Results of Baptist-Catholic Meeting in Rome

Author: Mons. John A. Radano

Results of Baptist-Catholic Meeting in Rome

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

Examining issues of justification and Petrine ministry

For international contacts with Baptists, the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity (PCPCU) works with the Baptist World Alliance (BWA). With headquarters near Washington D.C., U.S.A., the various BWA conventions and unions throughout the world include about 48 million baptized persons. Since only confessing adults are baptized, if family members are included, the number would exceed 100 million adherents. The largest numbers are found in North America.

There has been one phase of formal international conversations co-sponsored by the Baptist World Alliance and the Catholic Church, which took place from 1984-1988. Focused on mission, the group published a report entitled "Summons to witness to Christ in Today's World" (1990).

Recent Catholic-Baptist dialogue

In recent years there have been informal two-day meetings, more regional in character, sponsored by the BWA and the PCPCU, taking place in Rome (2000), Buenos Aires (2001) with Latin American Baptists and Catholics, and Rome (2003, with BWA European Region). This latter meeting, 5-6 December, at the suggestion of the Baptists focused one day on the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification (JD) signed by the Catholic Church and the Lutheran World Federation in 1999, and the other day on the Petrine ministry. We will illustrate just some aspects of Baptist thinking on these subjects.

The 5 December presentations focused on justification. After Professor Jared Wicks S.J. (Gregorian University, Rome), traced the evolution of the Joint Declaration, two Baptist theologians, Professors Tarmo Toom (Estonia/U.S.A.) and Tadeusz Zielinsky (Poland), presented their views. On a positive note, both stated that the JD is a good theological basis for discussion by Baptists and Catholics about justification. Professor Zielinsky described the JD as "one of the most able... succinct official... statements on that doctrine in the history of theology", and praised "its Christocentric, biblical and personalist character".

The issue of justification

Professor Toom illustrated some internal problems Baptists would have in engaging in a dialogue with Catholics on justification. For example, it would be difficult to portray even the parameters of Baptist teaching on justification because Baptists have no confessional documents that apply worldwide. Strong emphasis on freedom of conscience, the independence of a local church, the lack of centralized authority and normative creeds have created a plurality of soteriologies. The strong insistence on sola scriptura discourages descriptive documents of Baptist beliefs.

Nonetheless, he traced some parallels between theological perspectives in certain historical Baptist documents with Catholic theology, in coming to his conviction that there is sufficient theological ground for further conversations about justification.

Professor Zielinsky stated that the formulation of the doctrine of justification in the JD (nn. 14-18) "can be... endorsed by all Baptists without hesitation. Those paragraphs showing the Lutheran-Catholic consensus" (each beginning with "We confess", nn. 19, 22, 31, 34, 37) deserve "full Baptists support". Two others (nn. 25, 28) could be accepted, with the exception of what they say about Baptism.

Professor Zielinsky mentioned two questions that Baptists would have liked to have seen emphasized more within the Joint Declaration. These are the notion of "sola fides", that only faith alone explains justification properly, and also that justification is "imputed", that is, it is bestowed by God on persons who are without God and without any merit.

Both scholars also expressed the problem Baptists have with the way Baptism is dealt with in the Joint Declaration. Baptism, according to Dr Zielinsky, cannot be viewed by Baptists "as the exclusive, as the sole focus of the justifying operation of God, as Roman Catholics and Lutherans vividly assert". In Dr Toom's assessment, the crucial issues for Baptists are not the simul justus et peccator and the criteriological position of the doctrine of justification (two critical issues for Lutherans). Rather, the "difficult issues for Baptists are the sacramental understanding of the Ordinances (Sacraments) of the Lord and the Church, and the theological justification of infant Baptism".

The issue of Petrine ministry

On 6 December the consultation focused on the Petrine ministry using as a basis the study document published in 2001 by the PCPCU which summarized the results of recent dialogue on the Petrine ministry, as well as specific responses to the Pope's request presented in the encyclical Ut Unum Sint (nn. 95-96) in regard to his ministry of unity. Two Baptist theologians, Rev. Raffaele Volpe of Italy and Dr Nigel G. Wright of Great Britain, gave papers responding to it.

The only formal Baptist response to Ut Unum Sint came from the Baptist Union of Great Britain. In his presentation, Dr Wright, President of the Baptist Union of Great Britain (2002-03), not only commented on the PCPCU report, but also referred to the response of the Baptist Union. We will refer here mostly to his comments on certain aspects of the latter response.

Acknowledging the limits of the response, since no one can speak definitively for all Baptists, he recalled that the response welcomes the following aspects of the Encyclical: its careful grounding in the inspired Scriptures; its willing recognition as Christians of all who have been justified by faith and incorporated into Christ through Baptism; its sense of inner repentance and the need for personal and communal conversion; the call to continual reformation; the importance of doctrine as an expression or the content of faith.

Concerning the Petrine ministry, the response suggests that because Baptist understandings of the nature of leadership and ministry in the Church do not take episcopacy into account, this makes it difficult to conceive of any acceptable form of universal primacy. Discussion of episcopal ministry, Dr Wright said, would be a logically prior consideration before any fully coherent answer on universal primacy could be given.

Nonetheless, the presentation illustrated a nuanced willingness to consider the leadership of the Bishop of Rome. Thus, while unity within the whole Church is certainly a desirable goal, the response does not assume that primacy is a necessary means to achieving this.

There is, however, no lack of openness in considering how such a ministry might serve to accomplish this goal. "The final issue would concern the kind of leadership and ministry offered by the Bishop of Rome and the ways in which power and authority are used. If he can truly develop this ministry as a ministry of love, as a servant of servants of God within the collegiality of his fellow bishops, then this may well be a significant contribution to the unity of the Church".

Professor Wright indicated that British Baptists "have an open mind as to how God's Spirit may lead". If the Spirit were to lead "in the direction of a 'collegiality of spiritual leaders"', Baptists would not assume "that the Bishop of Rome or any other leader of a world communion should occupy as of right of perpetuity the position of first among equals". At the same time, "the position and influence of the Bishop of Rome is such that nothing of a constructive nature would be likely to come about without his leadership within this process". In any case, for the sake of mission, the unity of the Church is not an issue that can be avoided.

One aspect of that Baptist response not mentioned in Dr Wright's paper reflected on the Pope's use of the term "our common Baptism". Pointing to the problem Baptists have with infant Baptism, the response had difficulty in recognizing the common Baptism between those like the Roman Catholic Church who baptize infants. Here too, just as the reactions to the Joint Declaration above, the Baptists focus on the issue of infant Baptism as problematic for them. Thus, the sacramental nature of Baptism, and specifically infant Baptism, must be given primary attention in dialogue between Catholics and Baptists.


This consultation proved fruitful in clarifying for each other the Baptist and Catholic views on the two topics discussed. It is intended that another two-day consultation will take place in a year, perhaps in North America. It is likewise hoped that an official phase of international dialogue can be taken up in several years.

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
28 January 2004, page 4

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