representing close to 22 percent of the nation’s total population.
But the overall number of Catholics and other Christians
represents an overwhelming majority of the US.population, which has
now passed the 300 million mark.
Although there are denominational divides and new fissures
continue to threaten unity even within faiths considered mainstream,
Catholic and other Christian leaders engaged in ecumenical relations
continue to see its importance.
The US Catholic Church’s ecumenical efforts include dialogues
with Lutherans, Methodists and evangelicals and a consultation with
Anglicans. It also belongs to Christian Churches Together in the USA,
founded in March 2006 and considered the broadest, most inclusive
ecumenical movement in US history.That’s the ecumenical landscape Pope Benedict XVI will find during his mid-April visit to the United States.
On the Pope’s itinerary is an April 18 ecumenical prayer service
in New York with leaders of other Christian denominations at St.
Joseph’s Church, which was founded by German Catholics. The meeting
comes a day after he gathers with 200 religious leaders at an
interfaith prayer service in Washington.
Fr James Gardiner, a member of the Society of the Atonement, an
order founded to foster ecumenical dialogue, said these are "very
challenging and very encouraging" times for ecumenism.
"One of the most interesting things we just did was for the
(annual) Week of Prayer for Christian Unity (in January). We asked
people to tell us what they were doing. The stuff was coming in fast
and furious," he said in a telephone interview with Catholic News
Service. His order’s headquarters are in Garrison, NY.
For example, he said, the Diocese of Brooklyn, NY, "had a
Week of Prayer service, but they’re also having a prayer service around
Pentecost for the same thing. They’re not limiting themselves to one
time a year."
The Episcopal Church, the US branch of the worldwide Anglican
Communion, has seen tensions rise within the denomination over the 2003
ordination of an openly gay bishop and a move to bless same-sex unions.
One Episcopal diocese voted in December to secede from the Episcopal
Church and align itself with an Anglican branch it considers more
orthodox in adhering to Anglican teaching.
Because of these tensions, "what we want from our Roman
Catholic brothers and sisters is patience and to keep the conversation
going," said Episcopal Bishop Christopher Epting, who since 2001 has
been his denomination’s deputy for ecumenical and interfaith relations.
"We’re very encouraged that things have not broken off. We continue to
stay at the table."
After 40 years of Catholic-Episcopal dialogue in the US, the task of unity is "not easier. I think it’s increasingly difficult," Bishop Epting said.
In times past, he added, "we’d begun to develop our own
identities apart from one another — and sometimes not even in
conversation with one another. When we make decisions (now) we know it
affects the other church. We have consulted with the Rome and the US
Catholic Church in our struggles."
The Catholic Church is, ecumenically speaking, "the elephant in
the living room," Bishop Epting said. "If we can’t (work with) the
Roman Catholic Church ecumenically, we can’t really be ecumenical at
Addressing the impact of US religious pluralism on ecumenical dialogue, the Rev. Doug Mills, the United
Methodist Church’s chief ecumenical officer, said: "I don’t know that
it makes it easier or more difficult. I think that religious diversity
in the US gives a different context, a context we’re very familiar
with, but a context that has its own complexities."
Rev. Mills said Methodists may have some issues with Catholic
belief and practice, but after 40-plus years of dialogue, it’s still
hard to define one issue as insurmountable.
"I don’t know that we’ve really said there is one issue that we
cannot get over," he told CNS. "I think there are some significant
issues we have not yet begun to grasp.
"I know for United Methodists one of those issues might be the role of the bishop of Rome
and possibly the place of Mary – probably more, devotion to Mary –
might be one of those," he continued. "I’m guessing, but I suspect that
for Catholics one of those issues that need deeper discussion is the
ordering of ministry, especially the role of women, and the
Many Protestant denominations in the 20th century began to
allow the ordination of women. The Catholic Church has repeatedly said
its teaching that it does not have the authority to ordain women is
definitive and that the issue is not open to debate among Catholics.
"I think everybody has a different way of dealing with the
ordering of ministry," Rev. Mills said. "For some people it’s
important, for some people it’s not so important. For the people who
feel it’s not so important, what’s more important is the product of the
"It’s not surprising" that new wrinkles appear in the
ecumenical fabric at the same time church representatives are
conducting dialogues about greater unity, according to Bishop Epting.
"The world is moving very fast. … Issues change very rapidly and we
are confronting things we never would have thought about 40 years ago."
If he had a chance to brief Pope Benedict on ecumenical relations in the US,
Fr Gardiner said, "I’d tell him to trust our experience. … It’s
OK, it’s consonant with the workings of the Holy Spirit. Take us
seriously. We’re a very faithful lot. And I’d say we’re proud of being
a faithful lot, but pride is a sin.
"Then I’d say to him, ‘Come with me and I’ll show you,’ because
I’m not so sure that when people come from overseas they’re …
familiar with what happens here," the priest said. "Sometimes they
can’t believe it. There are people from all over the place. They’re all
mixed together now in ways they weren’t before. We have prior
experience in that. It takes a little doing, but it all works out. It’s
very challenging and very encouraging."
"Thank God for the ecumenical movement," echoed Bishop Epting.
"We do have relationships that allow us to be … not quite so
While Catholics and Protestants are on the same path to unity, nobody can say for sure what’s at the end of the path.
"I think that we don’t yet know what it is that God is calling
us to," Rev. Mills said. "We don’t know yet what the Spirit is leading
us to actually looks like. And so we just keep moving on faith that at
the right time it will be revealed.
"My guess is – and it’s just a guess – that ‘one church’ does not look like the current United Methodist Church," he said. "It will look like something else. But what that is, I don’t know yet."