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COMMENTARY ARTICLE ON THE REPORT "CHURCH, EVANGELIZATION
AND THE BONDS OF KOINONIA"

By Bishop Basil Meeking

 

Initial Remarks

It is of singular interest for me to reflect on this report. In 1980 I was one of two observers from the Catholic Church invited to a General Assembly of the World Evangelical Fellowship at Hoddesdon, England. It was not an easy assignment as the meeting had to go into caucus several times in order to deal with the heated objections of some delegates to even this minimal Catholic presence.

The present report then comes as a measure of the very great change in human relations and of the mutual understanding that has developed between the World Evangelical Alliance (as it has now become) and the Catholic Church over the past twenty years. An appendix in this report chronicles the steps by which that has come about, giving a brief and useful account of the historical background of the dialogue that has ensued. It is perhaps desirable first to say a word as to who are the Evangelicals. There are some mainline ecclesial bodies that have the term in their official title, for instance the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Here it signifies that the members belong to the European Protestant tradition. As used in this report however the term "Evangelical" refers to a movement among Christians within churches and parachurch bodies.

The report from an earlier informal dialogue between Evangelicals and Catholics had already noted that "it is not easy to give a brief account of the distinctive beliefs of Evangelical Christians since different churches and groups emphasise different doctrines. Yet all Evangelicals share a cluster of theological convictions which were recovered and reaffirmed by the 16th century Reformers."[1]

A distinguished Evangelical scholar, Dr J. I. Packer speaks of "the world-wide fellowship of congregations and Christians who profess Evangelical beliefs and maintain an Evangelical style of piety and pastoral care, centering upon conversion, Bible reading, evangelism, fellowship with God in assurance and trust and fellowship with other believers in the shared joy of born-again life." Dr Packer notes the development "of the former self image of Evangelicals as the marginalised faithful remnant within liberal-led Protestantism into a sense of being the care of God's Church on earth."[2]

Evangelicals are not a monochrome, homogeneous group; quite the opposite, depending on what part of the highly varied Protestant tradition they draw on. "The Evangelical movement has a broad spectrum which includes Evangelical denominations (both within and outside the World Council of Churches), Evangelical fellowships (within mainline comprehensive denominations) and Evangelical parachurch agencies (specialising in tasks like Bible translation, evangelism, cross-cultural mission and Third World relief and development)"[3].The latter acknowledge different degrees of responsibility to any ecclesial authority.

This, however, is not a static situation, something to which the modern ecumenical movement and not least the developing relations with Catholics and the Catholic Church has contributed. In 1928 the Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer had said of the word "church" "that to Protestants it has the sound of something infinitely commonplace, more or less indifferent or superfluous with which a sense of boredom is so often associated".[4] That could describe the sentiments of many Evangelicals until relatively recently; but it is no longer true for all Evangelicals. Rather, ecclesiology is beginning to emerge as a factor in Evangelical/Catholic dialogue, "It is a question of the Church as such, not an invisible Church or a Church of true believers that is conceptually removed from the ambiguities and tragedies of history, but the Church that is this identifiable people through time, a people that is vulnerable to the real world of historical change as was, as is, their crucified Lord.[5]

So for Evangelicals the question of the Church has become actual in a new way at the same time that it is being recognized as the central question for the ecumenical movement. It is no coincidence then that the topic of the report we are considering should be the Church as koinonia, and her mission.

There is a pre-history of at least forty years for the present report. Out of many personal contacts between Catholics and Evangelicals, especially on the topic of mission, at the time of the Second Vatican Council and afterwards, it became possible to hold the informal but significant discussions on mission and to publish the Evangelical/Roman Catholic Dialogue on Mission report (ERCDOM) in 1986. This sparked off several local dialogues. Also on the international level, the dialogue between the Baptist World Alliance and the Catholic Church, 1984-1988 focused on mission producing a report entitled “Summons to Witness to Christ in Today’s World”. Even before these, the International Pentecostal Catholic dialogue began in 1972, is now in its fifth phase and has published four reports, and its early phases especially must be considered as part of the pre-history of this report.

Informal contacts between Catholics and Evangelicals have also began to develop on the national and local levels. One thinks of the group in the USA, which produced the report, "Evangelicals and Roman Catholics Together: The Christian Mission in the Third Millenium" in 1994; a further report, "The Gift of Salvation" was published in 1998 and in 2002 "Your Word is Truth" on Scripture and Tradition appeared; the project continues with a study on the communion of saints.

The present report has then to be read in the context of who Evangelicals are and where they find themselves today, giving account to the fact that not all would find the report and its implications acceptable, and, at the same time, in light of noticeably growing relations between a number of Evangelicals, including some of their principal leaders and organizations, and the Catholic Church.

In view of the longstanding and major separation between Evangelicals and Catholics, this report is indeed remarkable. It represents nothing less than a rediscovery of each other by separated Christians, a rediscovery made possible because both groups have begun to appreciate the depth of conviction and passion with which they hold certain truths of the Christian faith expressed in the Gospels and the Nicene Creed, and with which they believe themselves mandated to proclaim the full revelation of the Gospel truth.

One of the pleasant surprises of the ERCDOM discussion had been the degree to which participants found themselves able to make certain statements together about the Church as part of the Gospel and as agent of the Gospel[6]. The present report goes beyond that as participants in the dialogue began to speak at some depth about the nature of the Church, In light of our respective histories it is almost more than one might have hoped for. While it has to be said that major divergences still remain, it has now become possible in light of the report to hope that there can be fruitful dialogue about them in due course. It is with this in view that some assessment is given of the text of the report. This is not at all to urge great haste; because of the composition of the World Evangelical Alliance it will inevitably take time to react to, criticise and absorb the report. Patience is a necessary ecumenical virtue and especially in a dialogue that is at once so sensitive and so necessary as is this one.

PREAMBLE

It certainly represents progress that the dialogue could plunge directly into the topic of the Church with a discussion of koinonia/communion/fellowship. The concept of communion which found new prominence in the Catholic Church as an outcome of the Second Vatican Council has been one of the significant Catholic contributions to the ecumenical movement, both through the committed Catholic involvement in the Faith and harder work of the World Council of Churches and because of the extensive Catholic engagement in bilateral dialogue with most of the Christian World Communions. It is a concept that has allowed many Christian confessions to look again at the nature and necessity of the Church. Such is the case in this dialogue. It may be that in the long run the growing ecclesial awareness of many Evangelicals will match the concern of the Catholic Church that the goal of ecumenism should be nothing less than full unity in faith, sacramental life and governance in one visible Church.

The Preamble to the report indicates that cultural and political factors have played a part in allowing Catholics and Evangelicals to become acquainted in the first place; notable events such as the Second Vatican Council for Catholics and the Lausanne Conference and similar succeeding international conferences for Evangelicals have brought about new attitudes and in many local situations a variety of forms of cooperation has developed.

The report might also have noted that, with acquaintance, in a way hardly duplicated with many of the churches that take part in the ecumenical movement, has come the discovery that Catholics and Evangelicals share a common concern for the faithful handing on of revealed truth in orthodox teaching and for a strong upholding of moral principles founded on the Gospel. It is true that some basic and distinctive theological positions and practices of both continue to be sources of division. Yet this has not prevented the growth of a new sense of theological solidarity in faith between Evangelicals, so much so that some, especially on the side of Evangelicals, including some participants in this dialogue do not hesitate to speak of "a new ecumenism." which is proposed as way to redisovering the classic ecumenical method.[7]

This has sharpened, especially in the present cultural situation of the West where every day brings further evidence of the hold of secular unbelief on society. The Catholic Church, in its social and moral teaching and in spirituality that is genuinely Catholic, has a tradition of loving the world but of never completely trusting it. Among the heirs of the Reformation, Evangelicals by profession have stood fast to resist the spirit of the times, alert to the danger of erosion of the deposit of faith; with this has gone a vivid appreciation of Scripture and a renewed concern for the ancient creeds of the Church. While the Catholic Church is not about to give up on her ecumenical commitments to a range of partners, her stand in secular societies gives her a particular bond with fellow Christians who are zealous for an ecumenism that is based fully on Christian truth, that excludes compromise and that is not reducible to negotiation and managerial skills or political action.

PART I
Catholics, Evangelicals and Koinonia

Status of the Report:

It is useful that the status of this report has been set out so clearly and briefly. While he was still President of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, Cardinal Jan Willebrands made the point that dialogue commissions, "even those officially set up , are not organs of the magisterium and a declaration by them does not possess the authority of the Church's magisterium. " The conclusions they reach "still remain the responsibility of those who formulate them. The fact that they are published changes nothing of their nature or authority even if the publication is approved by the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity."[8]

A. Koinonia

Over a quarter of a century ago, Cardinal Jan Willebrands had suggested that "the deepening of an ecclesiology of communion is perhaps the greatest possibility for tomorrow's ecumenism”.[9] So it has proved as the concept of communion or koinonia has opened up growth in theological understanding and even a certain measure of agreement in many of the bilateral dialogues in which the Catholic Church engages.

Long ago Origen wrote: "The Church is full of the Trinity".[10] The notion of koinonia or communion begins with the communion which is the being of God, the shared life of Father, Son and Holy Spirit, a communion of such depth as to elude the grasp of the human intellect.

With this in mind a 1990 paper of the Joint Working Group between the Catholic Church and the World Council of Churches says: "The Church is the icon of the Trinity and the Trinity is the interior principle of ecclesial communion. From the resurrection to the parousia, communion is willed by the Father, realized in the Son, caused by the Holy Spirit in and through a community. Every authentic Christian community shares in this communion as part of the mystery of God unfolded in Christ and the Spirit. In the words of Cyprian, “The Church is a people made one with the unity of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit”.[11]

It is a deeply spiritual concept yet this koinonia or communion is always in the pattern of the Son of God made man The divine reality at its heart is always expressed in visible form. It is in Catholic teaching a "communio hierarchica". There is no other Church than the institutional Church, that is the Church that reflects the divinity and the humanity of her Lord. This is necessarily implied when it is said that the Church is koinonia/communion. That is why the Joint Working Group study said that "The gift of communion from God is not an amorphous reality but an organic unity that requires a canonical form of expression.".[12] The point was further made that "the ecclesial elements required for full communion in a visibly united Church – the goal of the ecumenical movement - are: communion in the fullness of the apostolic faith, in sacramental life, in a truly one and mutually recognized ministry, in structures of conciliar relations and decision-making and common witness and service in the world".[13]

In view of this Catholic, and now increasingly ecumenical, understanding of koinonia/communion it is possible to look more closely at what the report says about this. In the first place of course it is significant that something could be said; it is not a concept that is readily taken up in Evangelical discourse about the Church, even by seasoned Evangelical ecumenists who are friendly towards the Catholic Church.[14] In fact the report mentions a number of elements that constitute communion and this is important. It does not however succeed in developing these in a fully coherent and consistent way. The New Testament use of koinonia is examined (# 1-9) in a limited way. There are references to the roots of koinonia in the divine life (2,4) and reference to the trinity (N 2). Some of the biblical evidence is interpreted differently by the dialogue partners. Catholics would see more sacramental connotations in the word koinonia (# # 6,8) than are reflected in the term fellowship which is preferred by Evangelicals. A future dialogue taking up again the theme of the church might pursue these points by exploring in depth the trinitarian nature of the Church as communion. The Catholic notion of the Church as sacrament is mentioned later in #38. But a future dialogue might continue its reflection on the Church by going more deeply into this theme as well. This could introduce themes such as why the Church is a necessity and her role in mediation of salvation.

It is not as if this could not be done by Evangelicals. It was possible for the US informal dialogue, Evangelicals and Catholics Together, in a recent report to speak about the common Catholic/Evangelical concern for holiness and to say," Holiness is being in communion, namely the communion of Father, Son and Holy Spirit dwelling together in love." It was then possible for them to go on to speak of the Church as "sign and instrument of grace, instituted by the one mediator between God and man, Jesus Christ, and through the Gospel mediating his grace to the world We agree that there is no salvation apart from the Church, since to be related to Christ is to be related, in however full or tenuous a manner, to the Church which is his body 'Everyone who is personally united to Christ by faith belongs to his body and by the Spirit is united with every other true believer in Jesus'.(Amsterdam Congress, 2000) "[15].

What is said in this section about koinonia stresses communion of the body of believers with Christ (##1,2,3,4,7) and not simply that of the individual with Christ. On the latter Catholics and Evangelicals find themselves at one. But the corporate expression here is important since the ERCDOM Report had noted that "Evangelicals, because of their emphasis on the value of the individual, have traditionally neglected the doctrine of the Church"[16].

Catholics can indeed rejoice with Evangelicals in acknowledging that the relationship of members within the Church is grounded in the relationship to the divine persons of the Trinity. This is of a mystical nature, a certain communion in the divine nature, without the participant becoming God, which is the fruit of redemptive grace. 80 Catholics and Evangelicals would want to affirm this, with varied emphases. This transformative union of a human being with the divine nature is a new creation and one which leads to his or her perfection in the kingdom which is to come. Something of this is in the report yet it does not entirely arrive at a description of the communion of the Church. Nor does it become possible to speak about the Church as mystery which would be the logical outcome of what begins to be said on the notion of kononia. Catholics have a strong sense of koinonia as a participation in the divine life and nature. (#5) [17] Quite rightly it is said (#6) that for Catholics koinonia has sacramental connotations but the opportunity is missed of saying that this is predicated precisely of the Church itself as mystery and communion; it is in the context of the Church as universal sacrament of salvation that Catholics understand and use the seven sacraments.

So the achievement of broaching the notion of koinonia/communion is only a first step. Perhaps the report could have got further theologically had the discussion taken as a starting point a theme such as salvation (in one of its discussions the USA dialogue, Evangelicals and Catholics Together, moved from justification by faith to the Church as pillar and ground of truth) or Scripture and Tradition, before moving on to talk of the Church. Hints for such a possibility may be discerned in what is said in (#8) though one might have hoped that in light of the Lutheran/Catholic international dialogue and of what is said in the Catechism of the Catholic Church[18] something more could have been said there.

B. Our Respective Understandings of the Church and of Other Christians

Even though the stress in this section is on “recent developments”, it is a weakness here that from the Catholic side (##10,11) mention is made of developments due to Vatican II but without any hint that this is rooted in the Tradition of the Church so that one could wonder whether the Council was a rupture with the past. This is unfortunate as the hermeneutic of discontinuity applied by some to the Vatican Il documents is not a help to genuine ecumenism.[19]

Here too it has to be asked whether the "recognition" is mutual. For Catholics it includes some recognition of other Christian "communities". Evangelicals "acknowledge the presence of true believers among Catholics," but it is not clear they extend this to the Catholic Church as such. This is something that has quite practical implications which would need to be looked at when the question of proselytism is raised.

The material contained in the section, "Catholic Views" is of importance for Catholic understanding of the Church and for the Catholic principles on ecumenism. In the first place, to entitle it "Catholic Views" is a misleading understatement. It is Catholic teaching, part of the Tradition, summed up in Vatican II and confirmed and explained by papa I and synodal teaching since then as part of the ordinary magisterium of the Church. The citations from Vatican II state the claims of the Catholic Church to uniqueness as the Church but this needs to be explained further in order that later surprises and disappointments be avoided. After all the Evangelicals make firm and clear claims for their position and it is this which gives the dialogue its promise and interest. So it would have been desirable to explain somewhat more fully that when the Council said that "the unique Church of Christ subsists in the Catholic Church" that is both a claim made by the Catholic Church for herself and at the same time a recognition that something of the Church can be found in other Christian communities and that those communities can have a real if incomplete communion with the Catholic Church.

Since Vatican II the Church has continued to clarify her understanding that while certain endowments of the Church exist in other Christian communities bringing their members into a certain but incomplete communion with the Catholic Church, the Church of Christ has its subsistence in the Catholic Church and cannot subsist anywhere else. The unique Catholic Church is in this sense the one Church. That is why the Church is still the central question in the relations between the Catholic Church and the churches of the Reformation tradition.

It is well indicated that Scripture and baptism beget bonds of communion between Catholics and Evangelicals (#15). In the interests of frankness and of enduring relations, number 3 of the Decree on Ecumenism was cited earlier as a reminder that if the completeness of gifts given by Christ to his Church is lacking in a particular ecclesial community, then the communion of that community with the Catholic Church is imperfect. While the statement "the degree of communion cannot be measured by outward and visible means alone because communion depends on the reality of life in the Spirit" (#16) is true Catholic teaching is clear that the life in the Spirit is mediated through gifts given by Christ including the Church, gifts which are necessarily outward and visible.

When "Evangelical Views" are described one sees both the hope and promise of the dialogue and the difficulties. It is made clear that for Evangelicals the Church is a consequence of the relationship established between the individual believer and God. The personal bond which is the life of the Spirit flowing from union with Christ is what counts. It may be expressed in "organized churches and denominations or in the many transdenominational cooperative enterprises of Christians together”. (#17) J.I. Packer suggests that Evangelical salvation-centeredness "has led to a habit of man -centered theologizing which sets needy human beings at center stage as it were and brings in the Father, Son and Holy Spirit just for their saving roles." It means relegating the Trinity to a theological concept and "the Church then comes to be thought of as an organization for spiritual life support".[20].

This is rather less than ERCDOM was able to say when it acknowledged that "the redemptive purpose of God has been from the beginning to call out a people for himself." "The good news includes God's purpose to create for himself through Christ a new, redeemed, united people of his own...The Church as the Body of Christ is part of the Gospel." This Church is a sign of the power and presence of Jesus", "an embodiment of the Gospel", "an agent of the Gospel".[21]

Given the limited agreement on the nature of the Church and the hesitation of the report to spell out this limitation more fully it is inevitable that saying "what of the Church we recognize in one another" (##20-21) will be less than satisfactory. It is in fact a listing of certain ecclesial elements shared by Evangelicals and Catholics (vestigia ecclesiae). In light of the kind of separation that has existed between Catholics and Evangelicals to be able to do this is no mean achievement. Still it remains that, given the rather sparse understanding of koinonia manifested in the report, and therefore of what the Church is, "greater recognition of the ecclesial status of other Christian communities" (#21) is inevitably not going to produce a weighty ecclesiological outcome.

More remains to be done to spell out systematically an understanding of the Church that has real commonality if it is to be possible for Catholics and Evangelicals to move "into an experienced unity with one another". (#22) Indeed some mutual recognition and a certain cooperation is possible on the basis of the elements listed, and this is generously acknowledged; but it has to be noted that those elements fall short of necessary constituents of adequate ecclesial reality. This leaves one feeling that the claimed recognition of "the koinonia with the life of the Trinity that both of our communities enjoy" (#22) is postulated on an Evangelical understanding rather than on one that could acknowledge the Church uniquely as sign and instrument of salvation and that is adequately Catholic. When theological agreement is pegged at a lowest common denominator, the statement made at least appears to exclude the further more adequate statement that would be called for by Catholic belief.

C. Some Dimensions of the Church

Here one sees the promise of this dialogue in the common affirmation made about the Church on the basis of New Testament writings. (#23) Yet something needs to be said, either here or a bit later, about the Catholic understanding of the role of the apostle and therefore of the local bishop, including his responsibility for the whole Church. The apostle expressed in his own person the universal Church and was a missionary for the whole Church. As successor of the apostles and because the Church is apostolic, the bishop's pastoral responsibility goes beyond the particular church. In his apostolic office the bishop represents the universal Church to the local church while equally keeping the local church in relation to the whole Church. It is important to be clear that while the bishop serves the unity of his diocese, the communion of the bishops guarantees the unity of the Catholic Church. This understanding has its origin in a Catholic understanding of koinonia/communion.

In line with the Catholic convictions on the way the Holy Spirit has fostered significant developments in the early church (#25), further dialogue might explore the question of the primacy of Peter in the New Testament. This leads directly to the claim of the Church at Rome to stand in the succession of this primacy and the claim that the primacy is the criterion of the right apostolic faith and that its role in the formation of tradition is determinative for the genesis of the New Testament as the Bible. This is the ground for "the gradual acknowledgement of the effective leadership of the Bishop of Rome within the whole Church." (#25) It is a doctrine of Catholic faith that the Petrine ministry has an essential place in the saving mysteries of Christ and in the building up of the Church. The counter conviction of Evangelicals has been expressed which holds that the koinonia can be acceptably expressed in a number of ecclesial structures developed for historical or pragmatic reasons. (26) In their perspective universality becomes "global fellowship" which can be expressed in "loose networks of world-wide associations" (#28). Then it follows that since the Church does not have a sacramental dimension neither does leadership and ministry. The koinonia which is participation in the Trinitarian life does not have an incarnate ecclesial expression. In this Evangelical understanding the Church is the gathering of those who are already in a personal communion with God[22], whereas for Catholics it is in the Church that one comes into that communion.

In speaking of the Church, local and universal, Catholics describe in sacramental terms the bonds of communion holding together these different levels of the Church’s life (#29). This is further amplified (#31) by the description of the Constitution in the Church of Vatican II which speaks of the interpretation of the universal and local in the nature of the church. Each individual or particular Church is fashioned after the model of the universal church and that “in and from such individual churches there comes into being the one and only Catholic Church”.[23] The relationship of local church to the universal is one “of mutual interiority with the whole, that is with the universal Church.[24] However, in (#29) when it is said that “Catholics speak of the universal church, like the regional church, as a communion of particular churches under their respective bishops and in communion with the bishop of Rome” unforutnately no explanation is made here of the meaning of “regional church”. Is this meant to be the national episcopal conference, or a regional episcopal conference? If so there needs to be a word on its ecclesial significance.

A question has to be raised about the way the statement that "the Church of Christ is not exclusively identified with the Catholic Church", is presented here with a parenthetical reference given to the Vatican II Constitution on the Church, 8. (#29) The Constitution however says very much more than the bald statement given here as seen in the report itself (#12). Reference should at least be made here to number 12 of the report to avoid misunderstanding. It is true that it notes that certain endowments of the Church can exist "outside the visible confines of the Catholic Church". It is not correct to give the simple impression "that the Council in stating that the Church of Christ 'subsists' in the Catholic Church implied that the former is wider and more inclusive than the latter".[25]

The section on convergences and differences between Catholics and Evangelicals in their understanding of the Church is potentially significant. It underlines a clear will on the part of the dialogue participants for mutual recognition and for some practical expression of this in prayer and cooperation. However one would have liked to see a more blunt formulation of a major issue that is at stake. For the Evangelicals in this dialogue the Church is first an invisible community and essentially so in its universal dimension; it is given visibility only as local churches with historically "visible structural and organizational manifestations" (#34). The Catholic Church claims to be at once invisible and visible in its nature in God's plan and gift. For Catholics therefore "universal" means something essentially more than that (as Evangelicals describe it) "congregations may seek federations and alliances as a means to express the universal character of the Church's nature and mission" (#33).

One might have expected some mention in this section of the Church as koinonia/communion. Does this indicate that Evangelical participants did not feel sufficiently at home with the concept ? Catholic ecclesiology insists that the structure and the invisible community are inseparable. Perhaps it would have been better to integrate this section with the following one on "the personal and institutional in koinonia". It might then have been possible to nuance the statement that both Catholics and Evangelicals "affirm order and discipline as a framework of ecclesial communion." As it stands it is true enough except that it has to have different weight and significance for Catholics from what it has for Evangelicals. Indeed something of this is spelled out in (#38) and (#39).

Furthermore, as the dialogue partners explore the personal and institutional in Koinonia the Catholic side illustrated the evolution of a more collegial ecclesiology from Vatican I to Vatican II. Whereas Vatican I spoke of the Pope as exercising jurisdiction over the other bishops, Vatican II clarifies this earlier teaching by saying that bishops must be in ‘hierarchical communion’ with the Pope in order to exercise their powers of teaching[26] and shepherding their flocks (LG 22, CD 5). The Catholic commentary explains this by saying “this concept of ‘hierarchical communion’ does not eliminate the juridical aspect but requires government through dialogue and consensus rather than command”. The question though is whether the phrase “through dialogue and consensus rather than command” adequately reflects not only the authority of the bishops,[27] but also the decisive authority of the Pope within the universal communion. Are the words “consensus rather than command” clear enough to explain it well?

The Evangelical presentation of the same question (#40) shows divergences of views regarding the importance of the institutional aspect of the Church, though it is said that “most evangelicals … affirm the institutional dimension of church life”. Still even with some degree of convergence discovered on this point, the institutional aspect and its relation to the very being of the Church this will be one of the ecclesiological questions that should be taken up again in future dialogue .

It is rightly said that a spirit of metanoia is needed to study and face the issues that still remain between Catholics and Evangelicals (#44) and that even now practical expression of the unity that already exists should be expressed and deepened by prayer for each other.

PART II
Catholics, Evangelicals and Evangelization in Light of Koinonia

A. Our Respective Views on Evangelization/Evangelism

A few years ago a paper from the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity made the point that "the question of mission when Christians are divided often focuses on a complex of issues including the right to religious freedom, the right to evangelize, the question of proselytism of one against the other, or the possibility of common witness by separated Christians".[28] This is indeed what the report very satisfactorily takes up, though the worthy attempt to do so "in light of Koinonia" is less convincing given the limitations of what it was able to say on that topic. There is indeed as the participants would likely agree, "a profound link between Christ, the Church and evangelization"[29]. The report has broached this but more work remains yet to be done. In giving Catholic teaching on mission (##49-51) more needed to be said of the Catholic conviction that mission entails "implanting and developing the Church"[30] which would also be an Evangelical concern, however differently spelled out.

It is curious that the "Evangelical view" carries only brief references to Christian mission as rooted "in the mission of the triune God." (#54) It would seem this could have been fruitfully developed together; indeed it could have provided another entry point to the concept of koinonia/communion. In a Catholic understanding there is a sense in which mission begins in God as the Father sends the Son into the world and the sending of the Holy Spirit is a participation in the sending of the Son to make God present in the world in the new order of salvation, the self communication of God in history. In this perspective mission is a divine initiative, "God's cosmic purpose" (#54), in which the Church, in which Christians participate. This surely accords with the sense of the Evangelicals' Lausanne Covenant as well as with St Irenaeus' description of the Son and the Holy Spirit as the two hands of the Father in an image to illustrate the "conjoined mission" of the Spirit and the Son; and Pope John Paul II speaks of salvation as "believing and accepting the mystery of the Father and his love made manifest and freely given in Christ through the Spirit"[31]. So we have to say that "the mission of the Church, like that of Jesus is God's work the work of the Spirit"[32].

Something of this is suggested but only cursorily when it is rightly said that "the heart of the mission of the Spirit is koinonia, a communion of persons in the communion of God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit" (#55). Following the thought of Pope John Paul II much more might have been said together about the profound connection between communion and mission. "They interpenetrate and mutually imply each other to the point that communion represents both the fruit and the source of mission".[33] The twofold mission of Son and Holy Spirit is active in the Church as she gathers the whole human family into the community that shares in the communion between the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit "The ultimate purpose of mission is to enable people to share in the communion which exists between the Father and the Son".[34] The mission of the Church is always "mission on behalf of communion".[35] In the Church "the very life and love of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are the gift gratuitously offered to all those born of water and the Spirit (Jn 3,5) and called to live the very communion of God and to manifest and communicate it in history".[36]

The joint mission of Son and Spirit is continued in the social organism which is at once the Son's ecclesial body and the temple of the Spirit. It is in this sense that Catholics describe the Church as a kind of sacrament a sign and instrument of the conjoined mission of Son and Spirit United by the Spirit the Church exists by announcing the work of the Son and testifying to him so as to spread everywhere the mystery of participation in the trinitarian life. It is at this point that the Catholic/Evangelical discussion on the koinonia/communion embodied in the Church has to continue.

B. Old Tensions in a New Context of Koinonia

Points of tension between Catholics and some other Christians, not least Evangelicals, have been the issues of religious freedom and proselytism which are related concerns. They have to be approached in the context of the true meaning of evangelization (on which more work could be done by the present dialogue) and of the possibility of a common witness to Christ. What the report first suggests is a joint spirituality of repentance of divisive habits of mind and heart, a moral, intellectual and religious conversion in one's approach to Gospel truth and the cultivation of a common commitment to proclaim the Gospel, complementing and affirming one another's efforts (##55-59).

Quite an amount that is commonsense and useful is said about proselytism or confessional "sheep stealing". It is interesting to note that the first notable ecumenical document with full Catholic participation devoted to this difficult question was produced by the Joint Working Group between the Catholic Church and the World Council of Churches in 1971. Much of what is found there retains its validity and relevance. A joint statement on cooperation in mission made by the Group in 1980 decided not to make a notable mention of proselytism on the grounds that the problem was no longer acute, yet the more recent work by the Joint Working Group in 1995 carried the title, The Challenge of Proselytism and the Call to Common Witness. The difficulty remains; it is actual for instance in some parts of the USA today , as well as in a number of other places, so what this report presents has practical application.

A weakness found in some ecumenical reports is the failure to take adequately into account earlier work in the same field. One can see from (# #61-69) this report has taken other studies on proselytism into account. Still one reflects that the rather diffuse treatment of proselytism in the present report might have benefitted from a comparison with the 1971 Joint Working Group document before being put in final form.

Even though the thrust of the discussion is aimed at exploring and challenging the notion of proselytism, for ecumenical reasons, it must be said clearly that there is no opposition between ecumenism and receiving into full communion those who request it in conscience. As the Second Vatican Council stated “it is evident that the work of preparing and reconciling those individuals who wish for full Catholic communion is of its nature distinct from ecumenical action. But there is no opposition between the two since both proceed from the marvelous ways of God”.[37]

What is really at issue first of all in the debate on proselytism is the need to exclude unworthy or untruthful ways of persuading other Christians to leave their present confessional allegiances. So the report very satisfactorily makes the point that "if a Christian after hearing a responsible presentation of the Gospel freely chooses to join a different Christian community" (#63), this is not to be labelled proselytism. The section of the report on proselytism is well done.

However an opportunity is lost when the report makes no mention of dialogue in relation to mission. It is true the question has been more widely discussed in the Catholic Church. Yet it is not at all foreign to Evangelical reflection on mission. Like Catholics Evangelicals have to take the challenge of the right relation between dialogue and proclamation in mission. Catholics more easily acknowledge the relationship, and the principles underlying it have been worked out in official Catholic teaching and are well summarised in the document issued by the Congregation for the Evangelisation of Peoples and the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue.[38] It is less easy to make the application of those principles as has been evident from some of the more recent extraordinary regional sessions of the Roman Synod of Bishops. The attitude of the person who proclaims the Gospel has to be one which both seeks understanding of the religious aspirations of those to whom the mission is brought and a readiness to share religious insights without being tempted simply to replace the proclamation of Jesus Christ as the only Savior with dialogue. Evangelicals would share fully the concern expressed in Catholic teaching that proclamation be kept at the heart of mission. It does seem that here is a chance for Catholics and Evangelicals to work together to deepen understanding and to promote the interaction of dialogue and proclamation as both necessary to Christian mission.

The section of the report on the meaning of conversion starts off by returning to the notion of koinonia (##71-73). However it has an air of incompleteness and a lack of clarity even if some useful practical considerations are raised. This points to the fact that the work still ahead for the continuation of the dialogue is to achieve an adequate common understanding of the relation of the Church and her mission to the trinitarian koinonia/communion. In the end the communion envisaged seems to be that of "a living personal relationship with Jesus Christ" (on the importance of which Catholics are at one with Evangelicals), but this is not worked out in ecclesial terms. There is however, a discussion of the important question of the relations of “Christians in established churches to other Christians in terms of civil rights, which is a current ecumenical question. And the report uses the phrase “Evangelicals believe their church to be catholic, and Catholic believe their church to be evangelical” which suggests there is some common ground reached on these terms. But since they each also understand these terms catholic and evangelical in different ways, this too must be a matter of continuing dialogue.

Important points are made in the section on religious liberty (##72-77). The present position of the Catholic Church and of Evangelicals is well stated with reference to major statements from each side. It is striking that Evangelicals can find their stand well stated in some parts of the Vatican II Decree on Religious Liberty. There does appear to be an essential agreement in faith on the basis of religious liberty (#77). Even if it is true that Catholics and Evangelicals "differ somewhat in the theological and anthropological rationale for this position" (#78), it amounts to a difference of approach rather a matter of division.

It is a pity that section (#74) does not reflect the more solid treatment of religious liberty given in the sources referred to and reads as though religious liberty were simply the highest value to be sought. Given the complexity of the question it can be ambiguous to assert "the right of persons to adopt or change their religious community without duress" unless this is accompanied by further explanation that takes account of the claims of revealed truth and of an informed conscience.

An opportunity was missed in not saying something about the persecution of Christians in a number of places in the world. This offers an opportunity for Catholics and Evangelicals to stand together in making representations to governments and international organizations in favor of the basic right to religious freedom. Pope John Paul II has suggested that divided Christians already find a communion in martyrdom. "Albeit in an invisible way, the communion between our communities, even if still incomplete, is truly and solidly grounded in the full communion of the saints".[39] The self giving witness of Christians of various confessions in face of persecution is the ground for Christians coming to understand and undertake a common witness to Christ.

The report accepts "the prospect of our common witness" (##79-81) as a hope and a challenge. It could hardly do less as the less formal dialogue initiatives between Catholics and Evangelicals have done so at some length. The topic is only mentioned and a major amount of work remains to be done on it by this dialogue. An obvious point of entry might be the solid beginning made in the ERCDOM report which has a chapter on the grounds for common witness between Catholics and Evangelicals with practical and well worked out proposals for areas in which it might take place. It is also realistic in its observation that common witness in evangelism would seem to be premature, even if there are some places where common proclamation has been possible, because as the ERCDOM report observes, Evangelicals claim to be "Gospel people" but, by implication, often do not feel they can say the same about Catholic efforts of evangelization. Catholics, in conscience have to say "that important elements of the Gospel are missing" from the message Evangelicals preach. This is said despite the discovery in that dialogue of real agreements and the growing conviction that "we must respect one another's integrity".[40]

Conclusion

This dialogue between the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity and the World Evangelical Alliance is in itself a major achievement and a witness to the growth of a relationship where twenty years ago it did not exist. It is of wider significance than both earlier and current Catholic/Evangelical encounters of a less formal kind, important though these are. While it has to be admitted that it has yet to achieve the conviction and theological consistency of some of those other initiatives, a solid and promising beginning has been made. This report is work in progress and its significance is already considerable.

 


[1] Evangelical/Roman Catholic Dialogue on Mission (ERCDOM), A Report. Ed. Basil Meeking, John Stott.(1986) p. 8.

[2] James I. Packer, A Stunted Ecclesiology ? in Touchstone. Sept. 2002, pp 37 -41.

[3] ERCDOM, pp 7 -8

[4] Eberhard Bethge: Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1970), p 42.

[5] Richard John Neuhaus: Evangelicals and Catholics together: Towards a Common Mission” in First Things, oct. 1994, pp 191 -192.

[6] ERCDOM pp 63 –68.

[7] Thomas Oden, The Rebirth of Orthodoxy (2003) Ch 5 & II see also Christopher R. Seitz, Nicene Christianity: The Future for a New Ecumenism (2001).

[8] Cardinal Jan Willebrands, Prolusio at the Plenary of the PontificaI Council for Christian Unity (1973) in Information Service N 23, p.5.

[9] Idem. “The Future of Ecumenism” in One in Christ, 11 (1975) p 303.

[10] Origen, Excerpts on the Psalms 32, l.

[11] Joint Working Group between the Catholic Church and the World Council of Churches: “The Church Local and Universal” (1990) 1.

[12] Idem 42.

[13] Idem 25.

[14] One thinks of current writing of James I. Packer and Thomas Oden.

[15] “Evangelicals Together: The Communion of Saints” First Things, March 2003 pp 28, 30.

[16] ERCDOM, p 25.

[17] Catechism of the Catholic Church (1997), 1997, 1999.

[18] Idem 1987 -1995. See also the comment of Cardinal Walter Kasper: “Enthusiasm for Ecumenism” in Priests and People, Jan. 2003, p 7,3).

[19] Cardinal A very Dulles “Vatican II: The Myth and the Reality”, America, 24 Feb, 2003, p 8.

[20] James I. Packer, in idem p 40.

[21] ERCDOM pp 65 –68.

[22] James I. Packer in idem p 40.

[23] Vatican II: Lumen Gentium 23.

[24] Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith: On Some Aspects of the Church as Communion (1992) 9.

[25] Cardinal Avery Dulles in idem p 10.

[26] The Code of Canon Law 91983) canon 129.

[27] Vatican II: Lumen Gentium 27.

[28] Information Service 101 (1999) p 163.

[29] Pope John Paul II, Redemptoris Missio (1990) 19.

[30] Idem, 49.

[31] Idem, 12.

[32] Idem, 24.

[33] Pope John Paul II, Christifideles Laici (1988) 32.

[34] Idem, Redemptoris Missio 23.

[35] Idem Christifideles Laici 32.

[36] Idem 12.

[37] Vatican II: Unitatis Redintegratio 4.

[38] Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue/Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples: Dialogue and Proclamation (1991).

[39] Pope John Paul II Ut Unum Sint, (1995) 84. See also Cardinal Walter Kasper idem p 2.

[40] ERCDOM p 89.

 

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