Report on World Evangelical Alliance-Catholic Church Relations
Fr Juan Usma Gómez
Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity
Called to build unity in truth and love
All Christians are called to actualize unity in love and in truth. The entire document Church, Evangelization and the Bonds of Koinonia,recently published by the Council between the Catholic Church and the World Evangelical Alliance, is based upon such a principle.
In fact, the document points out from the outset that the communities have been separated "by different histories and theologies as well as by unhelpful stereotypes and mutual misunderstandings. This estrangement and misapprehension has occasioned hostility and conflicts that continue to divide the Body of Christ in our own time" (Preamble).
Until now, unfortunately, unity in love and truth has not characterized our relations. The Council, by means of various meetings and discussions, offers us an overview of the ecclesiological themes and the way in which Evangelicals and Catholics are living their Christian existence in the world.
In order to present this view, Catholics make recourse to the affirmations of the Second Vatican Council, while Evangelicals concentrate on the documents that have been produced in the last 30 years by some of their groups, documents that concisely illustrate what the common positions are.
This last point is particularly important in light of the fact that the Evangelical world includes the faithful from various Christian traditions (Anglicans, Lutherans, Reformed, Methodists, Baptists, Pentecostals and Mennonites took part in the Council), who maintain the specific marks of the Christian community of their particular persuasion, and at the same time identify with the "Evangelical Movement" which is a result of the revivals of the 18th and 19th centuries.
We see, therefore, that if it is true that many Christians of our day call themselves "Evangelicals", it is also true that the Evangelical identity remains uncertain and that unity in the ideal Christian does not translate into structural or visible unity of the various communities. In this sense, the text that has been developed can be very useful because it offers a panoramic vision of certain issues that are at the heart of the divisions between Catholics and Evangelicals.
Evangelical partners, in fact, have recognized certain general characteristics which, according to the perspective of the participants in the discussions, are shared by all Evangelicals at the world level, or at least by all those who make up part of the World Evangelical Alliance (150 of the 200 million existing Evangelicals).
The document is a report of the discussions held; its authority is derived from the intellectual honesty and fidelity to the positions of the communities in dialogue. It is the result of a 10-year process of discussions on specific issues which transpired with the conviction that it is possible to recognize certain keys for a deeper understanding of the respective traditions and for overcoming the existing misunderstandings.
Those who approach the document should do so with a serious and critical attitude in order to objectively verify that their own tradition has been accurately presented. We further hope that the text will be actively received, because it does not signal the end but the beginning of a process that must be actualized at the local level. Reading, evaluating and completing the text on the basis of the respective contexts and together with other Christians would be the best way to move forward.
Catholics and Evangelicals
What does the text present?
Above all, it seeks to demonstrate the identity of both Catholics and Evangelicals by indicating the existing bonds of communion, which have quite often been ignored and even blurred because of doctrinal and historical questions and/or questions connected to a relational context.
Important differences emerge in comparing and analyzing the Catholic and Evangelical positions. There is, for example, complete unanimity regarding the origin of the Church and her role in the salvific plan. Catholics and Evangelicals recognize that the Holy Spirit is the principle of the Church's unity, which does not correspond to any socio-political or cultural system. They also hold that the bonds of union between believers and their union with Christ are fruits of the same Holy Spirit.
There remain, however, substantial disagreements and differences on the understanding of the local and universal Church and the relation between the two. Nor is there agreement on the visible manifestations of the Church in her structure and organization, particularly in relation to the sacramental structure and the ordained ministry. A third difference concerns the theme of the visible/invisible Church.
Moreover, there remains the fact that baptism, the bond of communion essential for Catholics, is not seen in this way by all Evangelicals. In fact, for them, bonds of communion exist only between "true believers", or better yet, those who by hearing the Gospel give a conscious, personal and explicit response of faith and lead a life in keeping with the Gospel's teaching.
Belief in the One and Triune God
These disagreements, however, are at the heart of the foundation of the common faith, because Evangelicals and Catholics share the Sacred Scriptures (with the exception of the Deuterocanonical books) and believe in their inspiration by the Holy Spirit. We affirm the unique role as mediator of Christ, his incarnation, death and Resurrection for our salvation. We affirm together our faith in the Triune God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Together we can pray the Lord's Prayer and confess the Apostles' and Nicene Creeds. We affirm the Gospel call to conversion, to a disciplined life in the grace of Jesus Christ and can commemorate together those who have witnessed by their blood to this common faith (cf. n. 20).
The participants of the Council are convinced of one necessity: our communities, which are already in the communion/koinonia of the Trinity, must pass from this unique condition of unity in the Trinity to a unity shared between Catholics and Evangelicals, Our ability to credibly proclaim the Gospel and to resolve the questions related to religious freedom and the problem of proselytism which continue to divide us, is based upon the real communion/koinonia that we share.
How can we proclaim the Gospel of reconciliation without committing ourselves at the same time to the work for the reconciliation of Christians? (cf. Ut Unum Sint,n. 98). Catholics and Evangelicals, by virtue of theexisting bonds of communion, must together begin or continue a process of repentance and conversion in view of a common commitment. In the face of the urgency of a vital and profound evangelization and of a promotion of Christian values in the various cultures, rivalry on the mission field weighs down or completely hinders that mission entrusted to us.
For this reason, by reminding ourselves of the words of the Second Vatican Council, together we affirm that, as much as the religious conditions allow, Catholics and Evangelicals should fraternally collaborate in the profession of the faith (if it is commonly possible) in God and Jesus Christ before the nations, just as on the practical level in the social, cultural, scientific and religious spheres. And let them work together especially for the sake of Christ, "their common Lord. May his name unite them!" (Ad Gentes, n. 15).
Bonds of koinonia
Without making a pretence of doctrinal consensus, the report Church, Evangelization and the Bonds of Koinonia furnishes us with the first proposition for work at the local level, namely, by obviating the trends that prevail at this moment.
Finally, it is important to note that the text unites the theme of communion of life and action with that of communion in faith. It does not content itself with finding doctrinal agreements lacking effective consequences in the life of the community, nor does it reduce koinonia to a simple brotherly meeting without the fundamentals of established faiths.
Mere collaboration in place of a search for unity in love and truth is a path that always attracts more people at the present moment. But limiting the search for unity simply to collaboration would hinder us from overcoming the divisions that afflict us, because the issue is not only about restoring a good neighbourhood but is also about reconstructing the original unity, the unity that Christ has given to his Church.
Weekly Edition in English
12 May 2004, page 10
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