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DURHAM-KASPER Jan-13-2006 (890 words) xxxi

Ethical approaches make unity appear distant, says Vatican official

By Cindy Wooden
Catholic News Service

DURHAM, England (CNS) -- While many of the doctrinal differences that divided Christians for centuries are close to being resolved, different approaches to modern ethical questions are making Christian unity appear as distant as ever, said Cardinal Walter Kasper.

"I am very sad we are not able to speak with one voice on these issues to a world that needs to hear," the cardinal said Jan. 13 at an international ecumenical conference at Ushaw College, a Catholic seminary in Durham.

The cardinal, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, received an honorary doctorate Jan. 12 from the University of Durham and delivered the keynote address Jan. 13 at the opening of an ecumenical conference organized by the university to discuss steps the Catholic Church and its dialogue partners should take at a time when full church unity seems distant.

Cardinal Kasper told conference participants that believing Christians cannot give up hope for Christian unity because church division is "a sin before God and a scandal before the world."

However, he acknowledged a sense that, after 40 years of what appeared to be major progress toward unity, ecumenical dialogue has come up against serious, unforeseen obstacles.

Differences among Catholics, Orthodox, Anglicans and Protestants over issues such as homosexual activity, abortion, euthanasia and other moral questions "are not on the top of the hierarchy of truths" -- like the belief in Jesus as savior is -- "but they are very emotional and, therefore, very divisive," the cardinal said.

Just five or six years ago, he said, Catholic bishops and leaders of some other churches seemed ready to explore concrete steps their communities could take toward organizational unity.

Since then, however, it has become clear that "both the ecumenical mood and the ecumenical situation worldwide have changed so radically as to virtually run counter to the ecumenical movement toward unity," he said.

In Europe and North America, he said, "the changed situation is evident in a new polarization and fragmentation exemplified by divergent and even conflicting verdicts on ethical problems."

He told a press conference at Ushaw that the differences in how Christian communities are dealing with ethical matters were not automatically church-dividing; "we have to see if they are differences in pastoral approaches or doctrinal differences, " he said.

While the differences hinder ecumenical dialogue, he said, the situation is further complicated by the internal divisions the issues create, such as the tensions currently felt within the Anglican Communion over the ordination of openly gay men and the blessing of homosexual unions.

In his speech to the conference, Cardinal Kasper said that at a moment of some confusion and disillusionment over the prospect of Christian unity Christians must ask themselves what the purpose of ecumenism is.

"Ecumenical unity is not to be thought of along the lines of the fusion of worldwide megacorporations," he said. Rather, Christians are called by God to be united in their faith in Jesus, in the sacraments, in the proclamation of the Gospel and in striving for holiness, he said.

By committing themselves to holiness and to unity in the fundamental truths of Christianity, he said, Christians will come closer to full unity than they ever could hope to do by planning corporate mergers.

"The fact that the unity of the church is grounded in its participation in the holy does indeed have real consequences for the concrete form of the church," he said.

Called to be holy, Cardinal Kasper said, the church also is called to be prophetic, to listen to the world, to understand its hopes and struggles and to offer guidance and hope based on the Gospel.

"The dividing lines which have unfortunately become evident on ethical issues since the latter half of the last century are therefore not secondary or irrelevant for an understanding of the nature of the church," he said.

"In touching on holiness, they touch on the essential nature of the church itself," the cardinal said.

Cardinal Kasper acknowledged that Christian communities that, for example, have ordained women to the priesthood or have decided to bless homosexual unions have done so out of a belief that they are exercising a prophetic role in society and demonstrating God's love, acceptance and call to all people.

However, he said, Christian communities must act in continuity with the faith of the Gospel and the earliest Christian communities.

"We should not imagine that we possess more of the Holy Spirit today than the church of the early church fathers and the great theologians of the Middle Ages," he said.

Cardinal Kasper also told conference participants -- some 140 scholars and bishops from 10 countries invited because of their expertise -- that he knows the Roman Catholic Church has many things to learn from other Christian communities.

The Catholic commitment to ecumenism, he said, is not based on wanting to draw all Christians into the Catholic fold, nor does it seek to create a new church, drawing on the best of each of the ecumenical partners.

The goal, he said, is "a spiritually renewed church, in which the church in its concrete form becomes to the fullest degree that which in its undeveloped nature it always has been and always remains: the one, holy church we profess together in the Apostles' Creed."

END


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