Q. How can we call the 21 Church Councils thus far “ecumenical Councils”, when the ecumenical movement dates only from the 20th century?
A: Usage of the word “ecumenical” to describe a Church Council, such as Vatican Council II, differs from usage of “ecumenical” with respect to the search for Church unity. The word “ecumenical” may be the same, but its meaning can vary. And since “ecumenical” derives from Greek, the key to its usage lies somewhere within its Greek origins, echoed in Late Latin.
One principal meaning of “ecumenical” (Greek: oikoumene) is “whole world.” Hence, all general Church Councils, councils of an international nature, are described as “ecumenical Councils.” What is necessary is that the Council’s deliberations apply to the entire Church, and be ratified as such by the Pope. The location of the Council need not be Rome. In fact the very first Ecumenical Council, the Council of Nicaea, occurred on what can be described as a Greek stage; Nicaea is modern Scutari, on the Asian shore of the Bosporus. So did seven additional Councils among the first ten.
Thus all the General Church Councils, 21 of them from the very beginning through Vatican Council II (1962-1965), are properly referred to as “Ecumenical” Councils.
Nevertheless, the word “ecumenical” has another meaning; specifically, “the search for Christian unity.” Since Christians are represented all over the world, each is, in a true sense, an international enterprise, albeit most visible in the European scenes wherein the Protestant Reformation occurred; e.g., Germany, Switzerland, France, Belgium and England. In time, however, when the centrifugal forces of the Reformation began to slow, intellects and wills began to overpower sheer emotion and/or political issues related to religion. More and more Christians agreed that a fragmented Christianity was really a scandal, not a desirable goal, to be defended at all costs. With general realization that a divided Church needed to be healed, the first formal, theological and liturgical unifying efforts began to occur in various areas of the Western world, comparable to the muted, distant rumblings of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, where initially discordant notes and themes begin to resolve into a spectacular harmonious whole.
Following the Protestant Reformation, the Catholic Church’s initial response was the truly great dogmatic Council of Trent (1545-63). The very location of this Council, on the main road that joins Italy with Germany, was significant, since Trent lies between northern Europe and, to the South, the world of what is now known as Italy. Divided by the Alps, north and south came together to deliberate; unity was the goal. (The metaphor here does lisp, but so do all metaphors.)
Vatican Council II can also be called “ecumenical” because one of its three key thrusts, along with aggiornamento (“updating”) and approfondamento (“probing deeper” into Revelation) was Church unity (ecumenism). Indeed, non-Roman Christian leaders were invited as “Observers” to the Council.
Hence Vatican Council II was an ecumenical Council in two senses: its global significance (the largest Church Council ever, in terms of numbers and representations) and the first Council ever to have issued a separate document on the emerging ecumenical movement).
A caution about usage is necessary here; specifically, that ecumenism, as signifying the quest for Christian unity, does not include per se, a search for non-Christian unity. Baptism and the invocation of Jesus as Lord are the basic prerequisites for Church unity. At the same time, however, initiatives for non-Christians were encouraged by Vatican Council II. Historically and theologically, this search is accurately described not as ecumenism but rather as interreligious or interfaith efforts. Whereas ecumenism is set forth in one Council document (Unitatis Reintegratio), interreligious initiatives are encouraged in another document; namely, Nostra aetate. We keep this distinction in mind lest we offend others in our pilgrimage of faith – and, of course, in order to use religious words and concepts correctly.