Report on Catholic-Baptist Relations
Mons. John A. Radano
Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity

Tackling differences with a cordial spirit

The Baptist World Alliance (BWA), with headquarters in Falls Church, Virginia (near Washington, D.C., U.S.A.), embraces about 40 million baptized members. Since Baptists traditionally baptize only those who are able to make a personal confession of faith, when one adds children in Baptist families, the number would be closer to 100 million. However, the Southern Baptist Convention in the U.S.A., numbering about 16 million baptized members, recently left the BWA.

The Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity (PCPCU) and the Baptist World Alliance have had cordial relations for a long time. Over the years, the PCPCU and the BWA have invited each other to take part in important events in the other's life.

There has been one phase of formal international dialogue between the Catholic Church and the BWA, 1984-88, which published a report entitled "Summons to Witness to Christ in Today's World" (1990).

While the PCPCU expressed the wish to proceed immediately to a second phase of formal dialogue, that was not then feasible for the BWA.

Therefore, in recent years, to ensure continuing contacts between the BWA and the PCPCU in the absence of formal dialogue, a series of informal two-day consultations have been held: in 2000 (Rome), 2001 (Buenos Aires), 2003 (Rome), and 2004 (Washington, D.C.).

With the exception of the first, in which the Baptist delegation consisted of an international group, the others have emphasized a particular region of the BWA and of the Catholic Church, though still co-sponsored by the BWA and PCPCU; Thus, in 2001 the Latin America region, in 2003 the European region, 2004 the North America region.

Issues and areas of divergence

These consultations have addressed important theological issues and excellent presentations have been made.

In Buenos Aires the theme was "The Church as Koinonia"; in Rome (2003) two themes were discussed: the Lutheran-Catholic Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification, and the Petrine Ministry.

The most recent consultation in Washington, D.C., focused again on two themes: "Baptism: Entrance to the Church", and "Mary in the Life of the Church", to which we will come back shortly.

Some of these issues are precisely those which the 1990 report indicated as areas needing continued exploration in future dialogue. That report identified specific issues on which Catholics and Baptists tend to differ, such as: "the shape of koinonia", mentioning that this includes for Catholics the role of the Bishop of Rome, the relationship between "Faith, Baptism and Christian witness", and "the place of Mary in faith and practice".

These consultations have initiated discussion on these issues and have highlighted a certain degree of shared understanding on them. The brevity of treatment of these topics in the limited time available and the unofficial nature of the consultations, however, preclude the drafting and publication of a detailed report of findings.

Nonetheless, some of the excellent papers presented at the meetings have been published by their authors, and therefore can receive a wider circulation.

Baptism as entrance to the Church

To return now to the most recent meeting, the consultation in Washington, D.C., considered first the theme of "Baptism: Entrance to the Church". Papers were given by Dr Barry Morrison (Canadian Baptist Ministries) and Sr Susan Wood, SCL (Department of Theology, St. John's University, Collegeville, Minnesota).

As is well known a major difference between Baptists and Catholics concerns infant baptism, with Baptists insisting that a personal confession of faith is required before baptism. Thus, one of the issues which came up in both papers was the relationship between baptism and the Church. Sr Wood put it in this way:

"The ecumenical issue may not be the necessity of faith for the reception of baptism, but the relative emphasis on individual faith versus the faith of the church in our respective traditions. Roman Catholics consider all the sacraments as forms of liturgical prayer. Liturgical prayer is first the public, official prayer of the Church, rather than the prayer of a private individual. In the profession of faith within liturgical prayer, the 'I' of 'I believe' is not only the individual, but the whole Church professing its belief".

Dr Barry Morrison's approach to the theme was very liturgical, which, he said, was not the usual Baptist approach. But on the question of ecclesiology he said:

"While baptism necessarily concerns an individual..., it is the communal nature of the sacrament that demands our consideration. What has sometimes been less clear in actual practice among Baptists... is the extent to which baptism signals ongoing incorporation into the body of Christ....

"Preference for the word 'ordinance' instead of 'sacrament' most often suggests an emphasis on the individual's response to the command of Christ. In most cases, little attention is given to what Christ does in baptism, or to the role of the Church".

Morrison continued, however, saying that "there are Baptist liturgies which emphasize the ecclesial and sacramental nature of baptism", and went on to illustrate this.

Indeed, the participants saw many convergences between the Catholic and Baptist presentations.

Nonetheless, the question of their different views of the Church, and the relationship of this to baptism, remains a major issue that needs to be faced in order to achieve greater convergence on our respective views of baptism.

Mariology in Catholic tradition

Regarding the theme of "Mary in the Life of the Church", Sr Sara Butler gave the first of two papers entitled "The Blessed Virgin Mary, God-Bearer, in the Mystery of Christ and the Church", and Dr Timothy George, Dean of Beeson Divinity School, discussed "The Blessed Virgin Mary in the Evangelical Perspective".

His presentation was based on a chapter he has written for a newly published book on Mary with contributions from Orthodox, Catholic, Lutheran, Disciples of Christ and Evangelical perspectives. His approach showed a renewed Evangelical openness to and interest in Mary.

While not agreeing with all aspects of Mariology in the Catholic tradition, especially the two dogmatic formulations, Dr George's essay showed changes from the negative Evangelical positions on Mary of the past.

His paper was followed by Sara Butler's second presentation, "The Dogmas of Mary's Immaculate Conception and Glorious Assumption". She treated the two dogmas as a "pair", under the following topics: their origin in liturgical celebration; the question of reliable historical evidence; biblical sources: Paul and the Old Testament; victory of grace; doxological function; and the manner of definition.

Some of the Baptists indicated the need for Baptists to pay more attention to Mary, for example, to the Biblical testimony about her.

But it seems clear that, even with the renewed interest in Mary in Evangelical circles, this is still a neuralgic ecumenical issue. It still seems to many Baptists that Catholics give too much attention to Mary in a way that lessens the attention which must be given to Christ.

The meeting was co-chaired by Bishop Brian Farrell, Secretary of the PCPCU, and Dr Denton Lotz, General Secretary of the BWA.

Although these two-day informal consultations do not aim at a common detailed report as a formal phase of dialogue would, they nonetheless serve a good interim purpose of keeping the two communions in touch with each other.

But one can hope that a more formal second phase of international Catholic-Baptist dialogue can begin soon, taking up the issues over which there is disagreement in a more intense and in-depth fashion.


Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
8 June 2005, page 8

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