ROME, NOV. 23, 2010 (Zenit.org).- The Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity just marked its 50th birthday. The council’s president saw this as an opportune moment to look at what progress has been made in five decades of dialogue and prayer.
Cardinal Kurt Koch presented a report last week at the council’s plenary assembly called “Harvesting the Fruits.”
The first fruit, he said, is within the Church itself.
Ecumenism “is no longer a foreign reality” in the life of parishes and dioceses, the cardinal affirmed. “This ‘ecumenism of life’ is of fundamental importance, as without it, all the theological efforts directed to reaching a lasting agreement on basic issues of faith between the different churches would be in vain.”
Cardinal Koch admitted, however, that although the Catholic Church is irreversibly committed to the search for unity, in some respects the problem is still the same as it was at “the point of departure,” at the Second Vatican Council.
In this regard, he spoke of the crux of the issue being ecclesiology — the concept of the nature of the Church.
Cardinal Koch noted how ecumenism and ecclesiology are intimately connected: “Ecumenism was an important theme of the renewal of the Catholic Church herself and of her self-understanding,” he said.
He pointed to one of the key issues of the council: the relationship between the universal Church and the local Churches.
But in the realm of ecumenism, the prelate explained, the plural “churches” refers not to local Churches, but to the ecclesial communities not in communion with the Catholic Church.
The ecumenical problem “consists in pointing out how the Catholic Church can and must conduct herself in face of this plural ‘churches,’ which exist outside of her,” he said. This issue arises both in the dialogue with the Orthodox Churches as well as, though in a different way, in the dialogue with the communities of the Reformation.
In regard to the Orthodox, Cardinal Koch explained: “The definition that is most adapted to Orthodox ecclesiology is ‘Eucharistic ecclesiology,’ a concept developed above all by exiled Russian theologians in Paris after World War I, in clear opposition to the centralism of the papacy of the Roman Catholic Church.”
This concept “stresses that the Church of Jesus Christ is present and realized in each particular Church gathered around her bishop, in which the Eucharist is celebrated,” he said.
Hence, the cardinal continued, for the Orthodox, with the exception of an ecumenical council “there can be no other visible principle of unity of the universal Church, to which are attributed juridical powers, such as those the Catholic Church recognizes in the Petrine ministry.”
According to Catholic ecclesiology, however, the Church is fully present in the concrete Eucharistic communities, but one Eucharistic community alone “is not the Church in her fullness,” he explained. “Because of this, the unity between each Eucharistic community united in turn with her own bishop and with the Bishop of Rome is not an external ingredient to Eucharistic ecclesiology, but its essential condition.”
The heart of the ecumenical problem between the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church lies in the fact that “an ecclesiology linked to the national culture and a Catholic ecclesiology oriented to the concept of universality find themselves one before the other, up to now, in disagreement,” Cardinal Koch stated.
Obstacle or opportunity?
Cardinal Koch noted that Pope Paul VI saw this issue as the “greatest obstacle” for reaching full communion with the Orthodox. However, the prelate said, Benedict XVI has also detected in this issue an opportunity for union.
According to the thought of the present Pope, he said, “without primacy, the Catholic Church would also have disintegrated a long time ago in national and sui iuris Churches, which would have confused and complicated the ecumenical landscape.”
The council president affirmed that ecumenical dialogue between Catholic and Orthodox has given “encouraging steps,” even if more work remains to be done.
Cardinal Koch also observed that progress with the Orthodox can have a positive influence in ecumenical relations with the communities of the Reformation.
In fact, “the ecclesiology of the Reformation also pivots around the local concrete community, as appears clearly in Luther himself,” he stressed.
Because of this, Protestant ecclesiology “also finds its gravitational point in the concrete local community: The Church of Jesus Christ is fully present in the concrete communities that gather in the liturgical celebration.”
Each community is in a relationship of reciprocal exchange with the others, he continued. “The trans-community dimension of the Church exists implicitly, but is secondary, as is the universal dimension of the Church.”
Hence, the cardinal said, the greatest difficulty on this point is “how to relate, on one hand, Catholic ecclesiology, with its dialectic between plurality of local Churches and unity of the universal Church, and on the other, Protestant ecclesiology, which sees in the concrete community the most authentic realization of the Church.”
The situation is even more complicated in the case of Protestants because of the controversy over the sacramental dimension of the Church, a topic that marks a profound difference between the Catholic Church and the communities of the Reformation, the cardinal clarified.
Finally, in regard to ecclesiology, another issue to be clarified by Protestants regards the way in which these ecclesial communities conceive themselves: as a break with the 1,500 years of Christianity prior to the Reformation, or as a development in fundamental continuity with it.
In this internal Protestant debate, Cardinal Koch expressed the hope that the second understanding would take root, “and that with it, a satisfactory answer is found, also in view of the anniversary of the Reformation, which will be observed in 2017.”