Index > Interconfessional Dialogues > JWG > | CONT. > Patterns of Relationship

- Preface
- Introduction
- I - The World Council of Churches, the Roman Catholic Church and the Ecumenical Movement
- II - What Form Should Closer Relationships Take?
- III - Membership of the Roman Catholic Church in the World Council of Churches
- Conclusions




    Since 1965, with the mutual agreement to form a Joint Working Group, the Roman Catholic Church and the World Council of Churches have supported various forms of official relations. At first the Joint Working Group limited itself to identifying and encouraging possibilities. for cooperation between Roman Catholic individuals, groups and organizations and various units of the WCC as well as for Roman Catholic participation in the work of these units. Soon the Joint Working Group found that certain projects were best carried out under its own patronage (e.g. the studies on Catholicity and Apostolicity and Common Witness and Proselytism), or through the establishment of a special joint group (e.g. the Joint Committee on Society, Development and Peace — SODEPAX).
    With the growth in cooperation between the Roman Catholic Church and the World Council of Churches there arose the question of whether the existing structures were sufficient to meet the growing complexity of relations between the two. Individual writers began to discuss formal Roman Catholic membership in the World Council. The same question was treated in the Joint Working Group and raised at the General Assembly of the World Council (Uppsala, 1968). In his visit to the World Council headquarters in Geneva in 1969, Pope Paul VI publicly mentioned the question, adding that the answer at that time could not be a positive one because many theological and pastoral aspects of the question still had to be studied and resolved.
    Since Pope Paul's request for thorough study, the Joint Working Group, as well as individuals, have tried to shed light on the various aspects — pro and con — of the membership question. All recognize that the decision to apply for membership in the World Council belongs primarily to the Roman Catholic Church. Only in the hypothesis of a formal Roman Catholic application will the World Council respond officially. However both parties judge that any final decision should be made in view of what step would be better and more useful for the ecumenical movement as a whole. They have therefore tried to assist each other as much as possible in the study.
    Competent people from both sides have discussed together the membership question and published their reflections in articles in various reviews. The Joint Working Group itself authorized a small group of representatives to study together further Roman Catholic Church/World Council of Churches relations. In May 1970 the Joint Working Group discussed the first draft of this joint study which was gradually revised in the light of the Group's recommendations.
    The text of this revised report, which is now being published for the first time, has been examined by the members of the Plenary — the annual general assembly — of the Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity and has also been seen by the Executive Committee of the World Council of Churches. While the Plenary expressed its appreciation for the many positive aspects of the document, still it had strong reserves as to the adequacy of the document for resolving the questions it poses. These reserves will be stated and explained in an article to be presented later. The judgements offered by the document are tentative. The World Council of Churches is presented primarily in terms of its written constitutions and official statements and not so much in the historic forms of its development. More attention could have been given to the dynamic aspects of the work of the World Council of Churches, its growth through what it was accomplishing and, in particular, the dynamic development which continues to take place both with regard to its own members and with regard to the Roman Catholic Church. Such developments must be taken into full consideration along with the official documents.
    Despite these limitations we consider the document to be important enough to present it to a wider public. It hopes to stimulate more widespread discussion and a deeper probing into the whole-question of those closer relations between the Roman Catholic Church and the World Council of Churches which serve as a means towards fulfilling Christ's will in those who bear his name and of unleashing new forces for Christian service to the world.
    The publication of this document, therefore, is not the end of a study but an important step in a process of careful inquiry. It is not realistic at present to try to set a date by which one must arrive at an answer to the question of whether the Roman Catholic Church should apply for membership. It is not expected that such an application will be made in the near future. Still, all are convinced that cooperation between these bodies must not only continue, it must be intensified. The motivation which will continue to lie behind this increasing cooperation is not one of ecclesiastical power politics. It remains one of sincere dedication to the search for the best way possible to arrive at that unity in Christ for which He prayed so ardently and which can help all Christians to serve the world to which He was sent for its reconciliation and redemption.

John Cardinal Willebrands Eugene Carson Blake


    The Joint Working Group between the Roman Catholic Church and the World Council of Churches was established in 1965. Its task was to consider the form which relations between the Roman Catholic Church and the World Council of Churches should take. In the meetings which have been held up to the present, the group has been able to make significant progress in its task. It has initiated joint studies on such subjects as Dialogue, Common Witness and Proselytism, and Catholicity and Apostolicity. Through specific recommendations it has encouraged mutual co-operation in the areas of social development, peace, mission, service and relief, and activity of the laity. In many instances, where activities in these various fields have developed without the direct intervention of the Joint Working Group, the latter has given its support and encouragement. Furthermore it has followed with attention the many initiatives taking place on local and regional levels which have contributed and are contributing to the progress of the ecumenical movement on a more universal scale.
    The rapid growth in co-operation on many levels has become a matter of fact. In approving the first two official reports of the Joint Working Group the Fourth Assembly of the World Council of Churches (1968) declared:

The Assembly wishes above all to give thanks for the new opportunities of fellowship in Christ. Doors have been opened for Christians to witness together to the redemptive and reconciling work which Christ has accomplished for the whole world ... The Assembly is confident that the Joint Working Group will contribute to the growth and the deeper unity of the Ecumenical Movement.1

    In his address on the occasion of his visit to the World Council of Churches Headquarters in Geneva in June, 1969, Pope Paul VI referred explicitly to participation of competent Catholics in the various activities of the World Council of Churches. He added:

The theological reflection on the unity of the Church, the search for a better understanding of Christian worship, the deep formation of the laity, the Consciousness of our common responsibilities and the co-ordination of our efforts for social and economic development and for peace among the nations—these are some examples of areas where this co-operation has taken shape. There are plans also to find the possibilities of a common Christian approach to the phenomenon of unbelief, to the tensions between the generations, and to relations with the non-Christian religions.

These realizations witness Our desire to see the present undertakings develop according to our future possibilities in men and in resources.

    The variety to be found in this increasing co-operation and the two comments on it which have just been cited show clearly that this cooperation has not been of a merely organizational character. A truly spiritual dimension underlies the many developing contacts taking place. They are seen as efforts to respond ‘to what the Spirit is saying to the churches' (cf. Rev. 2: 7). In its Second Report (1967) the Joint Working Group observed:

Today, without ignoring or minimizing the essential differences between them, Christians are re-discovering in other Churches these values which are part of the unique Christian heritage. They are discovering that a partial communion already exists between them, and they want to extend that communion to its fullness. The whole ecumenical movement is searching for that fullness, that unity of all Christians, in order to bear testimony to Christ in the world today.

    This spiritual dimension continues to be a determining factor in the consideration of what concrete forms the increasing cooperation already mentioned may take. The search for new forms, therefore, is not merely an investigation into more efficient structures.
    The Roman Catholic Church and tile World Council of Churches have always recognized that the Joint Working Group was not a permanent structure for guiding the relationships between them; it was set up to explore future relationships. In its meeting at Gwatt in May 1969 it considered the future forms which these relationships could take. It singled out three possible procedures for responding to the development which has already taken place and for extending and deepening these relationships:

  1. Evolving co-ordinated structures for increasing collaboration between the World Council of Churches and the Roman Catholic Church may be developed.

  2. A new form of Christian fellowship might be created.

  3. The Roman Catholic Church might enter into membership of the World Council of Churches.

    The Joint Working Group decided to give particular consideration to the third of these possibilities. Throughout the period of its formation and over the twenty-two years of its existence the World Council has been a privileged instrument of the Holy Spirit in the work of recomposing unity among Christians, a fact which is alluded to in the Vatican Council's Decree on Ecumenism (n. 1). Within the fellowship, churches and individuals are growing to know each other, to understand each other, to pray together, to work together. It is only logical, then, that the Joint Working Group respond to the desires expressed by the World Council at Uppsala and Pope Paul VI during his visit to the Ecumenical Centre in Geneva, that a thorough study be made of the question of Roman Catholic membership in the World Council of Churches. In order to provide as complete a picture as possible of the future patterns which developing relations between the Roman Catholic Church and the World Council of Churches might take, it was felt useful to consider the other possibilities as well.
    The present report is based on the conviction that a more organic relationship between the Roman Catholic Church and the World Council of Churches should develop. It does not seek to prejudge the precise form to be adopted but aims at facilitating a study of the question which would enable the competent authorities to take that decision which appears to serve best the ecumenical movement, to ensure greater progress in cooperation where, admittedly, there remains a great deal to be done, and to give more perfect expression to that communion already existing among Christians especially as they strive to give a more adequate response to the urgent call for giving witness to Christ's Gospel to today's world.


  1. WCC, "Report of Policy Reference Committee I," §3 in N. GOODALL, ed., The Uppsala Report 1968: Official Report of the Fourth Assembly of the World Council of Churches, Uppsala, July 4 - 20, 1968 (Geneva: WCC, 1968) 178.

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