Assessing the State of Christian Unity

By McBrien, Richard P. | National Catholic Reporter, January 21, 2005 | Go to article overview

Assessing the State of Christian Unity


McBrien, Richard P., National Catholic Reporter


Each year the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity (Jan. 18-25) provides an occasion to review the current ecumenical situation. Are we closer to, or further removed from, Vatican II's hopes for the restoration of unity within the Body of Christ?

There are ecumenists on both sides of the Reformation divide who have had the impression for a long while that the movement is in a state of drift. Little new progress has been made since the extraordinary conciliar and immediately postconciliar years.

There have also been instances of retrenchment, particularly in the recentralization of authority in the papacy and in the cool reception accorded by the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission's findings and recommendations on the Eucharist and ordained ministry in particular.

Tensions have also continued between the Catholic church and the separated churches of the East, always a delicate relationship. Pope John Paul II's longstanding desire to visit Russia remains thwarted.

At the local level, there are continued instances where parish priests and sometimes bishops, while presiding at weddings and funerals, announce to their assembled congregations that non-Catholic Christians who happen to be in attendance are not to receive holy Communion.

But the record also has some positive aspects. On Oct. 31 (Reformation Day), 1999, there was a Lutheran-Catholic Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification signed in Augsburg, Germany, by official representatives of the Catholic church and the Lutheran World Federation. Pope John Paul II hailed it as a "milestone" on the road to Christian unity.

Cardinal Avery Dulles pointed out in a lecture at Fordham University that the joint declaration "says clearly to a world that hovers on the brink of unbelief that the two churches that split Western Christendom on the issue of justification nearly five centuries ago are still united on truths of the highest import."

The declaration insisted that while the condemnations issued by the Council of Trent in the 16th century remain part of the historical record, both sides have arrived at "new insights" into each other's understanding of justification. The polemics of the Reformation period have been transcended, and neither side's views merit condemnation any longer by the other. Whatever differences continue to exist between them "are acceptable" because they do not touch the heart of Christian faith. …

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