Dialogue in the quest for Christian unity has proved to be immensely valuable in the United States and globally but may have hit a plateau, a Roman Catholic cardinal has said during the commemoration of a US ecumenical milestone - writes Chris Herlinger for ENI.
Theologian Cardinal Avery Dulles made his remarks at a conference convened by the US National Council of Churches in Oberlin, Ohio, to mark the 50th anniversary of formal dialogue between Roman Catholics and other Christians in the country.
Dulles said the dialogue, known as "Faith and Order", between Catholics and members of other US Christian churches used the method of theological "convergence". This "seeks to harmonise the doctrines of each ecclesial tradition on the basis of shared sources and methods" but, said Dulles, it "has nearly exhausted its potential".
Surmounting remaining theological and ecclesiastical barriers may require "a different method, one that invites a deeper conversion on the part of the churches themselves," said the 88-year-old Jesuit who teaches at New York's Fordham University. Dulles is the son of the late US Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, who was a prominent Presbyterian and US lay church leader.
Cardinal Dulles said a better idea than theological convergence would be the encouragement of what he termed, "an ecumenism of mutual enrichment by means of mutual testimony". He believes that this approach leaves those in dialogue "free to draw on their own normative sources and does not constrain them to conceal or belittle what is specific to themselves".
"Far from being ashamed of their own distinctive doctrines and practices, each partner should feel privileged to be able to contribute something positive that the others still lack," said Dulles, who converted to Catholicism as a young man. In 2001, Pope John Paul II named him as the first US-born cardinal who was not a bishop.
Dulles praised nearly five decades of discussions in the United States between those of differing Christian traditions. Those talks, he said, "have been of immense value for dispelling past prejudices, for identifying real but hitherto unrecognised agreements, and for enabling parties to see that they can say more together than they previously deemed possible".
The cardinal was speaking during the 19-23 July conference, "On Being Christian Together", which drew some 300 participants to Oberlin College, the site of the first 1957 "Faith and Order" meeting.
That gathering served as the foundation for the National Council of Churches' Faith and Order Commission. The Catholic Church is not an NCC member but has long been a "dialogue partner" with the council, which is the largest ecumenical grouping in the United States.
[With grateful acknowledgements to ENI. Ecumenical News International  is jointly sponsored by the World Council of Churches, the Lutheran World Federation, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, and the Conference of European Churches]