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The Vatican's statement on the 'doctrine on the church'
provides a historic context for NCC's Oberlin conference

New York City, July 11, 2007 The Vatican statement on the doctrine on the church provides another historical context for the 50th anniversary conference of the National Council of Churches Faith and Order Commission July 19-23 in Oberlin, Ohio.

The Vatican statement, released Tuesday, reaffirmed that the Catholic Church is the one, true church, even if elements of truth can be found in separated churches and communities, such as Protestant and Orthodox churches.

The staff head of the NCC's Faith and Order Commission responded to the Vatican statement by calling it "an opportunity of hope."

"This reaffirms that the ecumenical nature and purpose of the Second Vatican Council is still very much alive within and outside Catholic circles," said Dr. Ann Riggs, NCC's associate general secretary for Faith and Order, in an interview with NCC News. 

"Even though this was written for Catholic theologians," said Riggs, "it affords us all an opportunity for more dialogue and more insight."

"This statement is responding only to some very specific questions about the Catholic doctrinal position on some Christian churches and is not a blanket statement on all non-Catholics," Riggs said. 

"The Vatican clarification is only stating their own doctrine from their point of view. There are ways in which the Catholic Church understands the Church differently than those churches born out of the sixteenth century Reformation.  Rome is certainly not saying the door is closed on ecumenical dialogue.  But we see there is still a lot more to talk about.  There is more to discuss," according to Riggs.

Touching on what Catholic News Service termed "an ecumenical sore point," the document said some of the separated Christian communities, such as Protestant communities, should not properly be called "churches" according to Catholic doctrine because of major differences over the ordained priesthood and the Eucharist.

The text was the latest chapter in a long-simmering discussion on what the Second Vatican Council intended when it stated that the church founded by Christ "subsists in the Catholic Church," but that elements of "sanctification and truth" are found outside the Catholic Church's visible confines.

The Vatican released the text July 10. Titled "Responses to Some Questions Regarding Certain Aspects of the Doctrine on the Church," it was signed by U.S. Cardinal William J. Levada, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and approved by Pope Benedict XVI before publication.

The release of the Vatican document and Riggs' comments come just one week before the 50th anniversary conference July 19-23 of the Oberlin, Ohio gathering that began the process of the Roman Catholic Church's entrance into the modern ecumenical movement. The participation of Catholic observers at the 1957 event is viewed by many as a scene setter for the Second Vatican Council.  NCC's Faith and Order Commission traces its eventual birth to that Oberlin event.

Monsignor John A. Rodano of the Vatican Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, and a veteran participant in ecumenical events, will be present to engage participants in a dialogue on the meaning of "On The Doctrine on the Church."

Oberlin Program

The theme of the conference is, "On Being Christian Together: The Faith and Order Experience in the United States."

Oberlin is a site of deep significance for the Faith and Order Commission of the NCC, which traces its beginning to a 1957 Oberlin conference on the theme "The Nature of the Unity We Seek."

Dr. Martin Marty, a distinguished theologian, church scholar and Lutheran pastor; and, Rev. Dr. James Forbes (below), renowned preacher, theologian and retired Senior Minister of The Riverside Church in New York, will be addressing the event.

In the nineteenth century, many now estranged streams of U.S. Protestantism lived together in a vibrant faith community at Oberlin. Issues of concern in the life and theology of 19th century Oberlin included racial justice, women's roles, and peace all issues that became central for the ecumenical movement in the 20th century.

The 50th anniversary celebration will consider where Faith and Order has been, its current gifts, and its future life.

As NCC President Elect, Archbishop Vicken Aykazian of the Armenian Church of America put it, "We are looking forward with great interest to the realization of this important conference. It is important not only for our past, but will also be a mirror for the future of the church in the United States."

Over a four day period, participants including Faith and Order Commissioners, theologians and church leaders from an even broader range of communions, and selected undergraduate, graduate and seminary students, will be invited to engage the theme by responding to papers from senior ecumenists.

The theological differences that continue to divide communions and traditions will be approached through the categories of "resonance," "dissonance," and "non-sonance" created by Rev. John T. Ford, CSC for the Commission's new book Ancient Faith and American-Born Churches, edited by Ted A. Campbell, Ann K. Riggs and Gilbert W. Stafford (Paulist Press, 2006).

These categories have made it possible for churches with very different self-understandings, histories and theologies to engage one another productively in a dialogue of mutual discovery and discussion.

Dr. Kevin W. Mannoia, Professor of Ministry and Chaplain to graduate programs and faculty at Azusa Pacific University, and a former president of the National Association of Evangelicals, is a driving force behind the creation of a consortium for Wesleyan and Holiness churches. Dr. Mannoia will be present to engage participants in a formal dialogue on the consortium and other issues.

Bishop Christopher Epting, the Episcopal Bishop for Ecumenical Relations said, "The Episcopal Church has always encouraged Faith and Order to be more balanced within both the World Council and National Council so it's very exciting to us that this gathering is taking place."

The meeting will both celebrate the achievements of Faith and Order in the United States and explore the ecumenical significance of Oberlin as a place, combining repentance for continuing disunity with joyful worship in response to the unity the churches already experience in Jesus Christ.

It will highlight those who have fostered a capacity for serious theological and ecclesiological dialogue in the midst of the culture wars through new methods and respectful conversation. It will seek to produce the kind of holistic approach embodied by Christian Methodist Episcopal Bishop Thomas L. Hoyt, Jr. who made important contributions for many years as a Faith and Order Commissioner and during his recent term as NCC President worked to ensure that issues of unity were never separated from ethical issues such as poverty and racism.

Focused on the theme, "On Being Christian Together: The Faith and Order Experience in the United States," the Commission will mark a half century of Christian communities working to strengthen the unity of the Church by engaging one another through dialogue and research on the theological differences that divide our churches. Since the meeting in Oberlin in 1957, the Commission has worked tirelessly to advance ecumenism and to discover new ways to state the core truths of Christian faith together.

One session entitled, "New Horizons for Christian Unity," has been planned to highlight the voices of younger theologians as they prepare to enter the Christian unity movement. Other sessions during the four-day conference will include: "Faith and Order in a Post-modern World," "Issues Facing Ecumenism," and "Faith and Order in the Context of Religious Plurality."

NCC News contact:  Dan Webster, 212.870.2252,

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