Academic journal article Theological Studies

Toward Full Communion: Faith and Order and Catholic Ecumenism

Academic journal article Theological Studies

Toward Full Communion: Faith and Order and Catholic Ecumenism

Article excerpt

AT THE TIME OF THE Second Vatican Council, the Catholic Church launched on a renewed self-understanding of itself as Church and its relationship to other churches and ecclesial communities. The precise interpretations of terms such as "subsists in" and "churches and ecclesial communities" remain under discussion in Catholic teaching. However, the Catholic Church has moved irreversibly into the path of dialogue with other Christians with the goal of the restoration of full, visible unity. (1)

In pursuing this goal, the Catholic Church encourages collaboration, spiritual solidarity, common witness and mission as well as careful dialogue to resolve those elements that still divide the churches. (2) The most widely known results of these dialogues are the bilateral agreements that have involved the Catholic, Orthodox, and Reformation churches on key issues such as justification, Christology, the Eucharist, and ministry. These dialogues and proposals between two church bodies provide careful and measured steps toward that visible unity to which the churches are committed together.

A forum for multilateral dialogue in the Faith and Order movement also exists that encompasses the full range of Pentecostal, Orthodox, Anglican, Protestant, Catholic, and Evangelical churches. Here in this article I review the contribution of this latter dimension of the Catholic ecumenical program. In so doing, I sketch a brief history, make some methodological observations, summarize the contribution of Faith and Order, and outline some future challenges.

The goal of the Faith and Order movement was articulated in the first purpose of the World Council of Churches: "To call the churches to the goal of visible unity in one faith and in one eucharistic fellowship expressed in worship and common life in Christ, and to advance toward that unity that the world may believe. (3) Since 1911, it was the intention of those in leadership to involve Orthodox, Catholic, Protestant, and Anglican churches in the discussion process with this goal of visible unity. The Roman Catholic Church was not to formally join the Faith and Order Commission of the World Council of Churches until 1968. (4)


The movements that encouraged the return to the Christian sources (resourcement) and a revaluation of the divisions in Christianity are rooted in the 19th century. Before that, Catholic scholars had been drawn from time to time--since the divisions of East and West and the Reformation-to a reconsideration of other churches. (5)

In 1919, Pope Benedict XV met with a Faith and Order delegation, but declined to permit Catholic participation in the organization. This was the first face-to-face encounter of a pope and representatives of the Reformation churches since the 16th century. Although not official participants, some Catholic theologians did follow the theological developments of these dialogues closely. (6) The 1928 encyclical of Pius XI, Mortalium animos, set a negative tone to Catholic approaches to Faith and Order and ecumenical work in general, until practically the eve of Vatican II.

Even though the Catholic Church was officially absent from the early deliberations of Faith and Order, the Roman Catholic Bishop of Edinburgh allowed five unofficial observers at the Second World Conference in 1936. Yves Congar's Chretiens desunis was on sale in the bookstore where the meeting was being held. The threat of indifferentism and relativism plagued Catholic leadership. The Holy Office, by 1950, acknowledged that the ecumenical movement "derives from the aspiration of the Holy Spirit, (7) while reasserting Catholic exclusivist claims. By 1952 the Roman Catholic bishop of Stockholm sent four observers to the Third World Conference on Faith and Order in Lund. During that same decade, a circle of Catholic theologians, the Catholic Conference on Ecumenical Questions, was deeply involved in studying the working of Faith and Order. …

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