National Catholic Register


World Council of Churches Chief Counts on Roman Participation

BY Gabriel Meyer

January 5, 1997 Issue | Posted 1/5/97 at 1:00 PM


THE CALL for radical structural reform on the heels of financial woes—it's a common scenario these days for the aging international institutions set up in the wake of World War II. The United Nations is in the throes of it. And so, increasingly, is the world's largest ecumenical organization, the Geneva-based World Council of Churches (WCC).

Under the leadership of Rev. Konrad Raiser, general secretary of the organization since 1993, the WCC has embarked on a top-to-bottom review of its identity, vision and structure in the lead-up to its 50th anniversary in 1998. The radical restructuring, under discussion since 1989, is outlined in a draft proposal entitled Towards a Common Understanding and Vision of the World Council of Churches (CUV) sent to the WCC's 330 member Churches this fall. The organizational shake-up includes possible provisions for a new ecumenical forum that might allow for the participation of the Roman Catholic Church and some evangelical and Pentecostal bodies that have declined full membership in the past.

Currently, the Catholic Church has observer status in the general assembly, the organization's governing body, and participates in the WCC's Faith and Order Commission—its main theological arm—and, in conjunction with the Holy See's Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity, sends representatives to several other WCC working groups.

The WCC has its origins in three early 20th century Protestant movements—Life and Work, Faith and Order and the International Missionary Council—two of which merged in 1948 at the constituting Assembly of the WCC in Amsterdam, to be joined by the missionary council at the WCC's general assembly in New Delhi in 1961.

The WCC was formed initially to forge unity among Protestant denominations, especially in the foreign mission field. With the entry of Eastern Orthodox Churches and, eventually, the Roman Catholic Church into the broader ecumenical movement in the 60s, the WCC became one of the foremost international forums for dialogue and common action among Christians. By the 70s, it had also earned a reputation as a promoter of fashionable left-wing causes, a development that lost it the support of some evangelical and Pentecostal groups.

Raiser, who spoke to the Register by telephone from Geneva, stressed the vital importance of finding ways to increase the level of Catholic involvement in the Protestant and Eastern Orthodox-dominated WCC.

“For us [in the WCC] this is one of the essential testing points for the whole process: Will we, in the future, find a way for the Catholic Church to participate? We're sure that there can be no viable future for the ecumenical movement as a whole without Roman Catholic and WCC cooperation,” he said.

Raiser asserted that the WCC “is still the most widely representative Church body that exists today, embracing a very significant part of world Christianity.” Nevertheless, he said, “the absence of the Roman Catholic Church and some of the Evangelical Churches” is certainly felt. “Any new [WCC] model which would not facilitate the integration or full participation of the Roman Catholic Church would have failed its purpose,” he said.

The secretary general's most controversial organizational proposal to date is a suggestion that the WCC's general assembly, which takes place every seven years and is the organization's highest policy-making organ, be discontinued in favor of a new “global forum of Churches and ecumenical organizations” which would include the Catholic Church, of which the WCC would be one among many members.

The forum, conceivably, could also accommodate international Christian communions of Churches such as the Lutheran World Federation, the Anglican communion or the World Alliance of Reformed Churches. Such international bodies cannot become WCC members under the current constitution.

The WCC's complex constitutional structure has from the beginning played a role in the Catholic Church's decision not to seek membership in the organization, Brother Jeffrey Gros FSC, associate director of Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops (NCCB) told the Register.

“There's no real theological problem,” he declared. “As early as 1972, the [Holy See] said that theology was not the reason for not signing on as full members of the WCC.” Size is the main thing, Brother Gros pointed out. “We're larger than all the other Churches in the WCC. If we were a full member, with the current structure, the smaller Churches would not have the influence they have had in WCC deliberations.”

“From our point of view, [in the current set-up] collaboration is just a more advantageous context for participation than membership,” said Brother Gros. The ecumenist noted that Pope John Paul II has praised the work of the WCC on several occasions, especially in his 1995 encyclical on ecumenism, Ut Unum Sint.

While some of Raiser's proposals facilitating fuller Catholic participation in the WCC have been warmly received in Rome, the same cannot be said for the secretary general's speculations about the future shape of ecumenism itself. Raiser has called it a “paradigm shift,” a reordering of the ecumenical agenda.

As he put it in an address during his first official visit to the Vatican last year: “The challenge of a future under the threat of a growing fragmentation and violence, of a de facto apartheid between rich and poor, and of progressive degradation of the whole ecosphere is such that it should lead to an urgent reordering of the ecumenical agenda.”

“The jubilee values of reconciliation and forgiveness, of repentance and metanoia [conversion], of restitution and reconstruction should inspire us to close the books over our past [theological] struggles and to concentrate all our energies on addressing together the life and survival issues of today and tomorrow in the light of the Gospel of Christ. It is this spirit which should characterize and which should energize all our ecumenical efforts towards the year 2000.…”

It should be noted that Raiser's views on ecumenism do not necessarily represent the official views of the WCC.

Cardinal Edward Cassidy, president of the Pontifical Council on Christian Unity, in a talk in New York last fall, commented on Raiser's position: “The difficulties encountered in the various theological dialogues have led to some ecumenical circles opting for a less demanding goal for the ecumenical movement than that which has been widely accepted in the past, namely, unity in faith, ministry and sacramental life.” Cassidy complained that the secretary general's approach threatens to dismiss historic theological issues “as negative elements in the ecumenical search” and concentrate instead on questions of justice and peace and the protection of the environment.

‘The challenge of a future under the threat of a growing fragmentation and violence, of a de facto apartheid between rich and poor … is such that it should lead to an urgent rendering of the ecumenical agenda.’

This, the cardinal pointed out, is not the vision of the Catholic Church, which, in the words of Ut Unum Sint, urges that the “ultimate goal of the ecumenical movement is to reestablish full unity among all the baptized.”

But if broadening the WCC's base is one motive for the organization's intensive soul-searching, financial woes are also fueling the review. In a hard-hitting report to the WCC's Central Committee last September, Raiser told his colleagues that, as a result of a combination of unwise investments, lack of support from member churches and a weak dollar, the organization's income was no longer sufficient to maintain its present level of activities. “To regain financial viability,” Raiser told the committee, the WCC would have to implement draconian changes before its next general assembly slated for Harare, Zimbabwe in 1998. Mirroring the difficulties of other international organizations like the United Nations, the WCC not only has a need for structural reform and down-sizing, but member contributions to the organization's coffers have been on a steady decline since the early 90s. For example, more than half of the member Churches failed to contribute anything to the organization's day-to-day operations in 1994 and 1995, including the Russian Orthodox Church and the National Baptist Convention, USA, two of the organization's largest member denominations.

Raiser predicted that traditional income from Church bodies would decline further and indicated that no substantial increases could be foreseen. Meanwhile the WCC continues to run up large budget deficits: an estimated $7 million in 1996, and another estimated $3.5 million for 1997.

Raiser warned that the WCC had “probably reached the end of a road that began some 30 years ago.” Although ecumenical activity had expanded enormously since the 60s, he said, the expectations, habits and institutional arrangements “into which we have comfortably settled during this period are rapidly becoming barriers [in] the way.”

Some ecumenical observers, however, have speculated that the woes of the WCC, coupled with the reopening of ecumenical divides over gender issues like women's ordination, point at century's end not to an expanding ecumenical movement, but perhaps to a stalled one.

It's more than that the movement for ecumenism is in a period of stagnation,” said Father Thomas Rausch SJ, professor and chair of the Department of Theological Studies at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. “What we're finding is that there are intractable [theological] differences, after all.” Father Rausch spent a year at the WCC's Ecumenical Center at Boissey, Switzerland in 1983, and is an expert on the organization's work.

“The ordination of women is one of the intractable issues,” Father Rausch told the Register. “Unless there's a consensus on that issue between Catholics and Orthodox on the one hand and many Protestants on the other, I don't see the possibility of moving forward ecumenically anytime soon.”

“Nevertheless,” Father Rausch said, “the WCC has performed a wonderful function, providing a forum for discussion and sharing. It's an enormous achievement.”

When asked whether he thought the ecumenical movement had reached an impasse, Raiser was circumspect. “It's difficult to make general statements,” he said. “There are places where things continue with great dynamism, where many of the traditional lines of separation have been overcome.” Other situations, however, he characterized as “stepping backwards.”… “The focus of ecumenical hopes has been sidelined.”

In general, Raiser saw a growing tendency in the larger Churches to retreat into defending traditional positions. “Today people seem overwhelmed by change. Therefore, they're defensive, fearful. We certainly see it on the Roman Catholic side.”

If Father Rausch sees women's ordination as the intractable ecumenical issue, for Raiser, it's papal primacy. The WCC secretary general, along with Eastern Orthodoxy's Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, was asked earlier this year by a Polish Catholic newspaper to respond in print to John Paul II's recent invitation for input from other Christian leaders on how papal primacy might be exercised as a “service of unity.”

Raiser responded by urging, among other actions, that a general council of the whole Church be summoned in the new century to consider the question—a proposal he's advanced in other contexts as well.

What the Pope expressed in Ut Unum Sint, Raiser told the Register, concerned common reflection on different ways to exercise the ministry of papal primacy. “But that begs the question,” he declared. “The issue is not only the different ways of exercising his office, but the rationale behind papal primacy itself. That's still very difficult for me to get hold of. Unless we can come to an understanding there,” said Raiser, “adaptations in practice won't help much.”

Nevertheless, Raiser is not overly pessimistic about either the future of ecumenism or the prognosis for the WCC's reform efforts. “I would like the WCC to be recognized and to serve as a vital link in a network of ecumenical relations between Churches,” he said. “Not so much to do high visibility programs, but facilitating here, advising the Churches there, initiating action on this front—always with the interest of helping the Churches make best use of their resources.”

“For me, that's the catholicity of the Church at work,” declared Raiser. “Not a book affirmation, but a reality that shows mutual accountability and confirmation.”

Gabriel Meyer is based in Los Angeles.