The U.S. Ecumenical Scene Today

The Second Vatican Council (1962-65) set in motion gradually expanding sets of relationships between the Holy See and other Christian churches and communities. Because the United States is home to so many other Christian groupings, the ecumenical opportunities and challenges here have been greater than elsewhere in the world. Here, in a number of significant settings, Protestant, Orthodox and Anglican colleagues have shown remarkable interest in strengthening relations with the Catholic Church; and the interest has been reciprocal. Tangible witness to this is, for example, the National Workshop for Christian Unity, founded under my predecessor, Cardinal Lawrence Sheehan, in Baltimore in 1963, which has just celebrated its 40th annual meeting in Savannah, Ga.



Pope John Paul II had heard much about the Bible Belt from southern bishops prior to his 1987 pastoral visit to the United States. He requested that, if possible, the ecumenical event of that visit be held in that region. With advice from our longstanding partners in dialogue, Columbia, S.C., was selected as the venue. Heads of communions in our country contributed to preparations for this visit, and the Billy Graham organization helped design the public aspects of the event.

In this preparatory stage, the National Council of Churches and the Southern Baptist leadership were willing and very helpful partners. During a series of meetings, the church leaders refined a statement on the strengths and challenges of Christians in the United States. In the private meeting, they presented this common message of theirs, respectfully listened to the pope’s response and then offered their questions and observations to the pope. To each who spoke Pope John Paul II offered a personal response, encouraging always the next steps in cooperation. As they prepared to go to the stadium for the public service, he signaled that he wanted to say something more. He noted that we were meeting in an upper room, not unlike the upper room of the first Christian Pentecost. He observed that the Holy Spirit was with us and insisted that more united us than divided us.

Immediately afterward, the pope emphasized the positive spirit he had heard in the room, a statement he repeated the following year to the archbishops who came from the United States to Rome for a major exchange of views with him and his principal collaborators. At the archbishops’ meeting, Cardinal Johannes Willebrands, president of the Council for Promoting Christian Unity, set forth the principles that guided the Holy See in the ecumenical arena. As secretary of the bishops’ conference, I responded by outlining our efforts in the United States. The discussion that ensued was enthusiastic and dynamic. Some archbishops were active in the dialogues with other Christian churches. They reported on the recent developments within those dialogues and answered questions from curious colleagues.

In 1993, as we prepared to hold World Youth Day in Denver, our American bishops’ committee for the event concluded that we should recommend to the Holy See that there be an ecumenical and interreligious side to the observance. Always before, World Youth Day had been held in a Catholic country, so the question was a new one for the Holy See. When the officers of the bishops’ conference arrived in Rome for a meeting with the Council for the Laity, charged with planning the event, I mentioned our hope to Cardinal Eduardo Pironio, the council’s president. He reacted by explaining that the pope had been asking how such a dimension could be introduced and suggested that I present our recommendation to the pope that evening. Pope John Paul listened and instantly approved our inviting representatives of other Christian churches and communities and of the Jewish and Muslim groups to attend as observers. They came to Denver, observed and, during the celebrations, shared with us their reactions to World Youth Day.

I relayed to the pope their favorable reactions and told him that they would be with us at the evening service with the young people. The pope personally sent for the observers and visited with them, hearing at first hand how they felt about the gathering that brought some 180,000 young people to Denver.

Last June, as we worked on the Charter for the Protection of Children and Youth, representatives of 10 Christian churches came to advise us on the eve of our bishops’ meeting. These fine relationships made me wonder: Is it not time to find a way for Christian leaders, evangelical and historic Protestant, Orthodox, Catholic and Anglican, to meet and exchange advice on a regular basis? Was it not time as well to discuss our common pastoral concerns and even the divergences among ourselves in carrying out what we perceive to be our pastoral responsibilities?

In our hemisphere, the Canadian and Brazilian bishops’ conferences are full members of their national councils of churches. The Antilles Bishops’ Conference is a member of the Caribbean Council of Churches. Many dioceses around the United States are members of state councils, and most work closely with them even if they are not formal members. When I attend the meetings of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity in Rome, I am struck by the number of bishops who tell me that their churches have a role in national or regional organizations. It is clear that such an organization of churches in this country would place the Catholic Church in a situation similar to what exists in other parts of the world.

Pope John Paul II in his 1995 encyclical Ut Unum Sint, lauds the World Council of Churches both for its contribution to church unity and for stimulating collaboration among Christians on national and regional levels. Since the Second Vatican Council, the Holy See has encouraged ecumenical collaboration adapted to the variety of situations around the world. Here I wish only to note some of the ecumenical developments and challenges in the United States and some hopeful signs for the future.

The Ecumenical Context in the United States

Cardinal Walter Kasper, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, has praised the American bishops for our ecumenical work. He has singled out especially the theological outcomes of our dialogues with the Lutherans and the Eastern Orthodox churches as having significance for the universal church.

The contribution the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has made to the ecumenical program of the universal church is something I have witnessed at first hand. Among my memories is the publication in 1985 of the exchange of letters between Pope John Paul II and Bishop James Crumley, then bishop of the Lutheran Church in America. Participating in this event was Bishop James Malone, president of the Catholic episcopal conference at the time.

In 1979, the International Catholic-Orthodox Commission for Theological Dialogue was established by Pope John Paul II and Ecumenical Patriarch Demetrios. As a member of this commission since 1986, I can attest to how difficult its work has been from the time of the collapse of Communism in eastern Europe. However, in the U.S. dialogue a similar Catholic-Orthodox consultation has met continuously since 1965 and produced theological contributions for more than three decades, no matter what the international tensions. Among these are important statements on the church, the Holy Spirit and baptism.

Members of both the North American theological consultation and the Committee of Catholic and Orthodox Bishops, which deals with pastoral issues, came to Baltimore in 1997 for a unique service. It was the only event in his visit to the United States at which Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople presided and preached in a Catholic Church. In the first cathedral of the United States he spoke of the sacramental and eucharistic emphases of the liturgy of the Orthodox Church—an area in which there is profound correspondence with the liturgical life of the Catholic Church. Later, following a dinner in the archbishop’s residence, he encouraged the members of the two groups to continue their work in service to the growing mutual bonds between our churches.

In the year of the Great Jubilee, the International Catholic-Orthodox Commission met at Mt. St. Mary’s Seminary, Emmitsburg, Md., in the Archdiocese of Baltimore. Although the upset caused by the overthrow of Communism and the subsequent emergence of the Eastern Catholic churches had not yet been digested by some of the Orthodox churches, the commission enjoyed the hospitality extended by our two churches in the United States, where the animosities of the old world are largely forgotten in a setting of religious freedom. In Baltimore, the Greek Orthodox Cathedral of the Annunciation was the site of a vesper service, and the Basilica of the Assumption, the nation’s first cathedral and most historic religious edifice, saw the celebration of a Catholic Eucharist.

The next day in Washington, the Greek Orthodox Cathedral of Saint Sophia was the scene of an Orthodox Divine Liturgy, with the presence of Cardinal William Baum of Rome, a founding member of the original national consultation, and with the public, appreciative words of Cardinal Edward Cassidy, Catholic co-president of the international group. In the afternoon a visit to the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception helped the Orthodox visitors understand the ethnic and cultural diversity of the Catholic Church in the United States.

Space does not permit a consideration here of the very fruitful Catholic–Oriental Orthodox national commission, which has been meeting annually since 1977.

The U.S.C.C.B. and its Ecumenical Role

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops currently sponsors seven dialogues with churches that share with us the goal of full communion. We also have a wide range of relationships with evangelical churches. All of these positive developments point to the significance of the Catholic Church, as the largest U.S. religious body, in taking her appropriate leadership seriously and sensitively. Our Catholic people should be encouraged to discern and pray about how God is calling us as bishops, at this time, to guide our own people and our partners deeper into that unity for which Christ prayed.

Since Vatican II many parishes and dioceses have set up formal relationships with other Christian churches in their local communities. Many bishops meet with their Christian colleagues monthly or even weekly. In these meetings we have come to know that there is a deep yearning for unity, especially among our faithful people. There is also a great challenge for us to deepen our understanding of each other as Christians. As the pope encourages us, the results of the dialogue must be integral to our catechetical processes; the dialogues must become a “common heritage” (see Ut Unum Sint, No. 80-81).


It has also been my privilege to work very closely with the leaders of many Pentecostal, Holiness and evangelical churches and parachurch movements in presenting common witness regarding such diverse public concerns as pornography and monitoring the secular media.

There is an annual meeting of U.S. church leaders, evangelical and historical Protestant, Orthodox, Anglican and Catholic. Since the time when the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin was the general secretary of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops (1968-72), Catholics have been an important presence in this forum. I had the good fortune to represent our conference for eight years, beginning when I served as conference president.

These contacts have helped build a high level of trust among evangelical, Catholic and other church leaders. Because of tensions in the early 20th century stemming from the Fundamentalist-Modernist controversy, there is an inherited mistrust among many evangelical and historical Protestant groups. On the other hand, in the context of the pro-life movement and the theological awakening among evangelical scholars, there is a decline of the old anti-Catholicism and a new sense of collaboration, even if evangelicals do not share the ecumenical goals of the traditional churches and the Catholic Church.

There are fascinating theological dialogues between Catholics and evangelicals in many dioceses, like Springfield, Los Angeles, Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia and St. Paul. The Holy See has had dialogues with the Baptists, Pentecostals, Mennonites and the World Evangelical Alliance. Is it not timely that we explore more formal linkages here in the United States?

Ecumenical Church Organizations

An ecumenical agency called the National Council of Churches of Christ in the U.S.A. has existed in its present form since 1950. In this council, over 30 Orthodox, Protestant and Anglican churches collaborate in a host of ministries together. Many of these ministries parallel services that the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops provides for the Catholic Church: Bible translation, charity and relief work, catechetical direction, social witness and international relations.

The U.S. bishops explored the possibility of membership in the N.C.C. in the 1970’s. At that time it was determined that collaboration was a more productive direction than membership. Among the reasons for this decision were differences in size—the Catholic Church has more members than all of the member churches of the council combined. We have different methods of taking decisions, and parallel services are often provided by the council and Catholic institutions. There are also different priorities in some areas of social witness; and there were unique Catholic priorities arising from the many other areas of conciliar reforms that were being integrated into our church life during that period.

Nonetheless, in 1993, when I preached at the installation of my Moravian colleague, the Rev. Dr. Gordon Sommers, as president of the N.C.C., I noted the vast array of collaborative ventures in which our conference, other Catholic entities and the council were involved together.

Since 1968 the Catholic Church in the United States has participated in the very important dialogue toward unity sponsored by the N.C.C.’s Faith and Order Commission. We will say more about this dialogue below. The Catholic Church is related to many member churches of the council through bilateral dialogues.

Given the important conversations and collaboration that have characterized Catholic relations with the council, we will continue to collaborate with the N.C.C. when this is possible. We would not want to weaken the bonds of communion and service it provides for its members. But it is not the vehicle that will bring Orthodox, evangelical, Catholic and historical Protestant Christians together in the forum we need for our time.

Faith and Order

Since 1927 Protestant and Orthodox Christian churches have been meeting in the dialogue named Faith and Order so as to sort out together and seek to reconcile their differences by returning to the common sources of Scripture and tradition. Since 1969 the Catholic Church has been a full member of this dialogue. At the world level this dialogue has produced such historic ecumenical statements as the Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry text (1982). We are now studying The Nature and Purpose of the Church (1998). These and other texts from the Faith and Order discussions make an important contribution to Catholic understanding of and relationships with the other churches that participate in this dialogue.

As we noted, our bishops’ conference has been a member of the U.S. commission from that same period. It has served the churches as the most inclusive theological forum devoted to seeking the unity of Christians. The U.S. commission includes 40 churches, well beyond the membership of the N.C.C., and includes Southern Baptists, Pentecostals, the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod, Holiness and Peace churches.

Studies on the Nicene Creed with the African American churches, the peace churches and the Pentecostals have all contributed in their own way to enabling the Catholic Church to come closer to these communities. Faith and Order discussions allow all of the theologians to participate in the remarkable progress made in bilateral dialogues, such as the Lutheran-Catholic Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification (1999) and in multilateral dialogues on church authority and communion.

With the success of the bilateral dialogues and Faith and Order studies, church leaders have determined that the time has come for a North American Conference on Faith and Order under the theme “The Church: Its Faith and Its Unity.” This gathering of scholars and church leaders will seek to harvest the challenging results of our theological work together and chart directions for the future. I serve, for the Catholic Church, on the board of a foundation for the conference. (Cardinal Avery Dulles made significant contributions to the meeting that prepared the way for the foundation.) We hope for such a conference in the year 2005.

In his encyclical Ut Unum Sint, Pope John Paul praises the work of the World Council Faith and Order Commission, especially its contribution on communion (koinonia) where we identify together the elements we see as necessary for full communion. We hope this conference can bring to our seminaries, dioceses and universities a zeal to study the progress already made.

Future Challenges

In January of 2003 a group of U.S. church leaders met at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif., the flagship of evangelical institutions, to explore establishing a new forum that would look to a new ecumenical future in this land. Among those present were leaders from the historic Reformation and Orthodox churches. Present also were leaders from Pentecostal, evangelical and Holiness churches, for many of whom “ecumenical” and “dialogue” have traditionally been bad words. Significantly, observers from the Southern Baptist Convention took part in the meeting.

Our Catholic delegation included two bishops and six able ecumenical veterans. It is the hope of the whole group that some modest, but ongoing and sustained forum will emerge that can hold us all accountable to Christ’s will that Christians be at least in conversation with one another.

The proposed basis and norm for the member churches ofChristian Churches Together in the rooted in the common conviction that: “We are Christians who long for greater unity. It is our longing that most clearly points us toward ‘something new’ as a possibility for the churches in the United States. We celebrate the unique traditions, gifts and charisms of our respective faith communities. We also acknowledge that when our differences create unnecessary divisions, our witness to the Gospel of Jesus Christ is distorted. We offer our lamentation and longings with prayerful expectation that the Holy Spirit is moving us toward a new expression of our relationships with one another and our witness to the world.”

At present, our suggestion is thatChristian Churches Togethercan be a forum for mutual trust and interchange. It can be an institution with no large bureaucracy, and no program of services to the churches. The National Association of Evangelicals, the National Council of Churches and a host of parachurch collaborative ventures are already available to the churches for such collaboration.

We do not foresee much common witness until we have explored together our common faith and common projects that will deepen our life together. Thus, this forum will emerge gradually and with respect for the variety of ecclesial communities in the United States.

It is my prayer and hope that we, as bishops, can walk with our people and our ecumenical colleagues in such a way as to provide the ecumenical leadership to which we are called by the Holy Spirit and for which we are equipped by our resources. Pope JohnPaul II has encouraged such initiatives and has taken many bold steps himself on behalf of Christian unity. The journey toward that unity for which Christ prayed is a pilgrimage of patience and love. May we be its faithful servants.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.


The latest from america

Even in our relationships with family and friends, forgiveness can be hard to come by.
Pope Francis has accepted the resignation of Cardinal Ricardo Ezzati, the archbishop of Santiago, Chile, the Vatican announced on March 23.
Gerard O’ConnellMarch 23, 2019
Sister Bibiana Emenaha
A combination of a rapidly growing population, extreme poverty, unemployment and armed conflict push people to cross Nigeria’s porous borders in search of a better life.
Linus UnahMarch 22, 2019
As we come to grips with a national history of violence, greed and racialized privilege, this fable of noblesse oblige rings hollow.
Brandon SanchezMarch 22, 2019