The World Council of Churches is a worldwide fellowship of churches seeking unity and a common witness and Christian service that came into existence in 1948 following several decades of global interest in unity in Christ’s mission. It has had both an illustrious, and at times rocky, history. The most recent global gathering of the WCC, the Tenth General Assembly, concluded in South Korea less than two weeks ago. A number of my friends were in attendance and one, Fr. Steve Bevans, spoke to a plenary gathering. (Steve and I shared a speaking role last Saturday in Chicago. He is a professor of mission at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago.)
In my work for ecumenism I am sometimes asked why the Roman Catholic Church (RCC) is not a member of the WCC. The answer to this question is variously misunderstood by Catholics and non-Catholics alike. Some, especially (politically conservative) Catholics, make a great deal out of this fact that the RCC is a non-member of the WCC. They seem to me to do this in order to show how and why the WCC is unacceptable to the RCC. On the other end of the spectrum there are some radically progressive Christians, in and out of the RCC, who condemn the RCC for not formally joining the WCC. These strident voices are wrong in their understanding about the reality of ecumenism in the RCC and thus the relationship of the RCC to the WCC.
Another very good friend of mine, Fr. Tom Ryan, covered the news of the recent WCC General Assembly for the Catholic News Service. Tom is a Paulist priest who lives in Washington, DC. The two of us have formed an ecumenical partnership in which we do four-day unity events in North American cities where churches invite us, working together in unity, to serve them with a mission. You can find out more about this mission on our ACT3 website under the partners tab.
Tom filed this report after the WCC meeting, a report that answers the question about the RCC and the WCC as well as anything I have read. I share it here (unedited) for the benefit of my friends and readers.
Father Tom Ryan,CSP
Catholic News Service
BUSAN, South Korea (CNS) — When the World Council of Churches Assembly said in its final statement, “We intend to move together,” it referred not only to its members but to the Catholic Church.
“We are not members of the WCC, but we have a close partnership with a great deal of interaction,” said Bishop Brian Farrell, secretary of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity. “We are constantly in communication. And there are a number of channels in which this collaboration finds expression.
“This has been a very successful relationship,” he told Catholic News Service.
He said the World Council of Churches, with 345 member churches, “represents the place where an enormous section of Christianity is present to seek unity, to collaborate, to examine questions that arise. It’s one of those centers of the Christian world that keeps Christ’s desire for unity very much alive in the public domain.”
Bishop Farrell was one of the 25 Vatican delegation members at the Oct. 30-Nov. 8 WCC Assembly in Busan.
Another member of the Vatican delegation at the assembly, Father Jim Puglisi, a member of the Franciscan Friars of the Atonement who heads a Rome research center that focuses on ecumenical studies, explained why the Catholic Church is not a member of the council.
“Membership in the WCC is by national churches,” he told Catholic News Service. “There may be 35 national Lutheran churches and 45 national Anglican churches who are members of the WCC.”
Father Puglisi, who teaches at several pontifical universities, said the closest thing Catholics have to national churches are national bishops’ conferences, but all of those are united with the pope.
“So our way of relating to other world Christian bodies is not by national churches but as one international Christian communion.”
Father Puglisi noted that Latin American bishops might have a different opinion on something procedural or theological than bishops in Asia, “and when it came to a vote, they would be divided. The Catholic Church seeks to move together on the questions we face. Of course, a lot of issues are still up for debate, but that kind of membership and voting process could be a problem for us,” he said.
He also noted that the number of delegates for each church is related to the total population of that church.
“We don’t want to upset the balance on the various WCC commissions and committees and at assemblies,” he said. So the language is one of partnership with the council rather than membership, and the 25 members of the Vatican delegation were formally titled “delegated observers.”
The relationship with the WCC took shape in 1965 shortly after the Second Vatican Council. The Vatican and WCC agreed to set up a joint working group to monitor and cultivate collaboration.
One of those channels is addressing theological questions that divide the churches. The WCC is the home place of a commission called Faith and Order, in which the Catholic Church is a full member.
“Catholic theologians, very competent and very active, actually comprise 10 percent of the 120-member commission,” said Bishop Farrell. “Faith and Order studies those questions that can be the source of progress toward greater communion of faith and life.
“We are also full participants in the WCC’s commission for mission and evangelism,” he noted. “There are a number of Catholic experts in missiology who take part in the studies, meetings, and practical initiatives that the WCC, through this commission, promotes for the spreading of the Gospel throughout the world.”
Bishop Farrell said the wonderful thing about an assembly like the one in Busan “is that there’s a clear call for all the churches to keep their full and visible unity in focus as a primary goal. And the Catholic Church is very happy about this, because our own church cannot live in isolation, as if we had everything going for us and need nothing.
“On the contrary, the very catholicity of the Church of Christ is wounded when there are so many of our baptized brothers and sisters with whom … we do not yet have full communion in faith and life,” he said.
“So we have the responsibility to walk this path toward Christian unity, knowing that if we don’t, we’re being truly unfaithful to Christ who prayed, ‘Father, may they all be one so that the world might believe,’” the bishop said.
Copyright (c) 2013 Catholic News Service/U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops