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Protestants are upbeat about impact of encyclical.

ST. PAUL, Minn.--How might Veritatis Splendor affect ecumenical relations? When NCR did a preliminary survey of Protestants experienced in this field, their nuanced responses ranged from positive and welcoming to negative and tentatively disappointed. All strongly emphasized they had not read the text and hesitated to comment without doing so. Their reactions, then, hinged on the assumption that early press reports accurately convey the encyclical's content and tenor.

The Rev. J. Robert Wright observed that final text had been leaked to Anglicans in England, but he knew no Episcopalian in the United States who had seen it. "The penultimate text" was leaked during the summer, he said, and that resulted in publication of extensive quotations in the London Times.

Wright, church history professor at the Episcopalians' General Theological Seminary in New York City, was a member of the Angelican-Roman Catholic International Commission IIA from 1983 to 1991. He called the leakage "hopeful, a process to be commended," because Protestants assessed the penultimate text as bad an potentially harmful ecumenically. Apparently the final text "is much milder on all sorts of moral absolutes as well as on papal infallibility," he said. He wondered why neither text had been leaked in the United States.

Like Wright, the Rev. Robert McAfee Brown, professor emeritus at the Pacific School of Religion, Berkeley, commended the "process of taking a sounding" on encyclical drafts. "Some earlier drafts were much more rigorous," demanding total obedience. Modification provoked by outsiders' reactions provides grounds to hope the new statement's assertions will not be "carved in stone," he said.

Wright said that "if this final text is, as The New York Times quotes Fr. Augustine DiNoia, an invitation to dialogue between bishops and theologians, I'm glad to hear that and would suggest that that dialogue be extended ecumenically to bishops, leaders and theologians of other churches."

He suggested further the DiNoia, head of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops' doctrine office, arrange such a dialogue.

Wright fears, he said, that if the encyclical bans dissent among Catholic theologians, they would not be free in ecumenical dialogue to express any view but complete agreement with the text. However, "I have never yet seen any Vatican text that did not have hoopholes for varieties of interpretation," he said, so "I would suspect that the more intelligent and progressive theologians in the Roman Catholic Church will find ways to get around" difficulties.

Brown, who was a Presbyterian observer at the second and fourth sessions of Vatican Council II, said early reports depict the encyclical as "an attempt to speak in authoritative terms that don't really brook much response," placing the burden of proof on theologians and others who disagree with the magisterium.

That would stifle dialogue, he said: "You do not enter into a dialogue with a loaded deck, saying, 'We've got a fifth ace up our sleeve. We know finally what the truth is because the pope or the magisterium has said so.'"

Brown hestitated to comment on the encyclical not only because he had not read it but also because it is addressed to bishops, unlike most encyclicals in recent years, which have been addressed to the faithful and all persons of goodwill. Nevertheless, he hopes reports are true that the encyclical is meant for discussion, he said.

"I remember in 1950, the famous encyclical Humani Generis was attacking French new theology as too avantgarde. The French theologians' response was, in effect, 'Rome has misunderstood our position. Therefore, we feel vindicated.'" Many theologians today may similarly feel their positions have not been adequately understood, he said, and "one hopes they can respond in terms that will keep a discussion going."

Brown further noted that what documents such as conciliar statements and encyclicals mean "is in part determined by the reception they get." He recalled that some Vatican Council documents have become normative for the church, some "have been hotly contested" and still others, such as the council document on communications, have been ignored.

"I'm not saying this is going to happen with this encyclical," he said, but in discussion certain parts of it could emerge as more crucial than others. "I hope this will not shut the door to creative Catholic theologians who are working on the edges of life in the modern world," he said, adding it would be "fantastically unfortunate" if the encyclical brought rupture or schism among Catholics.

Margeret Sonnenday of St. Louis, Mo., a United Methodist who is a former national president of Church Women United, has been active in ecumenical dialogue and in work with the World Council of Churches. She said Catholics and Protestants until now have shied away from dialogue on divisive moral topics, such as abortion, in hopes that the Catholic church might develop new understandings.

However, Catholics disenchanted with the status quo expressed in the encyclical may be open to discussion with Protestants on such issues, she said, and that would enrich both sides.

The Rev. Paul A. Crow Jr., president of the Council on Christian Unity of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), and the Rev. William Norgren, ecumenical officer for the Episcopal Church, New York, welcomed the encyclical's attention to moral issues.

Crow said, "Our times need somebody to help us engage the moral responsibilities of Christians in this secular world. Regardless of whether you agree or disagree, one has to appreciate that one of the major churches is addressing that question."

Similarly, Norgren said, "I think it's a way for Christian people to deepen their faith, to consider the relationship between moral principles and their faith." He envisioned the "possibility of a positive ecumenical result" from the encyclical, "even if there's difference of opinion about what it says. The difference of opinion should never stop us from talking."

Crow, a comoderator of the Disciples of Christ-Roman Catholic international dialogue, emphasized the importance in ecumenism "to respect the convictions and the teachings of the other churches. ... The nature of ecumenism is that we would not be offended, per se, by the statement of another church that doesn't agree with our position. That's very important, because ecumenism is not conversation among like-minded people."

Crow observed that the encyclical addresses issues common to all churches. Basing his comments on media reports of the encyclical, he said, "This particular list (of specifics, such as forbidding contraception) does put a kind of an affront to some Christians in all churches, but it also sounds like truth to some Christians in all churches." Part of the nature of ecumenism, he said, is that "those things that divided us are not neatly along confessional lines."

In Brown's view, the encyclical's attention to moral issues as well as its view that authority in the church finally resides in the pope, have ecumenical and social implications. Birth control is "almost a nonissue for Protestants," he said; abortion would be more discussable, because "people of immense goodwill can be on both sides of that question."

He contended that the Catholic position on authority in the church requires Protestants to clarify their view of church authority. "If, from the Catholic position, Protestants are always in danger of moral relativism, from the Protestant perspective the Catholic temptation is to make these moral issues more clearcut than they really are." From the Protestant perspective, he said, "there's always a tremendous distance between the ultimate truth, the splendor of truth, and our human grasping of it."

The Rev. William Rusch, director of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America's ecumenical affairs department, said Lutherans always assess whether "the papal office is being conducted in a way that accents collegiality -- in Lutheran terms, an office being exercised under the gospel. The degree to which any encyclical would reflect that would be ecumenically encouraging," but a lack of collegiality would "make the ecumenical task more difficult."

Like most of the Protestants ecumenists, the Rev. Michael Kinnamon, dean of the Lexington Theological Seminary in Lexington, Ky., a Disciples of Christ institution, emphasized his respect for the integrity of other church traditions, their right to speak about issues.

A former World Council of Churches staff member, he was the most upbeat of all those NCR interviewed: "To an ecumenical Protestant, Pope John Paul II may at times look better than he does to some in the Roman Catholic Church. His ecumenical openness is appreciated even at the same moment that he seeks greater uniformity within the Roman Catholic Church."

Kinnamon recalled that John Paul II prayed with the archbishop at Canterbury, celebrated Luther's 500th anniversary, visited the synagoguwe in Rome and encouraged ecumenical contact with the WCC. In ecumenical dialogue, he said, "I'm always frustrated when it appears some partners are restricted in expression of where they think the church could go on certain issues. But I have to remember that they're quite frustrated that while I can speak my mind, I don't speak it in a way that represents the body of my church. ... My prayer for the church is that it avoid both authoritarianism and directionlessness."

Along with his optimism, Kinnamon expressed "a sense of soliderity" for Roman Catholic friends wrestling with the encyclical's meaning them concerning dissent.
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Title Annotation:'Veritatis Splendor' papal letter
Author:Gibeau, Dawn
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Date:Oct 22, 1993
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