étienne Fouilloux’s monumental work in 1982 on Les catholiques et l’unité chrétienne du XIXème au XXème siècle, which was published only in French.37 It did not take into consideration the ecumenical movement as such. The Genevan experience was not its institutional or emotional epicenter, nor did it aim to look at the entirety of Catholicism following the path that had led the Church of Rome from antagonist to protagonist in the development of ecumenism. Nevertheless, it constituted a historiographical landmark that, in some ways, remains unsurpassed.38

This is because, first of all, Fouilloux practiced a methodological distancing from the world of active ecumenism and from the “concrete objective” that Jedin made famous. With regard to that world, however, he knew how to objectify its tensions as well as how to comprehend39 its deepest motivations, using the tools of historical research. His was the certainty of a scholar hailing from the school of René Rémond40 that transformed such a mega-thesis into an unprecedented contribution to the historicization of ecumenism. To Fouilloux we owe the acquisition of the hiatus that separated unionism from ecumenism, the knowledge of the channels through which the unionist erudition of the Leonine age had paved the way to surpassing an ideology of return, and the role of the French nouvelle théologie, so despised in Rome, in the construction of a turning point that would require Vatican ii in order to be imposed.41

Secondly, Fouilloux’s work became a touchstone because, thanks to his intellectual sensitivity, he was able to historicize the intentions of peoples, communities, and circles that constitute a challenge for historians: in order to understand rigorously lives burning with the desire for unity, willing to accept marginalization or persecution within their own denominational context, mere dexterity in using the historian’s toolbox to catalogue ideas in competition with other ideas, to apply categories manneristically, or to allude to long time spans constituted by thoughts, words, deeds, and omissions is not enough. Neither is it enough to reject clerical simplification in facing the strangleholds of history with the absolvitory suffering that witnesses the institution doing what it cannot but do. Understanding the lives seduced (פתה, Jer 20:7) by the passion for unity requires descending into intentionality and gratuity, self-justifications and mandates, foretastes and conflicts that constitute the legacy (or Michel de Certeau’s “absence,” perhaps) that every generation that has experienced that call passes down to another time and another generation.

2.1.3 The Historiography of the Negotiators

The historiography of ecumenism also saw a third season, in which the central figures were not the heroes of the 20th century epic and its institutionalization in Geneva, nor were they historians tout court, but scholars who lived a different ecumenical professionalism, one shaped by the time of dialogues – a summit as well as an abyss in the passion for unity. Professionals of a negotiatory ecumenism, its authors proposed a global vision of the problems by using a metre that reassessed individual and collective specificities.

The Personenlexikon Ökumene, published in 2010 by the Johann-Adam-Möhler-Institut für Ökumenik in Paderborn and edited by Wolfgang Thönissen and Jörg Ernesti,42 can be considered a significant product of this season.

Its meaning can be understood comparing it to the even more restricted Dictionary of the Ecumenical Movement on which the leading figures of the season of dialogues had worked. The dictionary’s editors were Nicolas Lossky, José Miguez Bonino, John Pobee, Thomas F. Stransky, and Geoffrey Wainwright. It was first published in 1991, it was then revised in 2002 and produced by the wcc. The dictionary offered thematic entries (such as that on “Authority” by Bernard Sesboüé) as well as entries on the interreligious dialogue by Seevaratham Wesley Ariarajah, biographical entries such as that on Pierre Duprey by Tom Stransky and one on the integration of ecology in the work on justice and peace by D. Preman Niles, Mary Tanner’s entry on the ordination of women and those on prayer and liturgy by Teresa Berger.43 Therefore, it had greater breadth than the Paderborn Personenlexikon, but already indicated the need for subdivisions that, in the work edited by one of Walter Kasper’s best students, would become a true biographical dictionary.

It was no coincidence that Thönissen – confirmed in the field of ecumenical theology with his 1994 work that had provided an analysis of the criteria of tradition and Vatican ii in ecumenical matters44 – should turn his attention to this biographical dictionary. It was equally relevant that a member of the Paderborn institute such as Ernesti, born after Vatican ii, professor at Augsburg and a scholar of the ecumenical parable during the Third Reich and, who had tried his hand at a brief but meticulous history of ecumenism, also worked on it.45

This biographical dictionary, indeed, more than its competitors,46 was a work of scholarship that masterfully marked the passage to a season in which those who were aware of ecumenism as a long-term phenomenon felt the need to enter the easier terrain of pure erudition as an alternative to the history of dialogues or a triumphalistic display of their results in a paradoxical reproposal of an ecumenical Denzingertheologie.47

It was therefore a meritorious condensation that inevitably, however, raised the question of the very possibility of attempting a vision of the whole, not a synthesis but one capable of historically giving voice to a historical reality marked by nonlinear time, one consisting of urgencies and delays, of premature acts and lost opportunities, of heightened formations and unexpected conversions.

2.2 Narratives and Privileges

In these historiographical seasons, recalled here extremely briefly, hundreds of works could be included that would produce the infinite nuances in the library of ecumenical historiography to which I referred above. This immense library has had access to various, growing sources produced both by individuals and by institutions, disseminated with or without academic intent, admitting varying degrees of access.48 Different narratological currents have acted and continue to act upon the historical knowledge of ecumenical experience in it. I restrict myself here to mentioning only three narratives that serve as examples.

2.2.1 Competing Narratives

The narrative of return is the first that the ecumenical movement applied to itself and which historiography took up as the description of a “must.”49 It posits unity as a past fact to which to turn in an analeptic procedure that, from a papist viewpoint, has clear unionist connotations and which, in the name of a lost authenticity, has a tone recognized as such throughout the post-Reformation world.50

This type of narrative can be found not only in the sources. It belongs to an original instance of Christianity since, already at the time of John 17:21, the community was aware of its own division.51 Throughout the history of the exegesis of that passage – besides that of the other ecclesiological archetypes such as Acts 4:32 or Acts 9:31,52 or the hermeneutics of the notes on the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed – the narrative of return inscribes κοινωνία53 as an objective that lies behind those waiting for it. It is a reverse paradigm that came down to the 20th century, embraced by both those responsible for the ecumenical inventio and by a historiography seeking intermediate stages. For example, it is seen in the study of the estrangement between East and West in the 9th and 10th centuries that prepared the 1054 schism that separated those worlds during the Gregorian era54 and in the study of the union council of 1438–1439 that preceded the fall of Constantinople into Turkish hands and that historicized the Latin ideology of the reductio of the “schismatics”55 when unionism was still the prevailing culture in the Roman Catholic Church. It is this looking backward that is the driving force behind a search in history for the code of fallibility of a unity lost and of a restored Eucharistic communion.56

The narrative of suffering is a second thread that runs through the sources and enters the ecumenical fabula. It distances itself from an admiration of controversial virtuosity, from an epic recollection57 of religious violence, whether suffered or practiced, in the “dutiful commitment to defend the truth,”58 and from everything that anesthetizes the scandal of division, adopting instead a view that sees the rupture of unity as a fatal error that strives for healing. Biblical tradition and the history of exegesis supplied this narrative with a lexicon of reference, too,59 and Greco-Hellenistic philosophy furnished a filter laden with historical-political consequences on the meaning of being-one.60 This narrative also “calls upon” historical research to narrate the pain of the laceration, for example, the misunderstandings that generated the theological rifts between the great church and the non-Constantinopolitan East, or the tragedy of the sack of Constantinople in the Fourth crusade in 1204.61

The narrative of urgency is a third thread that operates in the sources and which historiography finds itself facing because, for many, what must be committed to the record is the conviction of living not a linear but a “steep” time, inclined toward a καιρός whereby it seems objective situations internal or external to ecclesial dynamism cannot be escaped. For the pioneers of ecumenism, it was the missionary urgency in the early age of colonialist globalization at the end of the 19th century that led them to set aside their hesitations and self-understand themselves as the ecumenical movement (one should recall Rouse and Neill’s title), even in the absence of factual evidence of the extensive participation on which they wagered. Yet the same sense of urgency leads back to Constantinople immediately after World War I, and again when ecumenism had to measure up to the success of atheism, or, after World War ii, to the threat of Soviet imperialism. One finds it again in the growth of antinuclear pacifism in the 1960s, under the banner of rebellion against racial discrimination, in the struggle against the structural sin of capitalist society, and in calls for the defense of the environment at the end of the 20th century.

These historical contingencies become the reason for overcoming ancient divisions and for believing that “visible” unity is necessary, and is the sole guarantee with respect to spiritualist shortcuts that have never been silenced.62 This narrative also calls on historiography to explore the weight of divided Christianity in the great twists of history, as demonstrated, for example, by research on the Third Reich63 or the Council of Ferrara- Florence and the instrumentalization of the occasion leading up to the catastrophe of 1453.64

2.2.2 The Privileged Viewpoint

This complex historiography,65 written like all the others in the conviction of being able to distinguish prehistory from history, constructed like all the others in the conviction of being accorded a privileged viewpoint by time and sources, has provided a profound understanding of the beginnings of what would come to be called “ecumenism,” of its changing self-consciousness, of its institutions, of its leading figures, of the astuteness and the crises that have led many churches to avoid or use adjectives for a term with a very particular history. It is precisely the extension of this historiography that permits us today to understand that the expectation of unity66 consists of precise, imaginable, and possible articulations that must be clarified and studied.

However, it is precisely the vastness of this effort that makes it possible to hypothesize that the expectation constitutes a sum of meanings that exceed the individual articulations. There is no doubt that all those who constitute the history of the ecumenical movement are true articulations – trailblazers moved by the passion for unity,67 environments that have safeguarded their seeds,68 figures hidden in the folds of spiritual intuition or ecclesiastical institutions. They are linked back to distant expectations and, as in other 19th and pre-20th century Christian movements, they create relationships that are equipped with both old and new instruments, both typically ecclesial ones and those from the political and cultural context.

But is there anything beyond a theory of articulations that is not the adoption of a narrative or the adherence to a trend?


3. For a History of the Christian Desire for Unity

The working hypothesis proposed here is that that “thing” (res oecumenica) exists, that it changes and that it can be traced throughout the passage between the generations that experienced two world wars, a Cold War, the clash of civilizations, colonizations, true and fictitious decolonizations, the globalization of markets, and the spirituality market in the whirlwinds of demographic changes. It is a Christian quid, thus a historical fact; it would be a defection to attempt to circumvent it with ritual formulas of complexity and is what will be called here desire.

It is a desiderium unitatis,69 and the desire for an ecclesial unitas corporis70 of which history can be made. It is the history – that is to say “not controversy or the setting of concrete objectives, but an act through which to retain the image of the past that is created [in me] through studying the sources”71 – of the Christian desire for the unity of the churches, the history of the churches’ desire for the unity of Christians, the history of the desire for the unity for Christians.72 It is the history of a κρίσις that truly runs through all the churches, which, in every person who embraces it, defines the priorities and doctrines, compromises and deeds, convictions and evaluations of which historical research has much to say. This is because they are parts of a story that has seen a collective subject such as Christianity – whose social dangerousness has been documented by religious wars – turn to thoughts and deeds of peace, not on the basis of an extrinsic, pluralist or, as some pope has said, “irenicist”73 instance, but as a response to an obedience that has been heard and accepted.

It is the history not of concepts or models, but that of men and women who, starting from the irreplaceable contribution supplied by the historiography of ecumenism, make of ecumenism a subtitle. This does not downplay the factual breadth of a process that, nevertheless, is not recognized or is no longer recognized in the term “ecumene” imported into Christianity by Eusebius of Caesarea,74 yet cannot divorce itself from the grasp of the call to unity. It is a history that studies concrete men and women. Often without knowing one another, and at times not even being aware of the existence of one another, in quite separate confessional and cultural spheres, they embodied what many of them understood to be obedience to the Word and the discovery of a potentia oboedientalis.75 In virtue of that inner dimension (from which historical understanding is precluded in its exploration but not in its effects), they set in motion historical processes that went beyond their categorization as a “movement,” and which can be the object of a historical investigation that is thus neither anachronistic nor finalistic.

3.1 Methodological Caveats

Like every operation of historical knowledge, this one also has such a large body of research behind it that it can express its own particular approach and the caveats that set its course.

The “biographical” presentation so often imagined for ecumenism is neither sufficient nor necessary in a history of the Christian desire for unity. The idea of reading a trajectory of unity along a path of infancy, maturity, old age (and death) has sustained much research, but it leaves the historical problem of what prepared the adherence to a previously unheard of perspective intact76 and also leaves even more unsolved the problem of the distancing from multilateral ecumenism and the dialogues that characterize relevant sectors of each great denomination today.

Indeed, it is precisely this aspect that confirms the inadequacy of a methodology that condenses the ecumenical relationship into dialogues and sees the engineering of dialogues as the best product of “mature” ecumenism. This is not because the experience that connects national and supranational, multilateral and bilateral dimensions is insignificant but because it has shown how it is now possible for theologians to reach an understanding on almost any question of dogma, while internal divisions make it impossible to understand one another’s points of view as far as moral issues are concerned.

On the other hand, as in any other history of global and transgenerational dimensions, it is not a pseudo-erudite segmentation of the object that solves the problem. The history of the desire for unity, therefore, poses questions that are identical, e.g., to those of a history of France. It would be foolish to say it were unadvisable merely because biographies of all the French individuals do not exist, or it should be postponed until after accumulating all the monographs that could be written: because the mountain of analytical excavation and painstaking research – if, by some absurdity, such did exist – would not constitute a precondition for a research that has already been fulfilled but rather its negation.

This also holds for the, albeit essential, analysis of lexical items. The origin of identifying oneself as “ecumenical,” which arose from the combination of the theological approach of Faith and Order with the practical one of Life and Work, has since developed into a lexicon that accompanied the evolution and then involution that always corresponded to actual events.

A geography that is content with, or that excludes, the relevance of the Old World in the divisions and agenda of what would come to be perceived as a movement is neither enough for, nor of any help to, a history of the Christian desire for unity. Those lacerations and expectations of unity that were exported by diasporas and colonialism travel along a two-way street where particular conceptions/experiences pose universal problems/solutions and vice versa. Likewise, a thematic list of key problems – generational leaps, the role of youth and student groups, female protagonists, the role of research centers or monasteries, the practice of communicatio in sacris, declarations of double communion, and practices of intercommunion, or the identification of key figures – is neither enough nor of any help if it is limited to being a mere inventory.

Neither can the evident exchange among political cultures – starting with those which think of unity as a common subjugation to cultures of multinational imperialism or of federalism – or the conceptions that the churches express within or under those cultures – for example, those of papist absolutism or the Victorian world – be reduced to a mere inventory. Likewise, we cannot restrict ourselves to observing the parallels between the “ecumenical” approaches and the instruments of international or diplomatic relations. From the 1920 encyclical letter written on behalf of St. Andrew’s throne by Germanos of Seleucia to the “Churches of Christ,” inviting them to be no less audacious than the states which established the League of Nations,77 to the ecumenical question posed by the Helsinki Accords in order to achieve the ecumenical versions of “minilateralism,”78 it is clear that there is an osmosis between politics and ecumenism that, at times, has been understood at a political level by figures who were hostile to religion as such,79 and which sometimes remained invisible to the theologians who themselves were politically aligned with the political implications of inter-ecclesial agreements.80

3.2 Requiem for a Modern Desire?

What then does a history of the Christian desire for unity require? In order to answer this question, we can perhaps start from a study that is far from the discussion we would like to tackle. When Harold J. Berman published Law and Revolution: The Formation of the Western Legal Tradition in 1983,81 some scholars found it seriously flawed due to its second-hand access to the sources and to a very limited interpretation of the studies on the turning point of the 11th century.82 The haste of some passages, the gaps in the bibliography, and the superficiality of certain interpretations were easy to detect. For others, however, precisely due to its hasty judgements and negligence in categorizing the aporias of its discourse, Berman afforded a reflection upon what the West became after the Gregorian reform – and therefore after the break with the East sanctioned by the excommunications of 1054. Some aspects were appreciated by a historian of medieval canon law such as Brian Tierney because it confirmed the idea that “juridical” modernity (even that of papal infallibility) had medieval roots, and therefore his research on 13th and 14th century canonical foundations and origins of traits commonly held to be the most typical product of modernity was of specific worth.83 It was also esteemed by a historian of the Tridentine era such as Paolo Prodi who, on discussing the book, began a series of studies on the “dualisms” that he saw opening up precisely thanks to the Gregorian shift and the founding of the profile of the West. The dualism in justice, in the conception of state and ecclesial power, of market and morality is thought to have initiated an entirely modern trajectory that he saw ending with the 20th century. This, for him, included Vatican ii, the final throes of a world in agony, as opposed to a reading of the council as an epochal turning point, which was Giuseppe Alberigo’s interpretation and is my own.84

The controversial vigor of Prodi’s thesis, which saw a concept of state, of law, of the West, and of Christianity come to an end, was irredeemably fragile. Precisely because it struggled to “keep everything” in an act of intellectual voluntarism shored up by an immense historical culture, his theory does not stand up to an examination of conscience and the bad conscience of the West. Yet, as with Berman’s archetype, it is not the summation of Prodi’s incongruities that avoids the question, which concerns nothing less than the existence of a “second millennium” and the locating of the Christian desire for unity within that space; because, in Prodi’s philosophy of history, ecumenism could be yet another phenomenon that, precisely between the 11th and 20th centuries, experienced its entire existence, consumed its entire energy, and collapsed along with the utopia of real socialism, the concept of the state, and the culture of market regulation.

Could not the pallid ecumenism of the 21st century – one that requires third-party themes, be they ecological or migratory, to express a convergence that on a doctrinal level has been hijacked by theologians, on a hierarchical level is driven by media, and on a spiritual level has lost its voice – be used as proof of a season in which tendencies toward integralism, Pentecostal digressions, doctrinal supremacies, and identity traditionalisms prevail in every church?

3.3 A Working Hypothesis

For a historian who does not prove but reveals the answer is that it could not, because in that imaginary trajectory there is something that is not quite right. Saying that the desire for Christian unity belongs, heart and soul, to “modernity” and thus is considered to end along with it, would be nothing more than a more sophisticated repetition of a topos of the history of “classical” ecumenism, which legitimized its own point of view by maintaining that the process of growth, or the process tout court, to which study is dedicated, has been exhausted, having been overtaken by facts.

It is enough to ask oneself one question: in a global Christianity, increasingly evangelical and fragmented, in which division is no longer seen as a scandal but as the multiplication of religious offers in a new union with autocratic right-wing forces, what should reveal that the desire for Christian unity has run its course and that its fated dissolution has begun to push the pendulum of history towards a season of identity conflict and violence?

The answer is simple: matters would seem to suggest a negative response to this question and a different working hypothesis, starting exactly from Berman’s controversial theory on the 11th century because it is precisely the ecclesiological, juridical, and political legitimacy accorded at the time to the original schismatic fracture that the desire for unity calls into question. And it is precisely the inexorability of post-Tridentine confessionalization that is jolted by the vibration of the desire that makes one think of the visible unity of the churches as a real goal.

Instead of collapsing along with the utopias of the second half of the 20th century, the ferment of Christian unity took a different path. The ecumenical effort had used everything that postmodernity has swept away: historical finalism, the unifying Weltanschauung of the Enlightenment, the anthropology of civilization; but then it had already experienced all the aporias. In the disenchantment of the 1970s, the desire for unity discovered that it was not the vanguard of a process towards a compulsory end, the expression of a therapeutic rationality, or the protagonist of the turning point that intellectualistically sees more unity in the churches’ lack of unity today than in the unity of the churches of the 4th century. Those who awaited the appearance on earth of a homo œcumenicus, endowed with hitherto unknown thoughts and abilities, have had to acknowledge that, without that turning point, however, the bloodthirsty horrors of infra-Christian antagonism have been eradicated. The scandal of division, but not division itself, has been eroded, generating a practice of ecumenical courtesy that is not unity, but seems to be rather the glass partition that separates the churches from it. All this is thanks to a long series of figures of varying interior and cultural stamp, from whose hands we receive more than one testimony, the baton in a relay race that deceives those who would like there to be only one.

It is a process that escapes (ברח Sg 8:14) the ideologies of modernity and the West and demands to be studied, known and narrated exactly for what it is, on the basis of a heuristic consideration, a hermeneutic criterion, and the postulate typical of every historical work.

The heuristic consideration is that the history of this desire leaves an interminable documentary trail, as in so much of the contemporary history of the pre-digital age. It is so vast that it can be used by a journalist or a judge as a deposit that can be mined with a rigor that, even if passed off as meticulousness, remains an arbitrary concatenation of proofs. Or it can be used by historians as a shimmering firmament from which to draw hypotheses whose truth can be seen by all, reconstructed by all, and rediscussed by all.

The hermeneutic criterion is also common to every historical piece of work. In order to know that lost present that is the past, the historian must be wary of the siren that gives it a “concrete purpose” which, if accepted, would render that fragment of historical truth a servant of this purpose. It may, however, have a function in virtue of the understanding it generates. The Christian desire for unity may disappear forever from the horizon, by itself or along with Christianity (Jesus’ πλήν in Luke 18:8b concerning the matter is rather pessimistic). But for the historian, what will remain will be the significance of an experience that has changed the religious landscape and – let a comparison with the confessional divisions of Islam suffice – has changed it in a way favorable to peace.

The postulate is linked to this aspect and harkens back to Jean-Pierre Jossua’s intuition concerning post-Kantian Christianity. Once the duty of establishing ethics was concluded, Christianity could have regained its kerygmatic dimension (and it did not do so).85 Today’s ecumenical trajectory has certainly exhausted the idea that the unity of the churches is “useful”: useful in improving missionary performance, useful in ending atheist communism, useful in combating Nazi idolatry, useful for living in a postwar society, useful in improving religious life, useful to migrants, the environment, or to post-Covid world. No utilitas has survived. Rather, the rise to predominance, at least in the political sphere, of churches (in Brazil, the United States) that are disinterested and hostile to an ecumenical course and the tumultuous growth of interreligious dialogue makes the desire for unity today a completely gratuitous act, embraced by its servants who are useless but nevertheless still capable of trusting in the delays, convinced that only what arrives late will some time take place.

If one intends to understand this, it means being aware that, all things considered, what is needed to produce a historical knowledge worthy of such an object is the careful examination of the multidimensionality of every single articulation86 of an object that is exposed to history and historical knowledge, thanks to a certain connaturality. Because it is a fact, and because it is Christian.

Translated from Italian to English by Susan Dawson Vásquez and David Dawson Vásquez.

next chapter



Alberigo, Giuseppe, ed., Christian Unity: The Council of Ferrara-Florence: 1438/39–1989, Leuven, Peeters, 1991.

Anderson, Gerald H. & others, eds., Mission Legacies: Biographical Studies of Leaders of the Modern Missionary Movement, Maryknoll NY, Orbis Books, 1994.

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Bori, Pier Cesare, Koinonia: L’idea della comunione nell’ecclesiologia recente e nel Nuovo Testamento, Brescia, Paideia, 1972.

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Fouilloux, Étienne, Les catholiques et l’unité chrétienne du XIXème au XXème siècle, Paris, Le Centurion, 1982.

Karakolis, Christos & Ulrich Luz, eds., Einheit der Kirche im Neuen Testament, Heidelberg, Mohr Siebeck, 2008.

Koselleck, Reinhart, Futures Past: On the Semantics of Historical Time, trans. Keith Tribe, New York NY, Columbia University Press, 2005.

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Marrou, Henri-Irénée, The Meaning of History, trans. Robert J. Olsen, Baltimore MD, Helicon, 1966.

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Thönissen, Wolfgang, Dogma und Symbol: Eine ökumenische Hermeneutik, Freiburg i.Br., Herder, 2008.

Tierney, Brian, Religion, Law and the Growth of Constitutional Thought (1150–1650), Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1983.


1. For this aspect, I refer readers to Giuseppe Ruggieri, Della fede: La certezza, il dubbio, la lotta, Rome, Carocci, 22015.

2. See David P. Moessner, “The Lukan Prologues in the Light of Ancient Narrative Hermeneutics: Παρηκολουθηκότι and the Credentials of the Author,” in: Joseph Verheyden, ed., The Unity of Luke-Acts, Leuven, Leuven University Press, 1999, 399–418.

3. On this problem, see François Dosse, Michel De Certeau: Le marcheur blessé, Paris, La Découverte, 2007, 262–277; on the question of alterity in history posed by Certeau, see his La Fable mystique: XVIème–XVIIème siècle, 2 vols., Paris, Gallimard, 1987–2013.

4. See Walter Benjamin, On the Concept of History, in: Howard Eiland & Michael W. Jennings, eds., Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings, vol. 4, 1938–1940, Cambridge MA, Harvard University Press, 2006, 389–400.

5. I do not use here the Thomist category (Summa Theologiae i, q. 1, a. 6, ad 3; Summa Theologiae iiii, q. 45, a. 2, c; In de divinis nominibus, c. ii, lect. iv, nn. 191–192, from the editions) to say that on the part of history there may be a “non-ratiocinative cognitive judgment that determines the goodness of a concrete object by virtue of the convergence of the apprehension of the object and of the appetitive inclination directed toward it” (according to the proposal in Marco D’Avenia, La conoscenza per connaturalità in S. Tommaso d’Aquino, Bologna, Edizioni Studio Domenicano, 1992, 177) but to indicate the opposite process. On Maritain’s contribution, see Pierre-Antoine Belley, Connaître par le cœur: La connaissance par connaturalité dans les œuvres de Jacques Maritain, Paris, Tequi, 2006.

6. See Hans-Werner Goetz, Geschichtsschreibung und Geschichtsbewußtsein im hohen Mittelalter, Berlin, Akademie Verlag, 1999, and Jean-Philippe Genet, ed., L’historiographie médiévale en Europe: Actes du colloque organisé par la Fondation Européenne de la Science au Centre de Recherches Historiques et Juridiques de l’Université Paris I du 29 mars au 1er avril 1989, Paris, Éditions du cnrs, 1991.

7. See Claudia Rapp, “Imperial Ideology in the Making: Eusebius of Caesarea on Constantine as ‘Bishop,’” jts 49, 1988, 685–695; and Manlio Simonetti, “L’esegesi di Eusebio e la figura di Costantino,” in: Alberto Melloni & others, eds., Costantino I: Enciclopedia costantiniana sulla figura e l’immagine dell’imperatore del cosiddetto Editto di Milano (313–2013), vol. 2, Rome, Treccani, 2013, 129–134.

8. See Franco Motta, Bellarmino: Una teologia politica della Controriforma, Brescia, Morcelliana, 2005.

9. See John R. Schneider, Philip Melanchthon’s Rhetorical Construal of Biblical Authority: Oratio Sacra, Lewiston NY, Edwin Mellen Press, 1990, 233–235.

10. It is still seminal the essay by Eric Cochrane, “Muratori: The Vocation of a Historian,” chr 51/2, 1965, 153–172, as well as the more recent studies mentioned in Antonello Mattone, “Il modello muratoriano e la storiografia sardo-piemontese del Settecento,” Rivista storica italiana 12/1, 2009, 67–120.

11. See the principal contributions of Odo Marquard, Abschied vom Prinzipiellen: Philosophische Studien, Stuttgart, Reclam, 1981, and Alberto Melloni & Odo Marquard, La storia che giudica, la storia che assolve, Bari, Laterza, 2008.

12. See Reinhart Koselleck, Vergangene Zukunft: Zur Semantik geschichtlicher Zeiten, Frankfurt a.M., Suhrkamp, 1979; et: Futures Past: On the Semantics of Historical Time, trans. Keith Tribe, New York NY, Columbia University Press, 2005.

13. Geoffrey R. Elton, Return to Essentials: Some Reflections on the Present State of Historical Study, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1991, already saw the mere belonging to a faith, even worse if it were a true adherence, as a danger. He confuses the survey of a formula with an approach: Daniele Menozzi, “La secolarizzazione della storia della chiesa: Giuseppe Alberigo da una proposta al ripensamento,” Rivista di storia del cristianesimo 12/1, 2015, 165–183.

14. The analogy of the nonexistence of two mathematics (a Catholic and a non-Catholic one) remains illuminating. Roger Aubert, “Les nouvelles frontières de l’historiographie ecclésiastique,” rhe 95/3, 2000, 757–781.

15. This is the main point of the classic by Henri-Irénée Marrou, De la connaissance historique, Paris, Éditions du Seuil, 1954; et: The Meaning of History, trans. Robert J. Olsen, Baltimore MD, Helicon, 1966; on him, see Pierre Riché, Henri Irénée Marrou historien engagé: Préface par R. Rémond, Paris, Cerf, 2003.

16. Marie-Dominique Chenu, Une école de théologie: le Saulchoir: Avec les études de with essays by Giuseppe Alberigo, Étienne Fouilloux, Jean Ladrière et Jean-Pierre Jossua, Paris, Cerf, 1985, (first edition: 1937, Kain-Lez-Tournai, Le Saulchoir).

17. See Christoph Theobald, La révélation, Paris, Les Éditions de l’Atelier, 2006, 214–224.

18. Michel de Certeau, The Writing of History, trans. Tom Conley, New York NY, Columbia University Press, 1988, 47. On de Certau, other than the already cited Dosse, Michel De Certeau, see also Hervé Martin, “À propos de ‘L’opération historiographique,’” in: Christian Delacroix & others, eds., Michel de Certeau: Les chemins d’histoire, Paris, Éditions Complexe/ihtp-cnrs, 2002, 107–124, and Pierre-Antione Fabre, “Postérités mystiques de Michel de Certeau,” in: Philippe Artières, ed., Après Certeau: Histoire, archives et psychanalyse, Sociétés et représentations 43, 2017, 17–27.

19. For example, Peter Neuner, Théologie œcuménique: La quête de l’unité des Églises chrétiennes, Paris, Cerf, 2005.

20. Giuseppe Ruggieri, “II vicolo cieco dell’ecumenismo,” CrSt 7/3, 1988, 563–615.

21. The history of the adjective “ecumenical” can be gleaned, e.g., through encyclopedias. After the 1920s, every great work of this kind includes an entry on “ecumenism,” even if the content and object has changed over time, up to the definition given by Encyclopedia Britannica online in the 21st century, which reads: “Movement or tendency toward worldwide Christian unity or cooperation,” with a rather eloquent option (“or”!). There have been those who recognized the crisis stemming from the unattainability of the goal of unity, such as Thomas Torrance in Appendix iv of the Enciclopedia Italiana (1978). At the end of the 20th century, Günther Gassmann, a leading ecumenical figure, recalled, in his contribution to that work, the universalistic connotation of the word and its cognates. The term “oecumene” (which appears for the first time in Herodotus in the 5th century bc) was adopted by Christian authors to denote the supralocal character as well as the universal validity and authority of the decisions expressed in the “ecumenical” councils, or to designate the three main creeds (Apostles, Nicaean, and Athanasian) called “ecumenical symbols.” Gassman continues: “The terms ‘oecumene’ and ‘ecumenical’ were taken up again in the 19th century with a new and wider meaning. In Christian associations such as the Evangelical Alliance (1846) and the Federation of Christian Youth Associations (1855) – which can be considered precursors of the ecumenical movement – an awareness developed that all Christians and all churches were part of the same household. In this context, the term ‘ecumenical’ was used to denote an attitude, a communion, and a cooperation capable of overcoming political and confessional divisions. The idea of an ecumenical spirit, conscience, and will, therefore, was added to the geopolitical meaning and the idea of universal validity and, with that, the foundations were laid for the current use of the concepts of ‘oecumene’ and ‘ecumenical’ in this century’s ‘ecumenical movement.’” This entry first appeared in Italian in Enciclopedia del Novecento, vol. 2, Supplemento, Rome, Treccani, 1998.

22. Étienne Fouilloux, “Ecumenismo,” in Alberto Melloni, ed., Dizionario del sapere storico-religioso del Novecento, vol. 1, Bologna, Il Mulino, 2019, 842–851.

23. Ruth Rouse & Stephen C. Neill, eds., A History of the Ecumenical Movement (1517–1948), London, spck, 11954.

24. Eleanor M. Jackson, “Neill, Stephen Charles,” in: Gerald H. Anderson, ed., Biographical Dictionary of Christian Missions, New York NY, Macmillan Reference USA, 1998, 488.

25. Rouse wrote John R. Mott: An Appreciation, Geneva, wscf, 1929, on the American Methodist and future Nobel Prize winner.

26. This is recounted in Ruth C. Rouse, The World’s Student Christian Federation: A History of the First Thirty Years, London, scm Press, 1948, with a preface by John Mott.

27. See Jenny Daggers, “The Victorian Female Civilising Mission and Women’s Aspirations Towards Priesthood in the Church of England,” WoHR 10/4, 2001, 651–670.

28. Ruth C. Rouse, Rebuilding Europe: The Student Chapter in Post-War Reconstruction, London, scm, 1925.

29. Ruth Franzén, Ruth Rouse Among Students: Global, Missiological, and Ecumenical Perspectives, Uppsala, Uppsala University, 2008.

30. Ruth Franzén also wrote the entry on Rouse in: Anderson, ed., Biographical Dictionary, 580–581, as well as the essay “The Legacy of Ruth Rouse,” ibmr 17/10, 1993, 154–156.

31. See Dyron B. Daughrity, Bishop Stephen Neill: From Edinburgh to South India, New York NY, Peter Lang, 2008; concise treatments can be found in Eleanor M. Jackson, “The Continuing Legacy of Stephen Neill,” ibmr 19/2, 1995, 77–80; Charles Lamb, “Stephen Neill,” in: Gerald H. Anderson & others, eds., Mission Legacies: Biographical Studies of Leaders of the Modern Missionary Movement, Maryknoll NY, Orbis Books, 1994, 445–451.

32. Her best biography, which however omits the conflict with Neill, is still that of Elisabeth Elliot, Amy Carmichael: A Chance to Die, Old Tappan NJ, Revell, 1987.

33. Eleanor M. Jackson, ed., God’s Apprentice: The Autobiography of Stephen Neill, London, Hodder & Stoughton, 1991; see also Lamb, “Stephen Neill.”

34. Neill wrote A History of Christian Missions, Harmondsworth, Penguin Books, 1964; History of Christianity in India (1707–1858), Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1985; and many scholarly articles.

35. A History of the Ecumenical Movement, vol. 1, Ruth Rouse & Stephen C. Neill, eds., 1517–1948, London, spck, 21967; A History of the Ecumenical Movement, vol. 2, Harold E. Fey, ed., The Ecumenical Advance (1948–1968), London, spck, 1970, and as displayed in the frontispiece “published on behalf of the Committee on Ecumenical History”. Fey was a minister of the Disciples of Christ from 1937 and editor of Christian Century from 1956 to 1964. On him, see his own work, Harold E. Fey, “Seventy Years of the Century,” The Christian Century, Oct 11, 1978, 950–954.

36. Its third volume, 1968–2000, edited by John H.Y. Briggs, Mercy A. Oduyoye, and Georges Tsetsis, was published in 2004 by the wcc. On John Briggs, scholar and practicing Baptist, first Convenor of the Free Churches Group of Churches Together in England from 2001 to 2009, see Anthony R. Cross, ed., Ecumenism and History: Studies in Honour of John H.Y. Briggs, Milton Keynes, Paternoster Press, 2003. Briggs worked on important studies such as The English Baptists of the Nineteenth Century, Didcot, Baptist Historical Society, 1994, he is the editor of the entry on the World Baptist Alliance for the forthcoming cogd 7, and wrote on “Baptists and Ecumenical Engagement,” Baptistic Theologies 5/1, 2013, 84–102. Mercy Amba Oduyoye, a Ghanaian Methodist theologian, directs the Institute of African Women in Religion and Culture at Trinity Theological Seminary in Accra, Ghana, after having taught at Harvard University; she was deputy secretary general of the wcc from 1987 to 1994. She is the author of important contributions, including Introducing African Women’s Theology, Cleveland OH, The Pilgrim Press, 2001. On her, see Pui-lan Kwok, “Mercy Amba Oduyoye and African Women’s Theology,” Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion 20/1, 2004, 7–22. Georges Tsetsis, has been active in the wcc since 1965 and, from 1984 to 1999, was the representative of the Ecumenical Patriarchate. He has written “What is the World Council’s Oikoumene?,” EcRev 43/1, 1991, 86–96. A small example of his political role is given in Tobias Rupprecht, “Orthodox Internationalism: State and Church in Modern Russia and Ethiopia,” cssh 60, 2018, 212–223.

37. Étienne Fouilloux, Les catholiques et l’unité chrétienne du XIXème au XXème siècle, Paris, Le Centurion, 1982.

38. One exception may be Silvia Scatena, Taizé, una parabola di unità: Storia della comunità dalle origini al concilio dei giovani, Bologna, Il Mulino, 2018.

39. To cite the aphorism of Marc Bloch in Apologie pour l’histoire “un mot, pour tout dire, domine et illumine nos études: comprendre”; et: The Historian’s Craft, trans. Peter Putnam, Manchester, Manchester University Press, 1992, 118.

40. For the autobiography of Fouilloux, a student of René Rémond, and his conversion to Catholicism with Fr. Congar, see “Un historien et la foi,” Annali di storia dell’educazione e delle istituzioni scolastiche 20, 2013, 265–326.

41. See Jean-Dominique Durand, “La ‘Furia francese’ vue de Rome: Peurs, suspicions et rejets des années 1950,” in: Michel Lagrée & Nadine-Josette Chaline, eds., Religions par-delà les frontières, Paris, Beauchesne, 1997, 15–35. For the connection with the world of worker priests and the Lyon cenacle, see François Leprieur, Quand Rome condamne: Dominicains et prêtres-ouvriers, Paris, Cerf, 1989; Étienne Fouilloux, La collection «Sources chrétiennes»: Éditer les Pères de l’Église au XXe siècle, Paris, Cerf, 1995.

42. See Jörg Ernesti & Wolfgang Thönissen (eds.), Personenlexikon Ökumene, Freiburg i.Br., Herder, 2010.

43. Nicolas Lossky & others, eds., Dictionary of the Ecumenical Movement, Geneva, wcc Publications, 22003 with internal variations in respect to the 11991 edition published in Geneva.

44. Wolfgang Thönissen, Gemeinschaft durch Teilhabe an Jesus Christus: Ein katholisches Modell für die Einheit der Kirchen, Freiburg i.Br., Herder, 1996 (originally his Habilitationsschrift, Freiburg i.Br., 1994), later developed in his Dogma und Symbol: Eine ökumenische Hermeneutik, Freiburg i.Br., Herder, 2008.

45. Jörg Ernesti, Ökumene im Dritten Reich, Paderborn, Bonifatius, 2007 and Kleine Geschichte der Ökumene, Freiburg i.Br., Herder, 2007.

46. Pantelis Kalaitzidis & others, eds., Orthodox Handbook on Ecumenism: Resources for Theological Education, Oxford, Regnum Books International, 2014, was prepared at the same time for educational use.

47. The and websites have the collections of the online versions of the dialogues. In Italy, the Enchiridion Oecumenicum, which now numbers ten volumes, has been published since 1984. For Canada, see The Margaret O’Gara Ecumenical Dialogue Collection, available at <> (accessed Dec 2, 2020). For Rahner’s position on Denzingertheologie, see, for example, “Zur momentanen Situation der katholischen Theologie,” in: Karl Rahner, Schriften zur Theologie, vol. 15, Zürich, Benziger, 1983, 76–83. See also Bernard J.F. Lonergan, Method in Theology, Toronto, University of Toronto Press, 1972, 330–331.

48. The catalogue of the papers from Geneva ( comes to mind, or the digital edition of all of the documents published by the Faith and Order Commission (

49. See Jacques Derrida’s 1986 essay “Comment ne pas parler: Dénégations,” in: Jacques Derrida, Psyché: Inventions de l’autre, vol. 2, Paris, Galilée, 2003; et: “How to Avoid Speaking: Denials,” in: Jacques Derrida, Psyche: Inventions of the Other, ed. and trans. Peggy Kamuf & Elizabeth Rottenberg, vol. 2, Palo Alto CA, Stanford University Press, 2008, 143–195.

50. See Stephen J. Barnett, “Where Was Your Church Before Luther? Claims for the Antiquity of Protestantism Examined,” ch 68/1, 1999, 14–41, or, for a pastoral reading, Glen L. Thompson, “The Daughter of The Word: What Luther learned from the Early Church and the Fathers,” Perichoresis 17/4, 2019, 41–56.

51. Jean Zumstein, Das Johannesevangelium, Göttingen, Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2016, 650–659, on the second hand aspect of prayer.

52. On Acts 9, see again Jacques Dupont, Nouvelles Études sur les Actes des Apôtres, Paris, Cerf, 1984; for an example of a theological reading from an Orthodox perspective, see, for example, Anatoly A. Alexeev, Christos Karakolis & Ulrich Luz, eds., Einheit der Kirche im Neuen Testament, Heidelberg, Mohr Siebeck, 2008; for the recent studies, see Daniel Marguerat, Les Actes des Apôtres (1–12), Geneva, Labor et Fides, 2007.

53. Pier Cesare Bori, Koinonia: L’idea della comunione nell’ecclesiologia recente e nel Nuovo Testamento, Brescia, Paideia, 1972. For the recent developments in different sources, see Julien M. Ogereau, “A Survey of Κοινωνία and Its Cognates in Documentary Sources,” Novum Testamentum 57/3, 2015, 275–294.

54. To understand its significance, it is enough to review the fortunes of the studies on Photius by Francis Dvornik, Harvard professor from 1948 to 1965, and author of The Photian Schism: History and Legend, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1948, the French edition, Le Schisme de Photius: Histoire et légende, Paris, Cerf, 1950, has a preface by Yves Congar.

55. Fr. Joseph Gill was a student at the pio in the 1930s. He spent the war in Oxford where he worked on a history of the Anglican Church and began work on the Council of Ferrara-Florence with Georg Hofmann. He later returned to Rome and became Rector of the pio. See Joseph A. Munitiz, “Joseph Gill s.j. (8 IX 1901–15 X 1989),” ocp 57, 1991, 5–10.

56. See Federico Fatti, “Il seme del diavolo: La parabola della zizzania e i conflitti politico-dottrinali a Bisanzio (IV–V sec.),” CrSt 26/1, 2005, 123–172. For a bibliography on intercommunion, see Alberto Melloni, Tempus visitationis: L’intercomunione inaccaduta fra Roma e Costantinopoli, Bologna, Il Mulino, 2019. On Piet Frans Fransen’s insight into the mutual obligations arising from the condemnations, see Alberto Melloni, “La chiesa fra comunione e scomunica,” in: Giuseppe Alberigo, Giuseppe Ruggieri & Roberto Rusconi, eds., Il cristianesimo, grande Atlante, vol. 2, Ordinamenti, gerarchie, pratiche, Turin, Utet, 2006, 501–515.

57. Erika Kuijpers & others, eds., Memory Before Modernity: Practices of Memory in Early Modern Europe, Leiden, Brill, 2013.

58. This is the expression used during the mea culpa of the Roman Catholic Church used by Joseph Ratzinger in the Jubilee of 2000, for which the itc had prepared a document entitled Memory and Reconciliation: The Church and the Faults of the Past. On this issue, see Giuseppe Alberigo, Chiesa santa e peccatrice, Magnano, Qiqajon, 1997.

59. On the problem of the principle of union in the earliest Christian communities, see Bruce D. Chilton & Craig A. Evans, eds., James the Just and Christian Origins, Leiden, Brill 2014; Claudio Gianotto, Pietro: Il primo degli apostoli, Bologna, Il Mulino, 2018.

60. Today it is less common to encounter the extreme position that claims a perpetual and irrevocable right for the philosophy of saying the Christian faith as that of Joseph Ratzinger, Einführung in das Christentum: Vorlesungen über das Apostolische Glaubensbekenntnis, Munich, Kösel, 1968; et: Introduction to Christianity, San Francisco, Ignatius Press, 1990. This thesis was also reiterated in his 2006 Regensburg lecture Glaube, Vernunft und Universität: Erinnerungen und Reflexionen, available at <> (accessed Dec 4, 2020), which quotes from the essay of Aloys Grillmeier, “Hellenisierung – Judaisierung des Christentums als Deuteprinzipien der Geschichte des kirchlichen Dogmas,” in: Aloys Grillmeier, Mit ihm und in ihm: Christologische Forschungen und Perspektiven, Freiburg i.Br., Herder, 1975, 423–488. For the Plotinian filter, see Christian Tornau, “Qu’est-ce qu’un individu? Unité, individualité, et conscience de soi dans la métaphysique Plotinienne de l’âme,” Les Études philosophiques 3, 2009, 333–360. On the ontological and henological question from Origen to Pico, see Jean-Marc Narbonne, La métaphysique de Plotin, Paris, Vrin, 2001, 162–163.

61. See Alfred J. Andrea, Contemporary Sources for the Fourth Crusade, Leiden, Brill, 2008, and Alfred J. Andrea, The Capture of Constantinople: The “Hystoria Constantinopolitana” of Gunther of Pairis, Philadel­phia PA, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1997.

62. See Walter Kasper, A Handbook of Spiritual Ecumenism, Hyde Park NY, New City Press, 2007, and the review of the 2002 collection of Kasper’s essays by Ingolf Dalferth, “Cardinal Kasper on Ecumenism,” Ecclesiology 2/1, 2005, 131–137.

63. Other than the previously cited work by Ernesti, see, for example, the theme of the impossibility of excommunication (in regard to the Arian paragraph) as an obstacle to an ecumenical council in the work of Bonhoeffer, see Ökumenische Ungeduld: Das Drängen Dietrich Bonhoeffers auf die Einheit der Kirche im Geiste Jesu Christi, forthcoming, and Norbert Greinacher, Von der Wirklichkeit zur Utopie: Der Weg eines Theologen, Frankfurt a.M., Peter Lang, 2010, 91–93.

64. Giuseppe Alberigo, ed., Christian Unity: The Council of Ferrara-Florence: 1438/39–1989, Leuven, Peeters, 1991.

65. Fouilloux, “Ecumenismo.”

66. See the introductory essay by Antonella Cavazza in the critical edition that she edited of “La Chiesa è una” di A.S. Chomjakov: Edizione documentario-interpretativa, Bologna, Il Mulino, 2006.

67. The category of “trailblazer” was already widely used by the mid-1950s, as shown by the book by Hermann Maas, Wegbereiter der Ökumene: Nathan Söderblom, John Mott, Marc Boegner, W.A. Visser’t Hooft, Begegnungen und Erinnerungen, Stuttgart, Junge, 1954, whose title inspired the collection published fifty years later, Christian Möller & others, eds., Wegbereiter der Okumene im 20. Jahrhundert (Transkulturelle Perspektiven), Göttingen, Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2005. This is a type of approach that emerges in other biographical works of great significance, for example, Charles Howard Hopkins, John R. Mott (1865–1955): A Biography, Grand Rapids MI, Eerdmans, 1979; Jonas Jonson, Nathan Soderblom: Called to Serve, Grand Rapids MI, Eerdmans, 2016; Dietz Lange, Nathan Soderblom und seine Zeit, Göttingen, Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2011; Jacques Mortiau & Raymond Loonbeek, Dom Lambert Beauduin visionnaire et précurseur (1873–1960): Un moine au cœur libre, Paris, Cerf, 2005; Jan Schubert, Willem Adolph Visser ’t Hooft (1900–1985): Ökumene und Europa, Göttingen, Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2017; Jurjen Albert Zeilstra, Visser ’t Hooft. Een leven voor de oecumene – Biografie (1900–1985), Middelbourg, Skandalon, 2018 (et: Visser ’t Hooft, 1900–1985: Living for the Unity of the Church, Amsterdam, Amsterdam University Press, 2020); Saretta Marotta, Gli anni della pazienza: Bea, l’ecumenismo e il Sant’Uffizio di Pio xii, Bologna, Il Mulino, 2020; Valeria Martano, Athenagoras, il patriarca (1886–1972): Un cristiano fra crisi della coabitazione e utopia ecumenica, Bologna, Il Mulino, 1996.

68. See Scatena, Taizé, and, on Chevetogne, Mortiau & Loonbeek, Dom Lambert Beauduin.

69. Thus John Cassian, Conferences; I note per transennam that the expression comes from the 1962 Ratzinger-Frings schema on the church, Dominus noster Jesus Christus, cited in: Jerard Wicks, “Six Texts by Prof. Joseph Ratzinger,” Gregorianum 89/2, 2008, 233–311, here 295. On this see Giuseppe Alberigo, ed., Storia del concilio Vaticano II, 5 vols., Bologna/Leuven, Il Mulino/Peeters, 22015, ad indicem.

70. Cyprian, De Ecclesiae catholicae unitate, cited in John xxiii’s opening speech at Vatican ii, Gaudet mater ecclesia; on this see Alberto Melloni, Papa Giovanni: Un cristiano e il suo concilio, Turin, Einaudi 2008, 258–273.

71. I like the formula inscribed in the preface to volume 2 of the history of the Council of Trent: “Auch dieser Band verfolgt mithin keine konkreten Ziele, weder ökumenische noch kontroverstheologische. Er will nur darstellen, d. h. jenes Bild der Vergangenheit festhalten, das sich in mir durch das Studium der Quellen geformt hat,” Hubert Jedin, Geschichte des Konzils von Trient, vol. 2, Freiburg i.Br., Herder, 1957, v–vi.

72. On this, see Alberto Melloni, “Per una storia del desi­derio cristiano di unità,” in: Jean-Dominique Durand & others, Nel mare aperto della storia: Studi in onore di Andrea Riccardi, Rome, Laterza, 2021, 120–142.

73. In a certain sense, one can say that the formula used in the Catholic condemnations of the 1920s (“false irenicism”) paradoxically evoked a conception arising from Erasmus and François du Jon the Elder (Franciscus Junius) and then from the irenicists of the 17th and 18th centuries. On this, see Michael B. Lukens, “Witzel and Erasmian Irenicism in the 1530s,” jts 39/1, 1988, 134–136. On some of the principal figures, see Nick Thompson, “The Long Reach of Reformation Irenicism: The Considerationes Modestae et Pacificae of William Forbes (1585–1634),” in: Ian Breward, ed., Reforming the Reformation: Essays in Honour of Principal Peter Matheson, Melbourne, Australian Scholarly Press, 2004, 124–147; Tobias Sarx, Franciscus Junius d. Ä. (1545–1602): Ein reformierter Theologe im Spannungsfeld zwischen späthumanistischer Irenik und reformierter Konfessionalisierung, Göttingen, Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2007; Christiaan de Jonge, De irenische Ecclesiologie van Franciscus Iunius (1545–1602), Nieuwkoop, De Graaf, 1980; François Gaquère, Le dialogue irénique Bossuet-Leibniz: La réunion des Églises en échec (1691–1702), Paris, Beauchesne, 1966; Christiane Berkvens-Stevelinck, Jonathan Irvine Israel & Guillaume H.M. Posthumus Meyjes, eds., The Emergence of Tolerance in the Dutch Republic, Leiden, Brill, 1997; Graeme Murdock, “The Boundaries of Reformed Irenicism: Royal Hungary and the Transylvania in Howard Louthan,” in: Randall Zachman, ed., From Conciliarism to Confessional Church (1400–1618), South Bend IN, Notre Dame Press, 2004; Daphne M. Wedgbury, “Protestant Irenicism and the Millennium: Mede and the Hartlib Circle,” in: Jeffrey K. Jue, ed., Heaven Upon Earth: Joseph Mede (1586–1638) and the Legacy of Millenarianism, Dordrecht, Springer, 2006.

74. It was, as mentioned, Eusebius of Caesarea who borrowed Herodotus’s term for the inhabited “world/home” – οἰκυµηνικός to indicate the entire “world/church/empire” of Constantine, as the court of the new Rome understood it. On this, see Giuseppe Ruggieri, “Il dibattito sulla teologia politica, prima e dopo Peterson,” in: Melloni, Costantino I, vol. 3, 407–415, which dicusses the theological-political question posed by Eric Peterson, Monotheismus als politisches Problem: Ein Beitrag zur Geschichte der politischen Theologie, im Imperium Romanum, Leipzig, Jakob Hegner, 1935 and by the reaction of Carl Schmitt, Politische Theologie II: Die Legende von der Erledigung jeder Politischen Theologie, Berlin, Duncker & Humblot, 52008. On this see Michele Nicoletti, “Erik Peterson e Carl Schmitt: Ripensare un dibattito,” in: Giancarlo Caronello, ed., Erik Peterson: La presenza teologica di un outsider, Vatican City, Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2012, 517–537. On using adjectives for the council, see Alberto Melloni, “Concili, ecumenicità e storia: Note di discussione,” CrSt 28/3, 2007, 509–542, and on the conciliar “peace,” see Thomas Graumann, “Frieden schließen auf Konzilien? Zwei Beispiele aus dem vierten Jahrhundert,” ahc 48, 2018, 53–69. The metrics of the symbol that uses the rhythm of the One (One God, One Son, One Spirit, One Church, One Baptism) need to be studied.

75. Karl Rahner & Herbert Vorgrimler, eds, Kleines Theologisches Wörterbuch, Freiburg i.Br., Herder, 1961, ad vocem.

76. See, for example, the above-cited Marotta, Gli anni della pazienza, which poses the problem of the non-ecumenism of a future ecumenist within the repressive Roman apparatus.

77. The letter of Jan 1, 1920, Enkyklios Synodike tes Ekklesias Konstantinoupòleos pros tas apantachoù Ekklesias tou Christoù; et: “Encyclical of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, 1920: Unto the Churches of Christ Everywhere,” in: Gennadios Limouris, ed., Orthodox Visions of Ecumenism: Statements, Messages, and Reports on the Ecumenical Movement (1902–1992), Geneva, wcc publications, 1994, 1–8.

78. See Moisés Naim, “Minilateralism,” Foreign Policy, June 21, 2009, at (accessed 4 Dec, 2020): “By minilateralism, I mean a smarter, more targeted approach: We should bring to the table the smallest possible number of countries needed to have the largest possible impact on solving a particular problem.” So, if minilateralism is the opening of non-bilateral and non-universal dialogues from which exemplary solutions are expected, the bem can be conceived along these lines. See, in this regard, Luca Ferracci, Battesimo Eucaristia Ministero: Genesi e destino di un documento ecumenico, Bologna, Il Mulino, 2021.

79. See Mikhail V. Shkarovsky, Russkaya pravoslavnaya tserkov pri Staline i Khrushcheve: gosudarstvenno-tserkovnye otnosheniya v sssr v 1939–1964 godach [The Russian Orthodox Church under Stalin and Krushchev: State-Church Relations in the ussr from 1939 to 1964], Moscow, Graal, 42005, and Alberto Melloni, “Chiese sorelle – diplomazie nemiche: Il Vaticano ii e Mosca fra ecumenismo, propaganda ed Ostpolitik,” in Alberto Melloni, ed., Vatican II in Moscow (1959–1965): Acts of the Colloquium on the History of Vatican II. Moscow, March 30–April 2, 1995, Leuven, Bibliotheek van de Faculteit Godgeleerdheid, 1997.

80. If Joseph Ratzinger had not objected to and blocked the signing of the arcic I agreement as early as 1983 – before glasnost – the oldest and most represented Christian components in nato countries would have achieved a unity that did not lack general implications.

81. Harold J. Berman, Law and Revolution: The Formation of the Western Legal Tradition, Cambridge MA, Harvard University Press, 1983.

82. The great master Peter Landau severely criticized it in The University of Chicago Law Review, 51, 1984, 937–943, showing how Berman had made no reference to Italian or Spanish literature and reproaching him for having happily ignored the three volumes of Das Recht der Gnade by Hans Dombois, the result of twenty years of study (Das Recht der Gnade: Ökumenisches Kirchenrecht, 3 vols., Witten, Luther-Verlag, 1961–1983).

83. For all of these, see the Wiles Lectures collected in Brian Tierney, Religion, Law and the Growth of Constitutional Thought (1150–1650), Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1983.

84. See, at the conclusion to the new edition, Alberto Melloni, “Post scriptum alla storia del Vaticano II,” in: Alberigo, ed., Storia del concilio Vaticano II, vol. 5, ix–xix.

85. Jean-Pierre Jossua, “De foi en foi: Hommage à Pierre-André Liégé,” rspt 97/1, 2013, 95–107.

86. This can be explained through recourse to the figure of the parallelogram used by Giuseppe Alberigo in his “Criteri ermeneutici per una storia del Vaticano II,” in Giuseppe Alberigo, ed., Il Vaticano II fra attese e celebrazione, Bologna, Il Mulino, 1995, 9–26. There are four sides, on which presses and along which runs all the energy of experience and intelligence that emanates from the Christian desire for unity in the last two centuries. It has two horizontal sides: on the one hand, the dimensions of ecclesiastical government and, on the other, political dimensions. Along the vertical sides are, on the one hand, theologies (not in the abstract but in the debate produced by a theological class of specialized “professionals”) and, on the opposite side, spiritualities in which prophetic figures and early intuitions are rooted and which find clear expression in realities such as ecumenical monasticism. The sides are connected by diagonals representing the great figures, such as Athenagoras, in whom the spiritual and ecclesiastical are joined, or Frère Roger Schutz, whose Ostpolitik constitutes a spiritual diplomacy, or an all-around theologian such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who thinks of church unity as a possible rupture in ecclesiastical unity.

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Melloni, Alberto, "Introduction. Premises for a History of the Desire for Christian Unity", in: A History of the Desire for Christian Unity Online, Alberto Melloni, Luca Ferracci. Consulted online on 07 March 2022 <>

First published online: 2022