Pope’s U.S. visit comes as Presbyterians and Catholics are finding common ground

September 9, 2015

Louisville

Presbyterians are among those eagerly anticipating the September 22–27 visit of Pope Francis to the United States.

Gradye Parsons, Stated Clerk of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) General Assembly, will be part of a delegation of religious leaders who will welcome Pope Francis to his first official engagement—a meeting with President Barack Obama at the
White House.

One reason Presbyterians are eager to welcome the pope is because “he has brought a certain openness to the Catholic Church,” says Robina Winbush, director of ecumenical relations for the Office of the General Assembly.

“His encyclicals have resonated with PC(USA) social witness policies,” she says, citing recent Vatican papers on the environment and the economy.

Another reason the papal visit has stirred interest among Presbyterians, Winbush says, is because “the PC(USA) has a long history of dialogue with the Roman Catholic Church, both nationally and internationally.”

In 2001, for example, a fifteen-member PC(USA) delegation traveled to the Vatican for theological discussions that included a private audience with Pope John Paul II.

For more than fifty years, the PC(USA) and three other denominations have been in dialogue with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB). The other partners in the dialogue are the Reformed Church in America, the Christian Reformed Church, and the United Church of Christ.

This dialogue achieved a significant milestone in 2008 with an agreement on the mutual recognition of baptism, which was endorsed by the PC(USA) General Assembly later that year. Martha Moore-Keish, associate professor of theology at Columbia Theological Seminary, was a participant in the round of talks (2003–2010) that produced the agreement on baptism.

For the first time, she says, after years of careful work, Catholics and Reformed Christians “affirmed that we recognized each other’s baptism as full and whole and complete.” This agreement, she continues, “lays the groundwork for mutual respect of each other’s churches as true churches.”

Cynthia Campbell, pastor of Highland Presbyterian Church in Louisville, Kentucky, and former president of McCormick Theological Seminary, is co-chair of the current round of dialogue with the USCCB, which began in 2012 and is expected to conclude in 2018.

This round of talks is focusing on ministry and ordination—topics on which there would seem to be little hope of agreement, Campbell admits. “You look at ministry and ordination from the outside, and you think: they have priests and the pope, and they’re all celibate men—how much more different could we be?”

But dialogue participants have found common ground in affirming that “ministry is in service to God,” Campbell says. “What we are called to do comes out of what God is doing.”

David Gambrell, associate for worship for the Presbyterian Mission Agency, is also a participant in this round of the dialogue. He believes the prior agreement on baptism laid a good foundation for the current talks.

“Ministry flows from baptism,” he explains. “So if we’ve found some common ground on baptism, I hope we’ll be able to find common ground on ministry.”

Even if the dialogue doesn’t produce an agreement, says Campbell, at least all parties are learning to understand each other better. For example, she says, “We tend to think of bishops in terms of power and authority—and that makes us nervous.”

But Catholics understand the office of bishop “more pastorally than administratively,” Campbell says. In churches without bishops, such as the PC(USA), the ministry of pastoral oversight is lodged in a collective body rather than in an individual.

The PC(USA) has also participated since the early 1970s in a Reformed-Catholic dialogue that is global in scope. The talks involve representatives of the World Communion of Reformed Churches (WCRC) and the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, the Vatican office that oversees ecumenical relations.

Justification is the focus of the current round of conversations, which are expected to conclude this November. It’s a challenging topic, says Moore-Keish, one of the WCRC representatives to the dialogue. “If we think about what has divided churches over the years, that has been a big one.”

However, examining justification in light of another doctrine, sanctification, has created some common ground. Dialogue participants have discussed “the way our conviction of justification by grace through faith is connected to the ongoing work of the Spirit through the church in our pursuit of justice,” Moore-Keish says.

“We have come to affirm that justification is not just a one-time event, but it works itself out in the ongoing process of our lives.”

Disagreement over justification and other issues has separated Catholics and Protestants since the Reformation. Winbush hopes that the pope’s visit, along with the ongoing dialogues, “might lay further groundwork for how we approach the 500th anniversary of the Reformation in 2017.”

Gambrell hopes Pope Francis will continue to inspire Christians to join forces in addressing issues such as poverty and climate change. “Global crises like these call for an ecumenical witness,” he says.

“Roman Catholic and Reformed Christians in the United States face another common set of challenges,” he adds. These include “responding to the rise of the ‘nones’ [people unaffiliated with any religion], healing patterns of violence in our communities, and dismantling systems of racism in our society.

“I pray we can find ways to work together on those things.”

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