Index > Interconfessional Dialogues > JWG > Fifth Rep. | CONT. > Introduction



    By the time of the Sixth Assembly of the World Council of Churches there will have been over twenty years of official contacts between the World Council of Churches and the Roman Catholic Church. The Joint Working Group, established in 1965 to serve this relationship has already submitted four official Reports to its respective authorities. The first three had simply recorded what had been dove in study and collaboration. The Fourth Report, presented to the Fifth Assembly in 1975, also looked ahead to what should and could be done. This Fifth Report is presented in the same spirit.

    Further, the last seven years have been crowded with Church and world events which have deeply influenced the one ecumenical movement and which call for more wide-spread and stronger commitment to its goals and its tasks. These events are first outlined here, in order that realism may mark the evaluation of past collaboration between the Roman Catholic Church and the World Council of Churches and the projections for their relationship during the next decade.


1. Changes in the world community

    Reflection must begin with a vivid consciousness of those changes in the world community which are transforming the cultural, economic, social and political relations between peoples.

    The inescapable interdependence of all areas and peoples of the inhabited earth, is matched by increasing consciousness of that fact. The human family becomes more aware that it faces either a common future or a common fate. Threats to peace have so critically increased that life itself is at stake. Oppression and violence are destroying the fragile fabric of human communities. Appalling affluents and consumption of the earth's resources exacerbate growing impatience on the part of the poor and increasing frustration among those not so deprived but who feel themselves powerless to close the gap. New causes of contention continue to arise among nations. Many countries are split within by political and social divisions of great bitterness which lead to confrontation and violence. The precariousness of the economic situation, the breakdown of structures and services, unemployment, the slowness in finding a new world economic order, increase frustration and fear and cynicism. Religion, and its claim to be a source of hope, is questioned and labeled as away of easy escape from the world's predicament.

    Yet, stronger than such events and moods, day by day there is love in the lives of so many people, goodness and selflessness still break through, expectation shines in the eyes of both young and old, the Gospel is shared by hungry hearts, hands are joined in confident prayer. Everywhere people begin to be conscious of their solidarity and to stand together in defense of justice and human dignity, their own and that of others.

2. The mission of the Church

    Such is the context for the mission of the Church in the last two decades of this twentieth century. More than ever before, the divisions among Christians appear as a scandal. The lack of full visible unity among Christians weakens the Church's mission of reconciling human beings to God and to each other (see 2 Cor 5:18-19), obscures the vision of Christ, the life of the world, and muffles his voice of hope.

    More and more, churches are responding by a firm commitment "to the goal of visible unity in one faith and in one Eucharistic fellowship expressed in worship and in common life in Christ and to advance towards that unity in order that the world may believe" (Constitution of the WCC, Art. III). They are being drawn together as agents of reconciliation. In many situations they speak and act together as defenders of human dignity and the rights of peoples and individuals, and to offer hope and purpose by pointing toward "the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world" (Jn 1:29), including the sin which causes and perpetuates Christian divisions.

3. The common ground and a common goal

    Since the Joint Working Group was set up almost two decades ago, far-reaching developments have taken place in relations between the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox, Anglican and Protestant member churches of the World Council. Looking back one sees the growing awareness of the essential oneness of the people of God in each place and in all places, a oneness based on the real, though imperfect, communion existing between all who believe in Christ and are baptized in His name. Consciousness of this common ground has begun to transform the self-understanding of the churches. Their members are gradually acquiring a new picture of themselves and of their sisters and brothers in other traditions, of the way in which they belong together, of their mutual responsibility and accountability before the world, and of their need "to overcome the obstacles standing in the way to perfect ecclesial communion" (4th Report, I a).

    This common ground is more fully described in the Fourth Report of the Joint Working Group. Acknowledgment of it strengthens the conviction that the Roman Catholic Church and the member churches of the World Council in their bilateral and multilateral relationships share in one and the same ecumenical movement. More and more they are drawn to a common understanding of the goal of unity. This includes unity in one faith and in one visible ecclesial Eucharistic fellowship, "built up into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices, acceptable to God through Jesus Christ" (I Pet 2:5). And there is growing understanding that this vision of the one Church can be manifested as a conciliar fellowship of local churches which are themselves truly united.

4. Internal factors influencing ecumenical relationships

    The continued relationship between the Roman Catholic Church and the World Council of Churches and its member churches is sustained by this acknowledged common ground and points to a common goal. But during the last two decades both bodies have undergone profound internal developments of their own which both ease and hinder many areas of collaboration.

    Starting from the integration of the International Missionary Council and the entry of the Eastern European Orthodox Churches at the New Delhi Assembly (1961), the World Council of Churches has undergone major transformation, growing in membership to more than 300 churches. More and more it has become a truly world-wide fellowship. At the same time, and building on earlier affirmations about the ministry of the laity, it has reached out through many programs to make the ecumenical movement a reality among the whole people of God in the whole inhabited earth.

    This process of growth and of transformation has faced the World Council with a double task. First, in becoming a truly world-wide fellowship it had to come to terms with the difficulty of living in a genuine dialogue not only of traditions but also of cultures, with all members participating in each other's lives, sharing burdens and resources, joys and sufferings. Secondly, in addressing itself to the life of its member-churches as total communities, it had to respond to the expectations of both women and men, lay and ordained, young and old in their mutual relationships in the ecumenical movement.

    In the Roman Catholic Church, the strong call of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) for renewal in all areas of personal and communal life has awakened new energies whose potential is still in process of being realized. For instance, renewed awareness of the interrelation of the local church in bonds of communion with the other local churches and with the See of Rome opened up promising possibilities for understanding the place of unity and diversity within the Church and the nature of ecclesial communion. But the practical implications of this and of the collegiality it implies are still being worked out in new initiatives and new pastoral structures such as episcopal conferences and other regional and local bodies, and it is these which have primary responsibility for overseeing ecumenical activities.

    The patient, unswerving work done under Pope Paul VI to implement the stance of the Second Vatican Council has been followed by the vigorous pastoral leadership of Pope John Paul II; both Popes have expressed a strong, clear ecumenical commitment.

    The dramatic and often enthusiastic first steps of Roman Catholic ecumenical involvement were followed by difficulties, some expected, some unforeseen. The scope and complexity of the task is being accepted more realistically, and the differences in structure, history, and approach to problems, are more honestly taken into account, not least in the relations with the World Council and its member churches.

5. A new "tradition" of ecumenical common witness

    It is a cause for joy that some quite notable convergences are emerging in theological understanding of those very issues which had been so divisive; for example, on the nature of the mission of Christ, on the Church and its unity, on baptism, Eucharist and ministry. Especially there has been a striking convergence in the appreciation of the centrality of the Word of God and the Eucharist in liturgical worship and this is being expressed in the similarity of forms used in Eucharistic worship. Convergence in forms of social action and common witness has been evident regionally and locally as churches have become more seriously engaged in trying to do everything together save what the conviction of faith forbids. There is at present a strong convergence in concern for prayer and spiritual life. This is marked by a number of new movements among laity and clergy which have spread across all traditions.

    Indeed one can speak of a new "tradition" of ecumenical understanding, shared concerns, and common witness. At the same time, this new heritage is being challenged, because new voices are trying to be integrated into it. Strong accents from the experiences of Christian life and witness in Africa, Asia, Latin America and Oceania join those from Europe and North America. The various ecumenical agendas which these different Christian traditions work out in their search for an authentic confession of Christ in each place and situation are not always identical, and can cause tensions in the common exploration of the unfathomable riches of the Word of God for our times. In face of Christian renewal, there are different judgements about those cherished customs and practices which are so woven into the life of a church that they risk becoming identified with the substance of faith itself. Even the real convergences in theological understanding of faith and order are a strong challenge to churches to find the right ways to enable them to be received by all members. In fact, the remaining causes of division, theological or otherwise, are thrown into starker relief by those very convergences.

    So the convergences, which some joyfully welcome as signs of the Spirit's patient work, are questioned by others as inimical to what they believe to be their Christian identity. The dialogue within each church about dialogue between the churches is a constant pastoral necessity.

    It is a deep concern that there are groups and whole communities within the structured life of the parent bodies of the Joint Working Group, as well as outside it, which stand apart from the explicit dialogue and from the binding relationship of collaboration. Many of them are distant from both the process and the conclusions of ecumenical reflection which thus become difficult to communicate in face of an attitude of estrangement.

    Many churches, organizations and communities have learned to see the concerns for proclaiming the explicit Gospel of Jesus Christ, commitment to social justice, and spiritual renewal as inseparable elements of their total life, mutually nourishing, and a part of fidelity to their calling. Yet others want to separate one aspect at the expense of the others, a separation which goes across traditional confessional lines in a way that creates new divisions.

    So both the Roman Catholic Church and the member churches of the World Council find in their ecumenical fellowship new kinds of potential divisions, even beyond the confrontation and polarization which mark many societies and the world as a whole. Both face the task of holding together the different elements of Christian witness and of keeping them vitally present in the one ecumenical movement. The common problems they face become a kind of new bond between the Council's member churches and the Roman Catholic Church as they seek to build communion among their own membership and to overcome new kinds of tension and division. With this goes the need for a continued effort of ecumenical awareness-building and formation of a new generation of young church members, who are less aware of the scandal of the divisions which remain, of the goal of unity, and the urgency of the task.

6. Shared concerns and common responses

    So in the last decade the World Council and its member churches and the Roman Catholic Church have found themselves with similar experiences. Under the shock of some of them they have sometimes been driven inwards to concentrate on their own concerns. Yet in many cases their response to the challenges has been parallel, almost identical.

    The reports of the 1973 Bangkok and the 1980 Melbourne Conferences, together with the Nairobi Section I report on "Confessing Christ Today," and Pope Paul VI's Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Nuntiandi (Evangelization of the Modern World) affirm the inseparable relationship between proclamation of the Gospel and action for justice in all Christian witness. Several papal statements and some WCC programs such as those on Faith, Science and Technology and on Good News to the Poor, show a convergence in understanding of the witness of the churches and the priorities of mission.

    This new perspective on contemporary ways of confessing Christ in word and life has been strengthened through the studies of the WCC Commission on Faith and Order, on "Giving Account of the Hope that is in us," and through the "Common Witness" study of the Joint Working Group, which bring together the search for a common expression of the apostolic faith and the practice of common life and witness among the Churches.

    There are also similarities in the concern for the role of the laity and the meaning and direction of laity formation in terms of the responsibility of the whole people of God to share the mission of Christ in and to the world.

    New insights which women are making known about themselves and their awakened expectations of full participation in the life of church and society, pose theological and pastoral challenges and open up new possibilities. These have to be addressed together within the framework of a genuine community of men and women in church and society.

    There is the challenge to the churches arising both from the remarkable progress in the multilateral studies of the Faith and Order Commission of the World Council and at the same time from the proliferation and intensification of bilateral theological dialogues. Some of the latter, in which the Roman Catholic Church is engaged, have reached a stage that is of considerable significance for the partners and the ecumenical movement as a whole. How the further steps are to be taken will be inevitably a matter affecting all churches and will be of significance for the Faith and Order work where there is active Roman Catholic participation.

7. Acknowledging continuing differences

    This brief survey of the relationship since the Joint Working Group came into being indicates progressive growth and convergence as well as the emergence of new problems.

    As the JWG moves into a new phase of its work, there is a more realistic assessment of the differences between the two parent bodies, particularly on the international level, which still justify the answer given when the possibility of Roman Catholic membership in the Council was raised in the early 1970s - "not in the immediate future." Nor is it a question which is yet ready to be taken up again.

    Among the reasons given are the way in which authority is considered in the Roman Catholic Church. It believes itself to be constituted as a "universal fellowship with a universal mission and structure as an essential element of its identity" (IV. Report, II). Thus it gives importance to the differences of structure between itself and the WCC member churches, and the differences of operation on a world level. Acknowledging this condition, a sense of realism has developed in the relationship which combines mutual respect and a practical attitude in face of the differences and the convergences achieved by two decades of experience.

    The Roman Catholic Church acknowledges its responsibility within the one ecumenical movement and accepts the challenge of undertaking increased collaboration with the World Council of Churches and its member churches, despite its own non-member status. The question asked in the Fourth Report remains valid: "How can the Roman Catholic Church and the World Council of Churches, without forming one structured fellowship, intensify their joint activities and thereby strengthen the unity, the common witness, and the renewal of the churches?" The guidelines for the Joint Working Group as formulated in the Fourth Report have provided a clear orientation and framework and are here reaffirmed. If they are fully implemented, the Joint Working Group can be a more visible sign and expression of the relationship, in its role of servant to the two partners.

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