Dialogue With Reformed Churches

Author: Mons. John A. Radano


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

Good contacts, but significant tensions

The relations between the World Alliance of Reformed Churches (WARC) and the Catholic Church in the Year 2000 in some ways reflected sharply the current state of relationships between Churches stemming from the Reformation in the 16th century and the Catholic Church. That is, in the context of the modern ecumenical movement there were good fraternal contacts, on the one hand, but also there were significant tensions on the other hand over theological issues still unresolved after hundreds of years.

Fraternal contacts included the invitation extended by the World Alliance to the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity (PCPCU) to send an observer to the annual WARC Executive Committee meeting held in July 2000 in Bangalore, India. At this meeting the committee reviewed the full programme of work in which the Alliance is engaged, its various internal activities, its theological dialogues, and made plans for future activities, most importantly for the next General Council meeting in 2004.

Furthermore, the Alliance invited the PCPCU to send a participant to the consultation it co-sponsored in February 2000, along with the Mennonite World Conference and the Lutheran World Federation, in Strasbourg, France, concerning relations between the magisterial reformation (Lutherans and Reformed), the first reformation (Waldensians, Hussites) and the radical reformation (Mennonites, Quakers, Church of the Brethren). The goal was to discuss whether these various movements could be seen as parts of one Reformation. Discussions led the participants to the conclusion that the various reform movements against the established Church in the 16th century were so diverse that it is more accurate to speak of a plurality of reformations rather than one reformation. But the Catholic representative and those other Christians besides the three sponsoring groups who were invited were welcome to contribute to this discussion as well.

For its part, the Catholic Church continued fraternal contacts with the World Alliance of Reformed Churches during the Jubilee Year, inviting it, as well as other Christian World Communities to two major ecumenical services. The first was the ecumenical service involving the opening of the Holy Door at the Basilica of St Paul-Outside-the-Walls on 18 January 2000. The Alliance declined to come for reasons that will be discussed below. For the second ecumenical Jubilee event, the Ecumenical Commemoration of Witnesses to the Faith in the 20th Century, the Alliance accepted the invitation, and very much wanted to come, although eventually because of scheduling conflicts, expressed its regret in not being able to send a representative. And thirdly, the Reformed-Catholic International Dialogue was cordially received by Pope John Paul II in the course of its meeting 13-19 September 2000 near Rome. In summary, the various invitations extended by each this past year, in some way inviting the other to take part in its life, are a sign of cordial relations currently existing between Catholics and Reformed, despite the break between the two during the Reformation 450 years ago.

On the other hand, there were also signs of unresolved problems stemming from the time of the Reformation. To give one example, when the World Alliance declined the invitation to the 18 January service, it cited as its reason the problem of indulgences associated with the Jubilee Year.

For Catholics, indulgences are an expression of God's mercy conveyed through the Church to repentant sinners. But for many Protestants the abuses of indulgences in the 16th century were a cause of the Reformation, andthey still see the notion of indulgences today with the memory of the abuses of that time. Still, the conflict over indulgences is only symptomatic of deeper issues. Catholics and Reformed today can join in agreeing on the need to avoid abuses of indulgences or abuses of any other aspect of Church life. But indulgences raise issues specifically about the nature of the Church and the authority of the Church, over which they differ. While Catholics believe that the authority of the Church to grant indulgences is given by God, Protestants have taken an opposing view. On this aspect and other aspects of ecclesiology, Catholics and Reformed and other Protestants have disagreed from the time of the Reformation. The conflict on indulgences was useful in calling attention once again to the important dialogue concerning the nature of the Church.

Issues concerning the Church have emerged as a focal point in many bilateral and multilateral dialogues today, including the International Reformed-Catholic Dialogue. The second phase of the Reformed-Catholic Dialogue (1984-1990) published a report entitled Towards a CommonUnderstanding of the Church (1990), which explored the way each side saw ecclesiological issues in the conflicts of the 16th century, outlined aspects of apostolic faith which both share today, as well as convergences achieved on different points, illustrated some of the differences or divergences in regard to the understanding of the nature of the Church which call for continuing dialogue and suggested steps which might be mutually helpful in the ecumenical pilgrimage ahead.

The present, third phase which began in 1998 is also concerned with ecclesiology, and has as its general theme "Church as Community of Common Witness to the Kingdom of God". It is hoped that the exploration together of the biblical notion of the kingdom of God, will help us in our search for a common understanding of the Church. Presentations given at the recent session of this phase directly addressing this theme included biblical exploration of the notion of the kingdom of God and its relationship to the Church, and a systematic reflection on the Church as sign and instrument of the kingdom.

This third phase is also testing some of the convergences on ecclesiology previously found,hoping to deepen them. Specifically, the second phase claimed that, upon analysis, convergence could be found on the Reformed notion of the Church as "creatura verbi", and a Catholic notion of Church as "sacrament of grace". Thus, presentations were made on the Catholic side exploring themes of "The Church as Creatura Verbi and Sacramentum Gratiae in Patristic Theology" and on "Systematic Reflection on, the Church as Creatura Verbi and Sacramentum Gratiae", and on the Reformed side concerning "Sacramentality and instrumentality: A Re-reading of Towards a Common Understanding of the Church, n. 13". This study will continue.

When the dialogue commission met with Pope John Paul II on 18 September 2000, the Holy Father commented on its focus of study which relates the themes of Church and the kingdom of God, encouraging it, in these words: "in recenthistory we have seen the agony causedby ideologies which have sought to displace God and his reign. How important it is, at the beginning of the new millennium, for all Christians, long separated from one another, to feel deeply challenged by the Lord's exhortation: 'The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand, repent, and believe in the Gospel' (Mk 1:15). May your dialogue embody the spirit of fraternal love and esteem needed to embrace these words of our Saviour".  

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
21 February 2001, page 10

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