Day Two: Practical cooperation, not doctrine, the new ecumenical frontier


Practical cooperation on social, cultural and political questions, rather than theological breakthroughs, seemed to be the new ecumenical frontier identified by the College of Cardinals yesterday during a day-long meeting with Pope Benedict XVI.

Opening the morning session, Cardinal Walter Kasper, President of the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity, gave an address offering an overview of the Catholic church’s ecumenical efforts in three areas:

•tRelations with the ancient Eastern churches and with the Orthodox
•tRelations with the denominations born of the Reformation
•tRelations with charismatic and Pentecostal movements born in the last century

In each case, Kasper surveyed both steps forward as well as remaining challenges. His presentation did not hint at looming new breakthroughs at the level of formal doctrinal agreements. He argued that ecumenism is not “an optional choice, but a sacred duty.”

“We should not offend the sensibilities of others or seek to discredit them,” Kasper said. “We should not point the finger at what our ecumenical partners are not, and what they lack. Rather, we should give witness to the richness and the beauty of our faith in a positive and welcoming way. We expect the same approach from the others.”

With regard to the Orthodox, Kasper said that a long-awaited meeting between the pope and Patriarch Alexy II of Moscow would be “useful,” but did not offer new details of when or where such an encounter might occur.

Speaking to the press afterwards, Kasper noted that the crisis over the ordination of homosexual bishops has created serious new internal divisions within the Anglican Communion, as well as tensions in relations with the Catholic church.

Those tensions have also, however, generated momentum in more traditional quarters of Anglicanism towards individual conversion to Catholicism. In recent days, two Episcopalian bishops in the United States, John Lipscomb of southwest Florida and Jeffrey Steenson of Texas and New Mexico, announced plans to join the Catholic church. Steenson is to be received into the Catholic church on Dec. 1 at the Basilica of St. Mary Major in Rome by Cardinal Bernard Law.

Kasper also said that rather than lamenting the recent growth of Pentecostalism, which exploded during the 20th century to number some 400 million believers, the Catholic church should ask itself what might be lacking in its own pastoral work.

Following Kasper’s address, 17 cardinals took the floor.

Cardinals Renato Martino, President of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace; Crescenzio Sepe of Naples, former Prefect of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples; and Theodore McCarrick, the emeritus archbishop of Washington, all argued in favor of emphasizing a “practical” form of ecumenism, one that emphasizes cooperation on charitable and social endeavors.

Martino in particular said that the social doctrine of the Catholic church, and its application to contemporary humanitarian problems, offers great promise for ecumenical partnerships and a common Christian witness.

Building on Kasper’s point about not giving offense, there was some discussion of the recent declaration from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith asserting that the famous phrase from the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) that the church of Christ “subsists in” Catholicism means that the Catholic church is the lone true church in the full sense. Cardinal William Levada, Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, said the document had been “misunderstood” in some media reports, insisting that it was not intended to demean other Christian bodies.

Cardinal Julián Herranz, emeritus President of the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts and one of two Opus Dei cardinals, argued that the Synod of Bishops should play a more formal role in dialogue with the Orthodox churches. Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor of Westminster, England, repeated his proposal for a sort of “pan-Christian” summit involving leaders of all the major Christian bodies.

Cardinals Audrys Juozas Backis of Lithuania and Janis Pujats of Latvia stressed that a common battle against secularization offers especially promising ecumenical terrain with the Orthodox.

Coincidentally, the night before the cardinals met to discuss ecumenism, one of the world’s leading ecumenical experts lectured in Rome at the Centro Pro Unione. Thomas Best, outgoing head of the Faith and Order Commission for the World Council of Churches, spoke on the 25th anniversary of the famed “Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry” document of the WCC, considered a watershed moment in the ecumenical movement.

Among other things, that text led most mainstream Christian bodies to recognize the validity of a common Christian baptism, so that it would no longer be necessary to “re-baptize” Christians who move from one church to another.

Best argued that “Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry” represented a sea change in ecumenical method, from what he called “comparison,” meaning dialogues intended to outline the differences between various Christian groups, to “convergence,” meaning efforts to articulate common positions based on shared faith.

Best offered several anecdotes to illustrate this convergence. At one point after the text appeared, he said, he took a flight across the Atlantic and found himself playing the role of the “meat in an ecumenical sandwich,” seated between a Southern Baptist on one side and a Roman Catholic priest on the other. The Baptist, he said, discussed how his church was considering lowering the age of baptism to 8 in order to incorporate children into the church as quickly as possible, while the Catholic outlined proposals to raise the age of confirmation in order to ensure that those receiving the sacrament would know what they’re doing, and have a “personal experience of confessing the Lord.”

“The experts on adult baptism were worrying about the kids, and the experts on infant baptism were concerned about fostering an adult evangelical experience,” Best said.

At the same time, Best also conceded that the ecumenical landscape has seen a recent trend towards “re-confessionalization,” meaning a new accent on denominational differences.

“This can be good for dialogue if it means clarity about the differences that remain, but it’s bad if it isolates us or creates blockage and a sense of superiority over others,” Best said.

After his lecture, I asked Best to recommend one concrete step to Benedict XVI and the cardinals that could make a difference in ecumenical relations.

“A way to talk about the question of being able to share one Eucharist,” he replied. “I’m not proposing one Eucharist, and I’m not proposing Eucharistic hospitality. I know that’s not realistic. But we at least need a way to talk about it, a process.”

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