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VATICAN LETTER Nov-18-2010 (790 words) Backgrounder. With photos. xxxi

Not cleared for landing: Ecumenical flight still far from destination


Anglican Archbishop Rowan Williams of Canterbury greets Cardinal Ivan Dias, prefect of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, at the conclusion of the 50th anniversary celebration of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity at the Vatican Nov. 17. (CNS/Paul Haring)

By Cindy Wooden
Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- For years, Christian leaders have recognized a waning enthusiasm for ecumenism, but now they are warning that too many Christians assume their divisions and differences just don't matter.

Whether a divided Christianity is an anomaly, as an eminent Orthodox theologian said, or the result of sin, as a cardinal said, the ecumenical dialogues involving the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity are signs that the Catholic Church and other mainline churches are not going to settle for anything less than full unity in faith.

The pontifical council held its 50th anniversary celebration Nov. 17 at the Vatican and its members met the pope the next morning.

The evening celebration featured talks by Cardinal-designate Kurt Koch, council president; Anglican Archbishop Rowan Williams of Canterbury; Orthodox Metropolitan John of Pergamon; and Cardinal Walter Kasper, retired council president.

Cardinal-designate Koch used a metaphor to describe 50 years of Vatican ecumenical activity. He said it is like a plane trip -- there is much activity and excitement in preparing for the trip, everyone feels something happening during take-off, but when cruising altitude is reached, no one notices how fast the plane is moving, and passengers start to fidget and wonder if they ever are going to arrive.

Ecumenical activity may have appeared to level off, he said, but it still is moving forward, and people must trust that it will reach its destination, he said.

The cardinal-designate did not mention the recent turbulence experienced on the ecumenical flight because of serious differences, including over the ordination of women, blessing homosexual unions and dealing with abortion and other life issues.

Cardinal Kasper said the sins of Christians throughout the centuries have fractured the body of Christ.

"The great danger is that we get use to this situation of division, taking it simply as a fact," he said. "The existence of confessional churches, one alongside the other, is a reality that contradicts the will of the Lord and is the fruit of sin."

Christians cannot take shortcuts to unity or gloss over differences that, in fact, may reveal they are not united in faith, he said.

"Good-natured coexistence," cooperation in social service projects and shared events during the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity are all positive developments, Cardinal Kasper said, "but they are not enough to fulfill Christ's will for his church."

In fact, both Archbishop Williams, the spiritual leader of the Anglican Communion, and Metropolitan John, Orthodox co-chairman of the Catholic-Orthodox theological dialogue, expressed caution about a new trend in ecumenism -- "reconciled diversity." They warned that unity cannot be the result of believing differences are not important or too difficult to tackle, so that churches simply skip ahead to mutual recognition of ministers and full sacramental sharing.

The Orthodox churches, like the Catholic Church, have longer and more-detailed lists of the differences that they consider necessary to resolve before unity can be restored, but Archbishop Williams said the Anglican and many mainline Protestant churches also have trouble seeing how "reconciled diversity" can respond to each dimension of the "biblical foundation for a theology of Christian unity."

Archbishop Williams said the New Testament calls for the unity of Christians in Jesus Christ, unity with one another and unity with the witness of the apostles and apostolic teaching.

The central place where Christians stand in unity with Christ is in the Eucharist, he said, because it is "the place where the prayer of Christ becomes our prayer."

However, he said, increasingly the Eucharist is not the central action of many Christian communities, including in some parts of the Anglican Communion, and the archbishop called for a renewed effort to develop an ecumenical theology of the Eucharist.

While almost all Christians would agree they need to maintain the faith handed on by the apostles, their ideas on how that is guaranteed vary widely and go from the Catholic vision that it is the pope who guarantees unity and apostolic continuity to an evangelical vision in which individual Christians read the Bible and basically decide for themselves.

Most Christians who support the "reconciled diversity" model of unity, he said, believe the problem of authority is too complicated to deal with, so they simply move on.

Metropolitan John, a top theologian and representative of the ecumenical patriarch of Constantinople, said a real challenge to ecumenism today is that not all Christians agree on what unity means and entails.

For the Orthodox, he said, "unity cannot avoid the question of truth," of what is an orthodox theological position and what is heresy.

While some Christians "would be happier to remain separated," Metropolitan John said that only serious dialogue can lead to the full unity Christ willed for his church.

END


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