THIS week the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith commended the work of the second Anglican Roman Catholic International Commission (ARCIC) on the nature of salvation, but expressed reservations as to whether the Commission's findings represented "substantial agreement" between the two communions.
The Sacred Congregation has asked the members of ARCIC II to consider more fully the role that the Church and the Sacraments have to play in the salvation of the individual. Luther's original belief that what really mattered in salvation was the individual's relationship to God alone relegated the Church to the status of a "useful aid" in helping the Christian live out his or her life.
The Catholic Church, for its part, has always been intent on offering the sacraments and ministry of the Church as a means to salvation. The Sacred Congregation has asked that when ARCIC II goes on to consider the nature of communion in future deliberations, the role of the sacraments as channels of God's grace and of the Church as the Body of Christ be uppermost im members' minds.
Meanwhile at grass roots level ecumenism proceeds apace. Lofty theological deliberations such as those made by ARCIC can seem far displaced from the reality of local parish priests who preach at each other's churches, who engage in joint social and ecclesiastical ventures and who, if some reports are correct, share in each other's eucharist.
Such ecumenism tends to have a momentum of its own, and does not rely on Vatican approval. Many involved in the "Not Strangers But Pilgrims" programme, aimed at uniting the Church of England and Wales in an unprecendented sharing relationship, speak of the preparatory phases as being especially touched by the Spirit. Catholics involved feel that they are experiencing a "new Pentecost" like that prevalent during Vatican II.
Development at local level leaves one wondering whether the day-to-day reality of ecumenism is proceeding at a pace that the Vatican is unable or unwilling to match. But should this happen?
The secular press has presented Rome as throwing a spanner into the ecumenical works by asking ARCIC II to examine more fully the role of the Church and the sacraments in helping the Christian to salvation. This is not so: it has long been the role of the Sacred Congregation to prevent those engaged in the ecumenical debate from adopting false hopes. For this reason, it will be unwise for Catholics to ignore Rome's latest pronouncement.
Cardinal Ratzinger's book Church, Ecumenism and Politics speaks of the importance of regarding the Church as "we" rather than as a collection of individuals.
Unilateralism in so important a matter as ecumenism, be it at local or national level, not only walks roughshod over the consciences of those who are unprepared for some of the implications of unity, but ignores the vital role the Sacred Congregation has in ensuring that Roman Catholic tradition and belief is in no way diluted by ecumenical expediency.