June 3, 1995 in Features

In Search Of Unity Pope John Paul Ii Suggests Christian Leaders Discuss Ways To Bring The Faithful Closer

Daniel Williams The Washington Post
 

Pope John Paul II put the role of the papacy up for discussion among all Christian denominations this week but stopped short of renouncing supreme papal authority on faith and morals.

The offer was made in a papal encyclical on reunification of the Christian community titled, after its opening words, Ut Unum Sint - Latin for “That They May Be One.”

The encyclical, a pastoral letter addressed in this case to the whole of Christendom, appears designed to re-energize three decades of discussions on Christian harmony that some theologians say have been overtaken by an “ecumenical winter.”

In particular, the pontiff apparently hopes to make dramatic progress toward reconciliation with both Eastern Orthodox and Protestant churches in time for the Christian millennial celebration of 2000, longtime Vatican observers say.

Christendom began splintering 900 years ago with the Great Schism between the churches of Rome and Constantinople. A half-millennium later, the Protestant Reformation in Europe spawned a host of Christian sects that rejected Catholic ritual and papal authority. There are now nearly 25,000 Christian denominations worldwide.

Since the pontificate of Pope John XXIII in the 1960s, the Vatican has said repeatedly it favors conciliation over polemics in any advance toward Christian unity. But the church has always stopped short of a peace-at-any-price disregard for what it considers irreducible doctrine.

In Tuesday’s encyclical, the pontiff insists that this position is no obstruction to unification.

“To uphold a vision of unity that takes account of all the demands of revealed truth does not mean to put a brake on the ecumenical movement,” he wrote.

The primacy of the pope, an article of Roman Catholic faith, is rejected by most Christian denominations, but the pontiff makes clear in the encyclical that he is not surrendering supreme authority. Rather, in the subtle terms of religious diplomacy, he offers to discuss how that authority is applied.

In issuing the encyclical, John Paul wrote, he is “acknowledging the ecumenical aspirations of the majority of the Christian communities and heeding the request made of me to find a way of exercising the primacy, which while in no way renouncing what is essential to its mission, is nonetheless open to a new situation.”

In an open invitation to all Christian denominations, the pope added: “Could not the real but imperfect communion existing between us persuade church leaders and their theologians to engage with me in a patient and fraternal dialogue on this subject.”

The letter makes no specific proposals on how a pope’s role might change to accommodate other sects, but it did note the role of a “moderator” in settling religious disputes in the early Christian church. The letter acknowledges that the papacy, with its claims of universality and infallibility, “constituted a difficulty for most other Christians” and that the Church of Rome itself had contributed to the Christian breakup. Still, it lays down a kind of bottom line of responsibilities for a pontiff as moral arbiter.

The pope, it declares, “has a duty to demonstrate, to caution and to declare at all times that this or that opinion being circulated is irreconcilable with the unity of faith.”

The pontiff also suggested that the Vatican has no intention of diluting doctrine in the interest of Christian unity.

“It is not a question of altering the deposit of faith, changing the meaning of dogmas, eliminating essential words from them, accommodating truth to the preferences of a particular age or suppressing certain articles of the creed under the false pretext that they are no longer understood,” he wrote. “The unity willed by God can be attained only by the adherence of all to the content of revealed faith in its entirety.”

The letter identifies five areas that need further study before “true consensus of faith” can be reached:

The relationship of Scripture and tradition.

The Eucharist.

Priestly ordination.

The church’s teaching authority.

The role of the Virgin Mary.

Like many questions dividing Christianity, the role of the papacy is not likely to be resolved in short order. Highly technical commissions within the Vatican and among various branches of Christianity have been working at bridging the myriad differences that have built up among Christians over centuries. Indeed, new ones have emerged even during the era of reconciliation that began in the mid-1960s. Some denominations ordain women, for example. “The question of women’s ordination is a major piece” of what divides Catholics from Episcopalians, said the Rev. David Perry, ecumenical officer for the U.S. Episcopal Church. “But I think that the encyclical calls for honesty and openness in the dialogue to face the tough issues and not to look the other way. … This is good news.”


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