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Jorge A. Scampini presentation

20 February 2006

Plenary on church unity

Fr Jorge A. Scampini, a Dominican priest, is the moderator of the St Thomas Aquinas University's theological faculty's study centre, and teaches systematic theology at the centre and at the Pontifical Catholic University of Argentina

Church unity: claiming a common future
Reflecting together on the text "Called to be the one church"

As a Roman Catholic, I approach the text ‘Called to be the One Church' in a particular way. The text is an ‘invitation' addressed to the member churches of the World Council of Churches, which is not the situation of the Catholic Church, although it has entered into a considerable network of working relationships with the WCC in the course of the forty years of existence of the Joint Working Group, and through participation in the Commissions on Faith and Order and World Mission and Evangelism. Despite the peculiarity of this relationship, all that is affirmed and achieved within the WCC takes place within the one ecumenical movement, which the Catholic Church acknowledges as a gracious gift from God, and to which it is irrevocably committed. This invitation thus concerns us. Within that framework of reference I now offer the following observations…

Any title is an attempt to express the thrust of a document's contents. Thus the title ‘Called to be the One Church' expresses a vision of the Church and, consequently, a way of conceiving the goal of the ecumenical movement. Without forgetting that we are dealing with what ‘we at this point on our ecumenical journey can say together about some important aspects of the Church', this vision is a yardstick for discernment that should allow the WCC, at the beginning of a new stage in its life, to evaluate what has been achieved, where there has been slowness and uncertainty in the past, and to discern challenges and determine priorities for coming years.

The invitation is being issued at a particular ecumenical time and place, characterized by the grace of God, who ‘transforms the world', and the churches' response to that gracious gift. Beginning with its identity as an institution, as expressed in its doctrinal basis (section 1), it moves on to an understanding of unity as koinonia, as stated by the Canberra Assembly, and appreciated in Catholic circles for its theological rigour. That is done without ignoring what lies ahead concerning the understanding of ‘the meaning of unity and catholicity, and the significance of baptism' (section 2). In fact, this tension, between what has been achieved ecumenically and issues awaiting clarification, is present as the central themes of the invitation unfold: the Church (sections 3-7), baptism (sections 8-9), and the Church's service in the world (sections 10-11).

In dealing with the subject of the Church, the invitation begins with a confession of faith, which is a way of saying that everything that follows should be seen in the context of dynamic faithfulness to the gracious gift given us. This is the context of the affirmations concerning the Church. As regards convergence, Catholics could assent to what is stated in the invitation. It is clear that they would do it in full awareness that a mere listing of the elements that, put together as a whole, express the mystery of the Church, can be understood and articulated in different ways, resulting in different ecclesiologies.

Thus, working through the document and by way of example, in addition to the questions in section 14, we could ask ourselves the following questions…

a) Is it possible for us all to state, baldly, that ‘the Church as communion of believers is created (only) by the Word of God' (section 4)?

b) What are we to understand by ‘Each church is the church catholic and not simply a part of it' (section 6)? Are we referring to each ‘local' church or to each ‘confessional' church? And, if each local church, what do we mean by that?

c) How long will it be possible for us to go on speaking of Christ's reconciling ministry without clarifying the basis on which certain moral decisions are made?

5. As the Catholic Church understands it, the unity of the Church as a mystery of communion is expressed by a threefold bond: the bond of the faith that is professed (vinculum symbolicum); the liturgical and sacramental bond (vinculum sacramentale); and the hierarchical and social bond (vinculum hierarchicum). While the first two bonds constitute the Church and are its foundation and origin, the third represents its task of witness and guarantees its continuity. For the Catholic Church that is an integral part of its vision of faith. Thus the divergences referred to in the invitation (section 14) are real obstacles lying in the way of achieving visible unity. That explains why the Catholic Church attaches such importance in theological dialogues to the themes relating to sacraments, ministry and the Church.

6. We who are on this journey and trust in the risen Christ look back to the past and live in hope for the future. At the level of the ecumenical memory, it is important to point out that the issues in the invitation - in a condensed form by the nature of the document - are reminiscent of Faith and Order studies: Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry (1982), Confessing the One Faith (1991), Church and World (1990), and The Nature and Purpose of the Church (1999); and are also related to studies by the Joint Working Group: The Church: Local and Universal (1990), Ecumenical Dialogue on Moral Issues (1996) and Ecclesiological and Ecumenical Implications of a Common Baptism (2004). This recognition of the ground already covered should give rise to a renewed commitment to make these studies more widely known and to study them in depth, with the aim of encouraging the reception of them by the churches. These studies, which are the fruit of long careful theological work, still have a word to say to us on some of the questions that await a response.

These very questions give me the hope that God's gift to us will not be in vain, thanks to the acceptance and willingness of the churches and the WCC…

a) …of the churches, because the invitation is being addressed to them as the real protagonists on their common journey in response to the grace of God. They should enter into a renewed conversation ‘about the quality and degree of their fellowship and communion, and about the issues which still divide them' frankly and thoroughly, because God, in love, is calling God's people to discernment and to the fulness of koinonia.

b) …of the WCC, because in service of the cause of unity, it must continue to have the role of ‘privileged instrument' (section 12) and that in two ways…

- …by stating that one of its priorities is taking up the theological issues arising out of the present invitation and effectively supporting the continuance of the programmes dealing with the differences ‘dividing the churches', particularly the Faith and Order studies on ecclesiology, baptism and theological anthropology.

- …by adopting as an Assembly the text before you as your own word addressed to the churches. This can be a milestone in the history of the WCC as an institution, taking relations between the member churches on to a new stage, as was the case at New Delhi, Nairobi and Canberra, and thereby being of service to the whole ecumenical movment.