World Council of Churches: Relations with the Roman Catholic Church

World Council of Churches
Relations with the Roman Catholic Church

The initial visible expression of collaboration between the Roman Catholic Church (RCC) and the World Council of Churches (WCC) was the exchange of officially delegated observers. In 1961 the Vatican Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity (SPCU), delegated five observers to the WCC's third assembly in New Delhi. Then the WCC sent two observers, Dr Nikos Nissiotis and Dr Lukas Vischer, to the four autumn sessions of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). In November 1964, the 2,200 bishops and Pope Paul VI promulgated the Vatican II Decree on Ecumenism. Anticipating this Decree, SPCU and WCC representatives began in April 1964 to consider future RCC-WCC collaboration. They proposed a joint working group (JWG) with a five-year experimental mandate. In January 1965 the WCC Central Committee, meeting in Enugu, Nigeria, adopted the proposal, as did the RC authorities in February, through SPCU president Cardinal Augustin Bea, during his visit to the WCC centre in Geneva.

The main points of the original mandate of the JWG still function:
1. The JWG has no authority in itself, but is a consultative forum. It initiates, evaluates and sustains collaboration between the WCC and the RCC, and reports to the competent authorities: the WCC Assembly and Central Committee, and the Pontifical Council (prior to 1988 the Secretariat) for Promoting Christian Unity (PCPCU). The parent bodies may empower the JWG to develop and administer its proposed programmes.
2. The JWG seeks to be flexible in the styles of collaboration. It keeps new structures to a minimum, while concentrating on ad hoc initiatives in proposing new steps and programmes, and carefully setting priorities and using its limited resources in personnel and finances.
3. The JWG does not limit its work to the administrative aspects of collaboration. It tries also to discern the will of God in the contemporary ecumenical situation, and to offer its own reflections in studies.

With eight WCC and six RC members, the JWG had its first meeting in May 1965, at the Ecumenical Institute in Bossey. The two co-chairpersons were the WCC general secretary, Dr W.A. Visser't Hooft, and the SPCU secretary, Bishop Johannes Willebrands. The WCC general secretary, Dr Eugene Carson Blake, invited Pope Paul VI to visit the WCC headquarters in Geneva. On 10 June 1969 the pope did so.
In 1968 the WCC and the new Pontifical Commission for Justice and Peace (1967) sponsored a large interdisciplinary conference on development (Beirut). The successful conference gave impetus to the JWG proposal for a joint committee on society, development and peace (SODEPAX). Headquartered in Geneva, with generous independent funding, SODEPAX quickly responded to the widespread local and national initiatives by helping them to set up their own SODEPAX groups, and by offering them the results of its own practical and theological studies on social communication, education for development, mobilization for peace and working with peoples of other world faiths. In 1980 its experimental mandate was terminated.

The archives of the ecumenical movement are housed in the WCC’s Library & Archives, in Geneva. They are divided into many different sections, reflecting the various bodies that were active in the ecumenical scene during the 20th century.
The records of the International Missionary Council, the Programme to Combat Racism and the Dialogue with People of Living Faith – all previously published on microform by IDC Publishers – are examples of such sections.

The present collection makes available on microform another section of the ecumenical archives, dealing with the Relation with the Roman Catholic Church in the period 1948-1992. The documents in the archives consist of correspondence, personal notes, press cuttings, reports and unpublished material. Records are divided into five sections:
1. General documentation
2. Roman Catholic Church
3. Council Vatican II
4. Joint Working Group
5. Sodepax

Scholarly relevance
The Relations with the Roman Catholic Church archives are of great interest and are frequently consulted by researchers working on the history of the ecumenical movement.
The different sections contain, among others, correspondence with Pope Paul VI, Pope John Paul II, Cardinal Bea and the Community of Taizé. A few examples of cooperation with the RCC are: jointly sponsored studies on “common witness and proselytism”, “catholicity and apostolicity”, “towards a confession of the common faith”; Roman Catholic membership in the Commission on Faith and Order; the setting up by the RCC of consultative relations with the Commission on world Mission and Evangelism and the Christian Medical Commission; the joint preparation of material for use in the Annual Week of Prayer for Christian Unity; the concern for development and peace by the joint Committee on Society, Development and Peace (SODEPAX); the full participation of the RCC in regional, national and local councils of churches. Examples of ecumenical collaboration are: the various bilateral agreements on doctrinal points; the interconfessional translation of the Bible under the joint inspiration and guidance of the United Bible Societies and the World Catholic Federation for the Biblical Apostolate; the development and the understanding of the notion of the unity of the church in terms of conciliar fellowship; the exploration of the possibility of membership thy the RCC in the WCC.
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