The Vision of Unity Today: A Catholic Perspective

By Henn, William | The Ecumenical Review, October 2009 | Go to article overview

The Vision of Unity Today: A Catholic Perspective


Henn, William, The Ecumenical Review


When I was asked by the Rev. Dr Tom Best, then Director of the Faith and Order Commission, to participate in the present Ninth Forum on Bilateral Dialogues and to give a paper about the Catholic vision of unity today, I was honoured and delighted, but at the same time a bit perplexed, since I had written a paper with almost exactly the same title for the Seventh Forum, held in Annecy, France, from May 9-14, 1997. (1) In fact, when I shared news of this invitation with Msgr Jack Radano, of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, who had been at that earlier Forum, his immediate reaction was: "Didn't you already give that paper?" One could interpret the similarity between the themes of the Seventh and Ninth Forums as a sign that our efforts at ecumenical dialogue are spinning wheels, without getting anywhere. Sometimes even major protagonists of the ecumenical movement voice a degree of frustration that the dialogues produce texts without leading to many concrete results. Cardinal Walter Kasper commented five years ago at an ecumenical event in St Albans Cathedral that, in addition to making ecumenism a "mere academic affair":

   There is another danger too: to embark upon a mere ecumenical
   activism involving an endless series of conferences, symposiums,
   commissions, meetings, sessions, projects and spectacular events
   with the perpetual repetition of the same arguments, concerns,
   problems and lamentations. It may be useful to bear in mind that
   the ecumenical documents of only the last decades at the
   international level, leaving aside the many regional and local
   documents, now comprise two thick volumes. Who can read all this
   stuff, and, indeed, who wants to? Most of this documentation is not
   really received in the churches, neither at the hierarchical nor at
   the grassroots level. Often it is destined only for the
   bookshelves, and I can well understand lay people who
   disappointedly ask: what and where are the concrete results, and
   what is the visible outcome of your illuminated discussions and
   documents? (2)

He followed these somewhat pessimistic words, however, with an optimistic note. The challenge or "crisis" posed by the present ecumenical situation could perhaps be seen as a "kairos" moment that, precisely as such, offers an opportunity to take significant steps ahead.

The collections of ecumenical documents entitled Growth in Agreement indicate that the first dialogue text of which the Catholic Church was a party was the Anglican-Catholic Malta Report of 1968. Since then, more than forty other agreed statements have been produced by international bilateral dialogues in which the Catholic Church has been a participant. One notices that the first several reports between Catholics and representatives of other churches often tend to address a wide range of topics pertinent to relations between the two communities. Rather soon, however, successive phases of dialogue begin to direct their attention to a single theme, usually focusing upon one or another aspect of the nature, structure or mission of the church. At the same time, these ecclesiological themes are related to or placed in the context of other fundamental Christian truths such as revelation, justification and, especially, the mysteries of the Holy Trinity and the Incarnation. (3)

Alongside these reports produced by bilateral commissions is a series of declarations or common statements made by the bishop of Rome and individual leaders of other churches which have a clearly identifiable primate. While some of these concern significant doctrinal issues, such as those in the area of Christology with leaders of the Oriental Orthodox churches, most are statements of commitment to continue to seek together the unity that Christ wants for his church. A unique form of declaration was that made by the Lutheran World Federation and the Roman Catholic Church in their Joint Declaration on Justification (1999), unique because it was a harvesting of the fruits of many Lutheran-Catholic dialogues at the international and national levels and because it addressed the central issue which led to the division at the time of the Reformation. …

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