Although the path to visible unity among all Christian denominations remains a rocky road filled with many divisive issues, the ongoing dialogues between the Catholic Church and other Christian faiths are continuing to make strides in the area of ecumenism. 

Since Pope John XXIII’s establishment of the Secretariat (now Pontifical Council) for Promoting Christian Unity, which recently celebrated its 50th anniversary, and the Second Vatican Council’s decree on promoting unity among Christians, the Catholic Church has been involved in local, national and international efforts to build harmony with fellow Christian churches and world communions. And although the talks have been a slow process that have failed to yield full unity thus far, there have been clear signs of progress. 

“We’ve certainly moved out of the pre-Vatican II period of mutual suspicion and acrimony, where our understandings of one another were cast in very polemic terms. That is behind us,” Father James Massa, executive director of the U.S. bishops’ Secretariat for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs, told Our Sunday Visitor. And when taken as a whole, the last half-century of dialogue has produced great fruits, he added. 

“There’s been a remarkable series of theological convergences and agreements on doctrinal issues,” Father Massa said. 

Making progress 

In recent years, Pope Benedict XVI has repeatedly reaffirmed the importance of ecumenical dialogue and the goal of reaching unity among all Christians, while efforts on an international level have focused on establishing full communion with Anglicans and the Orthodox churches.  

Meanwhile, recently concluded dialogues in the United States have resulted in a common declaration on the Christian belief in eternal life with Lutherans and a landmark agreement on baptism with the Reformed churches. That agreement, approved by the U.S. bishops at their fall general assembly in November, establishes a common baptismal formula and mutual recognition of baptism between the Catholic Church and the Reformed Church in America, the Presbyterian Church USA, the United Church of Christ and the Christian Reformed Church

While Catholics and Reformed churches had generally considered each other’s baptisms to be valid already, the agreement formalizes that recognition. Ralph Del Colle, a theology professor at Marquette University and a Catholic participant in the recent discussions, told OSV that such an agreement is an important first step toward unity.  

“In order to attain perfect communion in matters of faith and sacraments and hierarchy, there’s still a lot of work to be done,” said Del Colle. “But at least the initial sacrament of initiation is recognized as something that we share together, despite ongoing differences in interpretation of what takes place in baptism.”

Divisive issues 

The recent dialogue with the Reformed churches also tackled another major area of disagreement between Catholics and other Christian traditions — the Eucharist. 

Although the two sides failed to come to a full agreement on the modality of Christ’s presence in the Eucharist, there were areas of common understanding on questions such as whether the Eucharist can be considered a sacrifice and what role it plays in forming disciples. 

“In terms of how is Christ distinctively present in the Eucharist, I don’t see us resolving that,” said Franciscan Father Dennis Tamburello, chair of the religious studies department at Siena College in Loudonville, N.Y., and a participant in the Reformed dialogue. “And yet there is an understanding on both sides that we truly experience the presence of Christ in the Eucharist.” 

Yet even as strides are made between Catholics and other Christian traditions in ironing out differences regarding the Eucharist or the structure of the Church, new barriers continue to arise. In particular, Father Massa pointed to differences on moral issues — such as same-sex marriage and the ordination of homosexual clergy — as being among the more recent ecumenical roadblocks. 

“That is the paradoxical situation we find ourselves in,” Father Massa said. “On the one hand, we have drawn closer together by removing some of those obstacles that lie within the sphere of doctrine. On the other hand, there have been developments, particularly in the historic Protestant churches, that are presenting new challenges and even a strain on the ecumenical relationship.” 

At the same time, Del Colle noted that among Pentecostals and evangelicals — two groups that are much further removed from the possibility of visible unity with the Catholic Church — there is more common ground on these issues. 

“We are closer to them on these moral issues and on life issues as well, and so in some ways I think some of our alliances are shifting,” he said. “What that will mean for the ecumenical movement — that is, visible unity of the Church — I don’t know.”

Measuring success 

In some cases, Del Colle noted, the fruits of ecumenical dialogue are not in establishing an agreement or finding full unity, but in simply coming to a mutual understanding of each other’s traditions. 

“Especially in regard to evangelicals and Pentecostals, that is not small change,” Del Colle said. “For those two communities to recognize Catholics as fellow Christians and that the Catholic Church preaches the Gospel of Jesus Christ is quite an important step.” 

According to Father Tamburello, for dialogue to be successful both sides must come to the table with the idea that each has something valuable to gain from the other. Such a willingness to work together, he said, could lead to more fruitful collaboration among Christians. 

“I think what we need is an openness to truly learn from each other and to see how we can, in a friendly way, point out things that each other needs to see,” he said.  

“Even if we can’t be reunited in a formal sense, if we can get beyond some of the things that divided us and start working together to bring the world closer to the kingdom of God, then we’re really accomplishing something.” 

Scott Alessi writes from New Jersey.

Ecumenical Milestones (Sidebar)

The following are among the historic mile markers on the Catholic Church’s ecumenical journey over the last 50 years: 

June 5, 1960: Pope John XXIII establishes the Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity. 

Nov. 21, 1964: The Second Vatican Council’s decree Unitatis redintegratio, which sets out a path for Christian unity and ecumenical dialogue, is promulgated.  

March 10, 1965: The U.S. bishops’ Commission for Ecumenical Affairs holds its first meeting and soon after establishes dialogues with the Lutheran, Anglican, Reformed and Orthodox churches in the United States. 

1980: The first plenary sessions of the Joint International Commission for the Theological Dialogue between the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church are held in Greece. 

1981: The first phase pf the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission (ARCIC I)issues its final report, which affirms a substantial agreement on several divisive issues. 

March 25, 1993: Pope John Paul II approves the revised “Directory for the Application of Principles and Norms on Ecumenism,” reaffirming the importance of ecumenical dialogue. 

Oct. 31, 1999: The landmark Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification is released by the Vatican and the Lutheran World Federation, establishing agreement on one of the primary dividing issues between Catholics and Lutherans.