The Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity marked its 50th birthday in November. The council's recently appointed president, Swiss-born Cardinal Kurt Koch, delivered a report at the council's plenary assembly called "Harvesting the Fruits" in which he assessed progress on ecumenism since the end of Vatican II.
The first fruit, he said, is within the Church itself with ecumenism "no longer a foreign reality" in the life of parishes and dioceses. This "ecumenism of life" was 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 Vatican II. Here the central question was ecclesiology - the nature of the Church.
Ecumenism and ecclesiology, he said, are intimately connected since "Ecumenism was an important theme of the renewal of the Catholic Church herself and of her self-understanding." One of the key issues of the council had been the relationship between the universal Church and the local churches.
In the realm of ecumenism, however, the plural "churches" are not local churches, but ecclesial communities not in communion with the Catholic Church. Hence the ecumenical problem "consists in pointing out how the Catholic Church can and must conduct herself in face of these plural churches which exist outside of her. 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 realised in each particular Church gathered around her bishop, in which the Eucharist is celebrated."
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 recognises 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 noted that Pope Paul VI regarded this issue as the "greatest obstacle" for reaching full communion with the Orthodox. However, Benedict XVI has seen in this issue an opportunity for union.
According to the thought of the present Pope, "without primacy, the Catholic Church would also have disintegrated a long time ago into national and sui iuris Churches, which would have confused and complicated the ecumenical landscape."
The Cardinal remains confident that ecumenical dialogue between Catholic and Orthodox has led to "encouraging steps," even though more work remains to be done.
In turn he believes that progress with the Orthodox could have a positive influence in ecumenical relations with the communities of the Reformation whose ecclesiology "also pivots around the local concrete community, as appears clearly in Luther himself."
Protestant ecclesiology, said Cardinal Koch, "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." And each community is in a relationship of reciprocal exchange with the others.
The trans-community dimension of the Catholic Church exists implicitly, he continued, but is secondary, as is the universal dimension.
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 realisation of the Church."
The situation is even more complicated, he said, 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.
Finally, in regard to ecclesiology, another issue to be clarified by Protestants involves 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.
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 [500th] anniversary of the Reformation, which will be observed in 2017."