Reformed-Catholic Relations in 2001

Author: Mons. John A. Radano


Mons. John A. Radano
Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity

Report on Dialogue With Reformed World Alliance

For relations with the Christians of the Reformed tradition, the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity is in continuing contact with the World Alliance of Reformed Churches (WARC) which has headquarters in Geneva. The Alliance includes more than two hundred and fifteen churches of various traditions—reformed, presbyterian, congregationalist, and some united, including some 70,000,000 Christians from every continent, the majority from the so called "third world" countries.

The Kingdom of God as principle of action on behalf of justice, peace and integrity

During the past year, the third phase of international dialogue between the Catholic Church and the Alliance continued, holding its fourth meeting, this time in Cape Town, South Africa, 22-28 August 2001. It continued its joint study of the notion of the Kingdom of God and ways in which this notion might assist Reformed and Catholics in finding further common ground in ecclesiology, and motivation for common witness. In previous sessions, the dialogue has heard papers addressing biblical, and theological insights about the notion of the Kingdom of God. And one of the papers in Cape Town included a treatment of the Kingdom of God in ecumenical dialogues. A unique feature of this meeting was that taking advantage of the South African situation it emphasized a contextual aspect, by asking for papers from South African Theology, one Catholic and one Reformed on the following theme: "What does it mean that the Church is the instrument of the Kingdom of God in the South African context", relating to both the apartheid and the post apartheid periods. This brought valuable perspectives into the exploration of the Kingdom of God. The meeting also took up again discussion of a theme describing the kingdom of God as "principle of action on behalf of justice, peace and integrity of creation" which had begun in a previous session. There will probably be two more sessions of this phase, leading to a report on what this dialogue has accomplished.

Indulgences are seen as a point of division in Reformed-Catholic relations

But two other important meetings took place. One, concerning the question of indulgences, called to mind one issue which was a source of serious conflict at the Reformation and is still unsettled. The other reflected progress in the ecumenical movement. It concerned the challenge of building on the ecumenical breakthrough of the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification,by exploring the question of whether other Christian world communions could adhere to the consensus on justification achieved together in dialogue and officially accepted by the Lutheran World Federation and the Catholic Church.

Concerning indulgences the PCPCU, the WARC and the LWF at the invitation of Bishop Walter Kasper, then Secretary of the PCPCU, organized a two-day consultation on that theme which took place in Rome 9-10 February 2001. Six persons from each of the three bodies took part. It was occasioned by events related to the celebration of the Great Jubilee 2000. The Jubilee included (as usual) for Catholics the traditional usage of indulgences under the proper conditions. But the Jubilee celebrations in Rome also included important ecumenical events. A major ecumenical celebration was the opening of the Holy Door of the Basilica of St Paul-Outside-the-Walls, by the Pope, together with the representatives of the Ecumenical Patriarchate and the Archbishop of Canterbury, in an ecumenical service on 18 January 2000 to which leaders of all the Christian world Communions were invited. Since the Jubilee Year, as every Holy Year, included the practice of indulgences, which, from the perspective of ecumenism is an unresolved ecumenical issue, very much related to serious conflicts at the Reformation, the WARC did not feel it possible to accept the invitation to the event just mentioned. Some Lutherans also asked whether indulgences might not clash with the consensus achieved in the Joint Declaration in the Doctrine of Justification.It was therefore necessary to discuss this question.

Clarification helps to put aside misunderstandings about Indulgences

The objective of the consultation was not to try to resolve, in a two-day meeting, the long standing differences about indulgences. The consultation was seen as an initial step, to help to begin to put aside misunderstandings. It was especially important for Catholics to state clearly from an historical and a theological perspective the teaching of the Catholic Church on indulgences, including the limits of indulgences, and this was done in two presentations. Reformed and Lutheran scholars also presented papers indicating the way this issue was seenfrom their perspectives. The meeting, co-chaired by Bishop Kasper andthe General Secretaries of the LWF and WARC, Dr Ishamel Noko and Dr Setri Nyomi, respectively, was conducted in a very cordial atmosphere. No statement was published at the conclusion of the meeting except a communiqué giving a basic description of the meeting (see PCPCU Information Service 106, 2001/I pp. 28-29). But the papers given at the meeting will be publishedwith the hope that they will be discussed within the three Christian families. After this initial step, the three co-sponsors are willing to consider another meeting in the future if this would be useful.The issues involving indulgences still need to be clarified and hopefully reconciled, among Christians.

Joint Declaration is a sign of progress on the ecumenical front

The second meeting took place in Columbus, Ohio, 26 November - 1 December 2001. The PCPCU and LWF together invited the World Alliance of Reformed Churches and the World Methodist Council to a consultation to discuss the question of whether the Reformed and Methodist communions could somehow adhere, if they wished, to the consensus on justification found in the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification officially signed and accepted in 1999 in Augsburg by Lutherans and Catholics. The World Methodist Council had signaled its interest already when attending the Augsburg signing. Various Reformed voices raised the question of Reformed participation even before 1999 when the Joint Declaration project was in process. A consultation was therefore called to explore this question. This was a meeting of theologians to sort out the issues and not a meeting of the respective church authorities and decision makers. The result was the decision that a consultative process will be continued by Reformed, Catholics, Lutherans and Methodists on this question. The matter, therefore, is still under study. (Communiqué Information Service 107 2001/ IV).

The implications for ecumenical progress here should be noted. Not so long ago, churches stemming from the Reformation, such as the Lutheran and the Reformed would have simply been together on one side of the ecumenical dialogue and the Catholic Church on the other. In this instance Lutherans and Catholics, who after decades of dialogue, having achieved and declared in 1999 a basic consensus on the doctrine of justification, a central issue of conflict at the Reformation, have together invited Reformed and Methodists to explore whether they can agree in some way with the core of this consensus. It illustrates the effectiveness of dialogue and the somewhat changing ecumenical scene.  

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
17 April 2002, page 10

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