Ecumenical Trends

ROMAN CATHOLICS are Johnny-come-latelies on the ecumenical scene. In fact, their ecumenism has been in large measure a response to Protestant and Orthodox initiatives. . .

-An associate editor of Ministry and a professor of theology and Christian philosophy at Andrews University at the time this article was written

ROMAN CATHOLICS are Johnny-come-latelies on the ecumenical scene. In fact, their ecumenism has been in large measure a response to Protestant and Orthodox initiatives. Like much else it began with Vatican II. Ever since, however, the question of Christian unity has been given more than an occasional and passing glance. It has been raised by Rome in all its breadth and in its innumerable doctrinal and pastoral implications. So much so that Roman Catholic membership in the World Council of Churches has become an immediate issue on the Catholic agenda.

The story of this reorientation is difficult to tell. An objective survey is hardly possible, not only because Vatican II has shattered the uniformity of the Roman Catholic Church and rendered many positions more fluid in Roman Catholicism, but more particularly because we are still too close to the events that brought about the change. What further complicates the problem is that the reorientation is still in process.

In the early period of the ecumenical movement, the Roman Catholic Church declined invitations to participate in the movements that later led to the formation of the World Council of Churches. Mortafium Animos, 1928 encyclical of Pope Pius XII, issued shortly after the Lausanne Conference on Faith and Order, was unequivocal: "It is clear that the Apostolic See can by no means take part in these assemblies nor is it in any way lawful for Catholics to give such enterprises their encouragement and support. If they did so, they would be giving countenance to a false Christianity quite alien to the one Church of Christ." 1

Today, less than fifty years later, the difficulties that looked so massive no longer appear quite so significant. Roman Catholics "take part in these assemblies" at any level. Priests and sisters from several religious orders presently work full or part-time on the staff of the U.S. National Council of Churches. Others serve as full-members in different agencies of National and World councils. Joint commissions, bilateral conversations, and working groups are busy clarifying differences of conviction and cooperatively carrying out activities on the social side of the agenda.

No man single-handedly, not even John XXIII, initiated the Roman Catholic ecumenical concern. Many factors have been at work, but the major impetus came from the Second Vatican Council (1962 to 1965) when it laid a new basis for Catholic participation in the ecumenical movement by recognizing the significance to Roman Catholics of the faith and religious life of Christians of other traditions. Thus, the decree On Ecumenism, defining the relation ship of non-Roman Catholics to the Roman Catholic Church, affirms that those who, outside the communion of the Roman Catholic Church, are brought to faith in Christ and are baptized, are members of the body of Christ. While they do not belong to the Catholic Church, nevertheless they are fundamentally in communion with it through faith and baptism (article 3, paragraph 1). They "belong by right to the one Church of Christ" and "have a right to be honored by the title of Christian" (paragraph 2). They are no longer seen as isolated individuals, but as members of "churches and ecclesial communities" the "ecclesial reality" of which is no longer questioned. Even these communities are means that the Spirit of Christ uses to lead their members to salvation. Indeed, they "have by no means been deprived of significance and importance in the mystery of salvation . . ." (paragraph 4).

It must be recorded that a lurking fear remains that the real aim of Rome can finally be none other than "return," but statements such as these undoubtedly represent a decisive reorientation in the ecumenical thought of the Roman Catholic Church.

Once Vatican II's documents had been promulgated, meetings, dialog, and cooperation were no longer confined to special circles. They became the task of the Roman Catholic Church as a whole. After the Council, therefore, Roman Catholic participation in the ecumenical movement became increasingly the rule, although there have been considerable differences from place to place. Bilateral conversations with individual confessions were set up to examine and discuss the difficult theological problems separating, for instance, Roman Catholics from Lutherans, Anglicans, Methodists, et cetera. Encounter and cooperation, however, were still to be sought at another level, a level where all churches, even though they are still divided, re main in permanent contact, anticipating an ultimate fellowship and as far as possible bearing a common witness. Thus, relation ships with the World Council of Churches became of the greatest importance.

But was it possible for the Roman Catholic Church to enter into relationship with the World Council of Churches, which, let us remember, is not a church but a fellowship of churches? The World Council has no authority over its member churches. As its constitution and rules indicate, it cannot speak or act for them. In the matter of achieving unity they alone are competent to act. But could the World Council remain aloof? Was it not bound to act in the name of its member churches within the limits set to seize the opportunity that presented itself of developing the ecumenical movement?

For this purpose, a Joint Working Group was set up in 1965 to clarify some basic questions, in particular the understanding of each member church of the ecumenical movement. At first it limited itself to identifying and encouraging possibilities for co operation between Roman Catholic organizations and various agencies of the World Council. Soon it carried out specific theological studies, some of them of great importance. As cooperation grew, the issue became even more pointed. Was it conceivable that the Roman Catholic Church might become a full member of the World Council of Churches?

Individual writers began discussing the question. The General Assembly of the World Council brought it up at Uppsala in 1968, and Pope Paul VI mentioned it in 1969. Eventually the Joint Working Group decided to tackle the problem. Its report has been published in the July, 1972, issue of The Ecumenical Review. 2 Interestingly enough, after two years of deliberation of its own, another joint study committee published a few months earlier, in February, 1972, a Report on possible membership of the Roman Catholic Church in the U.S.'s National Council of Churches. 3 As was to be expected both documents state the issue and supply the answer along similar lines.

The Joint Roman Catholic Church-World Council of Churches report has been sent by each body to its constituent leadership for careful study and reaction. It tries to shed light on the various aspects pro and con—of the member ship question and is bound to stimulate widespread reaction. Strongly underlining the necessity of closer relations between the two parties, it points to Roman Catholic full membership in the World Council of Churches as the most realistic approach to the various alternatives of rapprochement.

It is worth noting here that the question of Roman Catholic membership in the World Council of Churches can be answered quickly, at least as far as the World Council is concerned. There is, in fact, no valid reason in principle, against such membership. However, if there are no theological objections, there are problems of sufficient importance that a full membership of the Roman Catholic Church in the World Council of Churches can hardly be expected in the immediate future. During his visit to the World Council head quarters in Geneva in 1969, Pope Paul VI referred to this fact in very definite terms: "In fraternal frankness," he said, "we do not consider that the question of membership of the Catholic Church in the World Council of Churches is so mature that a positive answer could or should be given. It contains serious theological and pastoral implications and needs profound study. It commits us to a way that honesty recognizes will be long and difficult."

What are these difficulties? Some are clearly delineated in the Joint Working Group report. Whereas Roman Catholic membership in the World Council would mean one more step toward a visible expression of "the one ecumenical movement" of which Rome considers itself a part, it also raises a certain number of questions. Some Roman Catholics feel that an organizational link with the World Council of Churches may require, or at least be taken to signify, a renunciation of some distinctively Roman Catholic doctrines, 4 thereby encouraging a kind of doctrinal indifferentism they have been fighting for many generations.

Catholics also raise the question of the moral authority of the pope. Although the objection may be satisfactorily answered on the level of principle, faithful Roman Catholics may be led to believe that practically speaking the pope's authority would be compromised by closer relations with the World Council.5 Others, used to investing their church's statements at the world level with a particularly binding character, are confused by the fact that the World Council's statements "have no constitutional authority nor juridically binding character." 6 Individual member churches remain free to endorse or to reject them. They manifestly do not fall within the category of encyclicals or conciliar decrees. From a Roman Catholic viewpoint, Catholic membership should imply that the style of joint statements be changed in more than one respect. 7

Even shared programs have their liabilities. There is, for instance, the possibility that the Roman Catholic Church might find itself responsible in the popular mind at least for certain statements and programs which, from a Catholic point of view, could not be fully endorsed. The divergence might very well be found with regard to such issues as abortion, birth control, mixed marriages, and public aid to church-related schools. It is true that member churches here also are free to dissociate themselves from statements of the Council on issues of this kind, but this would not entirely alleviate a possible embarrassment.

These fears are legitimate and real from a Catholic viewpoint. Roman Catholics, however, are not alone in raising doubts about their church's participation in the World Council of Churches. World Council members have theirs too. It does not take long to discover that among other things the Roman Catholic Church differs from the World Council member churches in that it is a communion organized at the world level, whereas the World Council of Churches is a fellowship of churches that are almost exclusively national or regional entities. How can these two structures be reconciled? It has therefore been suggested that, if it joins the World Council, the Roman Catholic Church do so "through those units that are comparable with the great majority of the present member churches," that is, at the level of the national episcopal conferences.

In this case membership of the World Council would rise by some ninety members. One wonders however how such a form would take into account the particular relationships existing between the regional Catholic churches and the Roman See? On the other hand, how much autonomy would be conceded to such national entities by a World Council whose rules require that a prospective member church be autonomous, and therefore "responsible to no other church for the conduct of its own life, including the training, ordination and maintenance of its ministry, . . . and the use of funds at its disposal from whatever source"?8

There are other vexing problems. To what extent, for instance, will Rome expect its doctrines of papal infallibility and universal jurisdiction to determine the form of its fellowship with other Christian communions in the World Council? Would the exercise of the papal ministry in this new fellowship be relativized or would it rather create the impression that the Pope was speaking and acting on behalf of the World Council of Churches and its member churches?9 Paul VI himself judges the Papacy to be "undoubtedly the gravest obstacle in the path of ecumenism." 10

The juridical status of the Holy See also needs consideration. The Roman See has been recognized as a juridical person in international law. In 1929, the Lateran Treaty accorded it a territory of its own, the Vatican State. As a juridical person it does maintain diplomatic relations with other governments, and can conclude political treaties. In principle, the legal standing of the Holy See represents no fundamental objection to membership. But here again Rome differs so radically from all other member churches that many wonder whether full Roman Catholic participation in the World Council of Churches would be an asset for the future of the ecumenical body. Or would Rome be willing to make this issue a matter of ecumenical discussion? 11

Supposing that the Roman Catholic Church did join the World Council, a delicate problem of the balance of power would arise. It is numerically by far the largest Christian church. In fact, it encompasses approximately half of all Christians. On what principle would the size of Roman Catholic representation be determined? If Roman Catholics obtained voting representation on the Council's general board and in its assemblies in proportion to their numbers, would they not totally dominate? This would hardly be a way of condoning genuine dialog and fellowship. Addressing itself to the issue, the report has recommended that Roman Catholic representation and voting power "should not be less than one fifth and not more than one third of the total number of delegates" (page 277). And whether Roman Catholics contribute to the budget in proportion to their number is a parallel question.

The list of problems presented here is far from complete. Others could have been added. The preliminary study of the Joint Working Group itself has not exhausted all the aspects of the question. But in spite of all the difficulties, its members remain convinced that cooperation between the Roman Catholic Church and the World Council of Churches must not only continue, it must be intensified. In trying to determine the appropriate form these closer relations should take, its report points to Roman Catholic membership in the World Council of Churches as the most realistic approach. The disadvantages attendant upon other procedures extending the collaborative relationships now existing, or dissolving the World Council and replacing it by a new fellowship of churches differently structured presently seem to out weigh the possible advantages.

The publication of the Joint Working Croup document is not the end of a probing, but an important step in a process of careful inquiry. Both the World Council of Churches and the Roman Catholic Church have publicly reaffirmed their desire to remain in permanent contact and to deepen their ecumenical fellowship as much as possible. The next step, a statement of reserves or a formal application for membership, rests now with the Roman Catholic Church.


1. Cited in George Tavard, The Catholic Approach to Protestantism (New York: Harper), p. 107.

2. See "Patterns of Relationships Between the Roman Catholic Church and the World Council of Churches," The Ecumenical Review, XXIV, 3, July, 1972, pp. 247-288.

3. See Report on Possible Roman Catholic Membership in the National Council of Churches by the Study Committee on the Relationships of the National Council of Churches and the Roman Catholic Church in the United States of America. Washington, D.C.: United States Catholic Conference, 1972.

4. See "Patterns," pp. 264, 283.

5. Ibid., p. 265.

8. Ibid., p. 257.

7. Ibid., pp. 284, 285.

8. Ibid., p. 273.

9. Ibid., pp. 285, 286.

10. See address to the 1967 general meeting of the Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity, SPCU Information Service, no. 2 (1967), p. 4.

11. See "Patterns," pp. 286, 287.

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-An associate editor of Ministry and a professor of theology and Christian philosophy at Andrews University at the time this article was written

June 1973

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