Q. Recently I heard a radio personality (reading from a script, I assume) refer to a specific date as the anniversary of the second ecumenical council, Vatican II. This is not accurate, is it?
A. Referring to the Second Vatican Council as “the second ecumenical Council” is certainly not accurate. The fact is that Vatican II was the 21st Ecumenical Council, the first having occurred at Nicaea in 325 A.D. (Nicaea is located about 60 miles from Constantinople, modern day Istanbul, on the Asiatic side of the Bosporus.)
The problem with the radio announcement is commonplace; the secular media have largely ignored correct usage of the word “ecumenical.” (Why aren’t “religion” editors more tuned in to the Catholic idiom?)
The English term “ecumenical” is derived from the Greek οіκουмєνє, which literally means “the whole world.” When used with respect to Church councils which affect the entire Church, and at which bishops from many nations meet to deliberate in union with the Holy Father, “ecumenical” signifies a “Council of the entire Church.”
In recent times, the word “ecumenical” is also used to describe the quest for Christian unity. When the centrifugal forces set in motion by the Protestant Reformation began to slow down, serious-minded Christians began what is already a centuries-old search for Church unity. This came to be described as “the ecumenical movement” or, simply, “ecumenism.” Though it means a pilgrimage of Christian faith whose goal is doctrinally all-embracing, it is not to be confused with “ecumenical” activity in a world-wide Church council.
“Ecumenism” in the sense of Church unity, incidentally, pertains per se to Christians; e.g., people who confess Jesus as Lord and accept baptism. It is inaccurate to refer to our Jewish brethren as involved in ecumenism; again, ecumenism refers to Christian unity (Church unity), both theologically and historically. The search for unity between Catholics and Jews is more accurately described as “interfaith” or “interreligious” activity. This usage is also valid as regards Buddhism and Islam. The search for unity with the Synagogue, the Temple, and the Mosque, is not precisely “ecumenical.”
But, to return to the basic, the fundamental, meaning of “ecumenical,” Vatican Council II was the 21st Ecumenical Council. The others were Nicaea I (325 A.D.), Constantinople (381), Ephesus (431), Chalcedon (451), Constantinople II (553), Constantinople III (680), Nicaea II (787), Constantinople IV (869), Lateran (1123), Lateran II (1139), Lateran III (1179), Lateran IV (1215), Lyons (1245), Lyons II (1274), Vienne (1311), Constance (1414), Basle (1431-1437), along with Ferrara (1438) and Florence (1439-1443), Lateran V (1512-1517), Trent (1545-1563), Vatican (1869-1870) and Vatican II (1962-1965).
A final point: It is true that Vatican II, the 21st Ecumenical Council, was the first Ecumenical Council to issue a Decree on Ecumenism – or even to reflect doctrinally on the ecumenical movement. Again: the word “ecumenism” can be used in two very different ways.