An Ecumenical Spring Time in the Vatican?

by Brian Flanagan

Much Catholic media attention has focused upon the final document of the Special Assembly of the Synod of Bishops for the Pan-Amazonian Region, with its newsworthy recommendations about the possible ordination of married men and reopening the conversation of ordaining women as deacons (and, incidentally, ignoring many of the other substantive sections in the document about cultural, ecological, and ecclesial conversion to a greater living out of the Gospel in the region…). Everyone wonders what Pope Francis will do with the synod’s recommendations, as we anxiously await his post-synodal apostolic exhortation.

But another Vatican text, dated October 18, 2019, and received with much less fanfare on while the Catholic media was focusing on the Amazon synod, is as significant to the future life of the Catholic Church, and, arguably, would be causing just as much consternation in some radically traditionalist corners of the internet as the Amazonian Synod.

The document is the official Catholic response to The Church: Towards a Common Vision, a major ecumenical document on the nature and mission of the church, and it indicates Catholic reception of a significant milestone in convergence across separated Christian communities of an increasingly shared theology of the church. It’s a specialist document that really will require more study, evaluation, and reception across the Catholic Church, but in this short piece I’d like to give some background and makes four observations with significance for our further growth in ecumenical unity as well as the kind of renewed ecclesiology that Pope Francis is promoting for the Catholic Church. It might particularly make excellent reading today, in these last days of this year’s Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.


First, some necessary background on where this document comes from. While the Catholic Church is not an official member of the World Council of Churches, it has, since just after the Second Vatican Council, participated in the WCC in general and as voting members of the Faith and Order Commission of the World Council of Churches, the major body that studies doctrinal, theological questions that divide the churches and explores ways of resolving church-dividing doctrinal differences. One method for that has been multilateral dialogues, that is, dialogues that attempt to involve all of the Christian communities (as distinct from bilateral dialogues like the Catholic-Lutheran dialogue and the Catholic-Orthodox dialogue).

The two landmark accomplishments of the Faith and Order Commission (in my opinion, at least) were the 1982 text Baptism, Eucharist, and Ministry (often abbreviated BEM, and sometimes called the “Lima Document” after the location of the meeting at which it was approved), and, more recently, the 2013 text The Church: Towards a Common Vision on ecclesiology. Both were the product of decades – literally – of conversation, dialogue, official and unofficial responses by communities, theologians, and other ecumenical groups, and both were put forward as “convergence texts” – not expressing the full doctrinal consensus judged necessary for the restoration of visible unity, but demonstrating the width and depth of shared theological agreement between the churches. (And one of the major contributors of the effort that led to BEM was the late Canadian theologian and ecumenist, and my PhD subject, Fr. Jean-Marie Tillard, O.P.)

In both cases, official church bodies responded to the final versions of each process of dialogue; the responses to BEM were edited and published in 6 sizeable volumes! The Catholic Church gave its official response to BEM in 1987, after five years of study by the Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. While it appreciated the hard work of the drafters and lifted up some of each of its chapters for appreciation, it raised numerous critical questions, asked for further clarification and dialogue (especially on ecclesiological issues), and was overall seen in some circles as a disappointingly lukewarm response to the hopes of the Faith and Order Commission. BEM continued to be received in Catholic circles, particularly those focused upon ecumenical dialogue, but I wouldn’t be surprised if most of those reading this post are hearing about it for the first time right now.

The Church: Towards a Common Vision (which I’ll abbreviate TCTCV – it just rolls off the tongue after a while, trust me!) is the end result of a similar, multi-decade process of dialogue, study, and discernment. It responded to Catholic and other communities’ critiques that BEM put the cart before the horse by treating sacraments and ministry before the ecclesiological doctrines that undergirded them, and to the growing results of bilateral dialogues on ecclesiology. It was preceded by two earlier versions, “The Nature and Purpose of the Church” (1998) and “The Nature and Mission of the Church” (2005), leading to the final document in 2013. And, as with BEM, the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity released a substantive (67 page!) Catholic response to TCTCV, and while I’d love to know who the primary drafters were, it was released under the authority of the head of that office, the Swiss Cardinal Kurt Koch first named as the head of PCPCU by then-pope Benedict XVI in 2002.

Observation One: A Different Tone

All of this leads to the first of my observations of this draft, particularly in some contrast to the Catholic response to BEM: this response is overwhelmingly, refreshingly, warmly positive. Throughout the text the authors raise some questions for further dialogue and clarification, and note that their response “makes no claim to deal with all relevant aspects of ecclesiology but rather to build upon some fundamental ecclesiological convergences which have emerged in the churches’ responses to BEM and in subsequent ecumenical dialogues” – in other words, they aren’t claiming that TCTCV expresses a full Catholic ecclesiology in the way that, say, the Second Vatican Council’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium, would.

Nevertheless, like the response to BEM, it begins with an appreciation, but this response’s appreciation goes on for several pages. Another introductory section outlines 11 distinct “general aspects in harmony with Catholic thought.” (p. 6-8) It suggests that the first chapter might express not only convergence but “almost a ‘consensus’” – that is, the level of “substantial accord” needed for full, visible unity. (10) It is full of expressions of appreciation, such as for how TCTCV responds to concerns to BEM, for particular expressions of our shared faith in the church, for convergences and parallels between TCTCV and Roman Catholic magisterial teaching – especially the Lumen Gentium from the Second Vatican Council and John Paul II’s 1995 encyclical Ut Unum Sint, “On Commitment to Ecumenism.” To the first of four questions for study the drafters of TCTCV asked of the churches, this response states clearly that while “there are still various theological statements in the text that Catholic teaching would find inadequate, nevertheless…TCTCV presents some convergences on the meaning of the Church which reflect, in very substantial ways, the ecclesiological understanding of the Catholic Church.” (52) To the non-specialist, that seems a very qualified, hesitant statement, but in the language and conventions of ecumenical theological dialogue in recent years, this is a great leap forward.

In short, I first scanned through the text with baited breath, waiting to see when a Roman shoe might drop, and never found it.

Observation Two: Hope for a Renewal of Ecumenism

This change in tone opens the door to further, wider pathways to Christian unity, in two senses. First, as the document states, the question of “the nature and mission of the Church” “Is perhaps the central ecumenical question.” (3) The reception of BEM was hindered, in part, because how one understands baptism, Eucharist, and the structures of ministry depends in such large part upon how one understands the church. If this text now shared by the churches is compatible “in very substantial ways” with the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church, then the possibilities of moving forward in dialogue on the particular areas of further divergence – especially around ministry in general, primacy in particular, and papal primacy above all – seem more within reach and open to discussion on the foundation of this shared idea of the Church. The response is chock-full of constructive, helpful suggestions for further study and dialogue between churches, but locates them within the wider context of TCTCV as a whole.

In addition to “harvesting Scripture, Tradition, and the results of multi- and bilateral dialogues on ecclesiological themes” in the past forty years (p. 9), the response also points forward in hope to how we can better live out our ecumenical commitments “on the road” to full visible unity – a favorite phrase of the text. One aspect of this is the embracing of the method of “differentiating consensus,” most famously used in the Catholic-Lutheran Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification. The response writes that “just as Catholics have achieved a fundamental consensus on the core of the doctrine of justification by faith with Lutherans and, subsequently, with other Christian communities, by identifying what might be called the hierarchy of truths about justification by faith, to which diverse explanations of the central truths can be seen as compatible, there is no inherent reason why such an approach could not also be applied to ecclesiological doctrines.” (5) In other words, when it states that “adherence to revealed faith in its entirety does not preclude a certain degree of diversity, even in the expression of that faith” (5), the response re-opens a wider pathway to consensus than a unequivocal embrace of the formulation of any one church’s ecclesiological doctrine.

And, at the same time, recognizing the limits that yet prevent full visible communion and the sharing of Eucharist, this response returns the Catholic Church to a commitment to do together with our fellow Christians all that we can already do together. For the readers of this blog, the paragraph on growing closer liturgically is important: While we cannot yet share Eucharist,

this does not impede us from inviting members of other churches to the liturgies we celebrate, just as nothing stops us from attending the liturgies of other churches when it is acceptable. The liturgy is an opportunity to learn about each other; as we pray, so we believe (lex orandi, lex credendi). As explained earlier…we will renew our commitment to do together whatever we can do together, even in the context of the liturgy. These are some examples: the highly significant gesture of the washing of the feet, signifying service as well as intimacy, following Jesus’ example; the imposition of ashes on the first day of the Lenten season; celebrating together the liturgy of the Word and other symbolic gestures during the vigils of solemnities such as Christmas, Epiphany, the Ascension, Pentecost, and the Martyrdom of Saints Peter and Paul; local religious festivities in significant shrines to which Christians from different churches journey as pilgrims. (61)

In a time when, sadly, “Protestant” gets used as a term of abuse rather than a term for a fellow Christian by a few loud but influential voices on social media, this recommitment to the basic commitments to our fellow Christians first outlined of Lumen Gentium, Unitatis Redintegratio, and Ut Unum Sint is a needed gift to the church in our times. And after a time sometimes described as an “ecumenical winter,” this feels like the first warm breezes of a returning spring.

Observation Three: Hope for a Renewal of the Catholic Church

Pope Francis has not written a major encyclical on the nature of the church; instead, his ecclesiological teaching has come through a wide range of homilies, speeches, paragraphs in his encyclicals and exhortations, and other forms. But this text seems to express some of the major lines of a “Franciscan” ecclesiology.

One major place that this happens is in its treatment of synodality. Building upon John Paul II’s invitation to other Christian leaders and theologians to imagine new forms of exercising papal primacy acceptable to all Christians, this text highlights in a series of paragraphs that TCTCV challenges the Catholic Church “to develop its current practice of synodality.”  (57) Its description of synodality, obviously in continuity with the International Theological Commission’s recent text on synodality, is worth quoting in full:

Synodality is not solely a style of exercising authority, service and collaboration in the formal structures of the Church but is also an ecclesial attitude which can be adopted by all Christians, whatever their responsibility, even at the grassroots. The Catholic Church commits itself to facilitate this two-way process within its own life. This takes place centripetally, from the local Churches to the centre, as well as centrifugally from the centre to the peripheries. This ecclesial transformation marks a shift in behaviour and in the way of doing things, but, more profoundly, it signals a radical change in attitude. Regarding synodality at the grassroots level within the Catholic Church, it will seek to promote a more inclusive attitude in its structures whether this is either absent or weak – as in diocesan and parish pastoral councils of consultation and collaboration. (58)

This is a great expression of why ecumenism is so valuable – in addition to following the will of Christ that we would all be one, that the world might believe, our dialogue provides ways for the Catholic Church to more easily receive the practices and wisdom of synodally experienced churches, even as we might share some of the gifts of structures of primacy. But, in the meantime, we can see here more clearly how and where Pope Francis is leading the Catholic Church back to the renewal of synodal structures first renewed in modern Catholicism at the Second Vatican Council.

Observation Four: Definitive Reception

Much more could be said about the particulars of this text, and no doubt will be by ecumenists and scholars in the coming years. But the final distinctive aspect of this response is its formal act of reception within the Catholic Church as a statement of ecumenical convergence. “Reception” is where ecumenical documents often go to die – recall that I needed to begin this essay by explaining BEM.

But there are some possibilities in this response that open pathways for a more robust reception within Catholic life and teaching. The response concludes, definitively, that “we receive this document [TCTCV] as an instrument of renewal within the Catholic communion. It offers a way for each of us to work with our ecumenical partners as we listen to the voice of each other and together to the voice of the Spirit guiding the Church in our own time.” (67) And, earlier, it states, “Our hope is that the further knowledge and reception of this text and its use in theological faculties and in the formation programs of all of our communities, not only involved in the preparation for ordained ministry and other forms of pastoral service but also in the widest possible scope of the membership of our communities, will enliven, in the years ahead, the aspiration and commitment of all Christians to act in promoting the more complete realization of Christ’s prayer that all his followers be one.” (9)

If we do this – and this, perhaps, is where you the reader come in – if we make TCTCV an object of study beyond academics and ecumenical specialists; if ecclesiologists explore how ecumenical convergence statements like these have a kind of magisterial authority analogous to that of conciliar, papal, and other forms of ecclesial teaching; if pastors and liturgists renew or return to liturgical practices of doing all thing we can do together, together; if parish book clubs and college courses, seminary formation programs and priest study days, take this text seriously – if we do all this, then we might help better form our Catholic Church for dialogue with our fellow Christians, for renewing our Church, particularly as a synodal community that listens to each other and to the Spirit together, and for the day when a common vision of the church will allow it to be more fully a sign of unity and an instrument of God’s peace.

Dr. Brian Flanagan is associate professor of theology at Marymount University in Arlington, Virginia, where he teaches systematic theology, ecclesiology, and liturgy and sacraments. His Ph.D. is from Boston College. His most recent book is Stumbling in Holiness: Sin and Sanctity in the Church, published by Liturgical Press in 2018.


  1. I welcome Dr. Flanagan’s essay. These efforts toward common understandings are welcome steps. They continue to remind us that core divisions among Christians repudiate the priestly prayer of Jesus and of course the will of God. As I read TCTCV in the company of other like documents over the years since Vatican II, I see them as expressing the concerns of ecumenical specialists rather than the longings of church members at every level. It is not enough to envision a future that we all seem to find reasons to put off further. I think certain actions could be taken now by the leadership of churches including our own that would bind us all. Here are two feasible steps that are suggested to me by Laudato Si’ and the Amazon Synod.

    First, work together to reach joint statements and rites that would bind equally the participating churches. The agreements on justification are an example of this. The text of Laudato Si’ reflects input from both Pope Francis and Patriarch Bartholomew, and could be extended to specific actions by Catholics and Orthodox (such as a creed for stewardship of our common home). Coordinated translation of scripture and the work on a common lectionary, sidetracked by the Vatican twenty years ago, can once again resume, but now on a mandated basis. Common understanding of baptism ought to lead to shared texts and sacramental signs that go beyond the water that nearly all of us now employ.

    Second, Catholics should take note of the initiatives of other Christians in matters in which Catholics are unable or unwilling to proceed right now. I think primarily of the broad empowerment of laypeople, particularly women, in other churches and communions. Our leadership could observe the positive outcomes, placing greater weight on the capacities and needs of people today than to decrees that sought to solve real problems of past centuries.

    I am sure that Dr. Flanagan and other contributors have a broader list of opportunities to practice the unity that is already partially present among…

    1. A simple sign would be to return to common translations of liturgical texts that we have in common. The translation of 2011 seemed a deliberate step in the opposite direction.

      1. Well, that some had, partly, in common. It’s not as if all Christians were using them. A smaller proportion of non-Catholics (and not even including Eastern and Oriental churches) now then formerly, as the formerly mainstream denominations that joined have declined in membership – and those denominations also introduced their own modifications to their usage of the texts. And a number of those denominations have also moved their praxis on sacraments and ordinances in a direction away from the Catholic church, too: it’s not as if they’ve been stuck in place while Catholics sped away from them.

      2. Todd
        I definitely agree with that. But it’s not at all clear to me in more recent decades that the way that leadership was exercised in the 1960s and 1970s, for example, would be as welcomed in an active way. The facts on the ground have shifted dynamically. Rome’s had its hands in that, to be sure, but hardly alone, and a reversion would be addressing a much-transformed landscape. Who in the pews (not the liturgical academic establishments) of non-Catholic churches might plausibly be understood to be eagerly seeking Rome’s leadership in this way? (That’s a curious question from me, not a rhetorical one.)

      3. When I was in my mid 20s, I attended a talk about liturgy and ecumenism where we were encouraged to attend non-Catholic liturgies to see the similarities and differences. In the weeks that followed, I attended about five or so different church’s liturgies and recall that none of them used texts that perfectly aligned with the old ICEL translation. Some examples include:

        The Episcopal services ended up being Rite I with the ICEL Creed inserted in. There was a late-morning Rite II service, but I wasn’t aware of this when choosing which one to go to. I was surprised as how tolerant they were of traditional liturgical practices. I was still new to the Latin Mass at the time, and it most reminded me of the couple Low Masses I had been to.

        The Lutheran one was the informal service (they had a “traditional” one as well, but again I wasn’t aware of this when choosing which one to attend) where all the wording was modified to be gender-inclusive. The hymns were unmodified, though – and it was the robust singing that shocked me the most about it. The cantor didn’t even lead the singing, but instead kept launching into harmonization and descants. It didn’t even overpower the congregations singing like it surely would have at any Catholic Mass. I picked up a hymnal just so I wouldn’t stick out so much. Also, it was funny seeing such a progressive service being celebrated for Septuagesima Sunday.

        The Byzantine Divine Liturgy used a translation more similar to the one we use now. I was taken aback by how almost everyone I met seemed to consider them a refugee of sorts from the Latin-rite Catholic liturgical reform.

        I’ll be honest and say I don’t want common rites or texts – especially mandatory ones. I only see them causing division. When I visit other Christians, I want to experience the beauty and authenticity of their unique traditions and find *real* connections. Real unity isn’t found in cruelly-enforced lock-step uniformity, and I think our own liturgical reform attests to what a mistake that is.

      4. Leadership of the 60s and 70s holds little attraction for me either. I much prefer the collaborative efforts of the 80s when ICEL was producing the apex of its texts. As you well know, I triangulate from the 1970 vs 2010 tussle. A new way forward is needed, a competent one, and I’ll continue to gadfly extremists and their ignorant views as long as liturgy is framed that way.

  2. Mr. Johnson – agree, KLS missed the point. So, in this day and age, let’s just continue to divide.

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