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Dialogue examines Catholic, Anglican ecclesiology and moral discernment
Catholic News Service


WASHINGTON — Understanding the differences in how the Catholic Church and member churches of the Anglican Communion structure authority and exercise it are key to understanding how each body arrives at its teaching and practices on critical issues in ethics and moral theology.

That is the declaration of a joint statement by the Anglican-Roman Catholic dialogue in the United States, "Ecclesiology and Moral Discernment: Seeking a Unified Moral Witness," issued April 22.

"Our churches draw from a shared tradition of moral theology and practical formation," it said. "Both our churches teach the faith in the hope of greater understanding, in a process that must include reception of what is taught."

The 23-page document focuses on Catholic and Anglican teaching on two specific issues -- immigration and same-sex relationships -- that it said point to similar concerns and also illustrate "important ecclesiological differences that effect varying moral conclusions."

Overall, it said, "the Roman Catholic Church has a supreme and authoritative teaching magisterium exercised jointly by the bishops united with the bishop of Rome or occasionally by the bishop of Rome acting as head of the episcopal college."

Meanwhile, in the Anglican Communion there is "a dispersed and non-centralized pattern of Anglican moral teaching, itself understood to be subject to possible error and correction," it added. "The absence of an authoritative universal magisterium among the churches ... marks a signal difference in the structure of teaching authority.

"Without such a universal teaching authority it is difficult to state definitively the teaching Anglicans hold on many specific matters, beyond the governing documents and prayer book of each particular church."

The document said the contraception issue provides an example of the differences in teaching authority.

"The 1930 Lambeth Conference judged that if abstinence were not viable, the use of contraceptives could be acceptable for married couples who desired, for godly reasons and in particular circumstances, to limit the number of their children. On this account Anglicans might be thought to have dealt with this issue authoritatively and definitively," the document said.

"Such a conclusion would assume, however, that the Lambeth Conference amounts to a binding universal magisterium. But Lambeth, by its own account, does not legislate for the churches of the Anglican Communion; its statements or resolutions must be adopted or otherwise accepted and received by the various self-governing churches of the (Anglican) Communion."

Even if the General Convention of the Episcopal Church, the U.S. member of the Anglican Communion, "were to endorse the judgment of the Lambeth Conference on contraception," the document continued, "it would remain the case that members of the Episcopal Church could hold and teach a contrary view as more consonant with Scripture and moral truth, if that were their judgment."

In some circles of both churches, it said, "it is often suggested that if we agree on the Apostles' and Nicene Creeds as sufficient statements of Christian faith, and if we agree further on our understandings of the principal sacraments of baptism and the Eucharist, then disagreements between Christians on such questions as immigration, contraception, abortion, or same-sex marriage -- important as these matters are -- ought not to keep us apart."

However, it added, "today, it is apparent difference on a range of moral questions that seems to drive our churches further apart."

In examining immigration, the document said Catholics and Anglicans align closely on the issue. It concluded: "Both churches identify a moral demand and identify factors necessary, as responsibilities of nation states, to respect the rights of all persons and to serve the common good. Both argue for concrete pastoral responses to migrants or immigrants in our midst, and both urge public policy changes to ensure humane treatment of undocumented persons in the U.S. Both also see the importance of borders. Both address members of the church and the wider public."

"The Episcopal approach tends to be more inductive, moving analogically between Scripture and the specific American context," it added, while "the Roman Catholic authoritative teaching, which may be further elaborated in local contexts -- here, Mexico and the U.S. -- tends to be clearer about moral norms, more specific in detail, and more self-consciously global."

On the matter of same-sex relationships, "both churches are challenged by the rise of a culturally new understanding," the document said.

"The Roman Catholic Church holds that genital sexual activity must always reference the intrinsic goods of marriage and sexuality. Sexual intercourse must be the total reciprocal gift of spouses -- husband to wife and wife to husband -- as well as the kind of act referencing a combined potential for new life, even if biologically this cannot or does not occur," "Ecclesiology and Moral Discernment" noted.

"This understanding informs the church's position on all issues of human sexuality, on sexual behavior in general, and same-sex relations in particular," it said.

Acknowledging that "these issues have also stirred controversy among Catholics," it added, "The Catholic Church recognizes the challenges believers face in following its teachings on human sexuality. While church leaders, both clergy and laity, strive to ensure clear catechesis so that the faithful may be invited to greater openness to the truth of these teachings, the church also commits itself to learn from the faithful and their needs.

"As the issue of same-sex relations is related to larger issues of the family and society, it is interesting to note that Pope Francis has called for an extraordinary synod on the family for 2014. In preparation for this synod he has called for broad consultations among the bishops and the faithful."

Meanwhile, "the Episcopal Church's varied pattern of response to same-sex sexuality since the 1960s shows forth a diversity of moral teaching made possible by, and sometimes running up against, dispersed structures of authority," the document said. In the past 15 years, though, "long-simmering ecclesiological questions at home and abroad complicated and enriched the discussion," it added.

Issues faced by Episcopalians have included the 2003 election of openly gay clergyman as a bishop in New Hampshire, and a "proliferation of ad hoc same-sex blessings in parishes and dioceses," the document said. "Both issues became wedges in the Episcopal Church," it added, even to the point where some congregations sought to disaffiliate.

"In summary, both churches teach that Christian marriage is a sacred union between a man and a woman and seek through this institution to cooperate with God's plan for creation, recognizing that human relationships are essential to fostering growth in holiness and promoting the good of society," the document said, adding that even when an Episcopal bishop gives permission for a same-sex blessing, the church "provides safeguards for members of the church who decline" to be a party to such a blessing.

"In each case, the way in which we teach follows from our structures, which in turn shape the content of our teaching. It is hard to see how our differences in moral theology and ecclesiology will be resolved, and it is not clear to many whether they should be. The ecumenical movement teaches that legitimate diversity has its place in the church, and history demonstrates that this is true."

"Ecclesiology and Moral Discernment" was the product of a dialogue that spanned six years. It was approved during a February meeting of dialogue participants gathered at Virginia Theological Seminary in Alexandria, Va.

The Catholic co-chair of the dialogue was Bishop Ronald P. Herzog of Alexandria, La., whose health issues prevented him from participating in the final round of drafting the document. Signing a preface to the document in his stead was Auxiliary Bishop Denis J. Madden of Baltimore, chairman of the U.S. bishops' Committee for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs. The Anglican co-chair was Bishop John Bauerschmidt of the Episcopal Diocese of Tennessee.

Dialogue members do not speak officially for their churches, but they released to the leadership and all the faithful "for their prayerful consideration as a means of hastening progress along to full, visible unity," Bishops Madden and Bauerschmidt said in the preface.

"It is for this unity that we continue to pray," they said.





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