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


What Form Should Closer Relationships Take?

    As mentioned above, the Joint Working Group has singled out three possible ways:
(a)    the evolution of coordinated structures for increasing collaboration
(b)    the formation of a new fellowship differently constituted;
(c)    membership of the Roman Catholic Church in the World Council of Churches.
    These three possibilities will now be considered one after the other.

A. The Evolution of Coordinated Structures for Increasing Collaboration

    Theory and practice show the possibility of cooperation between the Roman Catholic Church and the World Council of Churches. The marked increase in this cooperation has already been indicated earlier and certain structures have begun to evolve for deepening and extending it.
    In the field of theological studies joint commissions, such as that on ‘Catholicity and Apostolicity' have done useful work. Furthermore, individual Roman Catholics, with the approval of the authorities of that Church, are members of the Faith and Order Commission and participate in its studies. They are also involved in the programme of the Ecumenical Institute Bossey.
    Experience has shown that the communion already existing can be made visible. This is particularly true in the areas of social service, relief, justice and peace. Joint commissions have made it possible to give some needed structure to this type of cooperation.
    An outstanding example of this is the joint commission for Society, Development and Peace (Sodepax). Under the joint chairmanship of the Cardinal President of the Pontifical Commission for Justice and Peace and the General Secretary of the World Council of Churches, Sodepax was established on an experimental basis with an equal number of members from both sides with a staff consisting of Roman Catholics and persons belonging to the World Council.
    It is one possible course of action to develop other commissions of this type: Joint commissions for the study of theological problems, for common witness to the Gospel, for coordinating relief work, for promoting Christian education and the work of the laity, etc.
    Another way of closer cooperation could be the participation of Roman Catholics in various organs of the World Council of Churches. Roman Catholics would thus take part in the operations of the Division of World Mission and Evangelism, of the Department of Education, of the Division of Ecumenical Action, the Commission of the Churches on International Affairs, the Division on Inter-Church Aid, Refugee and World Service, etc. Without participating in the policy making bodies of the World Council of Churches (Central Committee, Executive Committee) the Roman Catholic Church would be actively involved in the work of these organs.
    This increased coordination of common activities may have the advantage of not committing the Roman Catholic Church as such but it would suffer from several disadvantages.

(a) The Roman Catholic Church and the World Council of Churches would continue to confront one another as partners, whereas in fact they are not comparable entities.

(b) The fact that the Roman Catholic Church would be involved in increasingly coordinated activities with the World Council of Churches while not being a member of the Council would intensify the tendency of the latter to regard itself as a fellowship of non-Roman churches. But by its very nature the World Council of Churches is meant to include all churches which confess Jesus as God and Saviour. For the World Council of Churches, the non-membership of the Roman Catholic Church involves a limitation in its fellowship.

(c) Secular institutions and the general public would continue to regard the World Council of Churches as an instrument of non-Roman Catholics on a world wide level; the impression would thereby be reinforced that Christianity is divided into two major groupings.

(d) The continuance of the present patterns of cooperation or of similar ones would require the constant formation of new commissions and projects and would frequently involve duplication, in a new ecumenical context, of work already being done. Yet precisely in these days there is a serious questioning within the Roman Catholic Church about the proliferation of organizations in it. The World Council of Churches has been forming new organizations to meet the needs of its expanding activities, a tendency which has had some strong criticism within the Council. To these would be added a whole series of joint commissions. The question could be legitimately asked whether this would develop cooperation properly according to future possibilities in men and resources and whether the juxtaposition of new structures alongside of old ones without effecting an organic relationship between them would not often increase problems rather than solve them.

(e) Participation by Roman Catholics in organs of the World Council of Churches creates an anomalous situation for Roman Catholic participants. They find themselves as communicant members of a nonmember church actively influencing the policy and the operations of an organization without assuming or being able to assume the real responsibilities flowing from membership.

    Joint cooperation is serving a very useful purpose and will continue to do so for some time. However, it seems that joint cooperation between the Roman Catholic Church and the World Council of Churches will soon reach the point where it will become apparent that increased learning about each other and the experience of the working of Christ in each other will be furthered only if some new and more organic form of working together can be found.

B. A New Form of Christian Fellowship Differently Constituted?

    The disparity between the Roman Catholic Church as a world-wide church and the World Council of Churches as well as the questions and problems raised at the end of Chapter I have given rise to the suggestion in the Roman Catholic Church that the ecumenical movement would best be served by setting up a completely new form of Christian fellowship differently constituted. To some extent the question is an abstract one. The formation of a new association presupposes the willingness on the part of the World Council of Churches' member churches to dissolve the World Council of Churches. The Fourth Assembly of the World Council of Churches, though explicitly encouraging the study of Roman Catholic membership in the World Council of Churches, declared that at this stage it regarded the existing fellowship as essential to the ecumenical movement.
9 This and later similar statements by the Central Committee need to be kept in mind. Nevertheless it seems useful to consider the possibilities of such new forms of fellowship within the framework of a hypothesis arising within the ecumenical movement.

1. A Fellowship Based on Confessional Families

    An ecumenical fellowship could be formed with the World Confessional Families as the constituent entities. This option was considered at the time of the formation of the World Council of Churches but it was rejected after careful discussion. Is it nevertheless a viable idea?
There are some advantages to considering it new fellowship based on this formula:
(a) The member units of this fellowship would be more easily comparable partners. All the Confessional Families are organized at the world level and thus correspond more clearly to the Roman Catholic Church as a universal communion. The partners could deal with one another at the same level.

(b) The question has sometimes been raised whether the present fellowship of the World Council of Churches was able to give enough attention to the confessional aspects of the ecumenical movement. A fellowship based on World Confessional Families may be able to deal more directly with the confessional differences. It would be a constant reminder that unity can be achieved only when these differences are solved and full reconciliation has taken place. It would oblige the churches to act in full accord with the sister churches of the same tradition.

(c) Such a fellowship would keep before the eyes of Christians the transnational, universal concept of the Church. The concept of the Church as a territorial entity seems to be secular in nature. The more traditional Concept Of the Church is based on theological and doctrinal lines which transcend geographical boundaries.

(d) At least some of the Confessional Families have at their disposal service organizations which correspond in their scope and activity more closely to similar organizations in the Roman Catholic Church.

    For other reasons, however, a new fellowship based on confessional families does not seem to be a workable alternative:

(a) Not all confessional traditions are organized as confessional families at the world level. Some churches though regarding themselves as belonging to one and the same eucharistic communion have no permanent organization to act for them. New spontaneous movements have hardly any expression at the world level. In many countries there has been the emergence of united churches which do not correspond to any confessional family and there is no intention on the part of these united churches to form a world-wide fellowship of their own.

(b) Where confessional families exist they differ widely in nature, organization and activities. Most of the world bodies have no authority over their constituent bodies. They cannot represent their churches at the international level. It is also unlikely that all world families could be developed to be representative bodies. If they were to represent their churches in an ecumenical fellowship at the world level, many churches would feel that their ecclesiological convictions were being violated; they could agree only if this ecumenical body would be an entirely ineffective forum. Furthermore, the various world families are differently organized; while some have relatively large resources at their disposal, others have hardly any organizational means.

(c) World confessional families do not necessarily include all churches belonging to the same tradition. There would be no place in an association of world families for churches having no affiliation with the organizational structure of their family.

(d) Local representation would not be direct but indirect. This would tend to neglect geographical and local variety.

(e) Such a new association would tend to freeze confessional stances and take a purely confessional approach to problems in a way which does not correspond to present day realities.

(f) Problems such as primacy, papal authority, the understanding which the Roman Catholic Church has of itself and her mission, would finally not receive any easier solution through such a fellowship.

    The importance of World Confessional Families must certainly not be minimized. They can contribute through their activities to the clarification of the issues which keep the churches apart. It is to be noted that the World Council of Churches at its Fourth Assembly (1968) explicitly recognized the positive role they may play through their commitment to the ecumenical cause and stated its readiness to establish closer contacts with them.

2. A Fellowship Based on Christian Councils

    In many regions or countries churches have established Christian Councils. It is conceivable that a new world wide fellowship might be formed on the basis of these councils. Of course, this solution would presuppose that the Roman Catholic Church in the various countries was in membership with the councils.
    Christian Councils are an attempt to bring together in an ecumenical fellowship the Christian churches and movements of a given area. They are an expression of the need of all in each place to live and witness together. An association at the world level based on Christian Councils could possibly make fuller use of the ecumenical achievements in the various countries. It would put the emphasis rather on the Christian community of certain areas than on the churches and their confessional background. It would give visible recognition to the fact that unity must be primarily achieved between people living and working together.
    The experience of the World Council of Churches shows the many positive values of contacts with Christian Councils. The World Council of Churches keeps close contact with them in carrying out its own work. The Commission of World Mission and Evangelism of the World Council of Churches, which developed out of the International Missionary Council, continues to be in close contact with the Christian Councils.
    On the other hand Christian Councils differ very much from country to country. In some countries they do not exist. Usually they have no authority over their member churches. Some have no authority to discuss Faith and Order issues but are restricted to cooperation on non-theological matters. In some areas, member churches are approximately equal in size. In others, one church would be overwhelmingly predominant (Greece, Italy, Scandinavia).
    An international fellowship based on Christian Councils' would provide no clear place for confessional expression or for the identity of the churches as such, nor would such a fellowship relate to the churches themselves. It would be extremely difficult to discuss the question of Christian unity which in its basic analysis involves the churches directly. Delegations to the international fellowship would represent Christians in a country, not their own church.
    It would seem difficult therefore for such a fellowship to move on to the deeper commitment in achieving that unity which should be the aim of the ecumenical movement.

3. A Fellowship Based on Christian Movements

    In the Christian world there are many movements of individuals and groups. These have taken the forms, for example, of Evangelical Alliance, YMCA, Pax Romana, Student Christian Movement, Young Catholic Workers. Many of these existed before the World Council of Churches. In fact, the movements of Faith and Order and Life and Work were at the basis of the formation of the World Council of Churches.
    Many of these movements receive support from the churches without the churches as such being involved. They form a useful and often necessary function in the life of the churches and there will always be need for such associations, even on an international scale.
    Yet an international fellowship based on these movements is not really an alternative to more organic relations between the churches. If it is to serve the ecumenical movement, there is need for some ecclesial structure in which the churches are directly involved. An international fellowship of non-ecclesiastical persons can inspire the churches and provoke them to assume their ecumenical task. But it could never be a substitute for the churches who have the duty of carrying out this task.



  1. WCC, "Report of Policy Reference Committee I," §8 in N. GOODALL, ed., The Uppsala Report 1968..., op. cit., 179.

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