Academic journal article The Ecumenical Review

The Nature and Purpose of Ecumenical Dialogue

Academic journal article The Ecumenical Review

The Nature and Purpose of Ecumenical Dialogue

Article excerpt

Proposal for a Study

It may have come as a surprise to some members of the Joint Working Group to see the topic of ecumenical dialogue placed on the agenda again more than thirty years after the JWG, during its first mandate, had published a working paper on ecumenical dialogue. Since then "dialogue" has become the comprehensive term referring to all forms of interaction, exchange, conversation and collaboration between the Roman Catholic Church and member churches of the World Council of Churches. In one form or another, all members of the JWG have been involved in ecumenical dialogue and may feel that there is no need for a renewed study about the "nature and purpose of ecumenical dialogue". And, in fact, this topic was not part of the agenda proposals for this new period included in the seventh report of the JWG, submitted in 1998. Why, then, do we propose to enter into a new study on precisely this topic?

It is true that we have been involved in ecumenical dialogue for more than thirty years. These dialogues have differed widely in character but, as a consequence of this intensive activity, the conditions and the frame of reference for ecumenical dialogue have changed compared with the situation immediately after the Second Vatican Council. The most recent evidence of the fruits of ecumenical dialogue is the joint declaration on justification signed by the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity on behalf of the Roman Catholic Church and by the Lutheran World Federation on behalf of the Lutheran churches around the world. Many other dialogues, in particular those of a bilateral doctrinal character, have entered the phase of reception which changes the dynamic of the dialogue. It would therefore seem useful and appropriate to take stock of the experience of the last three decades and to map out the perspectives for ecumenical dialogue in the period ahead.

There is an additional reason for reopening the question of ecumenical dialogue. In several instances it seems that the dialogues have revitalized confessional identity and self-confidence, with the consequence that the results of ecumenical dialogue are being evaluated against the background of the official doctrinal positions of the separated churches, questioning the validity of the agreements reached. Expectations placed by the faithful in many of the churches in the ability of ecumenical dialogue to heal the divisions have been disappointed. It is therefore necessary to clarify the aims, the methodologies and the criteria used in evaluating the results of ecumenical dialogue.

Early positions on ecumenical dialogue

When the Joint Working Group between the Roman Catholic Church and the World Council of Churches was formed in 1965, it was given the mandate to explore the bases and forms of collaboration between the Roman Catholic Church and the fellowship of churches in the World Council. In responding to this mandate, the JWG focused on the understanding and methodologies of ecumenical dialogue and published the results of its reflections in a working document in 1967. In a succinct way the document describes the aim and the basis of ecumenical dialogue, outlines the themes that should appropriately be covered, and identifies the conditions for and different forms of dialogue. Three years later, the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity also published a text with "reflections and suggestions concerning ecumenical dialogue". The text was originally envisaged as part 3 of the Ecumenical Directory, but was then published as a "working paper". The structure is very similar to the text by the JWG, with slight changes in the sequence of the chapters; however, the document is much more developed and is rooted especially in the teachings of the Second Vatican Council.

Both texts taken together have served as a good framework for ecumenical activity for some thirty years. What was said then about the nature and aim, as well as the bases and the conditions, of ecumenical dialogue is still valid today. …

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