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Top Vatican ecumenical official: interfaith dialogue a moral obligation

By Michael O’Loughlin ’09 M.A.R.

CasperWalter Cardinal Kasper, the Vatican’s top official for ecumenical relations, spoke in the Yale Divinity School Common Room on March 26 and told a lunchtime gathering of students, faculty and staff that interfaith dialogue aimed at restoring Christian unity is not an option but a moral obligation for all Christians.

Summarizing the Catholic Church’s efforts toward Christian unity since the Second Vatican Council, the cardinal highlighted as success stories the accords made with the Orthodox, Lutheran, and Anglican churches.  Kasper, president of the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, visited YDS before celebrating Mass and delivering the Fay Vincent Fellowship in Faith and Culture Lecture at St. Thomas More Catholic Chapel at Yale.

Drawing upon his years of experience in ecumenical relations, the cardinal emphasized that key to successful interfaith dialogue is taking the time first to identify what precisely it is that separates various denominations and religious traditions. 

During a question-and-answer session following his remarks, Kasper explained that the Catholic Church engages in dialogue with most of the Orthodox churches and international federations of mainline Protestant churches, but he said that the dramatic increase of independent Pentecostal churches in recent years has created severe challenges for interfaith dialogue. Kasper estimates that there are over 400 million Pentecostals around the world, with no centralized body or association with whom to dialogue. This, increasingly coupled with the use of polemical language from these churches, is creating obstacles that mainline Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox churches must address together, in Kasper’s judgment.

Of particular importance to the dialogue between Catholics and Lutherans is the document of understanding on justification. Kasper said that this agreement has brought the two churches closer together but noted that additional conversation is needed to come to a consensus on Eucharistic and pastoral theology. But he remains hopeful that continued interaction between the two groups will resolve these issues and lead toward full reconciliation.

Regarding Anglican-Catholic relations, Kasper observed that internal divisions within the Anglican Communion over issues of gender and sexuality have hampered progress between these churches. Asked if the Catholic Church would engage directly with breakaway Anglican dioceses, Kasper responded that it is not up to the Catholic Church to decide who is and who is not Anglican, noting that talks continue to be held only with representatives of Canterbury, or “official” Anglicanism.

In addition to highlighting ecumenical progress among the Christian churches, Kasper also pointed out that relations have greatly improved between Catholics and Jews over the past 40 years as well. He remarked that the recent controversy over the lifting of excommunication of a Holocaust-denying dissident ultra-conservative Catholic bishop was resolved fairly quickly because of the many personal relationships that he and other Catholic prelates have with Jewish leaders.

Dean Harold Attridge and the Rev. Robert Beloin, the Catholic chaplain at Yale, moderated the discussion.

Under the leadership of Kasper, the Council for Promoting Christian Unity has as its primary function guiding and serving the ecumenical activities of the Catholic Church and is also responsible for Catholic-Jewish relations. Among its numerous activities have been international theological dialogues with the Lutheran World Federation, the Anglican Communion, the World Methodist Council, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, the Pentecostals, the Disciples of Christ, evangelicals, the Orthodox churches, the Baptist World Alliance, and various Jewish organizations, including the International Jewish Committee for Inter-religious Consultation (IJCIC).

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