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.
I. THE ECUMENICAL SITUATION
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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
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
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.
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,
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.
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
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.