It's not everyone's cup of tea spending time reading ecumenical agreements between the churches of the world. So if for no other reason alone, Cardinal Walter Kasper's book is a God-send in that it gathers the ecumenical work between Roman Catholics, Lutherans, Anglicans, and Methodists together in one even-handed and spirited volume.
I cannot recommend this volume highly enough. It establishes that this season, which some have characterized as an ecumenical winter, is actually an ecumenical autumn, full of fruits ripe for harvesting. We have come a long way, and we have come this far because of the careful work of such theologians like Kasper who, inspired by the Holy Spirit, seek out our points of agreement rather than our reasons for difference. Ecumenicity is the exchange of gifts. Each communion brings its own gifts to the table. We are on a pilgrimmage together towards unity.
The book is structured as it should. After an initial chapter on fundamentals, Jesus Christ and the Holy Trinity, in which Kasper illustrates the points of our greatest agreement, he then jumps to the stickiest subject of the Reformation era and afterwards, the doctrine of justification. In this chapter on salvation, justification, and sanctification, he illustrates how all our communions have come to a fundamental agreement on the very doctrine that first divided us. That is progress!
Then he shifts to a very long chapter on the church. Here is the big issue for ecumenism today--topics like episcopacy, magisterium, relationship between tradition and Scripture, and so on. In another great summary document on ecumenism, the justly famous Baptism, Eucharist, and Ministry, it was the ministry that took up the most space and indicated the greatest struggle for unity. Kasper's book illustrates this as well, but does so winsomely, teasing out the theological points each of the bilateral dialogues as made on their pilgrimmage together.
A final chapter on the sacraments rounds out the book, and then some concluding preliminary conclusion. Kasper notes:
1. That we have a rich harvest in these ecumenical fields. There is much to learn, and much to celebrate, about who we are together.
2. We have a shared apostolic faith, especially in the creeds.
3. Together we are discerning a fresh and renewed understanding of the relationship between Scripture and Tradition.
4. We have fundamental agreement on the doctrine of justification.
5. We have a deepened understanding of the nature of the Church, and at least openness to looking at old conversations in a new light.
6. New approaches to the sacraments of baptism and Eucharist.
7. A rediscovery of the centrality of liturgy.
Additionally, we have some continuing questions about:
1. Fundamental hermeneutical problems. We interpret scripture in different ways.
2. Our symbolics sometimes gets in the way.
3. We continue to discuss the sacramentality (or not) of the church.
4. Although the Eucharist is a sacrament of unity, we do not yet share it fully in common.
This is a profoundly hopeful and irenic book. I hope it is read widely.