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VATICAN LETTER Oct-16-2009 (750 words) Backgrounder. With photos. xxxi

Ecumenical quality control: Cardinal reviews 40 years of dialogue

By Cindy Wooden
Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- When Cardinal Walter Kasper, the Vatican's chief ecumenist, tried to harvest the fruits of 40 years of dialogue with the mainline Protestant churches, he did it by the piece, not the bushel.

The result is a 207-page book, "Harvesting the Fruits: Basic Aspects of Christian Faith in Ecumenical Dialogue," which celebrates abundant growth in understanding among Christians, but with a sharp sense of quality control.

The book bears the cardinal's name as author, although others had a hand in the project: former and current members of the cardinal's Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, the cardinal-members of the council and theologians from other Christian communities.

Four decades of official Catholic dialogues with the Anglican Communion, the Lutheran World Federation, the World Methodist Council and the World Alliance of Reformed Churches have led to recognition of a strong shared faith in Jesus Christ and the Trinity, the content of the creed and baptism, the book said.

It highlighted a "fresh and renewed understanding of the relation between Scripture and tradition" and the almost miraculous agreements with Lutherans and Methodists on justification -- how people are made righteous in the eyes of God -- which was the key dispute of the Protestant Reformation.

But it acknowledged serious differences in understanding and in practice regarding the meaning of ordination and who can be ordained, the question of authority in the church and who exercises it, and how Christian communities can determine what constitutes an authentic interpretation of Scripture.

In addition, the book acknowledges that while many of the historic disputes that kept Christians divided have been overcome, differences over new ethical problems -- particularly concerning human sexuality -- are moving some of the churches farther apart and even creating new divisions within individual Christian communities.

The cardinal, his staff and representatives of the Catholic Church's four dialogue partners will gather in February to study the book as the basis for a discussion on "the future of Western ecumenism," Cardinal Kasper said.

Presenting the book at the Vatican Oct. 13, the cardinal said the timing of the project was not meant to coincide with his possible retirement. He will turn 77 in March, but said the pope has made no mention of replacing him.

"I am willing to work in the church and for the church as long as God gives me the strength and health, but the rest depends on the Holy Father," he said, adding that it "would not be a disaster" for the church or for ecumenism if a qualified replacement stepped in.

As far as the book is concerned, Cardinal Kasper said that even the people working on it were "positively surprised at how much has been accomplished in these years. It is a very rich harvest that overcomes the polemics and the great historical problems of the Reformation."

The cardinal said he knows that "even among some members of the Roman Curia" there sometimes is a feeling that ecumenism "has not borne any fruit and left us with our hands empty."

But "that is not the official opinion" of the church, he said, pointing out that Cardinal William J. Levada, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, is also a member of the council for Christian unity, and read the first draft of the book and made suggestions.

Also, he said, Pope Benedict XVI and Cardinal Levada were given the first copies of the completed edition of "Harvesting the Fruits."

"This book was not written against anyone in the Curia, but aims at creating a welcoming atmosphere for ecumenism," Cardinal Kasper said.

The ecumenical dialogues and their joint statements of agreement on issues, including the church, authority, ministry and the Eucharist, "were not written to be covered with dust on the shelves of a library or simply to be used for someone's thesis," the cardinal said.

Cardinal Kasper said it is time for the Catholic Church -- and also its dialogue partners -- to begin "a reception process" that promotes not just knowledge of the documents, but allows the statements to impact the way the church lives and reaches out to others.

Msgr. Mark Langham, an official at the pontifical council and a speaker at the book presentation, said, "It is our hope that this book is both a celebration and a challenge, that it helps us as members of the Christian community to realize what an astounding achievement has been reached and to ask ourselves why we don't feel like that a bit more."


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