JWG Expresses its Gratitude for this Short History, Written on
its Request by One of its Members, Father Thomas Stransky CSP,
Rector of the Tantur Ecumenical Institute, Jerusalem
History of the RCC/WCC Joint Working Group
The initial visible expression of collaboration between
the Roman Catholic Church (RCC) and the World Council of Churches
(WCC) was the exchange of officially delegated observers. In 1961
the Vatican Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity (SPCU),
which Pope John XXIII had established in June 1960, delegated
five observers to the WCC's third assembly in New Delhi. Then
the WCC sent two observers, Dr Nikos Nissiotis and Dr Lukas Vischer,
to the four autumn sessions of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65).
During the Vatican II years, the SPCU arranged for
the New Testament scholar Fr Raymond Brown to give a major address
on the unity of the church to the 1963 world conference of Faith
and Order in Montreal. That same year, two SPCU observers, Frs
Jorge Mejia and Thomas Stransky participated in the first world
conference of the WCC's Division of World Mission and Evangelism
(DWME) in Mexico City In 1965 the SPCU co-sponsored meetings with
DWME and the WCC Church and Society department to discuss the
Vatican II drafts on the missionary activity of the church and
on the church in the modern world.
In November 1964, the 2,200 bishops and Pope Paul
VI promulgated the Vatican II Decree on Ecumenism. It was the
official charter of the RCC's active participation in the one
ecumenical movement, described as being "fostered by the
grace of the Holy Spirit" for "the restoration of unity
among all Christians" who "invoke the Triune God and
confess Jesus as Lord and Savior" an allusion to the
Anticipating this Decree, SPCU and WCC representatives
began in April 1964 to consider future RCC-WCC collaboration.
They proposed a joint working group (JWG) with a five-year experimental
mandate. In January 1965 the WCC central committee, meeting in
Enugu, Nigeria, adopted the proposal, as did the RC authorities
in February, through SPCU president Cardinal Augustin Bea, during
his visit to the WCC center in Geneva.
The main points of the original mandate of the JWG
1) the JWG has no authority in itself, but is a consultative
forum. It initiates, evaluates and sustains collaboration between
the WCC and the RCC, and reports to the competent authorities:
the WCC assembly and central committee, and the Pontifical Council
(prior to 1988 the Secretariat) for Promoting Christian Unity
(PCPCU). The parent bodies may empower the JWG to develop and
administer its proposed programs;
2) the JWG seeks to be flexible in the styles of
collaboration. It keeps new structures to a minimum, while concentrating
on ad hoc initiatives in proposing new steps and programs, and
carefully setting priorities and using its limited resources in
personnel and finances;
3) the JWG does not limit its work to the administrative
aspects of collaboration. It tries also to discern the will of
God in the contemporary ecumenical situation, and to offer its
own reflections in studies.
With eight WCC and six RC members, the JWG had its
first meeting in May 1965, at the Ecumenical Institute in Bossey,
near Geneva. The two co-chairpersons were the WCC general secretary,
Dr W.A. Visser't Hooft, and the SPCU secretary, Bishop Johannes
Willebrands. By late 1967 the JWG had published its first two
official reports (February 1966 and August 1967).
These first two reports offered a wide-ranging agenda
for RCC-WCC collaboration in study and activities which could
serve the one ecumenical movement: the nature of ecumenism and
methods of ecumenical dialogue; common prayer at ecumenical gatherings;
joint preparation of materials for the annual Week of Prayer for
Christian Unity; a common date for Easter; the RCC's direct bilateral
dialogues with other churches; collaboration in missionary activities
in the context of religious freedom, witness and proselytism;
the place of the church in society; Christian responsibility in
international affairs, especially in the promotion of peace and
justice among peoples and nations; collaboration in social service,
in emergency and development aid and in medical work; cooperation
of men and women in church, family and society; laity and clergy
training; mixed marriages between Christians.
At the WCC fourth assembly (Uppsala 1968), two Catholics
addressed plenary sessions. The Jesuit Roberto Tucci put the agenda
of the JWG in the light of the RCC's self-understanding in the
modem world, as expressed in the sixteen documents of Vatican
II, and in view of developments in the WCC and its member churches
since the first assembly in Amsterdam in 1948. And Lady Ward Jackson
pressed for the common witness of all the churches in response
to the crises in world hunger and development, justice and peace.
The Uppsala assembly and the SPCU ratified the work
of the JWG and its proposals for future RCC-WCC collaboration,
and approved the admission of twelve RCs as full members of the
Faith and Order commission.
The Uppsala assembly already occasioned the question
of the eventual membership of the RCC as such in the WCC.
A year after the Uppsala assembly, the WCC general
secretary, Dr Eugene Carson Blake, invited Pope Paul VI to visit
the WCC headquarters in Geneva. On 10 June 1969 the pope did so.
In the chapel before a common prayer service, he expressed "without
hesitation" his "profound appreciation" for the
work of the JWG in the development of the "relations between
the World Council and the Catholic Church, two bodies indeed different
in nature, but whose collaboration has proved to be faithful."
The pope judged the question of RCC membership in the WCC to be
"still an hypothesis. It contains serious theological and
pastoral implications. It thus requires profound study."
During its second five-year mandate, the JWG began
to study the membership question. It became aware that, despite
a shared commitment to common witness within the one ecumenical
movement, the disparity between the two parent bodies affects
the extent, style and content of collaboration.
The WCC is a fellowship of independent churches,
most of them nationally organized; and its members do not take
direct juridical responsibility for WCC studies, actions, and
statements. The RCC is one church with a universal mission and
structure of teaching and governance as an essential element of
its identity The RCC understands itself as a family of local churches
with and under the bishop of Rome, and its structures of decision-making
on the world and national (through the bishops' conferences) levels
differ from those of the WCC's member churches. Furthermore, representation
of member churches on WCC governing bodies must give "due
regard" to size. Given that there are almost twice as many
RC members as adherents of all the WCC member churches combined,
the consequences for achieving such balanced representation were
the RCC to become a member would be enormous unless the WCC structures
would radically change.
Although not insuperable obstacles, these were the
main reasons why the RCC, in evaluating the JWG study of the advantages
and disadvantages of membership, decided in 1972 not to ask for
WCC membership "in the immediate future." But in that
reserved response was the conviction that through the JWG "collaboration
between the RCC and the WCC must not only continue, but be intensified."
The JWG's time and energy shifted from the membership issue to
As the JWG's Third Report (1970) stipulated, the
cooperation within the JWG is "only a limited section of
the whole field of ecumenical collaboration, and one which cannot
be isolated from the ecumenical movement as a whole." Since
Vatican II, an array of collaborative activities between Catholics
and WCC member churches had appeared on parish, local and national
levels; and full RC membership in national councils of churches
was beginning to take place. This would be documented in the 1975
survey published by the SPCU, Ecumenical Collaboration at the
Regional, National and Local Levels.
While the presence of RC members on the Faith and
Order commission meant that the JWG could now leave certain important
theological and liturgical questions to that commission, it did
continue its own studies; for example, Common Witness, Religious
Freedom and Proselytism (1970).
WCC staff contacts with the Vatican Congregation
for the Evangelization of Peoples led to the appointment of consultants
from SEDOS, a working partnership of Catholic missionary orders
of men and of women, to the WCC Division of World Mission and
The theme of the October 1974 RC bishops' synod was
"evangelization in the modem world." A year earlier
the preparatory draft for the synod had been sent not only to
the episcopal conferences but also to the WCC for comments and
suggestions. The Synod invited the WCC general secretary, Dr Philip
Potter, to address one of its plenary sessions. He noted that
the major problems and challenges of evangelization on the synod's
agenda were the same as those on the agenda of the WCC: "Evangelization
is essentially an ecumenical enterprise."
Experts, appointed by the Vatican Secretariat for
Non-Christians (since 1983, the Pontifical Council for Interreligious
Dialogue), joined in WCC consultations with Buddhist, Christian,
Hindu and Muslim scholars (Lebanon 1970), and with other Christians
on the theological implications of the dialogue between people
of living faiths (Zurich 1970).
The JWG facilitated forms of RCC-WCC collaboration
with the Christian Medical Commission (WCC), the Laity Council
(RCC) and international women s groups.
In 1968 the WCC and the new Pontifical Commission
for Justice and Peace (1967) sponsored a large interdisciplinary
conference on development (Beirut). It brought together theologians
and church leaders from "developed and developing" countries,
representatives from international secular organizations and leading
experts in world politics and economics. The successful conference
gave impetus to the JWG proposal for a joint committee on society
development and peace (SODEPAX). Headquartered in Geneva, with
generous independent funding, SODEPAX quickly responded to the
widespread local and national initiatives by helping them to set
up their own SODEPAX groups, and by offering them the results
of its own practical and theological studies on social communication,
education for development, mobilization for peace and working
with peoples of other world faiths.
The JWG also facilitated the initial consultations
between RC relief organizations and the WCC Division of Inter-church
Aid, Refugees and World Service. These quickly led to steady and
normal ways of exchanging information, reciprocal consultation,
and to joint planning and coordination of material relief, especially
in cases of sudden physical disasters and wars that result in
massive movements of refugees.
In 1975, prior to the WCC's fifth assembly (Nairobi),
the JWG's Fourth Report looked back on RCC-WCC dialogue and collaboration
during the ten years since the promulgation of the Decree on Ecumenism:
"Where have we been led during these ten years? What has
been achieved? What should and can be our goal in the years to
come? How should the RCC and the WCC relate to one another, in
order to serve and further the ecumenical movement?"
The Fourth Report offered three perspectives on "the
common ground" for relations between the RCC, the member
churches and the WCC itself:
1) the Triune God "gathers together the people
of the New Covenant as a communion of unity in faith, hope and
love." This communion continues to exist, but because of
Christian divisions, it is a "real but imperfect" communion.
The ecumenical movement "the restoration of the unity of
all Christians" is "the common rediscovery of that existing
reality and equally the common efforts to overcome the obstacles
standing in the way of perfect ecclesial communion." This
vision of "real and full communion" is "far from
being fulfilled, and even its concrete shape cannot yet be fully
described, but it has already become part of the life of the churches."
In fact, "work for the unity of the church is... an inescapable
reality. It is not a luxury which can be left aside, nor a task
which can be handed to specialists but rather a constitutive dimension
of the life of the church at all levels and of the life of Christians
2) the gift of communion calls for the response of
common witness to Christ in the world, "wherever the partial
communion in faith and life, as it exists among the churches,
makes it possible... Mission without unity lacks the perspective
of the Body of Christ, and unity without mission is not a living
3) this real but imperfect communion in today's world
calls for a shared commitment to the renewal of Christians and
of the churches, as they together engage "to discern and
interpret the signs of the times " and "to struggle
for justice, freedom and community" and for a more human
This "common ground" shapes the vision
of the JWG and continues to orient its activities. On the one
hand, the JWG realizes it is only one structure in the manifold
and diverse ecumenical movement official and unofficial
at every level of the churches' life. On the other hand,
as a joint instrument the JWG is more specifically influenced
by developments and changes within its parent bodies.
Collaboration with the WCC Ecumenical Institute at
Bossey has continued. A RC professor was appointed to the faculty,
and each year its Graduate School students and staff journey to
Rome for meetings with various departments of the Roman Curia,
with professors at the universities, with members of the Unions
of Superiors General (male and female religious communities) and
with leaders of international and local lay movements. In 1984
a Catholic Maryknoll sister became a full-time consultant to the
Geneva staff of the Commission for World Mission and Evangelism.
But a withdrawal of structural collaboration occurred
with SODEPAX. Caught in the dilemma of being regarded as a "third
entity" by the WCC offices in Geneva and the Vatican authorities
or of becoming an over structured instrument for liaison between
separate activities of its parent bodies, SODEPAX reduced its
operations, and in 1980 its experimental mandate was terminated.
In fact, the JWG has yet to find the proper structured ways of
collaboration in social thought and action.
In June 1984, Pope John Paul II visited the WCC in
Geneva. The pope asked the JWG to be "imaginative in finding
the ways which here and now allow us to join in the great mission
of revealing Christ to the world. In doing his truth together
we shall manifest his light." Besides the formal addresses
and the common prayer service, John Paul II and WCC senior staff
had a open-ended, off-the-record discussion on ecclesiological
issues and social-political challenges.
In April 1986, the WCC general secretary, Dr Emilio
Castro, led a delegation to Rome, where they met with the pope
and with senior Vatican staff and others.
The JWG's Fifth Report, prepared for the sixth WCC
assembly (Vancouver 1983), reflected on the changes transforming
the cultural, social and political relations between nations and
peoples. "The human family becomes more aware that it faces
either a common future or a common fate," and more people
everywhere are becoming "conscious of their solidarity and
of standing together in defence of justice and human dignity their
own and that of others." For many, "religion, with its
claim to be a source of hope, is questioned and labeled as a way
of easy escape from the world's predicament." For others,
"the gospel is shared by human hearts, hands are joined in
confident prayer." These Christians experience that "more
than ever before, the divisions among Christians appear as a scandal,"
and that Christians are being drawn together as "agents of
The Fifth Report noted "a new tradition'
of ecumenical understanding, shared concerns and common witness
at all levels of the churches' life." During the almost twenty
years since Vatican II, renewed awareness in the RCC of the interrelation
of the local church in bonds of communion with the other local
churches and with the See of Rome "has opened up new 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 the primary responsibility for overseeing
In communicating the RC authorities' approval of
the Fifth Report to the WCC general secretary, Dr Philip Potter,
the SPCU president Cardinal Willebrands suggested that rather
than designating the relationship of the RCC to the WCC as "collaboration,"
one might use Pope Paul VI's term "fraternal solidarity."
This is a better description, for it connotes "not only collaboration
but also common reflection and prayer, inspired by the words of
Christ that all may be one'," and it expresses "our
common calling to full communion in faith and love."
The Vancouver response to the Fifth Report observed
that the experiences which are drawing the churches together reveal
that "diversity in witness which responds to different pastoral
situations and contemporary challenges" is not "sign
of dividedness in faith but of enrichment of the common faith
of the church." The response continues: "The churches
assign different degrees of significance to formulated doctrine
and authoritative teaching as criteria for unity within and among
the churches. The experiences of common witness can help them
to discover afresh the source of their faith beyond the differences
of inherited doctrinal formulations." But two major questions
remain on the ecumenical agenda: How much diversity in doctrine,
moral teaching and witness is compatible with the confession of
the one apostolic faith in the one church? And behind this: what
is the authority of and in the church?
The Sixth Report, in preparation for the WCC's seventh
assembly (Canberra 1991), refers to the RCC's lengthy response
(1987) to the 1982 Lima document on Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry
(BEM) the first time the RCC had given an official response to
an ecumenical document from the WCC. Critically important was
the broad discussion process which led to the RC response. It
introduced the WCC, in particular its Faith and Order commission,
to a wide variety of RC bodies which submitted their own BEM study
reports to the PCPCU for synthesis and analysis: bishops' conferences,
theological faculties and other bodies. In addition, BEM was discussed
on national and local levels by ecumenical groups, seminars, commissions,
seminaries, university faculties of theology, ecumenical institutes,
popular magazines and journals.
By 1990 the RCC was a full member of over 35 NCCs
and of regional ecumenical organizations in the Caribbean, Middle
East and Pacific; and it had close working relationships with
other national and regional councils or conferences. A world consultation
of these councils of churches (Geneva 1986) discussed the implications
of these direct forms of RC participation, in the context of their
ecclesiological significance in the ecumenical movement, and specific
varied aspects of mission and dialogue, finance and resource-sharing,
and social and political challenges. This increasing development
in the 1990s helped to decentralize the work of the JWG and allowed
the group to focus more on international issues and new challenges
on the horizon.
On the theological level, the JWG commissioned the
study The Church: Local and Universal.
Published in 1990, it dealt with the mystery of the church in
its local and universal expressions, with the interpretation of
"ecclesial communion" by the RCC, the WCC assemblies
and the various Christian communions, and with the ways these
communions use canonical structures to express and safeguard communion
within their churches. Another JWG study document was The
Hierarchy of Truths (1990). The nature of faith is organic.
Revealed truths organize around and point to the center or foundation
the person and mystery of Jesus Christ. By better understanding
the ways in which other Christians hold, express and live the
faith, each confessional tradition can also be led to a better
understanding of itself and see its own formulations of doctrine
in a broader ecumenical perspective the foundational content
of what, in common witness, should be proclaimed in word and life
in a way that speaks to the religious needs of the human spirit.
This study thus complements the JWG study Common
Witness and Proselytism (1980).
The JWG also noted the proliferation of joint Bible
translation, publication and distribution; common Bible studies;
collaboration in the press, television and other means of communication;
use of the Ecumenical Prayer Cycle; the Week of Prayer for Christian
Unity and other expressions of common prayer.
The RCC appointed twenty experts as advisors to the
1990 world convocation on justice, peace and the integrity of
creation (Seoul, Korea); in addition, a number of RCs were full
participants in the convocation as members of delegations of NCCs
or regional ecumenical bodies of which the RCC is a member. Participation
of this type is now customary in WCC assemblies and other world
meetings and consultations. WCC- and RC-related organizations
co-sponsored a meeting in Brussels in 1988 on the European Community
and the debt crisis of African, Caribbean and Pacific countries.
This short history of the JWG, which can only suggest
a few highlights of RCC-WCC collaboration and "fraternal
solidarity," continues in the Seventh Report, 1991-1998.
By comparing the seven JWG reports from 1966 to 1997, one sees
that by the time of the Sixth and Seventh Reports, nearly all
programmatic activities of the WCC have RC representation. But
as WCC general secretary Konrad Raiser observed in 1995, "What
remains an open question is how all these experiences are shared
at the local level and serve local ecumenical cooperation. The
JWG has not yet found an effective way to respond to this aspect
of the task."
Service 97 (1998/I-II) 76-80]
Over the seven-year period of its mandate, the JWG has tried to
meet its given priorities. But its overloaded agenda, the sensitivity
of many of the issues it dealt with, its short annual meetings
and the limited financial resources at its disposal did not allow
the JWG adequately to assess the ecumenical situation and specific
developments at regional, national and local levels, or to cover
the whole pattern of relationships between the RCC and the WCC
and its member churches.
In the face of its limited resources of time and staff, the JWG
had to limit the scope of its agenda and carefully ration the
time spent together.
The JWG strongly recommends that two general priorities should
be continued in the next period.
i) Both the WCC and the RCC are committed to a common, integrated
vision of the one ecumenical movement which tries, in its diversity
of expressions, emphases and activities, to hold together the
interrelated dimensions of the churches' faith and life, mission,
witness and service. But, in the words of the PCPCU response to
the WCC's draft statement on CUV, "the oneness of the movement
is both blessed with authentic diversity and often challenged
and burdened with contradictions, even conflicts, and with competing
criteria of judgments concerning what are ecumenical successes,
stand stills and setbacks."
ii) The JWG should be alert to those tensions which may threaten
the coherence of the movement in its diversity. Addressing the
social, economic and political concerns which profoundly affect
the quality of life for all human communities is an essential
ecumenical task. But attention to these should not come at the
expense of attention to the theological divisions and unresolved
issues of Christian faith which remain stumbling blocks to .achieving
the visible unity which is the goal of the ecumenical movement.
These are stumbling blocks as well for the churches in carrying
out their essential missionary task and in maintaining their dialogue
in community with people of other world faiths and secular ideologies.
In this context, the JWG should continue to focus on those fundamental
issues which are obstacles to achieving full koinonia of the RCC
and the WCC member churches, and on those common concerns which,
when addressed by the WCC and the RCC together, manifest common
witness to the reconciling love of God.
The JWG recommends these specific priorities for the next period
of its mandate:
Issues affecting koinonia
The ecclesial consequences of common baptism. The implications
of recognizing the common baptism of Christians on ecclesial communion
and liturgical practice.
The ecumenical role of interchurch marriages. The ecclesiological
implications of the sacrament of marriage in between Christians
of different churches and their family life.
Local, national and regional councils of churches which have RC
churches as full members. The practical and ecclesiological implications
of membership of councils of churches, and their instrumental
role in the growth of koinonia.
Church and church law. The impact of ecumenical agreements and
dialogues on actual church legislation and on relations between
ecclesiology and canon law/church law/church discipline.
Common concerns facing the WCC and RCC
The stances of Conservative Evangelicals and Charismatic/Pentecostals
towards the ecumenical movement and its present structures. The
establishing of dialogue.
Christian fundamentalists: an ecumenical challenge? The impact
of fundamentalisms on the ecumenical commitment of churches, and
of dialogue with the major issues which Christian fundamentalists
The place of women in the churches. The further recognition and
integration of the gifts of women in church life and society,
and the appropriation of the findings of the Ecumenical Decade
of the Churches in Solidarity with Women on the life, structures
and witness of the churches.
Ecumenical education. The development of appropriate ecumenical
education for church members, students and clergy on the fundamentals
of the Christian life in the search for the manifestation of the
unity of the church within a pluralist society.
Rome, February 10, 1998
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