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Ecumenical Relations

From the Vatican

The release on July 10, 2007 by the Vatican of a brief statement of clarification about aspects of its doctrine of the church caused immediate response from other church bodies and church leaders as well as close examination by Catholics. A few are summarized here. Non-Catholic reactions are characterized by

  • dismay at what is perceived to be a difficult tone and stance at a moment when there are lively ecumenical relationships with the Roman Catholic Church
  • countering statements of others' views concerning the church
  • commitment to stay the course in ecumenical relationships and dialogue
  • an eagerness to find what is positive in order to see the challenges for the future

Read the statements and find yourself challenged. They differ enormously.

Read the World Council of Churches' Called to Be the One Church, quoted in its responding statement.

Read a report on ecumenism made by Cardinal Walter Kasper on the occasion of a cardinals meeting with the Pope, November 23, 2007.

The Vatican statement

The Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith released its brief "Responses to Some Questions Regarding Certain Aspects of the Doctrine on the Church" on July 10, 2007 at the behest of Benedict XVI. According to Catholic News Service, "The text was the latest chapter in a long-simmering discussion on what the Second Vatican Council intended when it stated that the church founded by Christ 'subsists in the Catholic Church,' but that elements of 'sanctification and truth' are found outside the Catholic Church's visible confines." Its answers have touched an ecumenical sore spot, particularly by saying that communities growing out of the 16th century Reformation "cannot, according to Catholic doctrine, be called 'Churches' in the proper sense"; "because of the absence of the sacramental priesthood, [they] have not preserved the genuine and integral substance of the Eucharistic Mystery." (ENI # 07-0535)

An interpretation of the Vatican statement from a pontifical council

At the Third European Ecumenical Assembly in September 2007, Cardinal Walter Kasper -- who is the president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity -- interpreted the statement by telling reporters that, in reiterating that other communities “were not churches in the proper sense, we did not mean that these others were somehow false churches. We meant that the EKD [Evangelical Church in Germany] or the Church of England, for example, have a different understanding of what the church is.”

In October 2008, Kasper went back to his reactions to the 2000 declaration, "Dominus Iesus" that were reaffirmed in the 2007 statement. "It's necessary to express oneself so as to be understood well by others," but the language was too harsh and "the same content could have been expressed in a more approachable way." He went on to comment on difficulties Catholics have with Christian dialogue partners.

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Reactions from ecumenical bodies and the PC(USA)

A responding letter from the World Alliance of Reformed Churches

The general secretary of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, Setri Nyomi, wrote, "At a time of societal fragmentation . . ., the one church of Jesus Christ in which we all participate ought to strengthen its common witness and affirm our oneness in Christ. The [Vatican] statement . . . unfortunately gives an interpretation of . . . Lumen Gentium ¶8 which takes us back to the kind of thinking and atmosphere that was prevalent prior to the Second Vatican Council. . . . It makes us question the seriousness with which the Roman Catholic Church takes its dialogues with the Reformed family and other families of the church."

A statement from the Lutheran World Federation

Lutheran World Federation general secretary Ishmael Noko pointed to a concern for local ecumenism, where a partnership approach is important. He referred to the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification made by Lutherans and Catholics. In it, a clarifying note indicates that "church" is used "to reflect the self-understanding of the particular churches, without intending to resolve all the ecclesiological issues related to them." This approach allows dialogue to move forward "as between partners." 

A statement from the World Council of Churches

A statement prepared by World Council of Churches deputy general secretary Georges Lemopoulos began by quoting from an affirmation of the WCC's 9th Assembly: "Each church is the Church catholic and not simply a part of it. Each church is the Church catholic, but not the whole of it. Each church fulfils its catholicity when it is in communion with the other churches."  He points to the importance of "honest sharing of commonalities, divergences, and differences" that help all churches pursue the things that make for peace. [See Called to Be the One Church, which was quored by Lemopoulos.]

A statement from the National Council of Churches

Ann Riggs, associate general secretary for Faith and Order in the National Council of Churches, in an ecumenical commentary reminded readers that the document was written for Catholics from within."There are ways in which the Catholic Church understands the Church differently than those churches born out of the sixteenth century Reformation," she writes. "Rome is certainly not saying the door is closed on ecumenical dialogue. But we see there is still a lot more to talk about."

A report of conversation at the U.S. Faith and Order conference in Oberlin

A Religion News Service report on discussion of the Vatican document at the Faith and Order 50th anniversary celebration points to a key point made by Catholic cardinal Avery Dulles there: namely, instead of making the goal of ecumenical dialogue agreement on doctrine, each participating group should share its distinctive heritage, thereby finding unity in diversity. "Each partner should feel privileged to be able to contribute something positive that others still lack."

An open letter to Presbyterians from the PC(USA) stated clerk

PC(USA) stated clerk Clifton Kirkpatrick wrote, "In seeking to clarify its understanding of the Christian faith, we are rightfully concerned that the Roman Catholic leadership has mischaracterized our own faith and re-opened questions of Christian unity for all church bodies." He quotes G-4.0203 in the Book of Order, saying, "Our confessions and our Form of Government continually affirm that there is one holy catholic and apostolic Church, called into being, sent into mission, and governed by Jesus Christ alone. We affirm that the Church universal consists of all persons in every nation, together with their children who profess faith in Jesus Christ and commit themselves to live together under his rule." Kirkpatrick also says that Presbyterians neither deny who we are nor abandon a relationship with the Roman Catholic Church. Read the full letter, including its brief information about the history of our relationship.

A statement from the ELCA presiding bishop

Mark Hanson, the presiding bishop of the Evangelical Church in America, counseled forbearance. He said, "It is no surprise that the Roman Catholic Church asserts that in it subsists the Church of Christ; surely every Christian church body makes the same assertion, for it is only because Christ's Church survives in and lives through the community we call 'Church' that we preserve and promote the apostolic faith." He recalled Vatican II's Decree on Ecumenism (¶3.4) with its affirmation "that the separated churches and ecclesial communities are used by the Spirit of Christ 'as means of salvation.'" He did not find that the new statement minimizes this affirmation. In a pastoral tone, Hanson encouraged maintaining personal commitments to an ecumenism of life.

Views from bloggers, commentators, and the news media

On Faith has hosted a panel of respondents to the question, "How does the Pope's reiteration that the church of Christ exists fully only in the Catholic Church strike you? How will this affect ecumenical relations? Does anyone care?" In his contribution, NCC's Bob Edgar says that nothing new was in the statement, so it is important to ask why the Pope made it now. His answer is, "The announcement came within days of a papal statement opening the pre-Vatican II Latin Mass to more use. That has been seen as the pope appealing to traditionalist Catholics around the world. The statement [on ecclesiology] can be seen as the pope saying to those same traditionalists: “Don’t think I’m throwing out Vatican II. I’m not. And here’s a restatement on the doctrine on the Church that keeps the door open to ecumenical dialogue.”

Fuller Seminary president Richard Mouw writes in his blog about his theological hero, Abraham Kuyper, who argued for the "multiformity" or "pluriformity" of the church. Seeing differences around disposition, morals, history, and insight, Kuyper recognizes this "annihilates the absolute character of every visible church, and places them all side by side, as differing in degrees of purity, but always remaining in some way or other a manifestation of one holy and catholic Church of Christ in Heaven.” Mouw goes on to note Kuyper's comparison of the Belgic Confession and the Westminster Confession -- the first having a "true church" vs. "false church" aspect that is not in the latter. Maybe all this can help us now, Mouw feels.

U.S. Catholic ecumenist Tom Ryan addresses the invitation to dialogue offered by the document. He says of churches of the Reformation, " to say it in a more respectful way, they are churches of another type" [than the Catholic church]. Their understanding is that unity only requires "an agreement on the fundamental understanding of the Gospel and the administration of the sacraments (baptism and eucharist), that different understandings of ministry are acceptable, as are different institutional forms and confessions of faith." On the other hand, the Catholic Church looks on institutional 'elements' such as episcopacy and the Petrine ministry as gifts of the Spirit it wants to share with all.

In Christian Century (August 21, 2007), Jared Wicks, S.J., acknowledges that the new document discusses the same issues as Dominus Iesus did in 2007. He gives background concerning intra-Catholic debates since then. He says, "Since the [Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith] does not recognize the episcopacy and ministry of Protestant bodies, it denies them the designation church in the developed Catholic sense of the term. Others, beyond the Catholic pale, may well speak differently." The Vatican has simply stated the obvious. And Protestants themselves have various means of identifying the church in the present state of ecclesial division. Finally, "Protestants can acknowledge that the church is present in the many places in which the gospel is preached, Spirit-enabled holiness arises and Christ is followed as Lord. Protestants can recognize all this among our Catholic brethren."


MORE on Ecumenical Relations: International on the preceding page

MORE on Ecumenical Relations: U.S. on the following page


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