PATTERNS OF RELATIONSHIPS
BETWEEN THE ROMAN CATHOLIC CHURCH AND THE WORLD COUNCIL OF CHURCHES
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
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.
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
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:
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:
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 nationsthese 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
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:
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
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
Evolving co-ordinated structures for increasing collaboration
between the World Council of Churches and the Roman Catholic
Church may be developed.
new form of Christian fellowship might be created.
Roman Catholic Church might enter into membership of the World
Council of Churches.
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.
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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