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VATICAN LETTER Jun-2-2006 (940 words) Backgrounder. xxxi

Ecumenical plate-spinner: Cardinal coordinates dozens of dialogues

By John Thavis
Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- Ecumenism is a work in progress, which explains why Cardinal Walter Kasper's days are never dull.

Cardinal Kasper, the Vatican's ecumenical point man, coordinates more than a dozen dialogues at any given time -- a bit like the plate-spinner in a circus.

When one dialogue starts to wobble, it calls for some delicate attention that can include theological exchange, personal visits or simple prayer meetings. The last thing anyone wants to hear is the sound of breaking china.

Cardinal Kasper recently took time for a wider view of the ecumenical scene under Pope Benedict XVI. In a major address a few steps from the Vatican May 30, he offered a realistic assessment of where dialogue is spinning smoothly and where it's starting to waver.

Surprisingly, perhaps, the German cardinal saw great promise in relations with separated Eastern churches, including the Russian Orthodox.

After a period of coldness with the Orthodox, he said, has come a "new fraternal climate." One concrete sign is the return of theological dialogue at a meeting of Catholic-Orthodox experts in Belgrade, Serbia and Montenegro, scheduled for September.

The Catholic Church already has much in common with the Orthodox, including the sacraments, the Eucharist and priestly ministry. Now, Cardinal Kasper said, attention will turn to a crucial issue: the ministry of the pope as the visible foundation of unity.

"We don't have a lot of doctrinal problems with the Orthodox; they are rather problems of mentality. But the Petrine ministry is the central problem," he said.

In the meantime, the cardinal said, Catholic and Orthodox are cooperating more frequently to counter what is seen as a common challenge: Europe's drift from its Christian roots. This joint effort could help heal the long East-West divide in Europe, he added.

"Today we have a historic chance to grow again together," he said.

Relations with the churches of the Reformation -- Anglicans, Lutherans, Methodists and others -- have also shown progress, Cardinal Kasper said. Probably the most noteworthy accomplishment was the 1999 agreement with the Lutheran church on justification by faith; the Methodist church is expected to adopt that statement when it meets in plenary session in July.

But here Cardinal Kasper warned of new problems, and he was blunt. He spoke of "the internal fragmentation of some ecclesial communities and their loss of substance in ethical areas, especially on questions of life and the family."

He said an obvious example was seen in the current "crisis" of the Anglican community -- a reference to the Anglican ordination of a gay bishop in North America and the blessing of homosexual unions, issues that have caused a split among Anglicans.

Cardinal Kasper said an even deeper problem was that many Protestant communities had developed a concept of unity no longer in line with the Catholic understanding of ecclesiology.

"We don't agree on the goal of the ecumenical path and thus there is a risk of going in different directions and, in the end, finding ourselves farther away from each other than we were before," he said.

He said the ongoing discussions with the World Council of Churches on the nature and mission of the church were "more urgent and important than ever" in resolving this question.

Cardinal Kasper pointed to one often-overlooked positive development in ecumenism: the growth of Protestant ecumenical groups, fraternities and movements that "are grateful for the firm position of the Catholic Church on ethical questions" and which often collaborate with like-minded Catholic groups.

He pointed to a 2004 meeting of more than 10,000 representatives from various European churches in Stuttgart, Germany, as the first public sign of this grass-roots movement.

"Thus, alongside official ecumenism, a spiritual ecumenical network is growing quickly and is perhaps more important and promising than the other," the cardinal said.

At the same time, Cardinal Kasper outlined a new and enormous ecumenical challenge: the emergence of new religious movements, particularly in the Third World. They include not only religious sects but also charismatic and Pentecostal communities, he said.

"After the ancient churches of the first millennium and the ecclesial communities of the Reformation, these communities represent a 'third wave' of Christianity," he said. Adherents of the new religious movements are thought to number between 500 million and 600 million people, making this the second-largest Christian group after Catholicism, he said.

Cardinal Kasper said many of these "megachurches" have no consolidated doctrine, relying instead on an emotional religiosity and promises of material reward in this world. Ecumenical relations are difficult, although he said the Catholic Church has undertaken dialogue with Pentecostals where it is possible.

In addition to ecumenical questions, the cardinal said, the success of these movements should lead established churches to ask themselves: "Why are these communities so attractive?" and "What are we missing?"

Summing up the ecumenical scene, Cardinal Kasper called for realism but said there was no cause for pessimism or alarm.

He hinted that positive developments could come under Pope Benedict and said the pope's encyclical "Deus Caritas Est" ("God Is Love") had already had a surprising ecumenical impact simply by expressing the essential Christian message eloquently.

Unlike the circus plate-spinner, Cardinal Kasper knows it's not enough just to keep things moving. Ecumenism has the very real goal of full Christian unity, and lack of visible progress can be painful.

For that reason, the cardinal said he appreciates it when everyday Christians -- the nonexperts -- tell him they are praying for his ministry.

"I have to confess, for me that is a real comfort among many difficulties," he said.


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