Will the Roman Catholic Church (membership: 46 million) join the National Council of Churches (constituent membership: 41.5 million)?

John Coventry Smith, the Presbyterian ecumenist who heads the NCC’s “working group” with Roman Catholicism, thinks the Catholics “will join a National Council in ten or fifteen years.” He stresses the indefinite article, because the NCC will obviously be a much different organization if it includes the Roman millions.

Speculation has been heightened by two significant events late in 1966. First, the amorphous U. S. Catholic hierarchy became the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, with an apparently more authoritative secretariat to administer programs between annual meetings.

William Norgren, an Episcopalian who is executive director of the NCC’s Faith and Order Department, says “autonomy” is one criterion for membership in the NCC. With Roman Catholicism, he observes, “it’s hard to tell if it’s a series of united national churches, or a world church. If the latter, it’s hard to see how they could join the National Council.” Thus structure, not size, could be the chief obstacle, and the Roman Catholic bishops’ reorganization is an important step.

The second significant move came from the other side. In December, the National Council’s General Board added the Roman Catholic Church to the list of non-members recognized as agreeing with the brief doctrinal requirement in the NCC Constitution: “communions which confess Jesus Christ as Divine Lord and Savior.”

The immediate effect of the action, spokesmen said, was to make Jesuit David Bowman a legitimate staff member of the NCC’s Faith and Order Department. Now Roman Catholics can be hired freely and included as participants in programs and agencies.

Observers also saw it as a first step toward Roman Catholic membership. But Monsignor William W. Baum, soft-spoken director of the Roman Catholic Bishops’ Commission for Ecumenical Affairs, cautions that “it should not be interpreted as a step toward membership,” any more than is the similar recognition of the Southern Baptist Convention by the NCC.

The membership issue has come up informally in the first two meetings of the joint NCC-RCC commission, but Baum said, “The consensus of the group is that the question is premature. We should know more about each other.” He said the commission “will look at the possibilities, and this is one possibility.” But as to whether it would ever occur, Baum says, “I just don’t know.”

Baum also said the NCC would be changed significantly if several of its major members unite under the Consultation on Church Union. Norgren said his staff has spent more time on that question than on what would happen if Rome joined.

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Unlike the Roman Catholic talks with various Protestant confessional groups—which treat the Holy Spirit, baptism, and other theological issues—the talks with the NCC center on such practical interchurch irritants as mixed marriages and public aid for parochial schools. A third, less-developed topic for study is world peace and justice. The joint commission will hold its next meeting in May or June, probably in New York City. Roman Catholics also participate in the annual Faith and Order Colloquium under NCC auspices.

While any Roman Catholic affiliation is far off (“we can’t exclude anything for the longer-range future,” Norgren says), the NCC might get a significant new member in the next few years, perhaps by 1968. The 2.5-million-member American Lutheran Church, which stayed out under terms of its 1960 merger, is presently studying NCC ties.

Although an NCC-RCC link may sound far-fetched, new ecumenical ground can be broken pretty fast these days. Only a few years ago Roman Catholic churches and city and state councils of churches had nothing to do with each other. But today, the New Mexico state council and at least twenty-one city councils have Roman Catholic members, reports John B. Ketcham of the National Council of Churches. Actually, the figures are probably higher. (“They’re running way ahead of us—we can’t keep up with them,” Ketcham said.)

The NCC has no structural link with local and state councils, but their functions are similar. Ketcham heads an NCC department that advises and surveys the local councils.

Oklahoma City’s council was one of the first to include Roman Catholics. Other major cities to follow were Seattle, Fort Worth, Tulsa, Austin, and Grand Rapids. Kansas City has such a move under discussion.

Priority For Mixed Marriage

At a secluded retreat in the north of Italy, teams of Roman Catholic and Anglican theologians last month held “a serious dialogue … founded on the Gospels and on the ancient common traditions.”

The three-day sessions produced only one announced result: establishment of a special group for the study of the theology of marriage and the problem of mixed marriages. Protestant, Anglican, and Orthodox churchmen have been insisting that the Vatican ease its conditions for mixed marriages beyond the slight modifications issued by Pope Paul VI last year.

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A communique issued after the sessions noted that the dialogue had gotten under way as a result of the common declaration of Paul and Arthur Michael Ramsey, Archbishop of Canterbury, after their March, 1966, meeting. That declaration affirmed the desire of the prelates “that all those Christians who belong to these two communions may be animated by the same sentiments of respect, esteem, and fraternal love.…”

Ten Roman Catholic and eleven Anglican theologians participated in the talks at Villa Cagnola, the retreat of the Archbishop of Milan. Their communique said that “after 400 years of separation” the two churches had taken “first steps towards restoring full unity.”

Religious News Service reported that besides thoroughly exploring both the possibility and the advisability of continuing the dialogue, the participants delved into a variety of practical problems and agreed to submit to their hierarchies a number of recommendations aimed at easing tension and building cooperation and understanding.

The joint commission met under the chairmanship of Catholic Bishop Charles Helmsing of Missouri and Anglican Bishop John Moorman of Ripon, England.

The World Council of Churches was represented at the meeting by an associate general secretary, Father Paul Verghese, a priest of the Syrian Orthodox Church in India.

Pope Paul intruded indirectly into the “dialogue” by publicly reaffirming the concept of his own infallibility while the talks were in progress. The pontiff reportedly told an audience of several thousand pilgrims in St. Peter’s Basilica:

“Here is the magisterium of the church, which sits in its most authoritative chair and which exercises one of its supreme functions, that of teaching—not an ordinary science but the word of God, and of teaching it in the name of Christ, of interpreting it and guarding it in its genuine meaning and, if necessary, in an infallible way, in certain special cases and in certain solemn forms.”

The same week, the Pope issued a new decree on indulgences that was seen as a disappointment to many who had been hoping for a major overhaul. Official commentators took care to insist that the new document does not imply any change in doctrinal aspects. It is seen primarily as an effort to inspire the faithful to a greater fervor of charity and a more intimate union of all the members of the so-called Mystical Body. The chief effect seemed to be a drastic reduction in the number and forms of indulgences.

Many historians say that the Reformation was precipitated by the issue of indulgences. To this day Protestants find indulgences difficult, if not impossible, to understand. Yet for centuries they have occupied a prominent part in the devotional life of Catholics with the positive encouragement of the church, especially in commemoration of the deceased.

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