number 8, december 12, 1998

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Catholic Church doesn't want to 'dwarf' WCC

By Patricia Lefevre

The questions the press most frequently asks at any WCC assembly is: Why isn’t the Roman Catholic Church a member of the WCC?

Fielding this and other questions at yesterday’s press conference on WCC-Roman Catholic Church relations was Bishop Mario Conti of Aberdeen, Scotland, leader of the 23-member Catholic delegation to this year’s assembly and co-moderator of the Joint Working Group, the instrument through which the Catholic Church collaborates as a full partner with the WCC.

Conti said the Catholic Church came late to the council (after the Second Vatican Council in 1965) and thus was not part of preparing its constitutional documents.

Also, its sheer size — a billion faithful — might "dwarf" the WCC, with its combined Protestant-Orthodox membership about half this number, and could distort the relationships of the other WCC member churches with each other.

But the Catholic Church wanted to "contribute to" rather than "destabilise" the council, Conti said, and thus hoped to continue the ecumenical pilgrimage "alongside" the council.

Differences in ecclesiologies, in the structures, exercise of authority and styles of operation of the Catholic church and the council head the list of issues to be sorted out, were full membership to be pursued.

The main conversation about Catholic membership in the WCC took place in the late 1960s, following Vatican Council II. While the discussion closed in 1971, the opportunity to study the question more thoroughly remains open, Conti said.

Catholics contribute half the membership of the council’s Faith and Order Commission and are full members of its Commission on World Mission and Evangelism.

A Catholic sister, sent by the Vatican, works full time in Geneva on the world mission desk. Regular links between Geneva and the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity are ongoing, with the Vatican sending two of its pontifical council staffers to each central committee meeting.

Other links exist.
Conti, like other church leaders at Harare, was unsure how the ecumenical "forum" suggested in the Common Understanding and Vision process would work and to what extent the Catholic church would be involved.

"A forum is a good way to address a theme and to celebrate," said Conti, but added that the Vatican wanted to know what the newly proposed forum would do that the present WCC does not do and whether it do it more effectively.

Increasingly areas of greatest ecumenical discussion and of ongoing difficulty would be those of moral, not doctrinal issues, he said. On several questions — marriage, reproductive life and human sexuality — Catholics were often closer to the Orthodox and to Evangelical Christians than to some Protestant denominations.

If churches chose to confront the moral questions that divide them, they should set up protocols to deal with them and then discover what principles they share in common and affirm them, Conti said.

Only then can they take on their disagreements.

Coptic Orthodox Bishop Arba Serapion of Los Angeles said he would welcome Roman Catholic membership in the WCC, based on the church’s "welcome contributions as full members of the Middle East Council of Churches.

"We (Orthodox) benefit from the vast experience of the Roman Catholic Church and from its strong moral stance," Serapion said.

He said he had come to Zimbabwe expecting "an assembly of crisis" with the possibility of it being "the end of our participation." What he had found instead was "a very intelligent assembly."

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Read other articles in this issue:

Polygamy no problem for African churches
Mandela to attend assembly tomorrow
Catholic Church doesn't want to 'dwarf' WCC
Evangelicals work the stream at WCC
Orthodox find the space for dialogue
Padare, the assembly energizer
Unmasking Orthodox claims
Amsterdam had a Message
50 million members, and growing fast
Some quiet nourishment

8th Assembly and 50th Anniversary

copyright 1998 World Council of Churches. Remarks to webeditor