The National Catholic Review
Assessing the movement toward Christian unity

What will tomorrow’s church be like? Will it be a truly catholic (small “c”) church, a communion of local churches living in visible unity? Or will it be a multiplicity of churches and communities, even more divided in faith and life? The present estimate of the number of Christian denominations is roughly 43,000, according to the Center for the Study of Global Christianity at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. In 1900 the number was 1,600. From a Roman Catholic perspective, Christian unity means a communion of churches sharing a common heritage and living in visible communion with each other.

Recently the World Council of Churches published an important convergence (not consensus) text entitled The Church: Toward a Common Vision. The statement is structured in terms of four ecclesiological issues. Relatively brief, it treats successively the church’s essentially missionary origin, its nature as a communion, its growth toward the kingdom and its relation to the world.

To summarize briefly, the church takes its origin from the saving activity of the Trinity. Visible unity is important for its nature and mission, a point that is emphasized repeatedly. Such unity may require changes in doctrine, practice and ministry, so that the churches may recognize in each other the “one, holy, catholic, apostolic Church” (Chapter I). The text stresses the nature of the church as a communion. While diversity is a gift of the Lord, the unity and catholicity of the church means that each local church should be in communion with all the other local churches (Chapter II).

Growing toward visible unity requires “communion in the fullness of the apostolic faith; in sacramental life; in a truly one and mutually recognized ministry; in structures of conciliar relations and decision-making; and in common witness and service to the world” (No. 37). But many differences remain about the number of the sacraments or ordinances, who presides at the Eucharist, how ordained ministry is structured and whether it is restricted to males, the authority of councils, and the role of the bishop of Rome (Chapter III). The nature of the church is missional. Participating in the Divine Mystery, the church serves God’s plan for the transformation of the world. It proclaims the Gospel, celebrates the sacraments and in manifesting the newness of life given by Christ anticipates the kingdom already present in him, though it acknowledges a need for the churches to be accountable to each other because of new conflicts over moral principles and ethical questions (Chapter IV).

Obstacles to Ecumenism

The text from the World Council of Churches is significant for a number of reasons. First, it presents a transdenominational ecclesiology that should find resonances in the different churches. Second, because they share a Trinitarian faith, each church is called to live in visible communion with other Christian communities. Each has a structure, consisting of apostolic faith, sacramental life and a recognized ministry. Third, the text’s view of salvation is not narrowly individualistic but serves God’s plan for the transformation of the world. Finally, the centrality of the Eucharist in the text is remarkable; it clearly sees the church as a eucharistic community. But will it fly?

In the West there are new obstacles to ecumenism. The vision of visible unity seems to be slipping away for many of the Reformation churches. Some stress justice over unity. Many are concerned today with a new search for denominational identity, as Cardinal Kurt Koch, prefect of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, has noted. There is a lack of agreement on sacramental practice, and the Eucharist is not yet central in many denominations, including many evangelical communities.

Meanwhile, mainline churches in the United States and Western Europe continue to lose members. The Rev. Michael Kinnamon, general secretary of the National Council of Churches, points out that those denominations that were once pillars of the ecumenical movement are in many places experiencing diminishing numbers and resources, with a resulting toll on ecumenical organizations. Member churches of the World Council of Churches constitute little more than 20 percent of world Christianity, and their number is diminishing. Kinnamon asks if the W.C.C. is becoming too ideological, substituting a commitment to economic, social and ecological issues and losing ecumenism’s traditional vision of a reconciled church, sharing the Eucharist and making decisions in common. Some point with hope to the growth of evangelical Christian communities, but the claim that they represent 40 percent of Americans may be greatly exaggerated. In his book The Great Evangelical Recession, John Dickerson cites a number of studies to show that the actual number is closer to the range 7 percent to 8.9 percent.

But if Christianity is diminishing in the West, it is flourishing in Asia, Africa and Latin America, as Christianity’s center of gravity shifts from Europe and North America to the Southern Hemisphere. A recent Pew Forum study finds that more than 1.3 billion Christians live in the global south (61 percent), compared with about 860 million in the global north (39 percent). Mark Noll notes, “This past Sunday it is possible that more Christian believers attended church in China than in all of so-called ‘Christian Europe’.” Thus the profile of global Christianity has changed dramatically, and the Western church cannot afford to ignore the fact.

Much of this growth has been in the church’s evangelical, Pentecostal and neo-Pentecostal expressions. Also rapidly growing are the independent, indigenous churches, whose members comprise about one-fifth of all Christians today and are thus not members of traditional denominations or churches. Allan Anderson, professor of mission and Pentecostal studies at the University of Birmingham, England, cites studies that claim that there are “628 million ‘Pentecostals, Charismatics and Independent Charismatics,’ collectively termed ‘Renewalists,’ in the world in 2013; 26.7 percent of the world’s Christians.” Roman Catholics number over one billion. That means that Roman Catholics, Pentecostals and charismatics together amount to close to 75 percent of the total 2.1 billion Christians in the world.

This recentering of the majority Christian population to the global south poses significant challenges for the ecumenical future of the church. These southern Christians and some in the West see the World Council of Churches’ statement on the church as being too traditional and excessively Western in its approach. Much less concerned with doctrine, confessional difference or ecclesiology, these new communities have a different agenda. Unlike the Enlightenment-influenced West, they sense the nearness of the supernatural, place great emphasis on healing—of body, mind, soul, spirit and society—and stress life issues like AIDS, violence and poverty.

New Churches, Little Structure

Some of these new churches are quite distant from the historic Christian tradition. Most are not eucharistic communities. Some preach the “prosperity Gospel,” promising wealth to those who follow Jesus. Their denominational boundaries are often porous, and multiple Christian identities are not unusual. A recent report on Pentecostal-evangelical and African-initiated churches in South Africa describes a self-styled prophet who calls on his congregants to eat live snakes or underwear. These churches, built around charismatic preachers, “lack any real structure or theology apart from an eccentric literal reading of the Bible and people’s willingness to believe in what is preached.” They pop up and just as quickly disappear. And not a few Christians in these new churches, not all of them dysfunctional, are decidedly anti-ecumenical, as was evident at the W.C.C.’s 10th assembly in Busan, Korea, in 2013, where hundreds were protesting not just the assembly but the ecumenical movement itself.

Some today, like Robert Jenson, a Lutheran, are speculating that the ecumenical future lies with the Roman Catholic Church, the Eastern churches and Pentecostal groups; or, to cite Cheryl Bridges Johns, a Pentecostal, with a reformed Catholicism and a mature Pentecostalism. If anything should move our separated churches to learn to work together, it should be the increasing number of the so-called nones, those who are religiously nonaffiliated. According to the Pew Forum, they now constitute 23 percent of adult Americans and 35 percent of millennials.

Bonds of Communion

Given the enormous ecclesiological diversity of the new churches of the global south, will these churches be able to receive the W.C.C. statement on the church as a challenge to renewal of ecclesial life, commitment to justice and peace, mission and unity? Will it help these nonliturgical and often noncreedal communities to re-engage with the great tradition? Probably not. But these are the churches growing today, and their members often have strong faith and great energy. Therefore we should ask, how might the Catholic Church and the confessional churches establish the bonds of communion that witness to a common ecclesial life?

First of all, it is important to keep in mind that ecumenism always begins in friendship. When people from different churches or traditions get to know one another, they no longer remain the “other” but become friends, associates, brothers or sisters in Christ. That holds also for relations between more traditional Western churches and these new churches. Second, the social mission of the church may offer common ground for addressing together many of the practical problems these new churches face. While there are often ethical differences between the churches, most of our churches face the same differences within our communions. Finally, we might ask, what if the Catholic Church, the Orthodox churches and the other liturgical churches were to relax somewhat their sacramental discipline to extend occasional eucharistic hospitality to those from these new churches who are able to recognize Christ’s presence in the Eucharist and are willing to live in communion? Might some experience of common worship lead to a new sense of the church as a eucharistic community?

So what is the future of the church? Christian unity is God’s work, not ours, as recent popes have emphasized, but we are all called to work toward it, that the world may believe (Jn 17:21).

Thomas P. Rausch, S.J., is the T. Marie Chilton Professor of Catholic Theology at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, Calif.

Show Comments (20)

Comments (hide)

Christine Miller | 1/27/2016 - 10:52pm

I agree with your post. You used much more elegant language to say what I was trying to say.

PR chirs

Christine Miller | 1/23/2016 - 5:38pm

I read Fr Rausch's article with a sense of fantasy. As a Lutheran pastor who sees our ties with Rome as close as 95% or more agreement on virtually everything regarding both our faiths, I read the proposition that Catholics should reach out to these southern "churches" as something totally unrealistic. After nearly 75 years of Lutheran Catholic dialogue, Lutheran Episcopal dialogue, etc., we have been unable to reach "church". From my perspective, it is the Catholic side of the dialogue which is what is holding up the hopes of ecumenical gathering we have dreamed of for decades. It is the Catholic position on ordination, on apostolic succession, which are the primary stumbling blocks. Fr. Rausch says, "what if the Catholic church, the Orthodox churches and the other liturgical churches were to relax somewhat their sacramental discipline to extend occasional eucharistic hospitality to those from these new churches, who are able to recognize Christ's presence in the Eucharist..."?

The Lutheran and Episcopal churches have NEVER DENIED the "Eucharistic presence of Christ"...but it seems like it has been an impossibility for the Catholic Church to recognize this in any concrete way. (I have read the new document published by Catholics and Lutherans in anticipation of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation; what divides is so little; and yet, we can't take the last meaningful steps.) Why are Lutherans, Episcopalians and roman Catholics so unable to make concrete the faith we celebrate? Pope Francis quoted Ephesians: "one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all" to talk about our common hopes and beliefs. Rather than seek out some of these offshoot groups in the South where, if the dialogues most denominations have experienced with Rome since VV II, it would take CENTURIES for any hope of reconciliation between these groups and the Roman Church. Why don't the theologians and the majesterium start where the unity already exists?

alan macdonald | 1/20/2016 - 11:53am

I pray that the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church, once united now separated, will reunite as the two lungs of the Church.

Joe Mcmahon | 1/19/2016 - 2:21pm

Many thanks to Thomas P. Rausch, S.J., for touching on so many aspects of the possible or probable future church. In addition to the generalizations for each continent, we can notice what happens locally. Next Sunday, our town will celebrate the Annual Church Unity Octave Prayer Service, with a Lutheran parish and two Catholic parishes singing and praying together at the Methodist church. Clergy and choirs will participate, and maybe sixty others. A hundred years ago, the town was overwhelmingly Methodist. Now, Sunday attendance figures would probably show the Catholics and non-Catholics at a 20:1 ratio. Yet, the Catholic pastor, noting the drop in Catholic marriages, Mass attendance, and the Christmas collection, writes of Catholics who have chosen another religion. Those baptized in other Christian churches are baptized in the Lord, not in another religion. Maybe section 17 of "Dominus Iesus" has been taken as the last word, but it rends the believing community.

Bruce Snowden | 1/17/2016 - 2:05pm

As best as I understand, it happened to Saul on his way to Damascus – TRUTH knocked him off his high horse, blinding him as it slowly enlightened. A poster on this site has reminded all that Pope Francis, a Prophet of Truth and Gift of the Holy Spirit to the Roman Catholic Church, to Orthodox Christianity, Protestantism and the World, has said that, “God is not Catholic,” saying further “he doesn’t agree with everything the Roman Catholic religion stands for.” Amazingly truthful!

It seems to me the Reformers must have felt much the same way, but surely never intended that from their reforms more than Forty-three Thousand churches would emerge, “Churches from Churches,” or from "Church to Churches" and so on, each claiming to be the one true Church of Jesus Christ! This obviously shouldn’t be, right?

What Holy Father Francis says is true, for some I’d say, “shockingly so" knocking them off their high horses, leading to enlightenment hopefully, slowly confirming some as they await the scales on the eyes of their souls to drop off. Some have total and vocal dislike of Pope Francis. “Truth. What is that?” Pilate asked Jesus at his trial. In answer Jesus simply looked at him using Body language saying, “You’re looking at It." Remember, “Truth is Truth, not because you believe it. Truth is truth whether you believe it or not!” So said Saint Pope J P II.

Phil Lawless | 1/11/2016 - 8:13pm

Although ecumenism is the first step towards Christian unity, I think it is not too soon to understand the Incarnation as addressing the whole human race. The desire of God to engage all of humanity is much too strong to ignore. We need to examine our parochial interests in accordance with God's own goals in making all of Creation the stage upon which humanity emerges and then merges with God.

Steve Perzan | 1/12/2016 - 6:43pm

Pope Francis said: “I believe in God, not in a Catholic God. There is no Catholic God, there is God... Jesus is my teacher and my pastor, but God, the Father, Abba, is the light and the Creator." In an October 2015 interview with Eugenio Scalfari, the Pope told the former editor of the La Repubblica he does not agree with everything the Roman Catholic religion stands for and said, “This Vatican-centric view neglects the world around us. I do not share this view, and I’ll do everything I can to change it.The Church is or should go back to being a community of God’s people, and priests, pastors and bishops who have the care of souls, are at the service of the people of God.” The Pope surprised Scalfari when he said, "God is not Catholic." Asked to elaborate Pope Francis replied, “‘God is universal, and we are Catholic in the sense of the way we worship him.’”

William Rydberg | 1/11/2016 - 5:24pm

This may sound harsh, but I say it without malice. In my opinion, this article is not worthy of a Professor at one of America's Top Colleges, let alone a Catholic Priest for it lacks precision and does not respect current Catholic scholarly definitions. Catholic Theological definitions long accepted are not mentioned. It's an opinion piece in my reckoning.

We all agree that the seeds of the Gospel are widely spread, that the Spirit is the Soul of the Church. Furthermore, We all agree that 1 Cor 12:28 speaks of teachers. Be one, a good Teacher, remember the work...

just my opinion,

in Christ,

James Addison | 1/11/2016 - 6:48pm

William, would you be willing to share the specific Catholic scholarly / theological definitions that are not respected from your perspective? I admit to being somewhat new to this subject and often find conversations of this sort to be instructive, especially when more detail is provided. Thank you.

William Rydberg | 1/11/2016 - 10:26pm

You're funny!

Sandi Sinor | 1/15/2016 - 3:51pm

That's not a response.

Can you not explain your comments? The non-response you gave is an indicator that perhaps you are not able to explain them.

William Rydberg | 1/15/2016 - 6:07pm

You're even funnier! As you are on record in these pages that we ought to stop at the creed and avoid dogmas. Too funny in my opinion. I don't need a make work project... In my opinion...

Sandi Sinor | 1/17/2016 - 1:29pm

Apparently you are unable to answer the question posed to you. You continue to duck. We get it, but perhaps you should just admit that you made a flippant remark that you cannot back up with real substance.

William Rydberg | 1/17/2016 - 5:03pm

You must be retired with plenty of time on your hands.

As for me, I stand by my opinion.

Nuff said...

Christine Miller | 1/23/2016 - 5:41pm

William: I agree with the other posters..."you're funny" is NOT an answer to an honest question. You might find this acceptable on Red State Nation, but America commentors enjoy decent and respectful conversations. If you have time to post your original comment, you can post a respectful reply.

Pr chris

William Rydberg | 1/23/2016 - 8:20pm


Sandi Sinor | 1/18/2016 - 11:13am

You stand by an opinion but refuse to back it up.

With three non-responses so far, one assumes that you would have had time to write at least a few sentences. Your comments appear on many articles on this site, so one might also assume that you have enough spare time to comment here and if you truly wish to make valid points, you would respond when asked. Otherwise, you might wish to refrain from commenting when you don't wish to actually engage in a real discussion.

William Rydberg | 1/18/2016 - 11:28am

Retired, nice. If you are close to the Parish consider daily Mass, popular piety devotions and volunteerism. Don't waste your time on me AsI am very ordinary and you have lots of opportunities in front of you. God bless...

Mike Evans | 1/8/2016 - 1:31pm

First of all, conversation and friendship between churches often begin with common engagement in particular services and activities focused on the poor, on peace and on justice. The overall "God-view" of how people should interact and work together for the kingdom over-rides any concerns about credal differences or nuances. Pope Francis is widely heard and respected throughout both the Christian and non-Christian world.

Second, many overtures have been made to permit inter-communion at least between Christian denominations. Some mainline churches have a singular emphasis on the Eucharist, others are content with perhaps once a month or even less frequent celebration of communion at the Lord's Table. Yet, if one converses with their clergy and laity, it is clear that for almost every Christian congregation. the receiving of Communion is very solemn and even a foundational expression of belief in Christ. Removal of the obstacles to inter-communion could lead to further acceptance of differences in governance, orders, and credal emphasis (even the place of women!).

Thirdly, there are huge wounds dating all the way back to the Great Schism and Protestant Reformation that need to be healed as well as modern day developing theology in the Catholic Church itself. Its rigorous adherence to a standardized form of Latinized worship, lack of recognition of the place of local bishops' conferences, and centralized leadership on every issue provide stumbling blocks to unity within the church proper and the wagging of heads from our non-Catholic friends. The church professes a desire for unity and inclusion but its actions and proclaimed standards and jurisprudence indicate otherwise. We seem to only want unity under the condition of complete "surrender" to our way or the highway. Instead, imagine if we somehow were to include Rites such as Lutheran, Methodist, AME, Baptist, Anglican and Episcopal under our one "catholic" umbrella. I think Jesus would be pleased.

William Rydberg | 1/12/2016 - 8:13am

You must work in Strategy, not Operations...

Recently by Thomas P. Rausch

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