November 18, 2004
by Jerry Filteau
The U.S. Catholic bishops Nov.17 took a historic ecumenical step by joining the new national ecumenical forum Christian Churches Together in the USA.
It marks the first time that the U.S. Catholic Church is a partner church in such a national body, although Catholic churches in about 70 other countries belong to national councils of churches or similar bodies.
The bishops approved the proposal to join CCT by a vote of 151-73, slightly more than a 2-to-1 margin.
Bishop Stephen E. Blaire of Stockton, Calif., chairman of the Committee on Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs, presented the proposal to the bishops and urged its adoption, noting that the Holy See has also encouraged it.
He called the new organization "a forum for participation" through which Christian churches can "pray together, grow in understanding together and witness together."
"The purpose of Christian Churches Together is to enable churches and national Christian organizations to grow closer together in Christ in order to strengthen our Christian witness in the world," said a 25-page background report the bishops had before them in preparation for the debate and vote.
Bishop Blaire emphasized that for the Catholic Church the ultimate goal of ecumenism is the full, visible unity of all Christian churches in the one apostolic faith.
In that framework, the church views the CCT as an "interim process" rather than a final goal, "even though it is a fresh and creative initiative to broaden the ecumenical table," he said.
He said the main focus in the organization's early years will be to pray together and develop relations of mutual understanding and friendship.
Bishop Fabian W. Bruskewitz of Lincoln, Neb., asked if the other churches in the CCT are aware of the perspective from which the Catholic Church approaches the organization. Bishop Blaire said not only are the other churches aware of the Catholic view, but many of them also believe that full, visible unity is the ultimate goal and that organizations such as the CCT are only interim steps.
Several bishops expressed concern whether there are sufficient safeguards in the organizational structure of the CCT to protect the Catholic Church from being associated with statements that contradict Catholic beliefs. Bishop Blaire said such safeguards are in place.
He explained that the CCT will be able to take positions or issue statements as a body only if all its members agree: A single "no" vote is sufficient to block a statement. He also explained that if a member church neither supports nor opposes a statement, it could "stand aside," neither voting for the statement nor blocking it.
There is also provision for issuing statements with separate majority and minority positions attached for those aspects of a subject on which agreement cannot be reached, he said.
He told the bishops that their membership decision was crucial to the survival of the CCT, since it will not exist without adequate membership from each of the five "families" of churches — Catholic, Orthodox, historical Protestant, historical racial and ethnic, and evangelical and Pentecostal.
Bishop Blaire told the bishops that upon joining Christian Churches Together, the USCCB will be the only Catholic member as a church. The USCCB president will appoint the bishops' 10 delegates to the CCT General Assembly and one of those delegates will be designated as the spokesman for the group, he said.
In response to a question whether other churches that call themselves Catholic can also be admitted as members of the "Catholic family," Bishop Blaire said that the bishops' conference will have sole authority over who is recognized as Catholic. The conference will be the only church member in that family, he said.
In addition to Christian denominations, the CCT permits membership by national Christian organizations, but they can form no more than 20 percent of the total CCT membership. Bishop Blaire said the bishops' conference will have final say about which Catholic organizations may be recognized and admitted to CCT membership as national Christian organizations.
He said Catholic membership will cost the bishops' conference about $12,000 to $15,000 a year, which will come out of the budget of the Committee on Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs.
The costs will be kept low because the organization's staff will consist only of a director and an assistant, he said. Business will be conducted by the yearly General Assembly and, between assemblies, by a steering committee. That committee will be composed of three representatives from each of the five church families and three at-large members, chosen from among national Christian organizations according to criteria to be developed by the steering committee.
CCT began with an invitation sent out to a number of church leaders in the summer of 2001 by Cardinal William H. Keeler of Baltimore; the Rev. Robert Edgar, National Council of Churches general secretary; the Rev. Wesley Granberg-Michaelson, general secretary of the Reformed Church in America; and Bishop Tod D. Brown of Orange, Calif., then-chairman of the bishops' Committee on Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs.
In response to the invitation 27 church leaders met Sept. 7-8, 2001, at St. Mary's Seminary and University in Baltimore to explore the idea of a broader structure under which the wide diversity of Christian churches could come together to strengthen their unity in Christ and empower their witness and mission.
There was unanimous agreement on the value of such an entity and the need for all five major families of Christian churches to be included among the participants. The group adopted the name Christian Churches Together in the USA and appointed an interim steering committee to organize further meetings with wider participation and chart the initial phases of development.
In subsequent meetings the number of church leaders involved grew. At a meeting in Houston earlier this year it was decided that an inaugural assembly could be planned in 2005 because enough churches had already joined or were in the process of making that commitment.
Cardinal Walter Kasper, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, has encouraged USCCB membership in CCT.
In a June letter to Bishop Blaire the cardinal said that "one of its strongest points is the effort to bring into discussion those Christians such as evangelicals and Pentecostals who are among the fastest growing Christian communities, and who have not been sufficiently involved in the ecumenical dialogue."
He suggested the new U.S. organization would likely contribute to the Vatican's own ongoing efforts to build stronger relations with evangelicals and Pentecostals.
The CCT organizational plan says the organization "welcomes churches, Christian communities and national Christian organizations that:
- "Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ as God and savior according to the Scriptures.
- "Worship and serve the one God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
- "Seek ways to work together in order to present a more credible Christian witness in and to the world."