Information and reflections on the current ecumenical situation (23 November 2007 as printed in L’Osservatore Romano and translated by chiesa.it)
by Cardinal Walter Kasper
In the time available, it will unfortunately be possible to present information and reflections on the current ecumenical situation only in broad outlines, and not in a comprehensive way. Nevertheless, I hope that my presentation can bring to light the action of divine providence, which leads toward the unity of separated Christians, to make their witness an increasingly clear sign for the world.
I. I will begin with an initial observation that I believe to be essential. What we call ecumenism – which should be distinguished from interreligious dialogue – has its foundation in the testament left to us by Jesus himself, on the eve of his death: “Ut unum sint” (John 17:21). Vatican Council II defined the promotion of Christian unity as one of its principal goals (Unitatis Redintegratio 1) and as an impulse of the Holy Spirit (UR 1,4). Pope John Paul II declared that the ecumenical venture is an irreversible journey (Ut Unum Sint 3), and Pope Benedict XVI, from the first day of his pontificate, took on as one of his primary commitments the unsparing effort for the restoration of the full and visible unity of all of Christ’s followers. He understands that the display of good intentions does not suffice for this. There is a need for concrete actions capable of reaching within the mind and motivating the conscience, urging each person to that interior conversion that is the precondition for all progress along the path of ecumenism (homily given April 20, 2005, before the college of cardinals). Ecumenism, therefore, is not an optional choice, but a sacred obligation.
Naturally, ecumenism is not synonymous with an easygoing humanism, nor with ecclesiological relativism. It is based upon the firm awareness that the Catholic Church has of itself and of its catholic principles, of which the decree on ecumenism speaks (UR 2-4). It is an ecumenism of truth and charity; these two are intimately connected, and cannot be substituted for each other. Above all, the dialogue of truth must be respected. The concrete norms for this are presented in a binding manner in the “Ecumenical Directory” of 1993.
The most significant – and most gratifying – result of ecumenism over the past few decades is not the various documents, but the recovery of fraternity, the fact that we have rediscovered that we are brothers and sisters in Christ, that we have learned to appreciate one another and have begun together the journey toward full unity (cf. UUS 42). Along this journey, the see of Peter has become over the past forty years an increasingly important point of reference for all the Churches and all the ecclesial Communities. If the initial enthusiasm has been replaced by an attitude of greater sobriety, this demonstrates that ecumenism has become more mature, more adult. Ecumenism has by now become a daily reality, perceived as something normal in the Church’s life. It is with great gratitude that we must acknowledge in this development the action of the Spirit who guides the Church.
More specifically, we can distinguish three fields within ecumenism. First of all must be mentioned the relations with the ancient Eastern Churches and with the Orthodox Churches of the first millennium, which we recognize as authentic Churches on the ecclesiological level, having maintained, as we have, the faith and apostolic succession. In the second place, we recall the relations with the ecclesial Communities that emerged directly or indirectly – like the free Churches – from the Reformation of the 16th century; these have developed an ecclesiology of their own, on the basis of Sacred Scripture. Finally, the recent history of Christianity has seen a so-called “third wave,” that of the Charismatic and Pentecostal movements, which emerged at the beginning of the twentieth century and have since spread all over the world with exponential growth. Ecumenism must therefore face a varied and differentiated reality, characterized by very distinctive features depending on the cultural contexts and the local churches.
II. Let’s begin with the Churches of the first millennium. Already in the first ten years of dialogue with the pre-Chalcedonian Eastern Churches, or the period between 1980 and 1990, we achieved important results. Thanks to the agreement reached by Pope Paul VI and Pope John Paul II with the respective patriarchs, it was possible to move beyond the ancient Christological controversies that rose up around the Council of Chalcedon (451) and, in regard to the Assyrian Church of the East, around the Council of Ephesus (381).
In its second phase, dialogue was focused on ecclesiology, or on the concept of ecclesial communion and its criteria. The next meeting is planned for Damascus, from January 27 to February 2, 2008. It is there that discussions will be held for the first time on the draft of a document on “The nature, constitution, and mission of the Church.” Thanks to this dialogue, Churches of ancient tradition, and even of apostolic tradition, are again establishing contact with the universal Church, after living on its fringes for 1500 years. That this should happen slowly, step by step, is completely normal given the circumstances, or the long centuries of separation and the great differences of culture and mentality.
Dialogue with the Orthodox Churches of the Byzantine, Syrian, and Slavic traditions was begun officially in 1980. We share with these Churches the dogmas of the first millennium; the Eucharist and the other sacraments; the veneration of Mary, mother of God, and of the saints; the episcopal structure of the Church. We consider these Churches, together with the ancient Eastern Churches, as sister Churches of the local Catholic churches. Differences already existed in the first millennium, but at that time they were not perceived as a cause of division within the Church. The real and proper separation took place through a long process of estrangement and alienation, cased by a lack of mutual understanding and love, as Vatican Council II observed (UR 14). What is happening today is therefore, necessarily, a reverse process of mutual reconciliation.
The most important steps were taken during the Council. We must recall, for example, the meeting and exchange of correspondence between Pope Paul VI and the ecumenical patriarch Athenagoras, the famous “Tomos apapis,” and the erasing from the Church’s memory of the reciprocal excommunications of 1054, on the day before the conclusion of the Council. On this basis, it was possible to revive some forms of ecclesial communion from the first millennium: the exchange of visits, messages, and missives between the pope and the patriarch, especially the ecumenical patriarch; the cordial coexistence and collaboration of many local churches; the permission granted by the Catholic Church for the liturgical use of its places of worship by Orthodox Christians who live among us in diaspora, as a token of hospitality and communion. During the Angelus message delivered on the occasion of the feast of Saints Peter and Paul in 2007, Pope Benedict XVI emphasized that we are already in nearly full ecclesial communion with these Churches.
In the first ten years of dialogue, from 1980 to 1990, there was an emphasis and focus upon what we have in common in regard to the sacraments (the Eucharist above all) and the episcopal and priestly ministry. Nonetheless, the political upheaval of 1989-90 complicated our relations instead of simplifying them. The return of the Eastern Catholic Churches to public life, after years of brutal persecution and heroic resistance paid even at the price of blood, was seen by the Orthodox Churches as the threat of a new “uniatism.” Thus, during the 1990’s, in spite of the important clarifications brought by the meetings in Balamand (1993) and Baltimore (2000), dialogue stagnated. The crisis became more severe above all in relations with the Russian Orthodox Church after the canonical establishment of four [Catholic] dioceses in Russia in 2002.
Thanks be to God, after many patiently conducted efforts it was possible to resume dialogue last year; in 2006, a meeting was held in Belgrade, and about a month ago we met again in Ravenna. On this occasion, there has been a decisive improvement at the level of atmosphere and relationships, in spite of the departure of the Russian delegation for inter-Orthodox reasons. Thus has begun a promising third phase of dialogue.
The document from Ravenna, entitled “The ecclesiological and canonical consequences of the sacramental nature of the Church,” marked an important breakthrough. For the first time, our Orthodox counterparts recognized a universal level of the Church, and admitted that at this level, too, there exists a protos, a primate, who can only be the bishop of Rome, according to the taxis [hierarchy] of the ancient Church. All of the participants are aware that this is only a first step, and that the journey to full ecclesial communion will still be long and difficult; nevertheless, with this document, we have laid a foundation for future dialogue. The theme that will be addressed in the next plenary session will be: “The role of the bishop of Rome in the communion of the Church in the first millennium.”
Specifically in regard to the Moscow patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church, relations have been noticeably smoothed over in recent years. We could say that there is no longer a freeze, but a thaw. From our point of view, a meeting between the Holy Father and the patriarch of Moscow would be helpful. The Patriarchate of Moscow has never excluded such a meeting categorically, but maintains that before this it is opportune to resolve the problems that exist, in its view, in Russia, and above all in Ukraine. It must in any case be remembered that many meetings take place on other levels. Among these, we mention the recent visit of Patriarch Alexius to Paris, considered by both sides as an important step.
To sum up, we can affirm that there is still be the need for a continual purification of historical memory and for many prayers so that, on the common foundation of the first millennium, we may succeed in healing the fracture between East and West, and in restoring full ecclesial communion. In spite of the difficulties that remain, there is the strong and legitimate hope that, with the help of God and thanks to the prayer of so many of the faithful, the Church, after the division of the second millennium, will return in the third to breathing with both its lungs.
III. We now move on to relations with the ecclesial Communities born from the Reformation. Encouraging signs have also appeared in this area. All the ecclesial Communities have expressed their interest in dialogue, and the Catholic Church is in dialogue with almost all of the ecclesial Communities. A certain agreement has been reached in the realm of the truths of faith, above all regarding the fundamental questions of the doctrine of justification. In many places, there is fruitful collaboration in the social and humanitarian sphere. There has been the gradual spread of an attitude of mutual trust and friendship, characterized by a profound desire for unity, which endures even though there are, from time to time, some harsh exchanges and bitter disappointments. In fact, the solid network of both personal and institutional relationships that has been developed is capable of withstanding the occasional tensions.
There has been no stoppage of the ecumenical situation, but rather a profound transformation. This is the same transformation experienced by the Church and by the world in general. I will limit myself here to citing just a few of its aspects.
1) After reaching a fundamental agreement on the doctrine of justification, we now find ourselves having to discuss again the classic controversial themes, above all that of ecclesiology and the ecclesial ministers (cf. UUS 66). In this regard, the “Five responses” released last July by the congregation for the doctrine of the faith have raised perplexity and have occasioned a certain discontent. The agitation that arose around this document was, for the most part, unjustified, because the text does not affirm anything new, but restates Catholic doctrine in a concise form. Nonetheless, it is to be hoped that the form, language, and public presentation of such declarations could be reviewed.
2) The different ecclesiologies necessarily lead to different views of the aims of ecumenism. So there is a problem in the fact that we lack a common concept of ecclesial unity as the goal to be attained. This problem is all the more serious if we consider that ecclesial communion is for us Catholics the precondition for Eucharistic communion, and that the absence of Eucharistic communion brings great pastoral difficulties, above all in the case of mixed couples and families.
3) While, on the one hand, we are struggling to overcome the old controversies, on the other hand new divergences are emerging in the ethical field. These concern in particular the questions related to the defense of life, to marriage, to the family, and to human sexuality. Because of these new divisions that are being created, common public witness is significantly weakened, if not impossible. The crisis taking place within the respective Communities is clearly exemplified by the situation that has arisen in the Anglican Communion, which is not an isolated case.
4) Protestant theology, marked during the first years of dialogue by the “Lutheran Renaissance” and by Karl Barth’s theology of the Word of God, has now returned to the motifs of liberal theology. As a result, we are seeing that, on the Protestant side, the Christological and Trinitarian foundations that were until now common presuppositions are sometimes diluted. What we held to be our common heritage has begun to melt here and there like the glaciers in the Alps.
But strong countercurrents have also arisen in reaction to the phenomena mentioned above. All over the world there is the strong growth of evangelical groups, whose positions mostly coincide with ours on the fundamental dogmatic questions, especially in the ethical field, but are often very divergent on ecclesiology, the theology of the sacraments, biblical exegesis, and the understanding of tradition. There are high Church organizations that want to bring into Anglicanism and Lutheranism elements from the Catholic tradition, in regard to the liturgy and the ecclesial ministry. To these are added an increasing number of monastic communities which, often living according to the Benedictine rule, feel close to the Catholic Church. Furthermore, there are pietist communities that, in the face of the crisis over ethical questions, feel a certain discomfort in the Protestant ecclesial Communities; these look with gratitude to the clear statements of position by the Pope, of whom they had spoken in less kind tones not long ago.
All of these groups, together with the Catholic religious communities and the new spiritual movements, have recently created “spiritual networks,” often grouped around monasteries like Chevetogne, Bose, and above all Taizé, and also in movements like the Focolare and Chemin neuf. In this way, we can say that ecumenism is returning to its origins in small groups of dialogue, prayer, and bible study. Recently these groups have even spoken publicly, for example at the great gathering of the movements in Stuttgart in 2004 and 2007. Thus promising new forms of dialogue are emerging beside the official talks, which are often becoming more difficult.
This general panorama thus shows us that there is not only an ecumenical rapprochement, but that there are also fragmentations and centrifugal forces at work. If we also take into account the many so-called “independent Churches” that continue to spring up, above all in Africa, and the proliferation of small groups that are often very aggressive, we come to realize that the ecumenical landscape today is very uneven and confused. This pluralism is nothing other than the mirror of the pluralist situation of so-called “postmodern” society, which often leads to religious relativism.
In the present context, there is therefore special importance in meetings such as the plenary assembly of the Ecumenical Council of Churches, which took place in February of last year in Porto Alegre (Brazil), the “Global Christian Forum,” and the “European Ecumenical Assembly,” held in September of 2007 in Sibiu/Hermannstadt (Romania). These conferences are meant to bring together in dialogue the various divergent groups, and, as much as possible, to hold together the ecumenical movement with its highlights and shadows, and with its new challenges in a situation that has changed, and is still changing rapidly.
IV. Speaking of pluralism leads me back to the third wave of Christian history, or the spread of the Charismatic and Pentecostal groups, which, with about 400 million faithful all over the world, are in second place among Christian communities in numeric terms, and are witnessing exponential growth. With no common structure or central authority, these are very different from one another. They consider themselves as the fruit of a new Pentecost; consequently, the Baptism of the Spirit takes on a role of fundamental importance for them. Referring to them, Pope John Paul II had already noted that this phenomenon must not be considered in an exclusively negative way, because, beyond the undeniable problems, it attests to the desire for spiritual experience. But this does not remove the fact that, unfortunately, many of these communities have come to espouse a religion that promises earthly happiness.
With the classic Pentecostals, it has been possible to open official dialogue. With others, there are serious difficulties because of their somewhat aggressive missionary methods. The Pontifical Council for the promotion of Christian unity, in the face of this challenge, has organized on various continents seminars on ecumenism for bishops, theologians, and laypeople: in Latin America (Sao Paolo and Buenos Aires), in Africa (Nairobi and Dakar), in Asia (Seoul and Manila). The result of these seminars also appears in the final document of the general assembly of the bishops of Latin America and the Caribbean in Aparecida (2007). It is above all necessary for us to make a pastoral examination of conscience, and ask ourselves self-critically: why do so many Christians leave our Church? We should begin by asking ourselves, not what is wrong with the Pentecostals, but what our pastoral shortcomings are. How can we respond to this new challenge with a liturgical, catechetical, pastoral, and spiritual renewal?
V. This question leads us to our final question: how should we continue the ecumenical journey? It is not possible to give a single reply. The situation is too diverse, depending on the geographical region, the cultural atmosphere, and the local churches. The individual bishops’ conferences must be the ones to take on their responsibilities.
In principle, we should begin on the basis of our common heritage of faith, and remain faithful to that which, with the help of God, we have already achieved ecumenically. As much as possible, we must present a common witness to this faith in our increasingly secularized world. This also means, in the current situation, rediscovering and reinforcing the foundations of our faith. In fact, everything becomes unstable and empty of meaning if we do not have a firm and conscious faith in the living God, Triune and One, in the divinity of Christ, in the salvific power of the cross and the resurrection. For those who no longer know what sin is, and what entanglement in sin is, the justification of the sinner has no relevance.
It is only by basing ourselves upon our shared faith that we are able to talk about our differences. And this must be done in a clear but non-polemical way. We should not offend the sensibilities of others or discredit them; we should not point our fingers at what the others are not and what they do not have. We should, rather, give witness to the richness and beauty of our faith, in a positive and welcoming way. We expect the same attitude from others. If this happens, then we and our counterparts will be able to carry out, as the encyclical “Ut Unum Sint” (1995) says, an exchange not only of ideas but of gifts, which will enrich both sides (UUS 28; 57). Such an ecumenism of exchange is not an impoverishment, but a mutual enrichment.
In the dialogue founded upon spiritual exchange, theological dialogue will also have an essential role in the future. But this will be fruitful only if it is sustained by an ecumenism of prayer, of conversion of the heart, and of personal sanctification. Spiritual ecumenism is, in fact, the very soul of the ecumenical movement (UR 8; UUS 21-27), and we should be the first to promote this. Without a true spirituality of communion, which allows us to make room for the other without giving up our own identity, all of our efforts would be scattered in an arid and empty activism.
If we make our own the prayer that Jesus pronounced on the eve of his death, we need not lose courage and waver in our faith. As the Gospel says, we must have trust that whatever we ask in the name of Christ will be granted (John 14:13). When, where, and how will not be for us to decide. This must be left to him who is the Lord of the Church, and will gather his Church from the four winds. We must satisfy ourselves with doing our best, recognizing with gratitude the gifts we have received, meaning what ecumenism has achieved so far, and look to the future with hope. It is enough to look, with a minimum of realism, at the “signs of the times” to understand that there is no realistic alternative to ecumenism, and above all no alternative for faith.
Among the texts cited by Cardinal Kasper in his relation, the decree of Vatican Council II on ecumenism, “Unitatis Redintegratio”:
John Paul II’s 1995 encyclical “Ut Unum Sint”:
The ecumenical directory of 1993:
The common declaration from 1965 by Paul VI and patriarch Athenagoras on the lifting of the excommunications of 1054:
The Angelus address by Benedict XVI on June 29, 2007, on the “almost full communion” between the Churches of East and West:
The document from Ravenna on October 13, 2007, by the Catholic-Orthodox theological commission on collegiality and authority in the Church:
The “Five responses” of June 29, 2007, from the congregation for the doctrine of the faith, in which the Christian communities born from the Protestant Reformation are denied the description of “Churches”:
To the documents cited may be added the message of Benedict XVI delivered personally by cardinal Kasper to Bartholomew I last November 30 in Istanbul, on the feast of Saint Andrew, patron of the ecumenical patriarchate of Constantinople:
In his relation, cardinal Kasper also cited the ecumenical “spiritual networks” animated by these monasteries and movements: