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
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
"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
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
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
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.