Saturday, October 22, 2011

Harvesting the Fruits: Basic Aspects of Christian Faith in Ecumenical Dialogue

by Cardinal Walter Kasper

A review

If you work in the church, or care about the church, and if you have a special passion for the unity of the church and ecumenical dialogues, you have in all likelihood attended to the progress that has been made over the last forty years in bilateral dialogues between our churches. Some of the most sustained and sustaining conversations have been conducted by the Roman Catholics. In this book, Walter Kasper examines forty years worth of dialogues between a) Anglicans and Catholics, b) Lutherans and Catholics, c) Methodists and Catholics, and d) the Reformed and Catholics.

Of course there are many other dialogues going on of various sorts, but we cannot fault Cardinal Walter Kasper of the Roman Catholic church for focusing his analysis of ecumenical conversations on the most significant ones currently involving his own communion.

Kasper takes a very plain spoken and analytical approach. This is of great benefit. It means anyone reading this book will get an accurate sense of the documents produced by the ecumenical dialogues. He has read them all so we don't have to. Thank you, Walter.

His basic questions: Where are we? What has been achieved and what still has to be done? where can we and where should we go forward? To what extent have the dialogues resolved the core issues over which Christians separated in the sixteenth century? And what are the unresolved questions that still need to be taken up in the next decade?

Chapter one examines the fundamentals of Christian faith, Jesus Christ and the Holy Trinity. Here Kasper finds fundamental consensus about the Trinity and Jesus Christ. "What we share in faith is therefore much more than what divides us."

Chapter two addresses the central issue that first sparked division--salvation, justification, and sanctification. Here Kasper observes that Catholics, Lutherans, and Methodists have reached substantive agreement on what was once the central ecumenical problem, with consequences for every aspect of Christian faith and life (45).

Chapter three on "the Church" far outstrips all the other chapters in length. This is where ecumenical dialogues have "hung," especially on the ministry and ordination and the episcopacy. The chapter is far too detailed to summarize here, but it is worth noting that all four dialogues emphasize that Jesus Christ founded the church and on this Jesus Christ the church is founded. Furthermore, because Jesus Christ is present in the church, the dialogues witness to a growing ease with speaking of the church in a sacramental way. The church is a foretaste of the kingdom, while also remaining a pilgrim church.

Chapter four is the chapter on the sacraments, especially baptism and eucharist. Here Kasper finds fundamental agreement on baptism (not surprising), and renewed mutual understanding around Eucharist (especially with regards to the Eucharist as an anamneusis and as epicletic), with still some issues around full table fellowship and the "real"-ness of the Eucharist.

Kasper's (and the Roman Catholic Church's) passion for ecumenism arises out of principles for ecumenism established at Vatican II. "[That] Council sees in the ecumenical movement an impulse of the Holy Spirit at work, who awakened in divided Christians remorse over their divisions and has bestowed upon them longing for unity" (5). Kasper believes we can take as our starting point today not the things that divide us, but the things that unite us, especially our common confession of the Triune God and Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord. By definition, in his view, "this present document takes as its starting point the acknowledgment that through common Baptism a real but incomplete communion exists between the Catholic Church and the dialogue partners." He sees the bilateral dialogues not just as exchange of ideas, but as an exchange of gifts (I think this idea originated with Hans K√ľng). It is not an ecumenical winter. We are instead in an ecumenical fall, harvesting the fruits and planning for the next season.

Kasper concludes with a list of the "exchange of gifts that has or is currently occuring. I list them here:

1) Our shared apostolic faith.
2) A fresh and renewed understanding of the relation between Scripture and Tradition.
3) Basic agreement on the doctrine of justification.
4) Deepened understanding of the nature of the Church.
5) New approaches to the sacraments of baptism and Eucharist.
6) Rediscovery of the liturgy, and especially around the Eucharist, as source and summit of the Church (communio-ecclesiology, ala Zizioulas, although he does not use that term or reference Zizioulas).

Kasper also lists continuing questions or topics he believes should be central to the continuing ecumenical dialogues:

1) A need for a new Symbolic Theology, a theology based on the binding creeds and confessions.
2) Addressing fundamental hermeneutical questions.
3) A focus on anthropology.
4) The sacramental nature of the church.
5) Eucharist as the sacrament of unity.

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