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Text of Address by John T. Ford, C.S.C., to the NCC General Assembly
November 16, 2000, Atlanta, Ga.

Link to News Story About John T. Ford's Address to the GA
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First of all, I am grateful for the invitation to share my vision of the ecumenical movement. Every ecumenical vision has certain limitations: first, a vision is personal, even subjective, and secondly a vision is contextual and communal, relying on the collective experience of a specific Christian community. Thus, in presenting my personal vision as a Roman Catholic ecumenist, I readily acknowledge that other ecumenists within my own Church may have different visions, because of different personal experiences and different theological perspectives.

Every vision is influenced by memories of the past, conditioned by experiences in the present, and inspired by hopes for the future. In other words, every ecumenical vision is autobiographical. Accordingly, I would like to begin my presentation by sharing a few ecumenical reminiscences insofar as my personal memories are components of my own ecumenical vision and may serve as reminders of where American Roman Catholics have come from, as conditioning where we are at present on the wider ecumenical pilgrimage, and as possible prognosticators of where we might venture in the ecumenical future.

1. Beginnings

My own ecumenical journey began in Logansport, Indiana -- a town that is literally on the banks of the Wabash. To a youngster, Logansport seemed to be a city of steeples: within four blocks of my home, there were ten churches: Baptist, Christian Science, Episcopalian, Disciples of Christ, Lutheran, Methodist, Missionary Alliance, Presbyterian, United Church of Christ and Roman Catholic. The Roman Catholic population was small -- less than 10%. My family is Catholic on my mother's side and Protestant on my father's. In public grade school, one of my two best buddies was Baptist, the other Jewish. And while such an ecumenical/interfaith experience is common today, it was not always the case a half-century ago.

The fact of "growing up ecumenical" -- before I knew the term existed -- leads to the first conviction that I want to share: ecumenism is not simply an exercise of speculative theological investigation, it is not simply the organization of inter-church cooperation, it is not necessarily a matter of merging institutional structures, ecumenism must involve the faith and spirituality of each Christian. Indeed, if ecumenism does not touch the heart of each Christian, then ecumenical endeavors will likely reverberate like the proverbial sounding brass and tinkling cymbal.

This personal dimension of ecumenism was brought home to me several years ago, when I was asked to serve as reporter at a gathering of "ecumenical veterans" -- one of the most memorable aspects of that occasion was the fact that all of those ecumenists had had a "conversion to ecumenism" at some point in their lives: some like myself, grew up in an "ecumenical environment"; others had worked together on humanitarian projects, like helping the victims of floods and tornadoes; or aiding migrants and immigrants; or working together on Red Cross blood drives or Salvation Army collections for the homeless and disadvantaged; some had collaborated on civic projects concerned with such issues as neighborhood safety, fair housing, civil rights, etc. Still others had had an "ecumenical conversion" while serving in the military or peace corps or national parks service etc. <1>

Even though the particular experience varied from person to person, each of these veteran ecumenists could trace her or his ecumenical commitment to a specific time, a specific place, and specific people. And even thought there are many possible paths to ecumenical commitment, I am personally convinced that if the ecumenical movement is going to advance, humanly speaking, it will be through the efforts of people who are convinced of its validity, indeed of its urgency, through personal experience. As a professor, who teaches courses on ecumenism, I not only want students to know the history and theology of the ecumenical movement, I also want them to experience ecumenism first hand.

2. Second Vatican Council

A second set of my ecumenical convictions stems from the time of the Second Vatican Council. I still vividly recall my amazement at the election of Angelo Roncalli as pope in 1958. His predecessor, Pius XII (1939-58), was tall, ascetic, scholarly, distinguished looking, and had been pope for over 19 years at the time of his death. His successor, who took the unexpected name of John XXIII, was short, obviously enjoyed pasta, and had an extremely high score on the extrovert scale. The Roman Catholic world was unprepared for such a leader; the press had few pictures of him on file. Most Roman Catholics did not expect John XXIII to accomplish much -- after all, he was a senior citizen of 76 at the time of his election. Most people initially regarded John XXIII as a "caretaker pope" who would perform the essential functions of the papal office, enjoy its numerous and notable "perks," and serve as a transitional figure until the next papal election, when presumably a younger and more energetic candidate would be chosen.

How utterly wrong such expectations proved to be! John XXIII surprised the world by convening the Second Vatican Council, which changed Roman Catholicism forever. One well known story about John XXIII is that when he was asked why he had decided to convene a council, he went to the nearest window, opened it, and replied: "to let in a bit of fresh air." There are many examples of how John XXIII "refreshed" the Roman Catholic Church, but for this audience, I would single out his invitation to other Christian churches to send observers to the Second Vatican Council.

While the Protestant, Anglican and Orthodox observers did not vote at Vatican II, they were influential behind the scenes; they made their contribution to the Council by their suggestions both of what the Council should say and what it should not to say. There are several lessons that I want to highlight from the history of Vatican II -- and Roman Catholics now need to recall that history, since the Council adjourned 35 years ago and that means that people under forty, including most Roman Catholic seminarians, have no personal memories of the Council.

The first lesson that I would derive from Vatican II is the need for charismatic leaders in the Church: people who will be able to open new possibilities both within their own church and who simultaneously are able to open their church to new possibilities in its relationship with other churches; in other words, the churches need people who are able to lead their church in new directions in its quest for Christian unity.

A second and cognate lesson is an openness to new suggestions from those outside one's own church: the observers at the Second Vatican Council made a lasting mark on the Council, even though the observers were not formally members of the Council. The invitation to attend came first, their participation was worked out on scene, and their involvement and influence increased slowly but surely. The observers at Vatican II might be described as "non-voting members;" their voice was more important than their vote.

Indeed, my hermeneutics of suspicion suggests that if John XXIII had waited until everyone was ready for the Council, Vatican II would not yet have met. My hermeneutics of suspicion also suggests that had the Council insisted on perfect protocol before inviting observers, they would still be awaiting their invitations.

The experience of the observers at Vatican II suggests a corollary: perhaps it is not always necessary to devise elaborate procedures in advance for the representatives of other churches to participate in councils; perhaps the status of "observer" or "consultant" can be ecumenically more productive than that of "voting member"; in any case, what does seem essential is that observers or consultants be invited, that their viewpoints be considered and, when possible, accepted.

3. Dialogue

The Second Vatican Council has affected the life of every Roman Catholic alive today -- even though many do not know that it was the Council which introduced the changes that are now generally taken for granted. Among such changes is Roman Catholic involvement in ecumenical dialogues at every level: local, national, international. The impetus for such involvement came from the Decree on Ecumenism, in which the Council enunciated "Catholic Principles of Ecumenism" -- which have served as guidelines for Roman Catholic participation in ecumenical endeavors. <2>

Yet the "Principles" are more like permission to participate; the dynamics of participation need to be developed on scene. For example, the very first ecumenical gathering that I attended as a young professor took place at a university affiliated with the Lutheran Church. At the reception -- and in my experience some major ecumenical insights come at receptions -- a Lutheran professor of New Testament and I began a conversation. And, as might be expected, when Lutherans and Roman Catholic theologians meet, the conversation rather quickly turned to "justification by faith." What I remember so vividly about that conversation was that his understanding of "justification" in the New Testament and my understanding of the teaching of the Council of Trent on "sanctification" basically matched: our words were different but the underlying belief was the same.

Consequently, last year, when our two communions, Lutheran and Roman Catholic, promulgated the joint consensus on "Justification" -- to me, it was official confirmation of that conversation almost 40 years ago. In any case, the experiential lesson that I want to emphasize is that prior to that conversation, neither of us really appreciated the position of the other church. Why? Because our knowledge of each other's theological positions came -- not from personal dialogue -- but from reading each other's documents and textbooks.

Such a procedure is like using a map while driving in a strange place: we may have a sense of where we are heading on paper, but the actual terrain may be quite different than what is laid out on a one-dimensional map. Similarly, Christians often know what other churches state in their official texts, but they do not always understand what they really mean in context. Even though I have become -- fortunately or unfortunately -- a computer-addict, I recognize that the internet and e-mail can not tell us everything about another person, another place, or another church; in short, there is no substitute for personal dialogue if we really want to understand each other.

Such ecumenical understanding comes at a fairly high price in terms of time and effort. In the case of my conversation with the Lutheran professor, official consensus about justification took some four decades to achieve. In addition, in ecumenical dialogue, I need to know something about the history and theology of my dialogue partners. For example, even though I am fascinated by the "restorationist" endeavors of Barton Warren Stone and Thomas Campbell on the American frontier, I need the help of their contemporary disciples in order to understand their ecumenical orientation. At least from a Roman Catholic standpoint, the bilateral conversations -- local, national and international -- have been surprisingly productive in achieving consensus on many previously divisive issues. Agreement is not yet complete -- and may never be -- but the results to date have been significant and certainly worth the time and effort that have gone into producing what are now multiple volumes of consensus statements.

4. Reception

Yet the very success of bilateral conversations has produced two problems that need to be addressed: the first problem is that of reception, of broadcasting the ecumenical message on the local level; for example, occasionally, when I have given presentations about ecumenism in Protestant churches and mentioned the National Council of Churches, I have been asked: "what is that?" and this at a church whose denomination is a member of the National Council. Permit me to add: I have the impression that many people know the National Council more from the Readers' Digest than from the National Council itself.

A second problem is the number of bilateral agreements that have been published; for example, the number of ecumenical dialogues in which the Roman Catholic Church has been an official participant is now so large that it is difficult even for ecumenists to keep track of all of them: yet the challenge is not only one of sheer quantity, but also of theological consistency. To date, I know of no instance where what Roman Catholics have told Lutherans differs from what we have told Anglicans, Orthodox, Pentecostals, Reformed, etc., but since each bilateral takes on a life of its own, there is need to make sure that there is theological alignment among ecumenical consensus statements.

This is a task where the Faith and Order Commission has been and should continue to be particularly helpful. Faith and Order provides a venue where Christians can meet and share their faith -- both their commonalities and their differences: where else can one participate in a theological conversation that includes: Quakers and Orthodox, Pentecostals and mainline Protestants, Evangelicals and Roman Catholics? For me, Faith and Order has been a place where I have encountered other Christians whose way of living the Gospel and preaching the Gospel is quite different than my own -- sometimes in very notable ways -- yet these same people have given me many helpful insights into the meaning of the Gospel and many good examples of how one should put the Gospel into practice. This is why my experience in the Faith and Order Commission has been so personally important, theologically productive, and ecumenically challenging.

A variety of images have been used to describe the ecumenical movement: pilgrimage of the chosen people through the desert; the good ship Oikoumene sailing resolutely through troubled waters; koinonia, a community of living praying and working together; the ecumenical gift exchange where each brings a gift to share and each receives gifts in return; churches covenanting towards fuller union, etc. Each of these images has merit, but for me Faith and Order has been like a "family reunion" where long-separated cousins finally meet.

5. The Ecumenical Movement as Family Reunion

As a youngster growing up in the Mid-West, one of the highlights of every summer was the family reunion. Family reunions were the time when you saw cousins that you had not seen since last summer, when seniors could reminisce about the past, when proud parents could be congratulated about new additions to the family -- when it was time for all to celebrate being part of the same family. One of the most memorable features of every family reunion -- and most summers saw two or even three of them -- was the long table groaning with home-cooked food of every type imaginable. There were of course the standards: fried chicken and cole slaw, baked ham with raisin sauce, potato salad and baked beans. But my favorites were the desserts at the end of the table: german chocolate cake and raspberry cobbler - to be topped with scoops of home-made ice cream hand-cranked under a shade tree.

But, to be perfectly honest, there were foods that I deliberately avoided. My Uncle Ed looked forward to family reunions because that was the one time in the year he could be sure to have his favorite dish: pig's knuckles and sauerkraut. I really should not be critical of my uncle's taste, since I resolutely refused to taste them, even though he offered me a helping year after year; in fact, I have never tried them and probably never will.

In any case the variety of food at family reunions suggests some ecumenical lessons: first in coming together as Christians, we find that we have much to share: there is much more that unites us than divides us. And in ecumenical conversations, whatever our differences, we must never, never forget our commonalities, our faith in Jesus Christ, which is the reason for our coming together. Yet in every ecumenical gathering there is the equivalent of the pig's knuckles and sauerkraut: beliefs and practices that are treasured by one community of Christians, but politely avoided, even deliberately rejected, by other Christians.

This is a situation where we need to act with mutual respect. In other words, ecumenically neuralgic issues are lurking out there waiting to detour our ecumenical pilgrimage, to distract our ecumenical conversation, perhaps even to destroy our fellowship as Christians. Every ecumenical conversation has the potential for the unexpected, for the surprises that no one anticipated, for customs that we do not understand, for obstacles that may easily threaten ecumenical relationships. Some ecumenical conversations have attempted to avoid such topics; for example, the Life and Work movement deliberately avoided doctrinal issues on the premise that "doctrine divides, work unites"

Such an approach worked -- temporarily; however, today, we are in an anomalous situation where American Christians are just as likely to be divided by a number of "ethical issues" at the very same time that they are finding doctrinal consensus. In my personal judgment no issues should be excluded from the ecumenical agenda a priori. However, it is a matter of discretion to determine when and how such potentially divisive issues should be raised and discussed.

In this regard, the Lutheran-Roman Catholic dialogue has set an astute precedent.

Nearly forty years ago, when this dialogue began, it was probably evident to all the participants that "Justification" was a topic that would eventually have to be discussed.

Yet that bilateral dialogue began with topics where agreement was more likely to be achieved: Scripture, Tradition and Creed. Only after consensus was achieved on other issues was the more neuralgic issue of "justification" eventually discussed. To some of course, such postponement is unjustified, even dishonest: all issues should be on the table right from the start; to others, the astute way for ecumenical dialogue is to start with points of commonality and see if differences can be resolved.

6. Family Differences

And while I am not here in any official capacity, may I suggest that this image of "family reunion" might serve as a possible model for expanding the relationship of the Roman Catholic Church and the National Council of Churches. From the viewpoint of "Faith and Order," there are doctrinal topics that Roman Catholics are ready to discuss:

Scripture, Tradition and Apostolic Faith, the Church as Koinonia, Ecclesial Authority, Ministry and Christian Witness. There are some other doctrinal topics where agreement presently seems remote, perhaps is impossible; for example, Infant Baptism, Threefold Orders of Ordained Ministry, Papacy.

From the viewpoint of "Life and Work," there are some ethical areas where Roman Catholics have cooperated in the past or might cooperate more extensively in the future: Civil Rights, Economic Justice, Fair Housing, Immigration, World Peace and the Environment. There are other areas where cooperation is less likely, perhaps impossible, since Christians in the United States are deeply divided on such issues as: Abortion, Education: Public and Parochial Schools, Family Life and Sexuality.

Finally, one must recognize structural or political issues that can easily hamper the relationship between the Roman Catholic Church and the National Council: foremost among these is the fact that, unlike most member churches of the National Council, the Roman Catholic Church is not an independent American denomination, but the American component of an international church. Not only does it take the Roman Catholic Church longer to make important decisions, but the Roman Catholic Church in the United States does not have the final authority to make doctrinal decisions.

Here again, the image of "family reunion" may be helpful. On my mother's side of the family, there are so many descendants of my great-great-great grandmother Noburga that we now have a hefty book that provides a geneology that shows how we are related to each other. At the most recent family reunion, there were some people whom I recognized immediately, there were others whom I had to ask how we are related -- and then later look them up in the family tree. There are family members whom I see on a regular basis, there are others whom I meet only at reunions. At a family reunion, there are a variety of different relationships.

In recent years, many new and varied ecumenical relationships and proposals for relationships have emerged: reconciled diversity, mutual recognition of members and ministries, intercommunion agreements, altar and pulpit fellowship, churches covenanting towards union, full communion -- to name but a few. Each of these types is an attempt to find unity between churches in a particular historical context. Given this existing variety of ecumenical relationships, what forms could a closer relationship between the Roman Catholic Church and the National Council take?

Perhaps the ideal approach would be full membership as is the case in some other countries. Perhaps a more immediate and practical approach would be more like family relationships -- in various degrees of closeness and cooperation.

There already are many contacts between the Roman Catholic Church and the National Council: for example, Roman Catholics have been full voting members of the Commission on Faith and Order since 1968. There has been co-sponsorship of projects with Ecumenical Networks; there has been cooperation with the National Religious Partnership for the Environment; there has been collaboration between Roman Catholic biblical scholars on the New American Bible and the New Revised Standard Version.<3>

These and other examples show that it is possible for Roman Catholics and the National Council to work together both in specific areas and on specific projects with mutual benefit as well as with ecumenical commitment. At the same time, it should be noted that this ecumenical commitment has taken a variety of forms: full membership, co-sponsorship, cooperation, collaboration. At the beginning of the 21st century, one might well ask can these areas of contact be expanded?

We have now reached a crucial point in our ecumenical discussions. As we have come to know one another better our eyes have been opened to the depth and pain of our separation and also to our fundamental unity. The measure of unity which has been given to the Churches to experience together must now find clearer manifestation. . . . Should not our Churches ask themselves whether they are showing sufficient eagerness to enter into conversation with other Churches, and whether they should not act together in all matters except those in which deep differences of conviction compel them to act separately?" <4>

This question asked nearly a half-century ago (1952) at the Third World Conference on Faith and Order in Lund, Sweden, seems even more urgent today. To me, the image of church as "family reunion" suggests that American churches should act together in all possible matters -- except where conscience requires them to act separately.


1. "Memories of the Past, Challenges of the Present, Visions of the Future: Reflections of Six Ecumenical Veterans," Ecumenical Trends 20/ll (December, 1991) 172-176.

2. The Decree on Ecumenism, also known as Unitatis Redintegratio from its initial Latin words, was approved by the Second Vatican Council (1952-65) on November 21, 1964; the first chapter treats "Catholic Principles of Ecumenism," the second chapter discusses the "Practice of Ecumenism"; these chapters are available in The Ecumenical Movement: An Anthology of Key Texts and Voices, edited by Michael Kinnamon and Brian E. Cope (Geneva: WCC Publications/Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1997) 28-34.

3. See the extended comments of Cardinal William H. Keeler, "Meditation for the Installation of New NCCC President," Ecumenical Trends 23/2 (February, 1994) 8-11/24-27.

4. This text is re-printed in The Ecumenical Movement, edited by Kinnamon and Cope, 462-463, with an all-too-true editorial comment: ". . . most churches continue to do together only those things that can't be done as efficiently alone!"

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