Two years ago I began to review the reports of the Anglican, Lutheran and Protestant churches at the international level and their reports, usually on a five year cycle, of these Western Christian Churches with the Roman Catholic Church. I now propose to give an account of the national dialogues in the United States. Among my reasons for doing so is to help our readers to know the relationship between the dialogues at the international level and at the national level, and how they contribute to the progress of these dialogues and the reception of ecumenical progress at the local level.
Morals, Communion and the Church
For the past fifty years, most of the dialogues at the international level were concerned with dogmatic issues –matters of faith –rather than issues of ethics or moral discernment and practice. This decision has proven very useful to the ecumenical movement. What seemed at first to be insurmountable obstacles to Christian unity now appears to be complementary rather than contradictory. Common ground was discovered, sometimes arising from a new formulation of an ancient truth. Thus the dialogue process is perceived as a healing way forward rather than a divisive debate over old disputes.
The Vatican Council suggested that moral issues might be the first area for dialogue. At the time of the council, these seemed to be easier, or at least to provide common ground for discussion. As the years went on, however, they grew far more intractable than dogmatic issues.
Some of the international dialogues have begun to consider moral issues. The Anglican-Roman Catholic Dialogue in particular has moved in this direction. ARCIC II took up the issue in one of its early discussions and filed a report under the title Life in Christ: Morals, Communion and the Church (Vatican City: PCPCU, 1994.) ARCIC III has now initiated the third phase of this international dialogue and is clearly focused on moral issues.
National Dialogues in the United States
A major task of the national dialogues is the study of the reports of the international dialogues. The national dialogue parellels the work of the international commissions in the formulation of the final text of their report. They work simultaneously on the same subject. The national dialogue also may give its reaction to the final text which helps gauge the reception of the document.
At the present time ARCUSA is working on the document entitled Ecclesiology and Moral Discernment: Seeking a Unified Moral Witness. This text is available online. We are using it for the ARCNY dialogue (Archdiocese of New York/Episcopal Diocese of New York.).
Moral discernment is the act or faculty of discerning or accurately determining what is true or right in moral or ethical matters. It obviously is very important for the task of forming conscience and judgments in the moral order. One of the key issues in the dialogue on this subject treated by ARCIC III is whether Anglicans and Catholics have the same or different ways of making moral discernment. Life in Christ seems to suggest that they use the same process of discernment and generally come to the same conclusions in areas of first principles and natural law, while they might differ in some specific conclusions on more difficult matters. The present report is more precise and goes more deeply into the question, and suggests that because of major ecclesial and theological realities, there are substantial differences even in the way moral discernment is made. Hence the conclusions may or may not be the same or complementary.
Seeking a Unified Moral Witness
In this brief article we can only give an outline of the issues and questions treated in Seeking a Unified Moral Witness, the ARCUSA document just released. The title suggests there are ecclesiological differences in moral discernment. There are also anthropological differences, historical events and indeed approaches that are quite diverse. The ecclesiological differences are considerable. The Anglican Communion tends to be decentralized, quite different from the Roman Catholic that is very much centralized. The Anglican Communion has no central authority or magisterium such as the Catholic Church. The Archbishop of Canterbury is not a pope; he is the archbishop of a particular archdiocese and the leader of a world-wide communion. While the Lambeth Conference and the Anglican Council may suggest what is to be done, it cannot legislate it. Decisions are made by the General Council of each separate national church, e.g. the Episcopal Church in the United States. Similarly other national churches make statements for their particular nation or national church. However these decisions are not binding in the same way as those of the Catholic Church.
Characteristically, Anglicans tend to think from the bottom up; Catholics, from the top down. Such differences and perspectives inevitably give a color or flavor to the way in which a decision or recommendation is reached, how it is framed, and how it is understood by the clergy and laity of the Anglican Communion. Similarly there are different influences: magisterial, historical, etc. that color the way in which the Catholic Church makes decisions, their international dimensions and their binding force.
This begins to describe the gifts of both churches and how they can help each other to see different points of view in the process and conclusions of discernment in moral questions.
ARCUSA decided to examine two case studies to illustrate the differences in discerning of issues in morality. They begin to illustrate how the discernment process differs in each church and how this leads to different conclusions that are appreciable. These two case studies concern migration/immigration and same sex relations.
We can only give a broad view of these two case studies. The report shows the several areas of common discernment by the Anglican and Catholic churches. Much involved in this discernment is the very way in which each church understands itself.
Same sex relations are an issue that has caused much discussion, tension and change in the Anglican Communion itself. The position of the Roman Church is based on God’s plan for men and women. It emphasizes that sexual activity is moral only when the fruits of marriage are present as understood by the teaching of the Catholic Church.
This dialogue is over fifty years old. It is being conducted at the international, national and local level and has made great progress on matters of faith. It is hoped that ARCIC III will make similar progress in moral discernment. Already there is a sense that the representatives of each world communion have great love and respect for each other and pray and work for the day when they will share full communion with each other.