The World Council of Churches,
the Roman Catholic Church and the Ecumenical Movement
What is the nature of the Council, how does it carry
on its work, how does it seek to achieve the goals it has set
for itself? On the other hand, what principles inspire the ecumenical
activity of the Roman Catholic Church, especially as these have
been enunciated in the Second Vatican Council and subsequently?
What is the World Council of Churches?
1. Nature of the World Council of Churches
The World Council of Churches is an attempt to
bring together the now divided churches into a provisional fellowship
in which they can meet one another. The World Council of Churches
makes it possible for churches differing in tradition, form
and size to search for fuller unity in the context of a fellowship
which they already experience. In it the special character of
each individual church is safeguarded and no church is required
to compromise its convictions about doctrine or about the nature
of the Church. Through the Council, however, it becomes possible
for the churches, within the limits imposed by their separation,
even now to share their life, to bear joint witness to the Gospel
and to strive together to serve the whole of mankind through
the promotion of justice and peace.
The fellowship of the World Council of Churches
rests on the following basis: The World Council of Churches
is a fellowship of churches which confess the Lord Jesus Christ
as God and Saviour according to the Scriptures and therefore
seek to fulfil together their common calling to the glory of
the one God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.' The wording of the
basis makes it clear that the fellowship is based on Christ
and that the unity which is sought is that willed by Him for
His Church. This basis is the common point of reference for
the member churches. It is not strictly a confession of faith.
The word confess' is used in it with reference to the
individual churches. It is not the World Council of Churches
which confesses but the member churches which confess.
. .'. The basis is not interpreted in the same way by all the
churches. The acceptance of the basis by the member churches
does not imply theological uniformity about e.g. trinitarian
theology or the authority of the Holy Scripture. It points,
however, unambiguously to the source of the Council's coherence
and indicates the ground and the common calling on which fellowship
is to be realized.
A Fellowship' of Churches'
The Basis uses these two terms to describe the
World Council of Churches. How are they to be interpreted? They
are both biblical concepts, but are they used here in their
biblical sense? Does fellowship' correspond to the biblical
koinonia and church' to tile biblical ekklesia? It is
obvious that this is strictly speaking not the case. The World
Council of Churches is a provisional fellowship in which churches
are still divided and are therefore not bound together by koinonia
in the New Testament sense of the word; it is a structural form
expressing a communion already existing and is intended to lead
to a more perfect communion.
The word church' is used descriptively.
In practice it refers to autonomous ecclesial communities which
fulfil certain criteria of stability and size and are able to
subscribe to the contents of the Basis. These communities are
frequently, though not always, organized on the basis of a particular
geographical area and belong to a particular confessional tradition.
The use of the word church' does not imply that the individual
churches recognize each other in the full ecclesiological sense
of the word.
Concept of Unity
The World Council of Churches is committed to
work for the unity of the Church, but it does not hold one specific
doctrine concerning the nature of this unity. No one of the
various conceptions of unity has been adopted by the World Council
of Churches as its official conception. The World Council of
Churches provides the opportunity for these conceptions to enter
into dynamic relation with each other2.
The Third Assembly of the World Council of Churches made an
attempt to describe together in a preliminary way the goal of
unity which the member churches are seeking to attain. It adopted
the following statement which found wide acceptance among the
We believe that the unity which is both God's
will and his gift to his Church is being made visible as all
in each place who are baptized into Jesus Christ and confess
him as Lord and Saviour are brought by the Holy Spirit into
one fully committed fellowship, holding the one apostolic faith,
preaching the one Gospel, breaking the one bread, joining in
common prayer, and having a corporate life reaching out in witness
and service to all and who at the same time are united with
the whole Christian fellowship in all places and all ages in
such wise that ministry and members are accepted by all, and
that all can act and speak together as occasion requires for
the tasks to which God calls his people3.
This text with its insistence on unity in
each place' was supplemented by the Fourth Assembly in the following
So to the emphasis on "all in each place" we would
now add a fresh understanding of the unity of all Christians
in all places. This calls the churches in all places to realize
that they belong together and are called to act together. In
a time when human interdependence is so evident, it is the imperative
to make visible the bonds which unite Christians in universal
In addition, the Fourth Assembly recommended continued
research into the nature of the Church's unity. It approved
the Report of the Assembly Committee on Faith and Order which
We are in agreement with the decision of the Faith and Order
Commission at its Bristol meeting to pursue its study programme
on the unity of the Church in the wider context of the study
of the unity of mankind and of creation. We welcome at the same
time the statement of the Faith and Order Commission that its
task remains to proclaim the oneness of the Church of
Jesus Christ' and to keep before the Council and the churches
the obligation to manifest that unity for the sake of
their Lord and for the better accomplishment of his mission
in the world'. However, it may be asked whether the problem
of unity can be reduced simply to the increase in manifestation',
or whether there is an internal break of unity which needs to
be recovered. The restoration and fulfilment of the unity of
the churches is the most urgent task to which Faith and Order
has to call them. This calls for a renewal of the spiritual
life of the churches 5.
The Ecclesiological Significance of the World Council of Churches
The World Council of Churches does not claim any
specific understanding of its own ecclesiological significance.
It explicitly disavows the idea of itself as a superchurch'
(cf. the so-called Toronto statement on the Church, the churches
and the World Council of Churches, 1950). Yet it is inevitable
that the question be discussed what significance the fellowship
of the churches in the World Council of Churches may have. A
certain dilemma is apparent: an instrument created by the churches
cannot be without any ecclesiological significance. The Fourth
World Conference on Faith and Order in Montreal (1963) spoke
of a new dimension' received in the sustained fellowship
of the World Council of Churches. On the other hand, it is also
clear that the ecclesiological terms used by the individual
churches cannot properly be used to describe the character of
the World Council of Churches.
The member churches tend to interpret the significance
of the World Council of Churches in accordance with their own
doctrinal convictions and historical assumptions. Some are inclined
to see it as a foreshadowing of the coming unity, others regard
it simply as a passing instrument. Only the officially formulated
conception of the World Council is common to all the churches.
Any reflections on the ecclesiological significance may be put
forward by individual churches but have no binding character.
The issue must be discussed within the World Council of Churches;
and it must also be noted that the presuppositions of this discussion
have constantly changed with the admission of new member churches;
closer relations between the Roman Catholic Church and the World
Council of Churches undoubtedly would change them still further.
Quest for Renewal
The World Council of Churches aims at being an
instrument of renewal. Its member churches share the conviction
that unity can only grow as they themselves manifest and attest
more clearly the presence of Christ. Fellowship in the World
Council of Churches gives them an opportunity to share more
easily their gifts, to witness together to the Gospel, to ask
themselves the questions which need answering today, and to
respond together to the promptings of the Holy Spirit in their
efforts at resolving these questions. Membership in the World
Council of Churches, therefore, cannot be considered an end
in itself. Rather, it should manifest an additional commitment
to the call for renewal which the Spirit is making to the churches.
By their very nature the statements and actions
of the World Council of Churches are different from those of
the individual churches. These statements are attempts to express
God's will in a fellowship of churches which are still separated
from each other. They have no constitutional authority nor juridically
binding character. The individual member churches may endorse
them; they remain free, however, to reject them or to propose
a different line. The present Constitution and Rules describe
the authority of the World Council of Churches in the following
The World Council shall offer counsel and provide
opportunity of united action in matters of common interest.
It may take action on behalf of constituent churches
in such matters as one or more of them may commit to it.
It shall have authority to call regional and world
conferences on specific subjects its occasion may require.
The World Council shall not legislate for the
churches; nor shall it act for them in any manner except as
indicated (Constitution, IV).
1) In the performance of its functions, the Council through
its Assembly or through its Central Committee may publish statements
upon any situation or issue with which the Council or its constituent
churches may be confronted.
2) While such statements may have great significance
and influence as the expression of the judgment or concern of
so widely representative a Christian body, yet their authority
will consist only in the weight which they carry by their own
truth and wisdom and the publishing of such statements shall
not be held to imply that the World Council as such has, or
can have, any constitutional authority over the constituent
churches or right to speak for them.
3) The Executive Committee or any commission of
the Council may recommend statements to the Assembly or to the
Central Committee for its consideration and action.
4) No committee or commission of the Council other
than the Central Committee shall publish any statement (i.e.
in the name of the World Council of Churches), until it has
been approved by the Assembly, except that in circumstances
of immediate urgency statements may be published by any commission
of the Council on matters within its own field of concern and
action, if approved by the Chairman of the Central Committee
and the General Secretary, and in these cases the committee
or commission shall make it clear that the World Council of
Churches is not committed by any statement set forth in this
5) In cases of exceptional emergency, statements
may be issued by the Chairman of the Central Committee oil his
own authority after consultation with the Vice-Chairman of the
Central Committee and the General Secretary provided that such
statements are not contrary to tile established policy of tile
Council (Rules X).
Member churches will, of course, pay serious attention
to decisions made by the World Council of Churches because these
decisions may represent the shared conviction of divided Christians.
But membership does not mean that a church must adopt certain
views on the basis of majority decisions. Nor is the World Council
of Churches to be regarded as a court of appeal above the churches.
A Growing Fellowship
It is impossible to describe the World Council
of Churches purely in terms of Constitution. Its history must
also be taken into account. One attempt to describe this history
was made by the Montreal Faith and Order Conference 1963; it
listed the following important new developments in the
life of the Council:
(a) Much increased membership and greater
variety of churches;
(b) integration of the International Missionary
Council and the World Council of Churches;
(c) the New Delhi Statement on Church Unity;
(d) revision and expansion of the Basis
of the Council 1961;
(e) new avenues of cooperation in inter-church
(f) consideration of the problem of joint
action for mission;
(g) relaxation of certain psychological
barriers due to better acquaintance and understanding;
(h) reflection on the nature of the Council
in the member churches and in our common meetings.'
The conference went on to acknowledge gratefully
that in sustained fellowship it (the WCC) has received
something new, namely an enrichment of our Christian existence
and a new vision of our common Christian task in the world.
The manifestations of this new experience are seen in several
ways: a common allegiance to the one Lord; an increasing progress
towards a common life of prayer, praise and proclamation: the
sharing of burdens, difficulties and pains; and increasing doctrinal
consensus without compromise (for example, with regard to the
meaning of Baptism); intensified Bible Study; the tendencies
towards mutual recognition of members among some of the member
This history may be plotted also in other ways.
For example, whereas in 1948 membership of the World Council
was around 140, it has risen today to around 240. The development
may also be studied in the series of statements issued on particular
issues and endorsed by member churches: for example, the statement
on religious liberty, and various statements on the race question.
This tradition', although an essential feature of the
World Council of Churches, cannot of course be regarded as irreformable.
In the course of years, findings which seemed assured have in
fact been challenged as a result of the admission of new member
churches to the World Council; and the discussion resumed with
The Uppsala Assembly recognized that this process
of development must continue and instructed the Structure Committee
to consider what it means for the World Council as an
expression of the common life of the churches that it has moved
away from the limitations of the North Atlantic that gave it
birth, towards the third world; that the Orthodox Churches play
a decisively larger role in its life; and that after Vatican
II it is in a steadily ramifying partnership with the Roman
Catholic and other non-member churches'7.
A two-fold process is thus discernible. On the
one hand, the mutual probing has deepened and the fellowship
grown; on the other hand, membership has gained in variety and
become more representative of Christendom as a whole. It is
recognized that this process still demands considerable development.
In many ways the realization of this fellowship must take deeper
roots in the consciousness of the member churches and their
communicants. The extent of commitment to the fellowship and
to its ongoing growth varies widely and requires frequent reexamination
by the World Council of Churches and its member churches.
The World Council of Churches is not a Church.
It is a fellowship of churches which are committed to a common
search for unity. The fellowship realized within it Is provisional
in character. It is not an end in itself. The World Council
of Churches seeks to prepare the way for a unity which transcends
itself. It will itself change and perhaps even become redundant
as this unity grows.
Relation to the Ecumenical Movement
The Second Report of the Joint Working Group describes
the World Council of Churches as a unique instrument in the
service of the ecumenical movement. This phrase needs clarification.
Participation in the ecumenical movement does not take place
exclusively through the World Council of Churches, nor does
the World Council consider itself coterminous with the movement.
This distinction between Council and movement has frequently
been stressed in World Council documents, with particular emphasis
at the Fourth World Conference on Faith and Order in Montreal
(1963): The ecumenical movement is clearly larger than
the Council. The World Council of Churches is one of the manifestations
of that movement, but there are many other ways through which
the churches are growing together'8.
There is a communion among Christians and their churches which
transcends the World Council of Churches and relates all the
Christian churches to one another. This communion is founded
in varying ways on a certain community of faith, of sacramental
life, of interior and exterior gifts of the Holy Spirit, of
shared history and traditions. The World Council of Churches
is a unique instrument of the ecumenical movement to express
and to deepen an as yet incomplete fellowship among the churches.
It is not the only expression of the ecumenical movement.
The role of worship in the one ecumenical movement
is acknowledged as pivotal by the World Council of Churches.
Questions related to worship and the spiritual life are studied
within the Council, affording to the member churches an exchange
of insights and mutual enrichment. This concern includes the
liturgical renewal proceeding within the churches. Thus prayer
does not remain at the academic level. The unity in Christ already
experienced by the member churches finds expression in common
prayer, and this prayer is considered a means to that fuller
unity willed by Christ for His Church.
The World Council of Churches has no forms of
worship of its own, however. As in all other matters, so here
each individual church and its special characteristics are respected.
At ecumenical conferences worship services are customarily entrusted
to the various confessions. This is always the case when there
is a eucharistic celebration at one of its meetings, since the
World Council of Churches, not being a church, cannot celebrate
the Eucharist under its authority. The discipline of the member
churches concerning worship, and, more particularly, eucharistic
sharing is respected by the World Council of Churches and no
pressure for compromise or violation of such discipline is exerted.
B. The Roman Catholic Understanding of the Ecumenical Movement
Is a closer relationship with, perhaps even membership
in, the World Council of Churches compatible with the Roman
Catholic Church's understanding of the Ecumenical Movement?
In the early period of the ecumenical movement, the Roman Catholic
Church declined invitations to participate in the movements
which led later to the formation of the World Council. In 1928,
Pope Pius XI wrote: It is clear that the Apostolic See
can by no means take part in these assemblies, nor is it in
any way lawful for Catholics to give to such enterprises their
encouragement and support.' This negative attitude was based
on the fear that the ecumenical movement would lead to indifferentism
towards the religion revealed by God. Were its efforts not based
on the assumption that all religions were more or less good
and praiseworthy inasmuch as all give expression, under various
forms, to that innate sense which leads men to God and to the
obedient acknowledgment of His rule? This conception seemed
to require from the Roman Catholic Church that she abandon certain
of her doctrines and her understanding of herself.
As the ecumenical movement developed and the World
Council of Churches was formed it became clearer to Roman Catholics
that the unity which was being sought was a unity based on truth
and that firmness in holding doctrinal positions was not being
compromised. Even though the Instruction of the Holy Office
of 1949 still expressed itself cautiously, it attributed the
growing desire for the reunion of all who believe in Christ,
and the change in outlooks, to the inspiration of the Holy Spirit;
it authorized participation in certain meetings under episcopal
Increasing contacts between Christian theologians
and the development of studies within the Roman Catholic Church
led to the Second Vatican Council's laying a solid basis for
Catholic participation in the ecumenical movement by recognizing
the significance for Catholics of the faith and religious life
of Christians of other traditions. In this connection, the following
points may be important.
The Second Vatican Council, in the Dogmatic Constitution on
the Church, affirmed that Catholic Christians are bound to
Christians of other communions by baptism, by a common faith
in Christ, by the Scriptures, by prayer and by the operative
presence of the Holy Spirit. (See also the Decree on Ecumenism
The Roman Catholic Church believes that in her subsists the unique
Church of Jesus Christ. It recognizes, however, that the Churches
and ecclesial communities separated from itself have by
no means been deprived of significance and importance in the mystery
of salvation. For the Spirit of Christ has not refrained from
using them as means of salvation' (Decree on Ecumenism §
the Roman Catholic Church believes that in her subsists the unique
Church of Jesus Christ, it recognizes that the one ecumenical
movement embraces all Christian communities which respond to the
call to unity. The Decree on Ecumenism made this clear by speaking
of those who invoke the triune God and confess Jesus as
Lord and Saviour. They join in not merely as individuals but also
as members of the corporate groups in which they have heard the
Gospel and which each regards as his, and indeed, God's church.
And yet, almost every one, though in different ways, longs that
there may be one visible Church of God, a Church truly universal
and sent forth to the whole world that the world may be converted
to the Gospel and so be saved, to the glory of God' (Decree on
Ecumenism § 1).
Decree on Ecumenism (§ 3) affirms that a certain though yet
imperfect communion exists between men who believe in Christ and
are properly baptized. It seems theologically appropriate that
this communion should receive some visible expression. There may
be divergent views on the form of this expression, but there should
be a true sign of the real, though partial, unity which already
exists among Christians in tile present situation of divided Christendom.
Refusal to search for the appropriate expression of this communion
might be a false sign, since it might seem to imply non-recognition
of the Christian reality of the other groups.
Decree on Ecumenism stresses the need for dialogue in which each
explains the teaching of his Communion in greater depth and brings
out clearly its distinctive features. Through such dialogue, every
one gains a truer knowledge and more just appreciation of the
teaching and religious life of both Communions' (§ 4). Thus
the way will be opened for this kind of fraternal rivalry to incite
all to a deeper realization and a clearer expression of the unfathomable
riches of Christ' (§ 11).
Roman Catholic Church considers that she has a divinely given
mission to discharge, a mission of giving witness to Christ. It
may well be that in some circumstances this mission could be carried
out more effectively in collaboration with other churches and
communities. The Decree on Ecumenism expressly recommends cooperation
of this type. Before the whole world, let all Christians
profess their faith in God, one and three, in the incarnate Son
of God, our Redeemer and Lord. United in their efforts and with
mutual respect let them bear witness to our common hope which
does not play us false. Since in our times cooperation in social
matters is very widely practiced, all men without exception are
summoned to united effort. Those who believe in God have a stronger
summons but the strongest claims are laid on Christians, since
they have been sealed with the name of Christ' (§ 12). A
similar call for common profession of faith in God and in
Jesus Christ' was issued in the Decree on the Missionary Activity
of the Church (§ 15).
regard to the mission of service, by which the Church ministers
to the needs of the world in the human and social area, the Decree
on Ecumenism clearly calls for cooperation: Cooperation
among all Christians vividly expresses that bond which already
unites them, and sets in clearer relief the features of Christ
the Servant. Such cooperation, which has already begun in many
countries, should be ever increasingly developed, particularly
in regions where a social and technical evolution is taking place...
Through such cooperation, all believers in Christ are able to
learn easily how they can understand each other better and esteem
each other more, and how the road to the unity of Christians may
be made smooth' (§ 12).
The Decree on the Missionary Activity of the Church speaks in
similar terms: . . . without any appearance of indifference
or of unwanted intermingling on the one band, or of unhealthy
rivalry on the other, Catholics can collaborate in a brotherly
spirit with their separated brethren... They can collaborate in
social and in technical projects as well as in cultural and religious
ones. Let them work together especially for the sake of Christ,
their common Lord. Let his name be the bond that unites them!
This cooperation should be undertaken not only among private persons
but also, according to the judgement of the local Ordinary, among
Churches or ecclesial communities and their enterprises' (§
in the ecumenical movement pertains to the whole Church, faithful
and clergy alike. It extends to everyone, according to the potential
of each (cf. Decree on Ecumenism § 5). It is significant
that precisely in the Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity one
finds the statement: The common heritage of the Gospel and
the common duty of Christian witness resulting from it recommend
and frequently require the cooperation of Catholics with other
Christians, a cooperation exercised on the part of individuals
and communities within the Church, either in activities or in
associations, and on the national and international level' (§
Roman Catholic Church also considers that by participation in
the ecumenical movement, all are led to examine their own
faithfulness to Christ's will for the Church, and, wherever necessary,
to undertake with vigor the task of renewal and reform' (Decree
on Ecumenism § 4).
within the Roman Catholic Church since the Second Vatican Council
also have a bearing on determining ways of participating more
fruitfully in the ecumenical movement. Many contacts with other
churches and ecclesial communities have been initiated and joint
witness and collaboration are progressing in many fields. These
developments invite the Roman Catholic Church to examine what
are the next steps. In doing so it will naturally make use of
the opportunities offered by the existence of the episcopal conferences
and by the more direct responsibilities entrusted to the bishops
as much at the local as at the universal level.
The elements mentioned above indicate clearly that there
has been a significant growth in the Roman Catholic Church's
appreciation of the ecumenical movement and the role she should
play in it. They also show that her participation can take place
in a visible organized form. In determining the appropriate
form of participation it cannot be overlooked that close relationships
of the Roman Catholic Church with the World Council of Churches
raises questions in certain circles.
feel that an organizational link with the World Council of
Churches may require, or be taken to signify, a renunciation
of the distinctively Catholic doctrine of the Church, and
would be a false sign of the relationships which exist, theologically
speaking, between Roman Catholicism and other Christian Churches
and communities. Even if official statements of the World
Council of Churches make it clear that no church entering
into the Council need renounce its own ecclesiology, is this
principle sufficiently apparent in the practical activities
of the World Council of Churches?
also raise the question of the authority of the Pope. Would not
closer relations with the World Council of Churches compromise
it as it is understood and exercised within the Roman Catholic
Church? Though the questions can be satisfactorily answered on
the level of principle, there remains, they feel, a pastoral problem
which must be faced. Members of the Roman Catholic Church and
others may be led to believe that practically speaking the Pope's
authority would be compromised.
Others are concerned about the distinctive witness of the Roman
Catholic Church. Is there not the danger of it being obscured
if solidarity with other Christian Churches is encouraged? Would
the Roman Catholic Church not be confused in the popular mind
with other Christian communities and made responsible for certain
statements and programmes which, from a Catholic point of view,
could not be fully endorsed? Of course, member churches of the
Council are free to dissociate themselves from statements of the
Council, but the very fact of membership nevertheless involves
a member church to some extent in the activities and messages
emanating from the organization. Would this result in a muting
of distinctively Catholic concerns in witness, in apostolic action,
in education, in moral teaching and the like?
the other hand, in some parts of the constituency of the World
Council of Churches there may be the feeling that the freedom
and the authority of non-Roman churches may be harmed by closer
ties with the Roman Catholic Church. The Roman Catholic Church
is numerically by far the largest Christian Church. It has a certain
inner cohesion which does not exist among most other churches
and communities. Is there not the danger that the voices of the
other churches be stifled? Would statements emanating from the
World Council have less authority than now if the Roman Catholic
Church disavowed certain of its statements?
are fears on both sides that the collaboration of two large and
complicated structures might smother the spiritual character of
the ecumenical movement.
The Joint Working Group does not suggest that these questions
are insoluble. It is of the opinion, however, that they cannot
be ignored as the possibility of closer relationships is being
considered. They have been kept in mind as this report has been
worked out. More specific aspects will be dealt with in later
The Church, the Churches and the World Council of Churches:
The Ecclesiological Significance of the World Council of
Churches; A Statement to the Churches for Study and Comment
by the Central Committee of the Council. Meeting at Toronto,
Ontario, July, 1950 (NY: WCC, 1950) § III, 5.
Back to text
"Reports of the Sections: Unity," §2 in The
New Delhi Report: The Third Assembly of the World Council
of Churches, 1961 (London: SCM Press, 1962) 116.
Back to text
WCC, "Section I: The Holy Spirit and
the Catholicity of the Church," §18 in N. GOODALL,
ed., The Uppsala Report 1968..., op. cit., 17.
Back to text
WCC, "Report of the Assembly Committee
on Faith and Order," §A in N. GOODALL, ed., The
Uppsala Report 1968..., op. cit., 223-224.
Back to text
WCC, "Section Reports: Section I,
The Church in the Purpose of God,"§32 in P. C.
RODGER and L. VISCHER, eds., The Fourth World Conference
on Faith and Order, Montreal, 1963, Faith and Order
Paper, 42 (NY: Association Press, 1963) 48-49.
Back to text
WCC, "Appendix X: Report on the Re-examination
of the Structure of the World Council of Churches from the
Central Committee to the Fourth Assembly," §59
in N. GOODALL, ed., The Uppsala Report 1968..., op.
Back to text
WCC, "Section Reports: Section I,
The Church in the Purpose of God,"§32 in P. C.
RODGER and L. VISCHER, eds., The Fourth World Conference
on Faith and Order..., op. cit., 48.
Back to text