Report on World Alliance of Reformed Churches-Catholic Church Relations
Mons. John A. Radano
Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity

Complex Reformation Movements Demand a Bilateral Dialogue Approach

In the work with Christians of the Reformed traditions, the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity is in touch with the World Alliance of Reformed Churches (WARC), which has headquarters in Geneva. WARC includes more than 220 member churches comprising together more than 75 million Christians of Presbyterian, Reformed or Congregational traditions, as well as some which have resulted from the union of several traditions. The latter include, for example, the Church of South India, which came about in 1947 as a union of Anglican, Methodist and Congregational churches in India.

There is great diversity among the Alliance's member churches, although the Calvinist tradition is central to its heritage.

The International Dialogue

The third phase of international dialogue between the Catholic Church and the World Alliance of Reformed Churches began in 1998. Its theme is "The Church as Community of Common Witness to the Kingdom of God".

It is hoped that finding common perspectives on the biblical notion of the Kingdom of God will help our mutual understanding in two ways.

First, that it might shed light on some of the questions of ecclesiology over which Reformed and Catholics have differed.

Second, that it might help foster common witness by Reformed and Catholics to the degree that this can take place today.

The sixth meeting of this phase of dialogue took place 16-22 August 2003 at Emmanuel College of Victoria University in Toronto, Canada. A draft outline for a report of this phase of dialogue is developing.

As presently conceived the draft outline includes chapters on the following topics: the Kingdom of God in biblical, historical and theological perspective; the Church as communion/community; the discernment of the Kingdom of God; Unity as Common Witness; as well as summaries of several case studies offering both Reformed and Catholic perspectives on the role of the Church as instrument of the Kingdom of God in South Africa, in Northern Ireland and in Canada. The next meeting will be held in October 2004.

The Prague Conference

The World Alliance of Reformed Churches, along with the Lutheran World Federation (LWF) and the Mennonite World Conference, co-sponsored the Seventh "Prague Conference", 28 November-2 December 2003, in Prague, Czech Republic.

The "Prague Conferences" (so called because they began in Prague and most have taken place in Prague) started in 1986. These conferences are somewhat unique ecumenical efforts within the Reformation world, because they give primary attention to the pre-16th-century reform movements such as the Waldensians (12th century), the Czech reform movements, especially the followers of John Hus (15th century), and to the more radical reform movements during and after the 16th century such as the Anabaptists/Mennonites (16th century), the Religious Society of Friends ("Quakers", 17th century) and the Church of the Brethren (18th century), the latter three being known since 1935 as the "Historic Peace Churches", especially because their way of promoting peace emphasizes non-violence in every situation.

In a certain sense, these conferences illustrate the complexity of the Reformation itself and the complexity even of the contemporary Christian World Communions which are the descendents of the Reformation.

For example, the Waldensians and the Church of the Czech Brethren (in the tradition of Hus), although they represent reform movements which emerged before the 16th century, are member churches of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches today, most of whose member churches follow the heritage of the 16th century Reformers Zwingli and Calvin. The Anabaptist/Mennonite movement in the 16th century began following the reform efforts of Zwingli and others, but gradually criticized them as not being radical enough and were persecuted by Protestant and Catholic leaders alike.

The first Prague Conference in 1986 brought together only representatives of the pre-16th century ("First Reformation") movements (Waldensians, Czech Brethren) and "Radical Reformation" groups (Anabaptists, Quakers and Church of the Brethren). It was the first meeting in recent times between people representing the "First" and the "Radical" Reformations.

Besides wanting to explore their respective heritage, some of these groups had communities living in Communist countries, and gaining mutual support with one another under those circumstances could also be beneficial.

The second and third conferences reflected the understanding of these traditions that their movements were motivated by efforts both to reform the church and to transform society. Thus, the theme of Prague II (1987) was "Escatology and Social Transformation" and of Prague III (1989), "Christian Faith and Economics".

New emphasis, participants

The fourth meeting in 1994, co-sponsored by WARC and LWF in Geneva, broadened the ecumenical participation significantly. For the first time, representatives of the 16th-century "Magisterial Reformation", Lutherans and Reformed, took part.

New emphasis was given in the discussion to seeing whether or to what extent the First Reformation, the Magisterial Reformation and the Radical Reformation can speak of sharing a common reformation heritage. The ecumenical aspect was broadened even further by the presence of participants representing the Methodists, Baptists and the Catholic Church.

Catholic participation has entered this process more deeply, especially at two points.

The first was in the context of Prague V (1998) and Prague V! (2000). These meetings brought the process into one of the major realms of ecumenical dialogue in the 1990s, focusing on the questions of justification and sanctification. The Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification was being developed by the LWF and the Catholic Church during the 1990s and was officially signed in 1999.

At Prague V papers were presented from the various perspectives. A Catholic scholar, Fr Jared Wicks, S.J., was invited to address the theme and his presentation explained the remote and immediate background to the Joint Declaration. It was the first time that a Catholic theologian gave an address at one of the Prague meetings.

Prague VI was even more ecumenically representative, with the presence of participants from the Orthodox and the Seventh Day Adventist traditions.

The second opportunity for deeper Catholic participation came during the recent Seventh Prague Conference at the end of 2003, which focused on "Prophetic and Renewal Movements in the Church and Society". In a certain sense this theme represents the way these various participating groups have seen themselves, specifically as prophetic and renewal moments within church and society.

Papers from a variety of those traditions were read. A Catholic paper presented an interpretation of the Second Vatican Council's call for proper and continual renewal in the Church (Lumen Gentium, n. 8; Unitatis Redintegratio, n. 6) and the importance of internal renewal for ecumenism. It also commented on why' the Protestant reforming movements were not accepted by the Catholic Church in the 16th century, and the ways in which, as a result of dialogue, Catholics and Protestants today have found convergences, and on some questions agreement, on some issues of concern to the Reformation.

At the end of the Seventh Conference the participants reflected on the achievements and the future of the Prague Conferences. There was a sense that these conferences as a coherent series with a continuity of participants (a number had been at all seven) had come to a completion. The main reason is that the conferences had achieved, for the first time, a platform for voices from the First Reformation and the Radical Reformation traditions to be heard within the context of the larger ecumenical conversation. Perhaps no more could be expected of these meetings.

One notes also that the political situation in which the first three conferences were held, and because of which it was especially beneficial for these churches to develop mutual support, has changed radically. Nations in Central and Eastern Europe are no longer dominated by the Communist ideologies. And from an ecumenical point of view many things have changed.

Even before the Prague meetings the Mennonite World Conference (MWC) and the World Alliance of Reformed Churches had organized a consultation and faced together the Reformed-Anabaptist conflicts of the 16th century and achieved a certain healing of memories. The MWC and the Catholic Church engaged in international dialogue from 1998-2003, clarifying together many aspects of Church history in reference to their separation in the 16th century.

Conversations between the MWC and the LWF may be undertaken soon to address the condemnations of Anabaptist positions in the Lutheran confessions of the 16th century.

Not all ecumenical issues have been resolved. But today, in the words of the Encyclical Ut Unum Sint, "the 'universal brotherhood' of Christians has become a firm ecumenical conviction" (n. 42).

It was suggested that the common platform that has been achieved could now be attempted in several new initiatives, such as study processes in preparation for observing the coming 500th anniversary of the Reformation. Another possible study process could focus on the Reformation legacy in mission.

Concluding observations

The Prague Conferences illustrate the plurality and complexity of Reformation movements. The conferences have been a multilateral discussion primarily among different dissenting movements which have emerged in the course of various centuries.

The first, the magisterial and the radical reformation families share much of the Christian heritage in common, but in many ways they are also separated from each other and diverge on many questions.

In the course of these seven conferences, serious differences among these traditions have been noted, for example, in regard to the understanding of the Church and the state, and in regard to sacraments. While for all of them Scripture is a fundamental aspect for Christian life, differences have been noted with regard to the primacy of Scripture for discerning God's will.

Thus, some believe that Jesus Christ as witnessed in the Scriptures is the primary norm for discerning truth and right practice. Others appeal primarily to the Spirit's leading for direction concerning Christian life.

In regard to settling conflicts in societies, some of these, especially the radical reformation traditions, reject all types of coercion and violence. Others may accept the use of some measure of coercion and force as a last resort.

The Catholic Church, in implementing the ecumenical mandate given by the Second Vatican Council, has undertaken bilateral dialogues with a variety of Christian World Communions stemming from the Reformation.

Seeing the complexity of the reformation movements over the centuries highlights the significance of what has been achieved in ecumenical dialogue today, such as the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification and the important convergence found in the second phase of international dialogue with WARC on the reformed vision of the Church as Creatura Verbi with the Catholic understanding of the Church as Sacrament, mentioned above. The bilateral approach has enabled the two partners to address the specific issues over which separation took place between the established Catholic Church and a particular Reformation tradition, for example, Lutherans, or Reformed, or Mennonites.

Given the complexity and plurality of reformation movements, the importance of this bilateral approach to dialogue is all the more clear.


Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
31 March 2004, page 10

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