60 Years of Christian Unity – Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity

Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity logoIn the field of multilateral relations, the major partner of the Catholic Church is the World Council of Churches (WCC). Founded in 1948, it is the broadest and most inclusive ecumenical organization, bringing together 350 Christian denominations including Orthodox, Lutherans, Reformed, Anglicans, Methodists, Baptists as well as United and Independent churches. Altogether they represent over 500 million Christians worldwide.

First contacts with the World Council of Churches (WCC) go back to the time of preparations for the Second Vatican Council when an invitation was issued by the Holy See to send observers. As in the past the popes had always declined invitations from the WCC to send observers to its assemblies, there was some uncertainty whether such an invitation would be answered positively. However, knowing that Saint John XXIII desired to open the Catholic Church to the modern ecumenical movement through the Council, the leadership of the WCC recommended sending observers. During the same period the Holy See sent for the first time Catholic official observers to the WCC’s Third Assembly in New Delhi in 1961. Eventually, Willem Adolph Visser’t Hooft, Dutch Reformed, and then Secretary General of the WCC, and a Greek theologian from the Bossey Ecumenical Institute, Nikos Nissiotis, attended all four of the Second Vatican Council’s sessions. They were among the more than 100 non-Catholics who from 1962 to 1965 joined different sessions of the Council either as delegated observers or ecumenical guests. They influenced the work of the Council and made a real contribution to the preparation of the major documents, including the constitutions on the Liturgy and the Church, the decree on ecumenism and declarations on religious freedom and on non-Christian religions. They helped the Council to evolve from what could have been a purely internal ecclesial matter into a genuinely ecumenical event that impacted not only the Catholic Church but the whole of Christendom. During the four years of the Council, Willem Visser’t Hooft built a trusting relationship with Cardinal Augustin Bea and his compatriot Father Johannes Willebrands, both at the time responsible for the new Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity that Pope John XXIII had set up on 5 June 1960. Since then a multiform collaboration has developed between the two entities.

Although the Catholic Church is not a member of the WCC, Catholics officially appointed by the Holy See are members of its various commissions and teams, and different dicasteries of the Roman Curia collaborate with their corresponding programmatic areas. There is joint preparation of the texts for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, an active presence of Catholic members in the Commission on World Mission and Evangelism, fruitful collaboration with the Office for Interreligious Dialogue and Cooperation, as well as on joint projects promoting justice and peace, concern for migrants and refugees, and the care of creation.

From the point of view of the pursuit of the goal of full visible unity, the most important is the collaboration between the WCC and the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity (PCPCU), which takes several tangible forms. One of them is the Joint Working Group (JWG) which since 1965 has been a catalyst of fruitful cooperation in the fields of ecumenical formation, mission and evangelism, youth, justice and peace, and emerging questions related to contemporary modern life. There also exists a fruitful cooperation in the area of ecumenical education and formation. The PCPCU has for many years appointed and sponsored a full-time Catholic professor on the staff of the Ecumenical Institute at Bossey, near Geneva. Since 2018, this professor has been the first Catholic dean of the Institute appointed by the Faculty in its over 70–year long history. Every year in January the students and staff of the Institute come to Rome for a one week study visit which culminates in the participation of the group in the ecumenical vespers presided by the Holy Father on the closing day of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.

As the resolution of doctrinal divergences is indispensable for recovering full visible unity, the Catholic Church acknowledges the special importance of the work carried out by the Faith and Order Commission. It is the most widely representative theological Commission in the world, comprising Orthodox, Anglican, Protestant, Evangelical, Pentecostal and, since 1968, Catholic theologians who constitute ten percent of the membership. The Commission has published an impressive number of studies on topics including Holy Scripture and Tradition, Apostolic faith, anthropology, hermeneutics, reconciliation, peace, preservation of creation, and visible unity. The most important of these texts are two convergence statements that have helped churches to overcome some of the biggest doctrinal divergences. Both were prepared with a substantial input from Catholic scholars in the drafting process.

In 1982, the Commission published ‘Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry’ (BEM), also known as the Lima Statement. It explores the growing convergence on three themes over which churches have been divided over centuries. BEM is recognized as one of the most influential achievements of multilateral theological dialogue. The Faith and Order Secretariat received 186 official responses from churches. The Catholic response presented in 1987 speaks with appreciation about the text but also points out some specific topics for further studies, in particular ecclesiology. BEM influenced Catholic-Orthodox and Catholic-Protestant dialogues regarding the mutual recognition of baptism.

After the publication of BEM, ecclesiology became the major study theme within Faith and Order. In 2013 the Commission published the second convergence document ‘The Church: Towards a Common Vision’ (TCTCV), which is the result of a two-decade long and intense theological work including two intermediate texts. The Geneva Secretariat has received over 75 responses sent by churches, national councils of churches, theological faculties, ecumenical study groups and individuals. In 2019 the PCPCU presented an extensive Catholic response prepared with the input from Episcopal conferences and experts from around the world. The Response shows that TCTCV synthesizes well the growing consensus in the field of ecclesiology and points out some aspects which need further reflection regarding the nature of the Church, its mission and understanding of its unity.

Special moments in the history of the relations between the Catholic Church and the WCC were three papal visits to the Ecumenical Centre in Geneva. To open the road was Saint Pope Paul VI on 10 June 1969. This was a gesture of high symbolic significance at a time when the relationship between the Catholic Church and the WCC was still at its beginnings, and the question of the possibility of the Catholic Church joining the WCC was intensely discussed. Addressing this issue Paul VI said: “In all fraternal frankness, We do not consider that the question of the membership of the Catholic Church in the World Council is so mature that we can or must give a positive answer. […] It has serious theological and pastoral implications; it therefore requires in-depth studies, and embarks on a journey which, We must recognize with honesty, could be long and difficult”. A report of the JWG published in 1972 came to the conclusion that there were no fundamental obstacles preventing possible membership. There was no doubt that the Catholic Church could accept the doctrinal basis of the WCC rooted in the Trinitarian faith. However, after a sound study, the Holy See decided not to seek WCC membership in part because of the disparities between the structure and size of the Catholic Church and in part because of its theological self-understanding as universal fellowship with a universal mission and structure. From this perspective the Bishop of Rome cannot be considered as one among many heads of churches, but as the point of reference of the unity of all the baptized. The question of Catholic membership remains open but is not considered a priority at the present time either by the Catholic Church or by the WCC.

Fifteen years later Saint John Paul II visited WCC on 12 June 1984. In his speech during an ecumenical worship service he insisted that the involvement of the Catholic Church in the ecumenical movement was irreversible and recalled that the newly promulgated Code of Canon Law included an obligation for Catholic bishops to promote Christian unity. He also encouraged the intensification of the multilateral doctrinal dialogue understood as the “common search for the one truth.”

On 21 June 2018, Pope Francis visited the WCC to commemorate the 70th anniversary of its foundation. This “ecumenical pilgrimage”, as it was called, was placed under the motto of “Walking, Praying, Working Together” which reflected well the kind of relationship that the Catholic Church has been developing with the World Council of Churches for over half a century. In his reflection during an ecumenical prayer service, the Holy Father encouraged all Christians to “pray, evangelize and serve together.” In a meeting that followed the prayer he underlined that in the face of social disparities, ecumenism today must include the collaboration of churches for those who are in need, migrants and refugees and for the many victims of wars, injustice, and natural disasters. He particularly stressed the need to intensify common efforts for mission and evangelism. “I am convinced – he said – that an increased missionary impulse will lead us to greater unity. Just as in the early days, preaching marked the springtime of the Church, so evangelization will mark the flowering of a new ecumenical spring.” Pope Francis was also the first pope to visit the Ecumenical Institute at Bossey, meeting with the Faculty, students and staff. Reverend Dr Olav Fykse Tveit, then WCC general secretary, described the visit of Pope Francis as “a historical milestone in the search for Christian unity and for the cooperation among the churches for a world with peace and justice.”

These various aspects of ‘walking together’ are concrete achievements in the sound and time-tested relationship between the Catholic Church and the WCC.

Global Christian Forum

Another multilateral body in which the Catholic Church is actively involved is the Global Christian Forum (GCF), an initiative that emerged at the end of the last century to respond to a new ecumenical situation marked by a rapid spread of Evangelical, Pentecostal and Independent churches, the majority of which do not join any ecumenical organization while many remain interested in interacting with other Christians. To respond to this need the GCF was established as an ‘open space’ where representatives of all Churches and Ecclesial Communities could meet periodically on an equal basis and with balanced participation of all streams of modern Christianity. The Forum provides a platform for building relationships of trust and understanding among church leaders, to foster mutual respect, and to explore together common concerns. One of the Forum’s unique contributions to the ecumenical movement is the practice of sharing personal and community faith stories during meetings. Thanks to the GCF many Evangelical, Pentecostal and Charismatic communities, which for decades had no relations with historic churches, are now involved in the ecumenical movement. The PCPCU has participated actively in all the GCF projects since its beginnings and together with the WCC, World Evangelical Alliance and World Pentecostal Fellowship constitutes its four ‘pillars’. Large Catholic representations attended the three GCF global gatherings in Limuru, Kenya, 2007, in Manado, Indonesia, 2011, and in Bogota, Colombia, in 2018. Another important GCF gathering took place in Tirana, Albania, in 2015 to address the theme of persecution, discrimination and martyrdom of Christians in the world today. Cardinal Kurt Koch, President of the PCPCU who led the Catholic delegation, delivered an encouraging message to the participants from Pope Francis. With no doubt the GCF process can be acknowledged as an important step taken by Christians on their ecumenical path towards full visible unity.

Conference of the Secretaries of the Christian World Communions

Another aspect of multilateral ecumenism in which the Catholic Church is involved is the Conference of the Secretaries of the Christian World Communions (CS/CWC), an annual meeting that brings together general secretaries from diverse Christian communions as well as representatives of some global ecumenical organizations. The Catholic Church is represented by the Secretary of PCPCU. It meets every year in fall in a different country and is hosted by a different church. CS/CWC is an informal forum aiming at the exchange of information, giving direction to the ecumenical movement and strengthening growth in inter–church communion. Participants present written reports on important events in their particular Communions and give an update on the bilateral and multilateral dialogues in which their Communions are involved. The Conference does not pass resolutions and does not issue public statements. Meeting without interruption since its foundation in 1957, the Conference has significantly contributed to building trust and partnership among the Church leaders and between their respective traditions and to foster the coherence of the ecumenical movement worldwide. The 2019 meeting took place in Christiansfeld, Denmark, and was hosted by the Moravian Church.


Feature article by Rev.Dr Andrzej Choromanski, Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity. The article published in Italian in L’Osservatore Romano. The English version published with permission by the author.


Pope Francis visits WCC, 2018.
Pope Francis visits WCC, 2018. Photo: Albin Hillert/WCC

Pope Francis visits WCC, 2018. Photo: Albin Hillert/WCC