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The Way Forward - Ch. 4


  1. Our five years of dialogue have convinced us that a new situation now exists between the Roman Catholic Church and the Reformed Churches. It has become apparent that the two confessions share much in common and can, therefore, enter into a living relationship with each other. Encounters in many parts of the world have led to mutual openness and a new understanding. It has become clear that the two sides have much to say to each other and also much to learn from each other.

  2. The common ground that unites our churches is far greater than has usually been assumed. We start from the premise that God has already granted us unite in Christ. It is not for us to create unity, for in Christ it is already given for us. It will become visible in our midst as and when we turn to him in faith and obedience and we realize fully in our churches what he expects from us. We firmly believe that the unifying power of the Holy Spirit must prove stronger than all the separation that has occurred through our human sinfulness. This confirms our conviction that we must work for the ultimate goal of full communion in one faith and one eucharistic fellowship.

  3. At the same time, however, our dialogue has shown that certain disagreements in understanding the relationship between the Gospel and the Church have not yet been overcome. It would therefore be unrealistic to suppose that the time has now come for declaring full communion between our churches.

  4. But we do believe that the living relationship that has come into being between our churches makes possible a new way of dealing with these divergences. They should not be looked upon primarily as grounds for mutual exclusion, but should rather be seen as terrain for mutual challenge. In ecumenical encounter we can deepen our understanding and our obedience. We can discover in the other the gift of God.

  5. "Welcome one another, therefore, as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God" (Rom 15:7). On the basis of this appeal of the Apostle Paul, we conclude that the Roman Catholic Church and the Reformed Churches should no longer oppose each other or even simply live side by side. Rather, despite their divergences, they should live for each other in order to be witnesses to Christ. Guided by this mission, they should open themselves to and for each other.

4.1. The Diversity of Situations

  1. In some countries, far-reaching agreement has already been achieved. Official dialogues have taken place and, as a general rule, these have led to results similar to those to be found in the present report. In some other countries the churches maintain close relationships and collaborate regularly, reacting together to important problems of public life. But there are also countries where their relations, even today, hardly go beyond occasional and individual contacts. The mistrust inherited from the past has not yet been overcome. Political situations and sociological factors often play an important part in this mistrust. In some places the Roman Catholic and Reformed Churches even find themselves on opposite sides of political conflict. In other places, closer relations are made more difficult by the numerical size of the partners: whenever a large church finds itself faced with a small minority, a great deal of sensitivity and effort are needed if living relationships are to be established. In many places, the diversity of the Reformed Churches makes interconfessional dialogue and collaboration more complex.

  2. We agree that initiatives should be taken to deepen Christian fellowship in each country. We are grateful for the convergences we have found in the dialogue at the international level and believe that these results can serve as a stimulus for the churches in each country. But the desired living relationship cannot be created only by an agreement at the international level. First, according to the Reformed understanding, each member church is responsible for its own confession, its life and its witness; consequently, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches has no binding authority over its member churches. Secondly, we are convinced that the call for unity must always aim at concrete and lived communion. It is always addressed to "all in each place." But we do believe that the mutual understanding reached in international dialogue should serve as an encouragement to establish more active relations between our churches at the local level.

4.2. Steps Along The Way To Unity

  1. We suggest that dialogues between local churches should keep in mind the following steps on the way to unity.

    a) Our churches should give expression to mutual recognition of Baptism. In some countries, the Roman Catholic and Reformed Churches have already agreed to accept each other's Baptism fully and without reserve, provided that it has been celebrated in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit and with the use of water. We believe that such agreements can and should be made in all places without delay. Such an agreement implies that under no circumstances can there be a repetition of baptism which took place in the other church. Mutual recognition of baptism is to be understood as an expression of the profound communion that Jesus Christ himself establishes among his disciples and which no human failure can ever destroy.

    b) Though mutual recognition of Baptism is already possible today, we are not yet in a position to celebrate the Eucharist or Lord's Supper together. Our different understandings of the relation between the Gospel and the Church also have consequences as regards admission to communion.

    The Reformed Churches take the view that, precisely because Christ himself is the host at the table, the Church must not impose any obstacles. All those who have received baptism and love the Lord Jesus Christ are invited to the Lord's Supper (see the declaration of the World Alliance, Princeton 1954).

    The Roman Catholic Church, on the other hand, is convinced that the celebration of the Eucharist is of itself a profession of faith in which the whole Church recognizes and expresses itself. Sharing the Eucharist therefore presupposes agreement with the faith of the Church which celebrates the Eucharist.

    This difference in the understanding of Eucharistic sharing must be respected by both sides. Still, we recall and reaffirm the progress in our common understanding of the Eucharist that has already been made in the first phase of dialogue (PCCW, 67-92). Aspects of the common understanding were summarized in these words, which we repeat again here: "...we gratefully acknowledge that both traditions, Reformed and Roman Catholic, hold to the belief in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist; and both hold at least that the Eucharist is, among other things:

    1) a memorial of the death and resurrection of the Lord;

    2) a source of living communion with him in the power of the Spirit (hence the epiclesis in the liturgy), and

    3) a source of the eschatological hope for his coming again" (PCCW, 91).
    c) In many countries there has been a rapid rise in the number of confessionally mixed marriages in recent years. It is not therefore surprising that the problem of a more appropriate way of dealing with this new reality has cropped up time and again in the course of bilateral dialogues. We hold that confessionally mixed marriages could be seen as an opportunity of encounter between the two traditions, even though some difficulties cannot be denied. We deem it to be important that the two churches should jointly exercise pastoral responsibility for those who live or grow up in confessionally mixed marriages in a manner which supports the integrity of the conscience of each person and respects their rights. In this respect see also the report of the dialogue between the Roman Catholic Church, the Lutheran World Federation and the World Alliance of Reformed Churches (The Theology of Marriage and the Problem of Mixed Marriages, cf. N° 2 above).

4.3. Toward the Reconciliation of Memories

  1. In Chapter I we tried together to understand our separated histories afresh. Beyond this lies a step not yet taken. From understanding each other's memories we must move to a reconciliation of the memories of Roman Catholics with those of Reformed Christians, and vice versa. Shared memories, even if painful, may in time become a basis for new mutual bonding and a growing sense of shared identity.

  2. This proposal has been made time and again by both Reformed and Roman Catholic authorities. Pope John Paul II formulated it in the following terms: "Remembrance of the events of the past must not restrict the freedom of our present efforts to eliminate the harm that has been triggered by these events. Coming to terms with these memories is one of the main elements of ecumenical progress. It leads to frank recognition of mutual injury and errors in the way the two communities reacted to each other, even though it was the intention of all concerned to bring, the Church more into line with the will of the Lord" (Address to the members of the Swiss Evangelical Church Federation, 14 June 1984).

  3. Chapter I shows how much has been accomplished in this direction. Mention should be made, for example, of the efforts of Roman Catholic historians to produce a new interpretation of the great Reformers, especially John Calvin, or the attempt of the World Alliance to give a new overtone to the memories of the revocation of the Edict of Nantes. But much yet remains to be done.

  4. As illustrations we choose the following:
    a) The problem of interpreting the rupture caused by the Reformation has already been touched on. In addition to the theological reflections already offered, serious historical research needs to be jointly undertaken.

    b) We must tackle the problem of the condemnations that the Roman Catholic Church and the Reformed Churches pronounced against each other. The polemics between the churches found expression in mutual anathematizations, and these continue to make themselves felt today. One need only think, for example, of the condemnation of certain Roman Catholic teachings and practices in such Reformed confessions as the Heidelberg Catechism or the Westminster Confession, or the identification of doctrines condemned by the Council of Trent with certain of the teachings of the Reformers. Conscious efforts at theological and historical research will have to be made in order to distinguish the justified concerns of these declarations from the polemical distortions.

    c) Particular attention should be paid to the way in which confessional separation was brought to the Americas, Africa, Asia and Oceania. Churches in these areas had no part in originating the separation. It was only through migration or missionary expansion that European divisions were transplanted to these continents. What in actual fact are the reasons for the separate existence of these churches today? A careful historical analysis might well bring to light new factors of separation which have been added to the inherited confessional differences.

4.4. Common Witness in the World of Today

  1. "Living for each other" as churches must also mean "bearing common witness." We take the view that the Roman Catholic Church and the Reformed Churches must make every effort to speak jointly to the men and women of today to whom God desires to communicate Christ's message of salvation.

  2. Every opportunity for taking common stands with regard to contemporary issues should be taken and used. Our separation must not prevent us from expressing the agreement we have already achieved in our witnessing. For example, the Roman Catholic Church and the World Alliance of Reformed Churches are wholly agreed that every form of racism is contradictory to the Gospel and must therefore be rejected. In particular, they see apartheid as a system that the Christian Church must condemn if its evangelical credibility is not to be put into jeopardy.

  3. Something very similar applies with regard to the witness of the churches on issues of justice, peace and the integrity of God's creation. The most profound convictions of their faith oblige both churches to render decisive witness in these fields. They would imperil the integrity of their teaching if they failed to give it.

  4. We also know, however, that challenges which call for common confession in our day and age also generate new divergences and divisions. These could stress and endanger our still fragile fellowship. It is therefore all the more important that we should continually listen anew together to what the Spirit is saying to the Church today: the Spirit who will lead us to the fullness of the truth.

4.5. What Kind of Unity Do We Seek?

  1. Even though we are still far from being able to proclaim full communion, it is important for the relations between our churches that we should have an agreed vision of the ultimate goal that should guide our efforts. This is a question that needs further study. Various concepts of unity have been proposed and deserve attention. But we believe that serious consideration should be given in our Reformed Roman Catholic relationship, and in the ecumenical movement in general, to the description of the "unity we seek," as expressed by the Assembly of the World Council of Churches in Nairobi (1975). This text describes what is called "conciliar fellowship," and goes as follows:

        "The one Church is to be envisioned as a conciliar fellowship of local churches which are themselves truly united.
        "In this conciliar fellowship each local church possesses, in communion with the others, the fullness of catholicity, witnesses to the same apostolic faith and therefore recognizes the others as belonging to the same Church of Christ and guided by the same Spirit.
        "As the New Delhi Assembly pointed out, they are bound together because they have received the same baptism and share in the same eucharist; they recognize each other's members and ministries.
        "They are one in their common commitment to confess the Gospel of Christ by proclamation and service to the world. To this end, each church aims at maintaining sustained and sustaining relationships with her sister churches, expressed in conciliar gatherings whenever required for the fulfilment of this common calling." (David M. Paton, Editor, Breaking Barriers, Nairobi, 1975. The Official Report of the Fifth Assembly of the World Council of Churches, Nairobi, 23 November - 10 December, 1975. London: SPCK, and Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1976, p. 60).

  2. We see in the Nairobi declaration a sketch of the way in which organic unity could be structured even at the universal level. The statement does not describe the present state of relations between the churches, but rather serves the purpose, without reference to conciliarist controversies of the past, of articulating a concept and vision of unity toward which Christians can move to overcome their divisions.

  3. Some of the features described in this text have since been given further attention within our dialogue and within the broader ecumenical movement. A crucial factor in the description is that each local church "witnesses to the same apostolic faith." Without this there can be no unity. In this report, for example, the second Chapter, "Our Common Confession of Faith," indicates important aspects of the apostolic faith that we can confess together. Basic for unity too is the need to share the same faith in regard to baptism, eucharist and ministry. An important contribution towards achieving this is the document of the Faith & Order Commission on Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry, to which the churches have given their official responses.

  4. If the living relationship between our churches is to grow, we must consciously foster regular contact with each other. If each church is to consider God's gift in the other, each will have to orientate itself towards the other. Inherited problems of doctrine call for further reflection. Newly arising problems (for example, relationships and dialogue with people of other living faiths, or issues raised by the progress of science and technology) must become subjects of frank and open dialogue. The road to unity can be traveled more readily if both communions can learn to listen together to the Word of God and to the questions raised by each other.

  5. We pray God to grant us the Spirit to heal wounds, to gather and edify Christ's people, to purify us and to send us into the world anew.


World Alliance of Reformed Churches


Rev. Dean Lewis S. Mudge (USA) (Co-Chairman)
Rev. Prof. Dr. Shirley C. Guthrie (USA) (meetings 1984-1987)
Rev. Prof. Dr. Alaisdair I.C. Heron (FRG)
Rev. Bernard M. Muindi (Kenya) (meetings 1984, 1985, 1987)
Bishop Mercuria M. Serina (Philippines) (meetings 1984-1985)


Rev. Dr. Lukas Vischer (Switzerland)
Rev. Prof. Dr. Paolo Ricca (Italy)
Rev. Prof. Dr. John E. Burkhart (USA) (1986)
Rev. Alan Falconer (Ireland) (1986)
Rev. Dr. Alan E. Lewis (Scotland) (1985)


Rev. Dr. Alan P.F. Sell (Geneva) (1984-1987)
Rev. Henny Dirks-Blatt (Geneva) (1985)
Rev..Christiane Nolting (Geneva) (1988)


Roman Catholic Church


Rev. Prof. Bernard Sesboüé, SJ (France) (co-chairman)
Rev. Prof. Joseph A. Fitzmyer, SJ (USA)
Rev. Prof. John H. Fitzsimmons (Scotland) (meetings 1984, 1985, 1988)
Rev. Prof. Francis T. Lysinge (Cameroon)
Rev. Prof. Dr. Joseph Trütsch (Switzerland) (meetings 1984, 1985, 1988)


Msgr. Dr. Aloys Klein (staff Rome, 1984) (FRG) (1985, 1986, 1988)
Dom Emmanuel Lanne, OSB (Belgium) (1986-1988)
Rev. Dr. John Ford, CSC (USA) (1987-1988)
Rev. Dr. John O'Malley SJ (USA) (1987-1988)
Rev. Dr. Elmar Salmann, OSB (Italy) (1984)
Rev. Prof. Dr. Heinz Schütte (FRG) (1984) 


Rev. Dr. Pierre Duprey, M. Afr. (Rome)
Msgr. Dr. John A. Radano (Rome) (1985-1988)


World Council of Churches Observer

Rev. Prof. Dr. Günther Wagner (Switzerland.) (1985, 1986, 1988)


[Information Service 74 (1990/III) 91-118]


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