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Harding Meyer {*}

Standstill or new Kairos?

About the Future of the Protestant-Catholic Dialogue


From: Stimmen der Zeit 10/2007, P. 687-696
webmaster's own, not authorized translation


At present there is in the Vatican - above all if one thinks of the Protestant-Catholic dialogue - with regard to personnel a special constellation that has not been there in the last centuries, at least not since the Second Vatican Council: Both, the Pope and the President of the Pontifical Council For Promoting Christian Unity are theologians from Germany, the "Country of the Reformation". Both, Benedict XVI and Walter Cardinal Kasper are well acquainted with the Protestant Church and theology - its light and shady sides - and know many of its leaders and representatives from personal acquaintance. Both were for many years professors of theology at German universities, side by side with the colleagues of the Protestant theological faculties there. Both for decades were members of the well-known "Ecumenical Working Group of Protestant and Catholic theologians", which with its publications, as for example the study on "Condemnations of Doctrines - Church-separating?" (1986), achieved lastingly important contributions to the Catholic-Protestant dialogue.

Both also by their quite personal engagement and their personal cooperation have given lasting impulses to this dialogue: The then professor Joseph Ratzinger - to mention only three examples - was the father of the thought of a Catholic "acknowledgment" of the Lutheran "Confessio Augustana", which in the years 1976 to 1980 was further pursued and worked out by his disciples together with Lutheran theologians and taken up by the German Catholic Bishops' Conference and Pope John Paul II in positive declarations. It was Ratzinger who as Cardinal and Prefect of the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith contributed quite crucially to the fact that the "Common Declaration about the Doctrine on Justification" was after all at last officially accepted by the churches on 31 October 1999. And had he not already as counsellor at the Council with a concise and appropriate formulation the looked for "unity of the church" described as a "unity of the churches that remain churches and nevertheless become one church"?

Walter Kasper on the other hand was one of the determining members, at times chairmen of the international Catholic-Lutheran dialogue. It is also owed to his contribution that this dialogue in its first phase from 1967 to 1971 could work out the then pioneering "Malta Report" about "The Gospel and the Church" and later the document about "The Spiritual Office in the Church" (1981).



And both, the Pope as well as the President of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity took over their office at a time when the Catholic-Protestant dialogue is going badly and the word of a standstill or even end of this dialogue - certainly not altogether wrongly - is in the air. Is one there not allowed to fervently hope that this quite special personal constellation may not pass without giving new impulses to the dialogue between the Catholic and Protestant Church? Couldn't it be that from this situation a new historical chance arises, something like a new "Kairos" for the Protestant-Catholic dialogue, to overcome dialogue tiredness and consensus moroseness and as persistently as confidently to continue the dialogue?


Dialogue Tiredness and Consensus Moroseness

Most certainly theological dialogues and their looking for community in faith are not the only ways to strive for the unity of the Christian churches. There were and are beside it other ways of the ecumenical movement: Christians on the spot try to live together by common social actions, engagement for justice and peace in the world and preservation of the nature, fostering the "religious ecumenism", and by keeping alive the longing after and the prayer for the unity of the church.

Hence the theological dialogues are, as it were, only one river within the multi-dimensional efforts to reach the unity of the church. Nevertheless in this endeavour to achieve a common understanding and confession of the Apostles' faith the fundamental, main and therefore virtually indispensable dimension of the church and its unity is at stake. "One body and one spirit one Lord, one faith, one God and Father of us all", in this common confessing Saint Paul says the "unity in the spirit" and the "bond of peace" is found, and he calls upon us to maintain this "unity" and this "bond" (Eph 4.3-6). The effort to achieve the unity in faith is therefore the ideal way of the ecumenical movement, which does certainly not replace the other ways, but to which all other ways must always be related.

Nevertheless already for some time the veil of a noticeable moroseness seems to lie on these dialogues with their effort to reach consensus. Were that effort to achieve consensus by dialogue and its results still a few years ago regarded as a page of glory of the ecumenical movement, then today obviously not few people regard this 'dialogue ecumenism' as a thing of the past. What are the reasons?

Many people have the discouraging impression that the consensus - mostly worked out by church-official dialogues - had remained without official acknowledgment by the church governing instances and without church embodiment.



They hovered, as it were, without obligation in the 'academic air', and that was why no or hardly any crucial steps followed them in the visible approximation of the churches. Others think the search for consensus in faith and teachings was concerned with things that to a large extent were seen as irrelevant within the churches and their parishes, whereas the practice of faith, the questions how to organize one's life and our social, political and ecological world and environment appeared as the really important ones.

Again others say the effort of the dialogues to gain consensus had the inner tendency to be continued ad infinitum. It had become apparent that the achieved consensus could time and again be questioned by still more subtle argumentative strategies, and then they had to be worked out anew, so that the search for consensus is a truly "infinite story".

Others finally think "dialogue" had in the history of thought always been a "forerunner of scepticism". So the ecumenical dialogue too was tempted to cover up the different denominational church convictions and identities and so to open to the present "relativism", the modern attitude of arbitrariness. The ecumenism of dialogue and consensus must therefore, so one can hear, be replaced by an "ecumenism of profiles" or an "ecumenism of differences". All those impressions and assessments accumulate and strengthen each other. They threaten to create what they are talking about: the end of the "ecumenism of dialogue".

I am far from simply brushing aside those critical inquiries to the ecumenical dialogue, though there are for each of those critical reservations answers and explanations that weaken or limit them for a good bit. But a failure of the effort to achieve consensus is out of the question, and those critical doubts do not at all justify a renunciation of striving for consensus. For the balance of the dialogues and their effort to achieve unity in faith is absolutely considerable. In his encyclical "Ut unum sint", the ecumenical legacy of that important Pope, John Paul II saw in the "growing of community" the "precious fruit of the Christians' relations among themselves and of the theological dialogue led by them" (No. 49). Indeed, looking on the yield of the dialogues one can say without hesitation: Never in the past five centuries the theological thinking of the Protestant and the Catholic Church were so close to each other as it appears at present in the light of the dialogues.



Continuation of the Dialogue on the Basis of Definitely Making Sure what has Already been Achieved

Certainly it is true that to the ecumenical dialogue and the ecumenical movement in general a time and again conjured up "historical irreversibility" is attached. No church will be able or want to evade that. But that "irreversible" dialogue must also find its "continuation"! How can that succeed in the right way? This is the question that at present is urgent. Is it enough to continue the dialogues as before, consequently as it were, in a "linear manner" by turning towards the still open or not sufficiently clarified controversial questions and discussing them one after the other? Such questions wait without any doubt for their clarification and must be taken up in the dialogue. But is such an appeal sufficient to overcome the present standstill of the dialogue and give to it new intensity and confidence? Aren't the disturbing dialogue tiredness and controversy moroseness that we observe today a much too far-reaching phenomenon to be overcome only by "imperatives"?

We would do good to remember the beginnings after the Council and the first decades of the Protestant-Catholic dialogue. At that time that dialogue was quite crucially carried by an "indicative": the deep conviction that what is common between the churches is larger and reaches deeper than what separates. This fundamental "ecumenical indicative" has time and again been vigorously affirmed. Think only of John XXIII or John Paul II, who used the catchy/easily remembered picture of the preserved columns and foundations of a "bridge" destroyed by a storm, which had now to be built up again piece by piece - in dialogue - on the sound columns and foundations.

Here, in this "indicative", in this knowledge of what is common between the separated churches, at that time lay the precondition or the basis that made the dialogue possible. And indeed, the dialogues proved that this talk about what is common, which reaches deeper and is greater than what separates, is anything else but a general empty phrase and no edifying sweet talk of the separation. It applies to each disputed question separating the churches. No matter to whatever controversial question one turns - whether to the question of the Eucharist, to the problem of church office, to the understanding /comprehension of church, to Mariology or even the question of papacy -, it will always become apparent that there is a deep layer of things in common in each of those controversial questions that precedes all controversy and so remains "extra controversiam".

To see that and to take it seriously is no covering up, no making the differences indifferent. On the contrary, it means that with almost all controversial questions it is never about a direct and mere collision of opposites. All opposites rather stand on a base of things in common,



so that each of the controversial questions turns out to be a controversial display, an interpretation or application of former common convictions. And this meant and means for the dialogue and its method: The only appropriate discussion of controversial questions must begin at the "ecumenical indicative", i.e. at what is already in common, and from there lead on to the examination of the separating differences and the "possibility to reconcile them".

This also fully applies with regard to the continuation of the Protestant-Catholic dialogue. The continuation of that dialogue too must, if it is to be successful and really lead ahead, happen on the basis of the things in common, i.e. on the basis of the "ecumenical indicative".

But here today an extremely important difference exists in comparison to the beginning of the dialogue at the end of the 1960-ies after the Second Vatican Council. The difference is that during the following dialogue of many years and its efforts to achieve consensus an important "increase in community" and things in common happened, as John Paul II said. Hence the future dialogue will probably only succeed and lead ahead, if that new increase in things in common is sufficiently taken seriously and obligatorily recognized in one form or another by the churches, especially by their leading instances, instead of remaining in the end unnoticed and unconsidered.

What happens when that increase in community achieved by dialogue remains unnoticed by official church authorities we had to experience just lately: Dialogue tiredness and consensus moroseness, at least in their acute shape, as we experience them at present, date since the declaration "Dominus Jesus", with which the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith opened the new millennium. What was said by it about "Jesus Christ's uniqueness and his universal salvation", could almost smoothly have joined the consensus on justification teachings achieved in the dialogue, as it had officially and solemnly been confirmed only few months before by the churches' "Common Declaration on Justification". But instead the declaration was of the opinion to have in its fourth chapter to deny that the Protestant Churches were "in the actual sense" churches, and on 29 June 2007 this was repeated in an even brusquer manner by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in its "Answers to Questions regarding Some Aspects Concerning the Teachings about the Church".

Certainly, one must see that exactly here - in the question of the full mutual acknowledgment of the churches as Christ's church - indeed lies the "ecumenical problem absolute" that has not yet been overcome. For 'separation of the churches' means nothing else but that one just cannot fully recognize in the other church the church of Christ, and consequently also cannot have full community with it. And conversely, by the full mutual acknowledgment of the churches as church(es) of Christ the separation of the churches would be overcome and by it, at least basically, also the ecumenical problem.



In the ecumenical movement - for instance in the Ecumenical Council of the Churches - this has also mostly been seen in such a way. That's also why one cannot reproach the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith that it by its statements pointed to the fact that the ecumenical problem still waits for its full solution


But one must reproach the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith that it states this - according to Catholic criteria still continuing - ecumenical problem without even hinting that nevertheless the common ecumenical effort and the theological dialogue of the last four decades were not in vain but have led our churches further on the way to community. That "increase of community" in faith and life, in which John Paul II saw the "precious fruit" of the dialogue, is passed over in silence. It was and is just this ignoring of what has already been achieved that primarily triggered the deep embarrassment, yes, indignation - by no means only on the part of the Protestant Church! - in view of the announcements of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. And it was this disappointment and embarrassment that necessarily was reflected in dialogue tiredness and consensus moroseness.

That is why the only way out of this situation is an obligatory taking seriously and holding on to what has already been achieved in the dialogue. Without obligatory ascertainment of what has already been achieved there will hardly be a meaningful and promising continuation of the Protestant-Catholic dialogue.


Common "'In via' - Declarations" as Ascertainment of Growing Unity in Faith

Hence ultimately it is about the church "reception" of the dialogue results, as it was also demanded by John Paul II in 'Ut unum sint' (No. 80). About that a lot has been said and written. Even if it is correct that the whole people of the faithful must adopt the yield of the dialogues, the leadership of the churches has here nevertheless a key responsibility. For the dialogues, at any rate the more important of them, were no coincidental initiatives of particularly ecumenical-minded private individuals. They were and are church official dialogues. That means at least that the church authorities have undertook to listen to the dialogues established by them and to their yield, to react and to state their view on them. Hence they must get involved in the process of reception, even if it then may come to critical reservations regarding the dialogue results and to further inquiries, which then had to be taken up in the further dialogue. This interplay, this interaction between dialogue and reception is urgently needed to get ahead in looking for the unity in faith. Only so the standstill of the dialogue can be avoided, and the seeping away of its results be stopped.



So far we have - what concerns the Protestant-Catholic relationship - only one example of successful interaction between theological dialogue and church reception: the Common Declaration on Justification. It has cost much trouble, time and some hard arguments. But due to this obligatory common declaration it now is in force for the Protestant and Catholic Church: The controversy about the understanding of justification, i.e. the controversy about the gospel of God's sovereign grace - and thus about the "core" of the separation of the church in the wake of the Reformation - is settled. Who nevertheless denies that must know that he with it does not represent the view of his church but only his private opinion.

What the Protestant-Catholic dialogue needs today are such church-obligatory declarations about the results achieved by this dialogue in its discussion about other controversial questions. I think here of the dialogue in particular about the Lord's Supper, but also about the church office and the understanding of church.

It is doubtlessly true though that in each of those interrelated subjects still questions have remained open and still no comprehensive consensus could be achieved. Nevertheless just here church declarations would be urgently appropriate. They would be a church-official "making sure" of the way and the status of the dialogue and of its effort to achieve community in faith: "Making sure" on the one hand of what has already been achieved by dialogue, and on the other hand of what has not yet been achieved and the still pending tasks.

For that reason one could such declarations - in reminiscence of the last chapter of the encyclical 'Ut unum sint' (No. 77 ff.: "Quanta est nobis via?" - "How long have we still to go? ") - call "'In via' - declarations". They would have a threefold function: First to describe the distance covered and the stage already reached in clarifying the respective controversial questions, secondly to give to the already agreed upon a "definite" status and so to protect it from being always anew questioned or even collective forgetfulness, and thirdly to mark as clearly as possible the distance not yet covered and therefore still with its tasks ahead of us.


The Yield of the Dialogue to be Held on to

The plea for such "'In via' - declarations" cannot remain without the attempt to concretize what is meant at least to a certain degree. Three controversial questions, which were repeatedly and in detail discussed in the dialogue, suggest themselves as important examples: the understanding of the Lord's Supper or Eucharist, the understanding of church office, and the understanding of church. What can and should here in each case be held on to as previous yield of the dialogue by means of common "'In via' - declarations"? We will try to answer this question by thesis-like sentences



knowing that they of course need to be dealt with much more in detail, and at the same time knowing that they are a communication "in via" that cannot be regarded as secluded yet and therefore must be continued in the dialogue.


1. The Understanding of the Lord's Supper
In each of the two controversial questions since the reformation standing here in the centre - Christ's presence in the Lord's Supper and the sacrificial character of the Mass -, the dialogue arrived at fundamental theological agreements.

In the view of Christ's presence in the Lord's Supper the Catholic Church accused the Reformation of denying this real presence of Christ and so emptying the Lord's Supper. Against it the dialogue showed: Both sides teach and confess together: In the sacrament of the Lord's Supper as "memorial meal" the crucified and risen Jesus Christ is really present, by his creative word with his body and his blood under the signs of bread and wine. Christ gives to those who receive these signs in faith community with himself and part in the salvation God has in Christ given to the world. Christ's presence in bread and wine is not limited to the moment when these gifts are taken.

Regarding the Catholic doctrine about the sacrificial character of the Mass the Reformation accused the Catholic Church: In the Mass the absolutely unique sacrifice of Christ was "repeated" and "supplemented" by the priest. In this way the doctrine about the Mass misrepresented the understanding of the Lord's Supper. Against it the dialogue has shown that one together confesses: We celebrate the Lord's Supper as sacrifice of praise and expression of thanks to God Father, for everything that he has done and does for the world by creation, salvation and sanctification. We particularly thank God and praise him for the sacrifice of his Son, who is present in the Eucharist. That sacrifice has been offered once and for all for the sins of the world. That sacrifice cannot be repeated by the priest and by the church and also not continued or supplemented. But in the celebration of the Mass Christ's sacrifice becomes present for the congregation, so that the congregation is included in this sacrifice and takes part in it.

Thus the past differences and reproaches have become invalid and an agreement has been reached in what the Lord's Supper is, means, and gives.


2. The Understanding of the Church Office
Common fundamental convictions have become visible regarding this important and complex controversial topic as well. The following six may be emphasized:

1. The church office is a foundation of God. It belongs therefore to the nature of the church. 2. The church office has apostolic origin. Even though the office of the Apostles as such



is unique and cannot be transferred, the church office nevertheless stands in its succession. This apostolic succession is primarily the succession in the apostolic faith. 3. The church office is promised the authority to act "in Christ's place". By this the official while doing his service with Christ faces the congregation, even though he at the same time as a Christian stands "within" the congregation. 4. The vocation to the church office takes place in the religious act of ordination, in which the person to be ordained by laying on of hands and prayer the gift of the Holy Spirit for the practice of his service is promised and given. The ordination cannot be repeated. 5. The vocation of individual persons to the church office and the vocation of all members of God's people to Christian testimony and service - i.e. the "ordained office" and the "priesthood of all baptized faithful" - belong together but are to be distinguished regarding their character and function. 6. In the Church history it came to different developments and forms of the church office, particularly to the creation of the regional bishopric, which was added to the local office of priest or minister. This development corresponded to the church necessities and was legitimate.


3. The Understanding of Church
Here too, where many people apparently see the Catholic-Protestant "basic difference", important common fundamental convictions and with them clear signs for an increasing unity in faith have become visible in the dialogue. Six of them may be particularly mentioned:

1. Church belongs to the event of salvation and is not the voluntary union of the faithful. Church is God's foundation, created by his redeeming deed. It is "creatio evangelii", the "People of God" called together by God's word and by the sacraments, it is "Body of Christ" and "Temple of the Holy Spirit", maintained by God up to the end of time. 2. Church is in a comprehensive sense "community" ("Communio"): It is the community of the faithful constituted and upheld by the community of each of its members with the triune God. 3. As creature of God's redeeming deed the church is at the same time as a whole and with all its members called by God to be "servant and tool" of his redeeming deed.

As "cratio evangelii" the church is at the same time "ministra evangelii", "maidservant of the gospel". 4. The church is at the same time holy and sinful and needs constant penalty and renewal. As God's creature and his "tool" the church is indestructibly holy. But as community of human beings the power of sin time and again penetrates into it and makes it an "ecclesia semper reformanda". 5. Church is not an invisible community of hearts. It is in inseparable way both "visible" and "hidden". It is "visible", because it can be recognized by outward and visible signs: by religious congregations, by preaching the word of God, by ministering




the sacraments, by the church office. But these and other visible signs point to the spiritual reality of the church as "God's People", "Body of Christ" and "Temple of the Holy Spirit". which is "hidden" underneath them and can only be grasped by faith. 6. In its visible reality the church needs durable structures and obligatory faith standards corresponding to its nature.

If the churches and church authorities could decide to let themselves in for the reception of those or similar dialogue results as clear signs of an increasing and already grown unity in faith, then the truly promising dialogue of the last decades would be saved from the danger of remaining a mere episode, and of disappearing again from the consciousness of our churches. It would protect the Protestant-Catholic dialogue to get - out of dialogue tiredness and consensus moroseness - to a standstill, and it could give it new impulses and clear orientations to further pursue its indispensable task: to let the unity in faith between our churches grow and finally to win it back.

I would like to close this plea for a continuation of the Protestant-Catholic dialogue" on the basis of obligatory ascertainment of what has already been achieved" with a small personal experience that in retrospect appears to me really as symbol: During my first summer semester holidays in 1947 the old Julia of Bodelschwingh, who lived in our neighbourhood, asked me to help her with building a simple house for refugees. An unemployed person and I should begin with it and "bake" large loam stones on the intended building site. Loam was brought there, was thoroughly kneaded with some water, was mixed with some chopped up straw and formed with a wooden pattern to large stones. At the end of the term holidays six large heaps of well-formed loam stones lay on the building site, piled up for drying in a wind-permeable way, more than enough for the whole small refugee home. Content I went for the winter semester back to my university. - Nevertheless in March, when I returned from there and wanted to inspect our beautiful loam stones, there was nothing else there but six large, shapeless brown heaps of loam. All work had been in vain. The stones had got no roof or any other protection. The weather, rain, frost and snow had dissolved it, as if it had never been there.

Should the the labour lasting for decades of the dialogues about the building of the common "house", the "oikos" of the churches come to such an end? Should all the carefully compiled and accumulated consensuses stay on the building site - scattered, unused and unprotected, exposed to the corroding wind and weather of changing interests, to the frost of an ecumenical winter, the fog of slow forgetting? Should all these "stones" stay without being fit together to new walls of the common house, as if the unity in faith and the growing of this unity were unimportant and unnecessary for the unity of the churches?


    {*} Since "Dominus Jesus" (2000) and strengthened by an declaration of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith from 29 June 2007 dialogue tiredness and consensus moroseness can be noticed in the ecumenical movement. HARDING MEYER, professor and director of many years at the Institute for Ecumenical Research in Strasbourg, pleads for an obligatory ascertainment of what has already been achieved and links with it the hope of overcoming the standstill.


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