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John BorelliFebruary 05, 2007

The surprise and happy outcome of the papal visit to Turkey in late November might best be summarized in the pope’s own words to Ali Bardakoglu, head of Turkey’s department of religious affairs: “The best way forward is via authentic dialogue between Christians and Muslims, based on truth and inspired by a sincere wish to know one another better, respecting differences and recognizing what we have in common.” With these words, the personal journey of Benedict XVI from Regensburg to Ankara came to an end. Two days later in Istanbul’s Blue Mosque, he prayed silently alongside Muslims. The incident seemed to unfold naturally. Benedict the theologian and his Muslim interlocutors were becoming interreligious companions in their journeys of faith.


While in Turkey, Pope Benedict XVI and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew also recalled the pilgrimage to Jerusalem in 1964 of their predecessors, Paul VI and Athenagoras, which concluded a 900-year track of mutual isolation, neglect and antipathy between Constantinople and Rome. On the Mount of Olives, they embraced in a kiss of peace, and a new ecumenical journey was born. Twelve years later, Paul VI spontaneously fell on his knees in the Sistine Chapel kissing the hem of Metropolitan Meliton’s cassock as he brought news from Constantinople that Orthodox leaders had taken the first formal steps to prepare for theological dialogue with the Catholic Church. What took place between 1964 and 1976 among Orthodox, Catholics and other Christians to receive and embrace a new ecumenical relationship between Rome and Constantinople could fill volumes.

We seldom think about the hard work between the lines of joint statements and agreements between Christians. Too often we focus on grand public gestures associated with ecumenical and interreligious dialogue. As inspirational as these incidents are in revealing the personal conversions and deep feelings of public leaders, by focusing on the historic events we tend to view ecumenism and interreligious relations as public relations and even glad-handing. In fact both forms of dialogue are deeply theological, requiring considerable effort for common understanding, and are vitally serious for religious groups and the whole world. Dialogue, whether ecumenical (between Christians for full communion) or interreligious (between religious groups for reconciliation, mutual understanding and spiritual sharing), is fragile. It is difficult to sustain, can stall when new problems arise and becomes complicated even when successful.

Doing More With Less

Cardinal Walter Kasper, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, perceives a significant transition today in ecumenism requiring utmost attention and resources. The mandate is not at issue, he told bishop members of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity last Nov. 15, for that “has been entrusted to us by our Lord (John 17:21) and expressly confirmed by the church on various occasions.” Cardinal Kasper’s opening remarks at the beginning of biennial plenary meetings outline several new dimensions in relationships among Christians, the complex state of disputed questions and adjustments needed as a result of changes in the ecumenical landscape. Though it is still unclear exactly how he views interreligious dialogue, Benedict XVI supports theological, ecumenical dialogue as “necessary” and its accompanying “purification of memory” as “even more urgent.” Cardinal Kasper’s message for 2007 and beyond is that the hard work of ecumenical dialogue is more intensive now than ever before, engaging Christians at all levels of church life.

Yet in mid-November 2006 the bishops voted widespread cutbacks in the funding and staffing of the restructured U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Hardly any office will remain at present strength, but for the conference’s Committee on Ecumenical and Interreligious Relations the cutback means a return to 1971 levels. That will take it back to a level before the U.S.C.C.B. began any significant interreligious work. Today there are more dioceses but fewer full-time and part-time diocesan staff members for ecumenical and interreligious relations than in 1971. There are now more ecumenical and interreligious relationships in need of tending than in 1971. Without an increase in zeal in dioceses and parishes, there will be less dialogue.

During the heyday of the U.S.C.C.B.’s ecumenical and interreligious programs, the bishops funded and staffed 22 major ongoing activities involving 28 bishops, more than 100 theologians and other scholars and experts and 30 diocesan staff and representatives. A secretariat of 6 professionals and 3 support staff accomplished this for a committee of 18 bishops and a subcommittee on interreligious dialogue of 9 bishops. This thumbnail summary does not include several projects and initiatives that come and go in the course of a year. Cutting staff from 9 to 5 implies a much deeper loss than four positions.

With fewer individuals on staff knowledgeable about religious relations, connections with networks of religious partners and experts will be less frequent too. When measuring the success in dialogue, how does one account for trust, rapport, expertise, depth of understanding and confidence? Those working in ecumenical or interreligious dialogue depend on networks of scholars and religious leaders that provide depth and breadth. Extensive cooperation and goodwill ensures greater accuracy, fewer mistakes and missed opportunities and more attention to nuance and developing consensus. How does one measure something so intangible as a growing consensus?

Documenting Dialogue

In 1982 the Faith and Order Commission of the World Council of Churches issued the convergence document Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry (B.E.M.). Though the Catholic Church is not a World Council of Churches member, it participates fully on its Faith and Order Commission. Likewise the U.S.C.C.B. is a member of the Faith and Order Commission of the National Council of Churches of Christ, without membership in the parent body. Broad Catholic participation in the writing and reception of B.E.M. contributed to substantive ecumenical convergence on three essential topics of Christian faith and life. The fact that more churches are eucharistic in their Sunday celebrations is an outcome of both the liturgical renewal and the ecumenical movement. How does one measure such an achievement unless one takes account of countless individuals and liturgical and ecumenical teams that restored the Eucharist as an essential aspect in the lives of significantly more Christians?

In his 1995 encyclical on ecumenism, Ut Unum Sint, John Paul II singled out B.E.M. studies for praise because “they demonstrate the remarkable progress already made, and they are a source of hope inasmuch as they represent a sure foundation for further study.” Faith and Order is now advancing a promising convergence text on the nature and mission of the church. Who will assist Catholic bishops in introducing and enlivening this and any future consensus or agreed statements in their dioceses? The U.S.C.C.B.’s secretariat will be a diminished resource for other churches and for Catholic dioceses.

Shaped by More Than One Church

Whether Catholic bishops care to think ecumenically about the nature of the church, more and more people will do so simply because more families now include members who attend more than one church. Christians are worshiping together in more and more settings, studying Scripture together, praying together in all sorts of groups. Church leaders working outside ecumenical and interreligious contexts are an anachronism in our contemporary world, which John Paul II once described as existing “in a climate of increased cultural and religious pluralism.”

A year ago, the U.S. bishops expressed approval of a national ecumenical initiative called Christian Churches Togetherin the U.S.A., principally because this new ecumenical enterprise amply includes evangelicals and Pentecostals. This was a wise decision, but since the cost of participating falls to an already slashed ecumenical budget, one wonders what other relationships this will leave unfunded. The North American Orthodox-Catholic Dialogue is the one shining example of theological exchange in the world, and the U.S. Lutheran-Catholic Dialogue is a major theological engine in ecumenism.

Already, however, the Subcommittee on Interreligious Dialogue no longer exists, since the bishops’ vote in November eliminated a number of subcommittees. With less collegial oversight, will dialogue with Muslims be cut when it should increase? There are many other relationships, each with its own gifts and needs. Do bishops view these ecumenical and interreligious engagements as essential aspects of their own Catholic identity?

Parishes look to diocesan officials for assistance, and they in turn appeal to the bishops’ conference. Conference officials monitor developments sponsored by the Roman Curia. Measurable success in ecumenism and interreligious relations in parishes requires intensive work on the part of the staff and effective interfacing with others. Where once the support by bishops for efforts and programming in ecumenical and interreligious relations was generous, the pastoral response to contemporary religious pluralism now depends more than ever on the generosity of others. Religious orders and organizations and public and academic institutions are already picking up some of the slack.

Commitment to dialogue requires more than official support and funds. One must truly believe in its importance. To quote Vatican II, “there is no ecumenism worthy of the name without interior conversion” (“Decree on Ecumenism,” 1964, No. 7). And again, “the Council pleads with all to forget the past, to make sincere efforts for mutual understanding, and so to work together for the preservation and fostering of social justice, moral welfare, and peace and freedom for all humankind” (“Declaration on the Relationship of the Church to Non-Christian Religions,” 1965, No. 3).

As more and more people turn to dialogue as the constructive way to live in a world influenced more than ever before by religious pluralism, will the Catholic hierarchical leadership, the champion at Vatican II of religious dialogue in the 20th century, continue to be convincingly engaged in it in the 21st century?

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