The ecumenical movement in the 21st century, by Cardinal Walter Kasper

Source: FSSPX News


On the occasion of the 40th anniversary of the Joint Working Group between the Roman Catholic Church and the World Council of Churches (WCC), Cardinal Walter Kasper, President of the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of Christian Unity, gave the following speech on the “Ecumenical Movement in the 21st Century”. This talk by the leading figure of the ecumenical movement on the Catholic side clearly shows the policies followed up to now and reveals the plans for the future.

It is known that the ecumenical question is one of the principal stumbling blocks between Rome and the Society of St. Pius X. We publish here the text in its entirety, while pointing out the comments that constitute serious concerns. A refutation of this polemic can be found in the study “From Ecumenism to Silent Apostasy” addressed by Bishop Fellay to all the cardinals in January, 2004. The Mother House of the Society of St. Pius X is currently sending this study to all the bishops of the world.

We celebrate in these days the 40th anniversary of the Joint Working Group (JWG). With gratitude we look back over four decades of a sometimes difficult, but nevertheless fruitful co-operation between the WCC and the Catholic Church. We thank all those who have been our companions and friends along the way. The purpose of our consultation, however, is not only to look back but primarily to look forward and to reflect on the future role and mandate of the JWG, and to find ways in which the JWG can contribute to the renewal of the ecumenical movement in the 21st century.

I. The ecumenical commitment of the Catholic Church

The ecumenical developments of the 20th century were valued in the Catholic Church long before the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) officially took part in the movement. Already in the first half of the century theologians such as Paul Couturier, Yves Congar, Jan Willebrands, Hans Urs von Balthasar, Karl Adam and many others, following in the footsteps of Johann Adam Möhler and John Henry Newman, prepared the way for the Council’s Decree Unitatis Redintegratio, in which the Council affirms that the restoration of the unity among all Christians is one of its principal concerns.1 This decision is founded in the mandate our Lord himself entrusted to his Church in his prayer on the eve of his death, “That all may be one” (Jn 17:21).

Pope John Paul II on several occasions called this decision irrevocable and irreversible;2 indeed, the ecumenical task was one of his pastoral priorities.3 Pope Benedict XVI immediately after his election reaffirmed the same commitment in the following words: “Following in the footsteps of my predecessors, in particular Paul VI and John Paul II, I feel intensely the need to affirm again the irreversible commitment, assumed by the Second Vatican Council and continued over the last years, thanks also to the action of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity.”4

II. A brief look back                                                                             

In order to understand our ecumenical relations we need to place them into a brief historical perspective. Only when we see clearly where we have come from can we know where we are going in the new century.

It is nearly one hundred years since the beginning of the modern ecumenical movement, traditionally dated from the World Missionary Conference at Edinburgh in 1910. At the time, there was perhaps a prophetic sign of the Catholic Church’s entry into the ecumenical movement through Bishop Geremia Bonomelli from Cremona (1831-1914),5 who sent a personal message to the conference.6 This is probably one of the first unofficial contacts between the Catholic Church and the early beginnings of the ecumenical movement. Soon after, on 2 November 1914, Robert Gardner, Secretary of the Commission of the Episcopal Church USA, wrote to the Secretary of State Cardinal Gaspari asking for an audience with the Pope for the purpose of discussing the proposed Conference of all Christian Communions to discuss “Faith and Order” questions. This audience was granted and in May 1919, a delegation of five Episcopalians visited Pope Benedict XV (1914-1922).

These examples show that there were ecumenical contacts with the Catholic Church from the beginning of the ecumenical movement. But there were many obstacles to overcome. When the first “Faith and Order” Conference took place in Lausanne, Switzerland, in 1927, the Catholic Church was not ready to send any official delegates. Only an Instruction of the Holy Office issued on 20 December 1949 helped to create a more positive attitude towards the participation of Catholics in ecumenical gatherings.7 Thus, four Catholic observers were able participate in the WCC Assembly of New Delhi in 1961, something we take for granted today.

The Second Vatican Council created an atmosphere leading the Catholic Church to enter into the mainstream of modern ecumenism. In 1960, Pope John XXIII established the “Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity” as one of the preparatory commissions for the Council. One of the first tasks of the Secretariat was to advise the Pope on how to proceed in inviting observers from other Churches and Ecclesial Communities, as well as representatives of ecumenical bodies. In 1962, the Secretariat was placed on the same level as other conciliar commissions, and thus it was responsible for preparing and presenting to the Council the documents on ecumenism (Unitatis Redintegratio), on non-Christian religions (Nostra Aetate), on religious liberty (Dignitatis Humanae) and, together with the doctrinal commission, the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation (Dei Verbum).

One of the tasks of the Secretariat during the Council was to facilitate the participation of over 100 ecumenical observers, among them two observers of the WCC who through the Secretariat had a remarkable influence on the Council. Their presence created a trustful atmosphere, which led to various ecumenical dialogues and structured relations with the WCC. The idea of a JWG was born in meetings between the first General Secretary of the WCC, Dr Visser’t Hooft, and the first President of the Secretariat, Cardinal Augustin Bea, both ground–breaking and outstanding promoters of the ecumenical movement. They envisaged the JWG as a consultative forum and an instrument of flexible co-operation. Its first meeting was able to take place at Bossey in May 1965, that is, even before the conclusion of the Council. This was an important milestone that we rightly commemorate in these days.

The Catholic Church and the WCC are two quite different entities, the one a worldwide Church with a universal mission and structure of teaching and governance; the other a council of churches, which understands itself as a fellowship of churches.8 However, when one reads again the numerous statements and eight reports of the JWG one immediately becomes aware of the engagement with which it has carried out its ecumenical vocation and has sought to bring together the theological, social and pastoral dimensions of ecumenism. One is also led to reflect on the rich common experience it has offered its members and the progress towards full visible communion, which, with God’s help, was made possible in this period.

The interest Pope John Paul II showed on different occasions in the work of the JWG was re-affirmed by Pope Benedict XVI on the occasion of the visit to Rome by Dr Samuel Kobia, General Secretary of the WCC, in June this year. So we can look forward to the new tasks and challenges which stand before us in the new century.

III. Current situation in the ecumenical movement

After forty years of an intense ecumenical experience, we can look back with gratitude for the progress made in the journey towards full visible unity. But we need also to look critically at the present situation of the ecumenical movement. There have been highlights and at the same time difficulties, misunderstandings and delusions. We cannot in this context go into detail on these aspects, although an overall evaluation will be undertaken during this consultation.

On a more general level, we can say that the ecumenical movement is today clearly in a transitional period. On the one hand, we gratefully acknowledge the good fruits of the ecumenical dialogue, particularly the rediscovery of Christian brotherhood among the members of the different Christian communities, which no longer consider each other as enemies or competitors but as brothers and sisters in Christ on the common pilgrimage towards full communion.9 On the other hand, we cannot overlook the theological, political and institutional critique of the ecumenical movement, which comes not only from so–called fundamentalist groups but from some venerable old churches and serious theologians as well. For some of them ecumenism has become a negative term, equivalent to syncretism, doctrinal relativism and indifferentism.10

Furthermore, we should bear in mind the changing ecumenical scene at the beginning of the 21st century. At the global level, we observe on the one side unions and alliances, a huge number of bilateral and multilateral ecumenical consensus or convergence documents; on the other side, tensions and even new divisions, often due to ethical questions. We also observe the emergence of sometimes enormously growing new communities of an Evangelical and Pentecostal character, often only barely or not at all joining the ecumenical movement, if not openly hostile to it.11 There is also the relatively recent phenomenon of new ecumenical configurations consisting of various ecumenical coalitions: the WCC, Christian World Communions, regional ecumenical organizations and ecumenical non-governmental organizations. At the national and local levels we have witnessed the growth of councils of churches and similar bodies.12 The proposed discussion on “Ecumenism in the 21st Century” or the re-configuration of the ecumenical movement is to be seen in this context.

Our response to this situation cannot be only and primarily an institutional and organizational one. This transitional period must have its own ‘ethos’ involving a willingness to approach partners and to extend the hand of reconciliation, in order to heal the wounds left by history (purification of memories). Without danger of betraying our faith or our conscience we could already today do much more together than we actually do: common Bible study, exchange of spiritual experiences, gathering of liturgical texts, joint worship in services of the Word, better understanding of our common tradition as well as our existing differences, co-operation in theology, in mission, in cultural and social witness, co-operation in the area of development and environmental conservation, in the mass media, etc. Spiritual ecumenism and ecumenical formation are, as we will see later on, particularly important for this transitional period.

It is with such a renewed spirit that the partners in the ecumenical movement must find institutional forms and structures for the present transitional period. This can be undertaken in particular through councils of churches at the regional and national level. They do not constitute a super-church, and they require none of the churches to abandon their own self-understanding. While the responsibility for the ecumenical journey ultimately remains with the churches themselves, councils of churches are important instruments for the promotion of unity, and valuable forums for the exchange of mutual information, communication and co-operation between the churches.13

IV. Ecumenism in the 21st century

At the beginning of the 21st century, the ecumenical movement needs a revitalised ecumenical vision, a renewed spirit and a new commitment by all partners. This does not mean devising unrealistic utopias of the future. Instead of staring at the impossible, and chafing against it, we need to live the already given communio, and do what is possible today. This is more than we actually normally do. By advancing in this realistic way, step-by-step, we may hope that, with the help of God’s Spirit who is always ready with surprises, we will find the way towards a common future.

So what is our, or what is my Catholic vision of the ecumenical movement in the 21st century? In what follows, I want to summarize my view in five points:

1. First of all, the ecumenical movement in the 21st century needs clarity, sometimes new clarity on its theological foundations. Otherwise it will be like a house built on sand, which falls down when the storm comes (cf. Mt 7:26 f). This is not a question of a mere emotional family feeling or a vague humanitarianism. The corner stone is Jesus Christ (cf. Mt 21:42 et al.). This understanding forms the constitutional basis of the WCC, and underlies the Second Vatican Council.14 According to our understanding, this foundation is laid in the Holy Scriptures themselves and in their interpretation by the Creed and the first mutually acknowledged ecumenical councils; through the one Baptism in the name of the Triune God we are inserted in the one Body of Christ (cf. Gal 3:28; 1 Cor 12:13). Through our common faith in the one God, the one Lord, the one Spirit and the one Baptism we are one Body in Christ (cf. Eph 4:4 f). We are in an already existing, but not yet full communion, which makes it possible for us to give each other the honorary name of Christian.

The continuation of the dialogue on baptism and the mutual recognition of baptism, successfully initiated in 1982 with the Lima documents on Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry, is therefore fundamental for our future ecumenical relations. We welcome the affirmation of the Third International Consultation on Councils of Churches in Hong Kong in 1993 that baptism is a common binding element, which compels Christians to respond towards the unity of the body of Christ.

We are also grateful for the “Faith and Order” document Confessing One Faith. An Explication of the Apostolic Faith published in 1999, and we regret that this important document did not find the echo and reception it deserved. Without continuation and deepening of this project ecumenism will become vague and ambiguous. It will be cut from its roots, will fade away and finally die or be ideologically manipulated for other purposes, which cannot be ours. We ask therefore the WCC to give back to “Faith and Order” the momentum it originally had both in the ecumenical movement and in the programme of the WCC. The JWG cannot be a supplementary motor for what “Faith and Order” should do.

2. The second point is a shared vision and goal. What do we understand by “visible unity in one faith and one Eucharistic fellowship, expressed in worship and common life in Christ, through witness an service to the word”, as the Constitution of the WCC states?15 Do the partners in the ecumenical movement have a shared understanding of ecumenism and its main goal? Without an answer to the question of where we are going, we will get nowhere. The saying, “without a vision people perish” is true for us too. The Harare Assembly of the WCC in 1998 gave a profoundly moving testimony on “Our Ecumenical Vision”.16 Nevertheless, it was realistic enough to confess that up to now we do not share a fully common vision.17 This is not the least reason for the ecumenical crisis.

The Catholic understanding of unity, understood as full communion in faith, sacraments and Church ministry,18 corresponds in principle with the understanding of our Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox sister churches, but unfortunately differs from the most usual interpretation of the mainline Protestant position and its famous “satis est consentire de doctrina evangelii et de administratione sacramentorum”.19 With some Lutheran theologians Catholics would say: “Satis est non satis est”.

However, the Catholic understanding of unity is not to be confounded with uniformity. The principle of the Apostles’ Council is valid also for us, i.e., that no burdens should be imposed beyond what is indispensable (Acts 15:28).20 Unity understood as communion implies unity in diversity and diversity in unity. But in the same way as unity should not be confounded with uniformity, so plurality should not be identified with contradictory doctrinal pluralism or indifferentism about our respective confessional positions. Indifferentism can never be a solid basis to build upon.

Dialogue presupposes partners who have their own clear identity; only then can they appreciate another and different identity and enter into a meaningful and fruitful dialogue. Thus, the Toronto Statement of 1950 declared that different ecclesiologies do not prevent the ecumenical dialogue; on the contrary, they are a challenge and a call for dialogue. This is valid also for the disputed Declaration Dominus Jesus (2000) of the Holy See’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which in substance did not say more than what every well–informed person already knows, i.e. that Catholics and Protestants hold a different ecclesiology, and that this divergence therefore should form the object of future serious dialogue.

Such dialogue is much more than simply an exchange of ideas; in some ways it is an exchange of gifts that each of the respective churches receive.21 In dialogue we can learn from each other. The result will not be a united new super-church. In the same measure that we grow and mature by dialogue to the fullness of Jesus Christ (cf. Eph 4,13), the Church also realizes more concretely what she is, what she has always been and ever shall be; she achieves a fuller concrete realisation of her catholicity. This is not a so–called ecumenism of return, not a way back, but the Christ- and future-oriented guidance of the Holy Spirit into all truth (Jn 16:13).

So ecumenism in the 21st century must be coherent and honest in its purpose, goal and orientation. However, partners cannot have a shared vision of the goal without common theological ground on the meaning of the Church and her unity. Therefore, the project of “Faith an Order” on the Nature and Purpose of the Church has for us a high priority for the ecumenical debate in the 21st century.

3. When the foundation and the goal are clear, then – and this is the third point – the way to go becomes sure. This way is nothing extraordinary but identical to the path of Christian life. There is no ecumenism without conversion,22 and there is no future at all without conversion. The best reflection I know on this issue can be found in the document of the Group of Dombes For the Conversion of the Churches (1991).23 The document points out that confessional identity and ecumenical conversion are not mutually exclusive but complementary.

Renewal and conversion of heart includes both personal and institutional aspects. Personal conversion and renewal entail a change of attitude towards each other, leading to the purification of memories from bitter experiences of the past and to the avoidance of unfair polemical statements, thus preparing the way for reconciliation. Personal conversion and sanctification imply a spirituality of communio, which means to make room for the other and to withstand the egoistic temptations of competition, careerism, distrust and jealousy.24

At the same time institutional reform – the Council speaks even of “continual reformation” (perennis reformatio) – is an essential presupposition and condition for ecumenical progress.25 Pope John Paul II did not hesitate to speak of the structures of sin.26 The Church is “at once holy and always in need of purification”; she “follows constantly the path of penance and renewal”.27 There is no doubt that the Catholic Church in the 20th century after the Council has taken many steps in terms of reform which no other Church has carried out. It is understandable that after such a period of reform, time is now needed to stabilize the inner life of the Church and to gather new spiritual forces for a new reach out to the future. But there is also no doubt, as our ecumenical partners and many of our own faithful remind us, that we are not yet at the end of the road.

Similarly, the ecumenical movement too needs the same reform and the same renewal that is required of all partners, if it is to make a difference in the new century.

4. This leads me to a fourth point, the soul and the heart of the ecumenical movement, spiritual ecumenism.28 When we speak of spiritual ecumenism, we do not use this concept – which is unfortunately overused – to mean a spirituality that is vague, weak, merely sentimental, irrational and subjective, that does not take into account the objective Church tradition, or even ignores it. It does not mean any spirit but the Spirit of Jesus Christ, who confesses “Jesus is the Lord” (1 Cor 12:3). Spiritual ecumenism means therefore the teaching of Scripture, of the living tradition of the Church, and of the outcomes of ecumenical dialogues that have been personally and totally assimilated, filled with life, and becoming light and strength in our everyday life.

Mere ecumenical activism becomes a soulless bureaucracy and is destined to exhaust itself; mere academic debate among experts, no matter how important it may be, escapes the ‘normal’ faithful and touches only the margin of their hearts and lives. We can only expand the ecumenical movement by deepening it.

The first place in spiritual ecumenism belongs to prayer,29 which joins Jesus’ own prayer on the eve of his death “that all may be one” (Jn 17:21). Such prayer culminates in the “Week of Prayer for Unity”. Christian unity cannot only be the fruit of human effort; we cannot as human beings ‘make’ or organize it. We can only receive it as a gift of the Spirit. I would further mention the shared reading and meditation of Sacred Scripture, exchanges between monasteries, communities and spirituality movements, visits to pilgrim sites and centers of spirituality. One of the most encouraging signs are the recently spreading spiritual ecumenical networks between spiritual movements, monasteries, fraternities and religious congregations.

Pope John Paul II reminded us of another important form of spiritual ecumenism, which can give new vigor to our ecumenical commitment: the ecumenism of the “great cloud of witnesses” (Heb 12:1), especially of those who gave their life for Christ, the numerous martyrs in many of our churches, Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant, in the 20th century.30 If there is truth in the words of Tertullian already in the early third century, that the blood of martyrs is the seed for new Christians,31 then we can apply this famous phrase also to the ecumenical movement and state: The blood of so many martyrs of so many churches in the 20th century is the seed for unity of the churches in the 21st century.

5. The fifth and last point is practical ecumenism. The unity of the Church is not a goal in itself. The unity of the Church is instrument, sign, and anticipation of the unity of all humankind. This affirmation is fundamental in the documents of the Second Vatican Council,32 and is developed very often by the WCC.33

Indeed, the ecumenical movement has been since its very beginnings in Edinburgh intimately linked with the missionary movement and with the “Mission and Evangelization” Commission. The Church is missionary by its very nature,34 whereas our divisions damage “the most holy cause, the preaching of the Gospel to every creature”.35 Today the missionary task entrusted to the Church is all but accomplished; as we enter the beginning of the 21st century, it stands at a new beginning.36

The “Mission and Evangelization” conference held in Bangkok in 1973 was aware of the new missionary situation in our post-colonial world, but its proposal of a moratorium and its contextual understanding of mission gave rise to critical questions from the evangelical side. The conference held in Athens some months ago was a new beginning, though common answers are still lacking. This has consequences for the ecumenical movement in the 21st century. There will not be a new ecumenical enthusiasm without a renewed missionary spirit and theology for the new missionary situation in all five continents.

The universal context of the commitment for the unity of the Church has further implications for social and political diakonia, practical witness, and for the dignity of the human person and for human rights, for the sanctity of life, family values, education, justice and peace, health care, the preservation of creation and last but not least interreligious dialogue.

In all these fields we can work together, and such co-operation can bring us closer together. But, as experience shows, these practical problems can have, and indeed unfortunately often have had, also a divisive consequence. The ecumenical slogan: ‘doctrine divides, practice unites’ is therefore all but self-evident. Already in the past, political implications were often responsible when theological conflicts ended with divisions within the Church; today secular political options have often a similar effect.

Theology can degenerate into a nationalist, rightist, leftist ideology or to a secular utopia. Examples of all these dangers are easy to be found; neither any Church nor the WCC is immune to such tendencies or to the loss of the theological foundation and goal of ecumenism. Sober self-critical theological reflection and discernment of the Spirit will be needed for a healthy development of the ecumenical movement in the 21st century.

Over the years, the issues raised in the ecumenical debate have shifted from political ethics to individual ethics, especially in relation to sexual behavior. In the past there was a large consensus in these questions; now, previously unknown new differences have arisen. One may say, that these questions are not the most important ones in the hierarchy of truths. That’s true. Nevertheless they have an enormous emotional and therefore, as recent examples show, also an enormous divisive power. They are no adiaphora. Behind the concrete problems deeper different anthropological views and problems of Bible hermeneutics can easily be identified. Therefore, it is a pity that the JWG’s project on anthropology could not be brought to an end during the last period; there is still a large field for “Faith and Order” too. At stake is no less than the ecumenical contribution to a new humanism in the 21st century.


The Catholic Church sees and rejoices in the progress made in the ecumenical pilgrimage in the last century. But much more than what has already been accomplished remains to be done. We are only at the beginning of a new beginning. In order to start with renewed enthusiasm and energy in the new century we have to clarify the foundations, the vision, the ways and the practice of the ecumenical movement; above all, there is a need for spiritual ecumenism.

The ecumenical movement from its very beginnings has been and will continue to be an impulse and a gift of the Holy Spirit.37 Ecumenical activities not grounded in spiritual ecumenism will very soon become a soulless routine, whereas spiritual ecumenism will lead us to the conviction that who has initiated the whole ecumenical movement, is faithful and will bring it to its fulfillment. With this hope we can start with courage and with confidence in the 21st century. We hope, with God’s help, it will be an ecumenical century.


1 SECOND VATICAN COUNCIL, Decree on Ecumenism, Unitatis Redintegratio, 1.

2 For example, Encyclical Letter Ut Unum Sint (1995), 3.

3 Ibid., 99.

4 L’Osservatore Romano (English edition), n.18, 4 May 2005, p.3

5 Cf. DELANEY, J., From Cremona to Edinburgh: Bishop Bonomelli and the World Missionary Council of 1910; West Haven, Connecticut, 1999.

6 That message was published in World Missionary Conference 1910 Report of Commission VIII on Co-operation and the Promotion of Unity.

7 Cf. AAS 2, 195, 12-17.

8 Cf. WORLD COUNCIL OF CHURCHES, Directory 2005, Constitution, I Basis; WCC Geneva 2005, 65. The ecclesial status of the WCC was clarified by the Toronto Statement The Church, the Churches and the World Council of Churches. The Ecclesiological Significance of the World Council of Churches (1950).

9 Ut Unum Sint, 42

10 Cf. TOM STRANSKY, “Criticism of the Ecumenical Movement and of the WCC”, in: Dictionary of the Ecumenical Movement, WCC Geneva 2002, 278-284.

11 Cf. PHILIP JENKINS, The Next Christendom. The Coming of Global Christianity, Oxford University Press, Oxford 2002.

12 Out of a total of 120 councils of churches around the world, the Catholic Church is member in 70 of these bodies.

13 Cf. PONTIFICAL COUNCIL FOR PROMOTING CHRISTIAN UNITY, Directory for the Application of Principles and Norms on Ecumenism, Vatican City 1993, 166-171.

14 Cf. WORLD COUNCIL OF CHURCHES, Directory 2005, Constitution, I Basis, WCC Geneva 2005, 65; Unitatis Redintegratio, 1.

15 WORLD COUNCIL OF CHURCHES, Directory 2005, III. Purpose and Functions, WCC, Geneva, 2005, 65.

16 WORLD COUNCIL OF CHURCHES, Together on the Way. Official Report of the Eighth Assembly of the World Council of Churches, Geneva 1999, 113-116.

17 Ibid., 103-105.

18 Unitatis Redintegratio, 3.

19 Confessio Augustana, Art. 7 (BSELK 61)

20 Cf. Unitatis Redintegratio, 18.

21 Ut Unum Sint, 28.

22 Unitatis Redintegratio, 7; Ut Unum Sint, 15 f; 33-35; 82-84.

23 GROUPE DES DOMBES. For the Conversion of the Churches, WCC Geneva 1993.

24 JOHN PAUL II, Apostolic Letter Novo Millennio Ineunte (2001), 43.

25 Unitatis Redintegratio, 6.

26 Ut Unum Sint, 34

27 SECOND VATICAN COUNCIL, Lumen Gentium, 8.

28 Unitatis Redintegratio, 8; Ut Unum Sint, 21.

29 Ut Unum Sint, 21-27.

30 Ut Unum Sint, 1; 48; 83 f.

31 TERTULLIAN, Apologeticum, 50,14.

32 SECOND VATICAN COUNCIL, Lumen Gentium, 1; 9; Gaudium et Spes, 42, and others.

33 Especially the Uppsala Assembly of the WCC in 1968 with the theme “Behold, I make all things new”, which marked the start of a not unproblematic more secular anthropological and social ethical orientation of the WCC.


35 Unitatis Redintegratio, 1.

36 JOHN PAUL II, Encyclical Redemptoris Missio (1990), 1.

37 Cf. Unitatis Redintegratio, 1; 4.