Ecumenical Dialogues

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Following the Second Vatican Council, scores of international and national commissions were established to forward the work of ecumenical dialogue, usually with doctrinal questions as the focus of their concern. For the most part, these dialogues were conducted on a "bilateral" basis, i.e., engaging two churches or confessional families at a time. The Roman Catholic Church has been an active participant in such dialogues, serving as one of the partners in over a third of them. During the 1960s and 1970s, officially sponsored dialogues between churches or confessional families of churches became a prominent component of the movement toward Christian unity. During that time their number increased and their published reports multiplied.

Alongside the conciliar movement and other important components of the ecumenical movement, "bilateral dialogues" continued into the 2000s and revealed further developments of its internal dynamics. From their inception the ecumenical dialogues were aimed at the resolution of issues dividing the church through convergences reaching toward a consensus based on clearer understanding, the exchange of insights, and the discovery of new perspectives that would enable the churches to reap-propriate their common Christian heritage. Implicit in this goal was the related but further purpose of moving beyond the attainment of doctrinal consensus to the translation of these agreements into an actual living communion of the churches by way of concrete expressions of church fellowship. In order for this to occur, it became increasingly clear that the findings of the dialogues had to move through a process of "reception" by the churches who sponsored them, and on to decision at appropriate levels of authority. As a preliminary to reception, the churches had to develop adequate means to review and assess the dialogue findings and to respond to them in an official way.

During the 1980s, the churches in certain cases began this new task of official response. The most striking example was provided by hundreds of official responses to the lima text on "Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry," published in 1982 by the Faith and Order Commission of the World Council of Churches as the fruit of decades of multilateral dialogues.

Anglican-Roman Catholic dialogue. Among bilaterals, the first anglican-roman catholic international commission (ARCIC) took the lead with the publication in 1981 of a final report on the work that it had begun in 1970. This marked the most advanced stage to be reached by any bilateral in which the Roman Catholics had participated. ARCIC I carried out its work in stages, publishing as it proceeded discrete reports of its findings concerning eucharistic doctrine, ministry, and ordination, and also authority in the church. Several years after each of these reports appeared, ARCIC I provided a further "elucidation" for each in which it responded to the various comments, queries, and criticisms its initial statements had provoked. All of this material, plus new material on primatial authority and infallibility, was brought together as a composite whole and submitted to the Anglican and Roman Catholic Churches in the form of "The Final Report."

Work of this significance drew comments from many Anglican and Roman Catholic quarters as it unfolded. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in Rome, as one instance, had not hesitated to offer its observations from time to time, and it did so again on the work as a whole once "The Final Report" itself was published. Such comments as were received generally focused on specific items of appreciation or critical reservation. But it was obvious that a weightier, overall assessment would also have to be made by the churches.

Thus on March 17, 1982, Johannes Cardinal Willebrands, president of the Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity, wrote to all the episcopal conferences of the Roman Catholic Church, seeking their appraisal of the work. In his letter, the cardinal pointed out that "the process of evaluation is not one that can be carried out in a short time; the results of over ten years of dialogue call for serious study by the Church." The secretariat asked the episcopal conferences to examine the report as to whether it was consonant in substance with the faith of the Catholic Church. At the same time, Anglican authorities requested all the provinces of the Anglican Communion to undertake a similar study and to respond to a parallel, counterpart question. It was envisaged that this process of evaluation by the Anglican and Roman Catholic Communions would culminate in 1988, the year in which the Anglican bishops of the world would assemble again for a meeting of the Lambeth Conference. In the four years following this request for evaluation, approximately 20 Roman Catholic episcopal conferences submitted their responses to Rome and a similar number were submitted to the Anglican Consultative Council. The National Conference of Catholic Bishops in the United States published its response in 1984; the General Convention of the Episcopal Church in the United States issued its response in 1985. Other notable responses included those of the episcopal conferences of England and Wales, of France and of Scotland (all in 1985); and the responses of the General Synod of the Church of England and of the Church of Ireland (1986).

While this process of evaluation and response went on, the work of ecumenical dialogue between Anglicans and Roman Catholics also continued. In 1982 Pope John Paul II and the archbishop of Canterbury, His Grace, the Rt. Hon. Robert Runcie, issued a "Common Declaration," thereby establishing the second Anglican-Catholic International Commission (ARCIC II). To it they entrusted the task of continuing the work already begun with a view toward the eventual resolution of the outstanding doctrinal differences which still separated Anglicans and Roman Catholics. The new commission was also charged with the task of studying "all that hinders the mutual recognition of the ministries of our Communions, and to recommend what steps will be necessary when, on the basis of our unity in faith, we are able to proceed toward the restoration of full communion."

In July of 1985 Cardinal Willebrands wrote to the co-chairman of ARCIC II, suggesting significant ways in which progress toward this mutual recognition might be accomplished, notwithstanding the negative judgment Pope Leo XIII had reached concerning the validity of Anglican ordinations in the papal bull of 1896, apostolicae curae. The cardinal wrote:

If at the end of this process of evaluation the Anglican Communion as such is able to state formally that it professes the same faith concerning essential matters where doctrine admits no difference and which the Roman Catholic Church also affirms are to be believed and held concerning the Eucharist and the Ordained Ministry, the Roman Catholic Church would acknowledge the possibility that in the context of such a profession of faith the texts of the (1552 Anglican) Ordinal might no longer retain that nativa indoles ("native character") which was at the basis of Pope Leo's judgment. That is to say that, if both Communions were so clearly one in their faith concerning Eucharist and Ministry, the context of this discussion would indeed be changed. In that case such a profession of faith could open the way to a new consideration of the Ordinal (and of subsequent rites of ordination introduced in Anglican Churches), a consideration that could lead to a new evaluation by the Catholic Church of the sufficiency of these Anglican rites as far as concerns future ordinations. Such a study would be concerned with the rites in themselves, prescinding at this stage from the question of the continuity in the apostolic succession of the ordaining bishop. In our view, such a possibility could do much to assist the climate of the whole discussion [and] would be the strongest possible stimulus to find ways to overcome the difficulties which will hinder a mutual recognition of ministries.

In a contemporaneous exchange of letters between Pope John Paul II, the archbishop of Canterbury, and Cardinal Willebrands (December 1984 to June 1986) concerning the ordination of women, it was also agreed that this topic should continue to remain a matter of discussion in the AnglicanRoman Catholic dialogue, with the most immediate question being how the ordination of women in some parts of the Anglican Communion affects progress toward fuller communion between it and the Roman Catholic Church.

As the agenda for dialogue thus continued to expand, ARCIC II in 1986 completed work on its first report, entitled "Salvation and the Church," and published it in 1987. This report focused on the relation of the doctrine of salvation to faith, to justification, to good works, and to the doctrine of the Church. ARCIC II also produced "Church as Communion" (1988), "Life in Christ: Morals, Communion and the Church" (1994), and "The Gift of Authority," (1999). Being at the most advanced stage of all ecumenical relations in which the Roman Catholic Church is engaged, the bilateral relationship with the Anglican Communion clearly displayed the characteristics that could come to mark other bilateral dialogues later in the 1980s and 1990s. First, doctrine remained at the heart of the dialogue, though the emphasis gradually shifted from the overcoming of past doctrinal disputes toward setting forth a common profession of the faith. Second, as the findings of dialogue mounted and achieved a certain "critical mass," they called forth serious evaluation and official response from the churches engaged in them. In 1991, the Holy See published its evaluation of the Final Report. By 1994 clarifications of some of the questions raised in this response enabled Cardinal Edward Cassidy, then president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, to say that "no further work" was necessary at this time on the themes of Eucharist and ministry.

Third, the agenda of the dialogue was extended to include consideration of concrete steps that could be taken by the churches to effect new and further degrees of actual ecclesial communion between them. In the final stage, the churches would need to find ways to authorize and ratify such steps, thus actualizing a fuller church unity.

Other bilateral dialogues. A number of other dialogues conducted at the international level appeared as though they might move in a similar direction to that taken by the Anglican-Roman Catholic relations. Several have continued to exhibit a wide-ranging survey quality, with discussions touching on numerous subjects and sometimes uncovering important findings in one area or another. They seemed to be in the process of accumulating particular agreements, which over time could coalesce into a whole requiring the response of the churches. An example of such a particular agreement, in this case concerning the Eucharist, is found in the 1977 report of the dialogue co-sponsored by the Holy See and the World Alliance of Reformed Churches. Entitled "The Presence of Christ in the Church and the World," this report surveyed five major areas: Christ's relationship to the church; the teaching authority of the church; the presence of Christ in the world; the Eucharist; and the ministry. Phase II of this dialogue was initiated in 1984, taking up a similarly broad theme: "The Church: The People of God, the Body of Christ, the Temple of the Spirit." Under this theme the bilateral commission investigated such questions as whether there is a God-given structure to the church and prepared a common affirmation of the sole mediatorship of Christ.

The commission that the Holy See co-sponsored with the World Methodist Council (WMC) also set its work in wide parameters. Its reports were timed to coincide with the quinquennial meeting of the WMC and named for the sites in which these meetings were held. Thus after its initial Denver report (1971) and subsequent Dublin report (1976), it went on to issue the Honolulu report in 1981 and the Nairobi report in 1986. The two earlier reports had a certain omnibus quality, providing an overall view of matters of common interest and concern to Methodists and Catholics. The two that followed were more thematically organized. The theme of the Honolulu report was "Toward an Agreed Statement on the Holy Spirit." It took up such matters as: the work of the Holy Spirit; the Holy Spirit, Christian experience and authority; Christian moral decisions; and Christian marriage. The Nairobi report was entitled "Towards a Statement on the Church" and dealt with: the nature of the church; church and sacraments; the call to unity; ways of being one church; structures of ministry; and the Petrine office. This dialogue has produced "The Apostolic Tradition"(1991), "The Word of Life: A Statement on Revelation and Faith" (1996), and "Speaking the Truth in Love" (2001).

The Disciples of Christ-Roman Catholic Dialogue also carried out its work on a five-year basis, completing a series of annual meetings in 1981 with the issuance of an "Agreed Account" of the work done. The sessions, in sequence, were devoted to the following: the nature of the church and elements of its unity; baptism; gift and call in the search for unity; faith and tradition in the life of the church; the dynamics of unity and division; and apostolicity and catholicity in the visible unity of the church. A second five-year series of annual sessions began in 1983 with discussion more tightly focused on the single overall theme, "The Church as Koinonia in Christ."

The Pentecostal-Roman Catholic Conversations carried out six series of meeting, issuing a "Final Report" at the end of the first five. The first of these reports dealt with subjects such as baptism in the Holy Spirit, Christian initiation and the gifts, public worship and the gifts, prayer, and praise. The second dealt with speaking in tongues, faith and experience, Scripture and Tradition, Tradition and traditions, perspectives on Mary, ministry in the church, ordination, apostolic succession, and recognition of ministries. The third dealt with understandings of Koinonia. The fourth provided a text "Evangelization, Proselytism and Common Witness."

The Evangelical-Roman Catholic Dialogue on Mission held sessions from 1977 to 1984 and published its report under the overall theme of "mission." The following subjects were addressed: revelation and authority; the nature of mission; the gospel of salvation; response in the Holy Spiritthe churchand the gospel; the gospel and culture; and the possibilities of common witness. This last topic was also the subject of a major report on "Common Witness" published in 1981 by the Joint Working Group of the World Council of Churches and the Holy See. This study document explored the common ground that enables Christian witness to be a common witness and also discussed occasions and possibilities for the realization of common witness.

Note also must be taken of two international commissions founded in the 1980s that demonstrate the still expanding circle of bilateral dialogues. The International Theological Colloquium between Baptists and Catholics began a five-year series of annual sessions in 1984 under the general theme "Our Common Witness to the World." It was conducted under the auspices of the Baptist World Alliance and the Holy See. The goal of these sessions was set as a mutual understanding of similarities and differences in Baptist and Roman Catholic doctrinal, ecclesial, pastoral, and mission concerns.

The International Catholic-Orthodox Theological Commission was established by the Holy See and 14 autocephalous Orthodox Churches and began its work in 1980. Its first report, published in 1982, "The Mystery of the Church and the Eucharist in the Light of the Most Holy Trinity" was followed by a discussion of the sacraments of Christian initiation, reported in "Faith, Sacraments and the Unity of the Church" (1987), and by a discussion of "The Sacrament of Order (Ordination) in the Sacramental Structure of the Church, with Particular Reference to the Importance of Apostolic Succession for the Sanctification and Unity of the People of God" (1988). The dialogue produced "Uniatism: Method of Union of the Past, and the Present Search for Full Communion" (1993).

Even in a review summary such as this, the several dialogues reveal interesting differences in the themes they select and the way they elaborate them. In many cases, it appears that these differences reflect the historical traditions of thought and teaching brought to the bilaterals by the partner churches along with their particular preoccupations. At the same time, there are certain similarities among the dialogues about which it is possible to generalize. It can be observed that many of these bilaterals were engaged in a survey of the ecumenical terrain and took a broad avenue of approach. Rather than focusing sharply on one or another major neuralgic issue, they explored numerous points at issue, sometimes quite insightfully but not with the intent of providing exhaustive, systematic treatments. Their reports underscored the principles on which agreement could be based and were selective in treating specific details. They are generally succinct in the statement of their findings. Many have not yet drawn their findings together into composite and coherent wholes demanding evaluation and official response by the sponsoring churches. Neither have they, for the most part, advanced specific proposals for action by the churches that would create new degrees of church fellowship. Rather they appear to lay a part of the foundation on which in the future such proposals could rest.

Lutheran-Catholic dialogues. The U.S. Lutheran-Catholic Dialogue, which engendered 11 volumes of scholarly studies along with its reports was something of an exception to these generalizations. So, too, was the International Lutheran-Roman Catholic Joint Commission in its pursuit of a distinctive course. This joint commission was established in 1973 by the Lutheran World Foundation and the Holy See and completed its first period of work in 1984. Unlike ARCIC and the U.S. Lutheran-Catholic Dialogue, it did not in this period broach the topics of primatial authority, teaching authority, infallibility, or justification by faith. These important matters remain on the agenda. It did issue three briefer statements: "Ways to Community" (198081), "All Under One Christ" (1980, marking the 450th anniversary of the Augsburg Confession), and "Martin Luther: Witness to Jesus Christ" (1983, marking the 500th anniversary of the birth of the Reformer). In addition to these it produced three book length reports: "The Eucharist" (1978) "The Ministry in the Church" (1981), and "The Church and Justification," (1993). It took up and advanced ecumenical discussion on these pivotal subjects that engage every bilateral at some point. In another major report it undertook a task that no prior dialogue had ever attempted. In "Facing Unity: Models, Forms and Phases of Catholic-Lutheran Church Fellowship" (1985) it sought to set forth in some detail an integral process whereby through mutual acts of recognition and mutual exchange the churches could advance toward the community of professed faith, a common sacramental life, and unified structures of decision-making and pastoral ministry. In significant ways the joint commission grounded its proposals for the future on models of church life drawn from the ancient church. In doing so it hoped its proposals would obviate the pitfalls encountered by some other models and forms of church union, many of which it reviewed. It also hoped its proposals would combine essential values found in congregational and episcopal forms of church order. This dialogue also moved from dialogue to authoritative decision by proposing a Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification. This text was not itself a dialogue, but a formal distilation of the results of the dialogues on this theme. It was evaluated by the member churches of the Lutheran World Federation and by the Holy See. In 1998 the two communities agreed on the content of the Joint Declaration, and the formal signing took place on October 31, 1999 in Augsburg, Germany. This process demonstrates another level of church decision making bringing the two churches into a deeper level of communion.

In a particular way this last named Joint Declaration signaled the fact that as shared ecumenical research began to meet the challenges of past divisions, so shared ecumenical imagination must strive to meet the needs of the Christian future.

See Also: faith and order commission.

Bibliography: j. f. puglisi and s. j. voicu, A Bibliography of Interchurch and Interreligious Theological Dialogues (Rome 1984); First Supplement (Rome 1985); Second Supplement (Rome 1986). h. meyer and l. vischer, eds., Growth in Agreement: Reports and Agreed Statements of Ecumenical Conversations on a World Level (New York/Geneva 1984). w. rusch, h. meyer, and j. gros, eds., Growth in Agreement II, (Geneva 2000). j. gros and j. burgess, eds., Building Unity (New York 1989). j. burgess, and j. gros, eds., Growing Consensus (New York 1995).

[j. f. hotchkin]