The Harvest Project: Bringing in the Sheaves of Ecumenism

Author: Bishop Brian Farrell, L.C.

The Harvest Project: Bringing in the Sheaves of Ecumenism

Bishop Brian Farrell, L.C.
Secretary of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity

Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity reports on ecumenical progress

Despite some signs of tiredness and disappointment, the ecumenical quest continues to be an important point of reference her thought and action in the Catholic Church. And, as can be seen from the numerous meetings and speeches of an ecumenical character, it is undoubtedly a priority for Pope Benedict XVI, just as it has been for the Popes who preceded him, from John XXIII and the Second Vatican Council onwards.

The Catholic commitment to the ecumenical movement has its basis in the ecclesiological renewal of the Council, whose teaching on the Catholic Church left room for the recognition of saving elements "outside" her visible boundaries, in the other Churches and Ecclesial Communities. Consequently, efforts to promote good relations and dialogue with those communities serve to bring to light the already existing degree of communion, that is, the elements of the salvific work of Christ which the Catholic Church and the other Churches and Ecclesial Communities have in common.

Hence, the task of ecumenism is to encourage divided Christians to rediscover together what they have in common and to discover in each other, mutually, the gifts of grace that belong to the fullness of all that the Saviour intends for his disciples.

But in the face of so many divisions among Christians inherited from 2,000 years of history how is the search for full communion actually advancing?

Speaking, on 12 December 2008, to the participants in the Plenary of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity [PCPCU], Pope Benedict XVI clearly affirmed signs of progress: "This dialogue is taking place increasingly in the context of ecclesial relations which, by the grace of God are extending to involve not only Pastors but all the various members and structures of the People of God" (L'Osservatore Romano English Edition, 24/31 December 2008, p. 7).

In particular he underlined the continuous improvement "in relations with the Orthodox Churches and with the ancient Oriental Orthodox Churches, as regards both the theological dialogue and the consolidation and growth of ecclesial brotherhood.... It is also comforting to note that a sincere spirit of friendship between Catholics and Orthodox has been growing in recent years and has also been manifested in the many contacts that have taken place between the Heads of Dicasteries in the Roman Curia and Bishops of the Catholic Church with the Heads of various Orthodox Churches, as well as during the visits of important Orthodox representatives to Rome and to particular Catholic Churches" (ibid.).

It is precisely this progress in the dialogue of charity that has made it possible for the theological dialogue between the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church to achieve notable, and even unexpected, results in the most recent meetings of the Joint International Commission.

On the other hand, many have reservations about the real results of the dialogues with the Ecclesial Communities of the West. The recent Plenary of the PCPCU (13-19 December 2008) was expressly devoted to a reflection on such unease, examining a study document prepared by officials and consultors of the Pontifical Council under the personal guidance of the Cardinal President, a document known as "The Harvest Project" and entitled: Ecumenical Consensus/Convergence on some basic aspects of the Christian faith.

Over four decades of official ecumenical dialogues at the international level between the PCPCU and the principal Ecclesial Communities have produced an impressive number of studies and documents that testify to the common endeavour to bring into effect Jesus' prayer "that all may be one" (Jn 17:21). In fidelity to this prayer, the intention of the dialogues has been to overcome the painful divergences of the past and, on the basis of our common faith in Jesus Christ, to open the path towards a future, full, visible communion in truth and love.

It is clear that many prejudices and past misunderstandings have already been left behind, new forms of collaboration have been found and, in many cases, longstanding differences have been better identified and agreement or convergence has been achieved.

The Harvest Project is still a study in via. In the year spent re-examining the documents issued by the dialogues which began in the years immediately after the Second Vatican Council — with the Lutheran World Federation, the Methodist World Council, the Anglican Communion and the World Alliance of Reformed Churches — the researchers have been happily surprised by the quality and extent of the results achieved in such texts. The PCPCU hopes that, once completed and published, the study might contribute to reinvigorating the dialogues themselves by indicating new ways to face together remaining divergences in relations between the disciples of Christ.

We can safely say that the Harvest Project shows how, in various degrees, some of the key points of contrast at the time of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation have been surmounted. Today, for instance, the relationship between Scripture and Tradition, a theme that in the XVI century was a source of bitter opposition between Catholics and Reformers, is viewed in a new light. In the dialogues under consideration here, it would no longer be possible to set Scripture and Tradition against each other.

All see that Scripture is itself an outcome of the earliest apostolic tradition and that the succeeding tradition (in its theological dimension) can be thought of as the on-going reception and interpretation of the Gospel (Good News) testified to in the Bible. The fact that such a clarification has made headway, both in the conscience of Catholics and among our ecumenical partners, has been a source of intense spiritual renewal and has led many individuals and communities to a high degree of shared biblical spirituality.

There remain, of course, serious questions between Catholics and Protestants which must not be ignored in future ecumenical dialogues. What does the primacy of Scripture within Tradition really mean? Whether and in what sense are binding interpretations of the Scriptures contained in Tradition? Who has the last word on the binding interpretation of the common apostolic patrimony? On the question of an authoritative magisterium there remain unresolved differences among the Churches, and so they are often unable to speak with one voice.

The Harvest Project shows that in the dialogues progress has also been made on the issue that is at the heart of biblical revelation, namely the justification of the sinner. At the time of the Reformation the interpretation given by the Reformers of the doctrine concerning the way in which the sinner is effectively saved gave rise to fundamental questions on the Catholic side and led to bitter controversies and condemnations (see, for instance, the Decree on Justification, Council of Trent).

The Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification, signed by Lutherans and Catholics in 1999, is one of the most important ecumenical results of the last decades. Subsequently, the World Methodist Council adhered to this agreement, enriching it thanks to an even more accentuated emphasis on the connection between justification and sanctification. This agreement highlights the fact that the affirmation of sola gratia and sola fides does not have to be seen as contradicting the affirmation that, by means of grace, we are made capable of bearing good fruit through works of justice, mercy and operative love.

From the concerns of the Reformers regarding justification and the sovereignty of God in granting salvation there followed a series of questions regarding the Church herself, her nature and her mission. Luther's protest in 1517 against indulgences involved a challenge to the authority of the Pope and the Councils, a challenge which eventually led to a concept of the Church as the "congregation of believers" (communio sanctorum), existing wherever the Word of God is correctly preached and the sacraments properly administered according to the Gospel.

In this way the Reform laid the foundations for a concept of the Church as a spiritual community, no longer essentially sacramental and hierarchical. From here Catholics and Protestants are deeply divided in their conception of the reality of the Church, between a vision of the Church simultaneously spiritual and institutional, and a vision of the Church that is more spiritual event than organism.

Yet, treating these and other controversies, the ecumenical dialogues have been able to identify manifold elements of convergence regarding the Trinitarian origins of the Church and its nature as koinonia/communio, which in turn has led to convergence also in the reflection on ecclesial ministries, and even to a new and significant willingness to consider that matter which has been a particular source of conflict for so long, the Petrine office.

Although none of these matters has been resolved in the sense of achieving full agreement, and in fact new difficulties have appeared on the horizon, the Harvest Project confirms that the ecumenical dialogues considered in the study, while each one followed its own path, have all reached the point of treating these themes in depth. The convergences reached have strengthened and deepened the sense of the real, even if incomplete, communion existing on the basis of our one Baptism and of so many other elements of faith and Christian life preserved from the original Tradition.

To conclude, we can say that, both in the vast field of inter-Church relations and in 40 years of ecumenical dialogue, something precious and important has been achieved. Ecumenism is a gift of God to Christianity, a grace that enables us to hope that Christians, even if still divided, will better be able to face together the great challenges that are already on the doorstep and are equally pressing for everyone.

The dialogues are not capable, by themselves, of guaranteeing the fulfilment of the final goal of the ecumenical movement, that is, unity in the Eucharist as the sign of full visible communion. Nevertheless, the Harvest Project attests that what has been achieved so far constitutes a solid base and an incentive for the realization of what the Lord wills and is a sincere aspiration of so many Christians.

As Cardinal Kasper has written: "In this way our ecumenical dialogues, enriched by what we have achieved with God's help in past decades, will embark upon a new and hopefully equally fruitful stage, perhaps less enthusiastic and more sober, but at the same time full of hope and the dynamis of the Spirit".

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
28 January 2009, page 13

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