Report of the International Methodist-Catholic Dialogue Commission

Evaluation from a Catholic Perspective

by P. Robert Christian, O.P



The International Methodist-Catholic Dialogue Commission’s Report Encountering Christ the Saviour: Church and Sacraments is honest and thorough in its presentation of both Methodist and Catholic theology of the sacraments.

The report duly notes points of convergence. Points of divergence are likewise stated. And the reasons why there is convergence on some points and divergence on others are almost always presented. Moreover, points that are not settled within one or the other community are also noted, so that where there is not agreement within a community about a theological notion, that, too, is stated forthrightly.

The Report is suffused with a tone of the authentic good will and affection of the participants in the Dialogue Commission, and it evinces a genuine desire for greater agreement to occur.

The Report is very well organized. Within the chapters treating of the separate sacraments, the points that need to be treated hang together cohesively. The internal order is such that the reader anticipates what should follow from the paragraph that he or she is reading, and indeed, one’s anticipation is met.

The Catholic Church, respecting as she does the Revelation that is transmitted by Scripture and Tradition, can only be gladdened by the deference the Report accords to the Wesleyan hymns. Surely these hymns, which express beautifully the lex orandi not only of Methodists, but to a great extent of Catholics as well, can be seen by both communities as expressive of the mystery of God’s action in the worship. Indeed, the Report refers to the Wesleys’ Hymns on the Lord’s Supper in paragraph 166 with words that almost directly mirror the O Sacrum Convivium of Thomas Aquinas. Both communities, therefore, are grateful that the texts of these hymns help them express the lex credendi that is the subject matter of the Report. While differences concerning the nature and role of Tradition exist between the two communities, the abundant use made of the hymns indicates that there is a common appreciation that God speaks in the liturgy even through those parts of it which, while clearly of human origin, express nobly (1) the desire of the human, made to God’s image and likeness, to commune with that same God, and (2) God’s initiative in effecting that communion.[1]

Equally impressive is the affirmation that the “scriptural and patristic teaching” concerning the Church formed by Baptism and Eucharist” is held in common.[2] It is to be hoped that in the future, the great Fathers and Doctors of the Church will frequently be cited in further conversations.

Additionally, towards the end of the text, the Report appeals to Methodist liturgies of ordination as a “valuable source for understanding what Methodists believe about ordination.” Although it is regrettable that the there is an “absence of formal Methodist teaching on the subject” (about Orders being an effective sign),[3] the appeal to the lex orandi is one that is familiar to Catholics. Therefore, it points the way to a method of exploring the topic that might bear fruit in the future.

In the pages that follow, important points of convergence are noted, followed by points of divergence. The intention in noting them is not to repeat or replace the text of the Report, but simply to highlight briefly some of its salient features. A third section notes areas where either clarification or development is still desirable. Those paragraphs not commented on at all are considered to be in no need of remarks, but rather, acceptable to both Catholics and Methodists.

The overall accomplishment of the Report is commendable, and the members of the Dialogue Commission deserve the thanks of both Catholics and Methodists for having produced a document which furthers each community’s understanding of its life in God.


I.  Points of Convergence

These points are noted in the order in which they appear in the Report.

a) Baptism

Paragraph 15 calls the Eucharist the medicine of immortality—words quoted from St. Ignatius of Antioch. Charles Wesley is approvingly quoted as writing, “How costly was the medicine Lord, / The medicine which thy wounds supplied! / That I might live, to health restor’d, / My Lamb, my Good Physician died.” In this way, the Dialogue Commission notes not only the eschatological orientation of the Eucharist, but the connected notion of the Eucharist as a remedy for venial sin.

Paragraph 16 then logically connects purification from sin—radically performed in Baptism and maintained by the worthy reception of the Eucharist, with the purifying, elevating, and saving activity of Christ for his bride, the Church.

It is important that the Dialogue Commission stresses the “bodily” aspect of salvation. At the heart of sacramental theology is the mystery of the human who is both spiritual and material, and whose spiritual life largely depends on the senses and on bodily encounters. At times in Christian history, the bodily dimension of human existence, and the role of the body in expressing what is spiritual—a role God uses in the sacraments—has been disparaged, while the spiritual dimension has been stripped of flesh. Therefore, the statement that “Sacramental acts are bodily celebrations of the salvation Christ has won for us, using physical elements of creation (e.g., water, bread and wine, oil), and always with a proclamation of the word,”[4] is key to the understanding of both communities.

From that follows a statement that hints at a sort of breakthrough: “Methodists and Catholics no longer polarize word and sacrament, placing them in separate categories of Christ’s presence and action, but rather see the profound commonalities between them”.[5] In turn, this leads to regarding the Church as sacramental (§20, referencing Seoul §102). Since Lumen Gentium describes the Church as “like” a sacrament,[6] the use of the adjective “sacramental” rather than the noun “sacrament” can be acceptable here[7] to both communities. Similarly, this extended use of “sacramental” when applied to the incarnate Word and the Scriptures, and the assertion that the sacraments are proclamations of the word, is a point of convergence.

Paragraph 30 notes that both communities “consider it right to baptize the infants born to believers.” The Report then says that the members of both communities are encouraged “to take the opportunities presented to them to renew the vows that they made, or that were made for them, in baptism.” This is true and important, but as is noted in the section on Points of Divergence, it would be useful at this point to indicate that Confirmation, which Methodists do not consider a sacrament, is essentially different from the renewals of baptismal vows made by Catholics at the Easter Vigil or made by Methodists on various special occasions during the liturgical year or during one’s life.[8]

Beginning with paragraph 34, the Report speaks of the relationship between faith and Baptism in terms acceptable to both Catholics and Methodists. However, since the Report notes that Catholics stress “the faith of the Church” while Methodists “tend to see faith primarily as a personal decision to believe in Jesus Christ and to trust God for Christ’s sake through the power of the Holy Spirit”—a reality present also in Catholic thinking—it would be helpful if the document were to distinguish fides quae and fides qua. Certainly such a distinction would lead to the admission that there is a difference in the fides quae, that is, in what is to be believed, but it would likewise lead to a recognition of the role of fides qua—the acts of the virtue of faith—in both communities. Such a distinction could help the dialogue tackle the dilemma presented in § 40, where what is called the Catholic stress on Baptism as the ianua of the Christian life is counterbalanced with the Methodist inclination “to point to the importance of faith.”

Paragraph 66 expresses the hope that a deeper understanding of “degrees” of communion “might help Methodists and Catholics to understand both the real and incomplete nature of the communion which is expressed in our mutually recognized Baptism.” This paragraph recalls the “comparative” adjectives The Catholic Church uses to describe what happens to a baptized person who is confirmed. That person, already really joined to the Church in Baptism, is more perfectly joined to the Church and more strongly obliged to witness to Christ through Confirmation.[9] So in this regard, one can see the way to a point of convergence.

b) Eucharist

The Report’s agreement that the presence of Christ in the Eucharist is “a presence not dependent upon the experience of faith or the communicant or of the gathered assembly” (§79) is an excellent starting point for the consideration of the Eucharist, and it is encouraging that, after listing other modes of the presence of Christ among his people, the Report affirms that “Christ’s Eucharistic presence, however, is unique.”

Paragraphs 83 and 84 are important. In the former, the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation is described. In the latter, the Methodist appreciation of “Christ’s real presence in a spiritual sense” is ascribed to a manner that “remains unknown.” While the question of the manner is not one of convergence, it is reassuring that the Methodist statement holds for a “transformation” of the bread and wine which makes Christ’s presence “sure and real.” Both communities are thus far from the heresy of Berengarius of Tours.

Paragraphs 87 and 88 in their own ways indicate a convergence, or, an emerging convergence, between the two communities, inasmuch as the Real Presence is concerned (here commonly understood as the effect of the liturgy, but prescinding from the question of apostolic succession and valid Orders). Catholics reserve the Blessed Sacrament. Methodists consume the elements, distribute them to the absent, or return them to the earth. Neither community, then, considers it possible to use the elements, after the Eucharistic liturgy has concluded, as mere bodily nutrition.

Similarly, the paragraphs leading up to and concluding with §108 express a marvelous convergence regarding the Eucharist as sacrifice, even as they say that the agreement can be deeper (§107). Likewise, the two communities recognize that the historical perception of an estrangement over the relation of the Eucharist to the single sacrifice of Christ on Calvary is no longer warranted (see §§100-101). While there is not a perfect consonance between the positions of the two communities, there is certainly more consonance than dissonance.

Although there is no explicit affirmation by the Methodists of an indispensable role performed by the ordained in the celebration of the Eucharist (that is, a role that only an ordained minister can play to a real effect), both Catholics and Methodists attribute the efficacy of the Eucharistic celebration in the first place to Christ himself. Thus, officiants at the Eucharist are Christ’s ministers. The Methodists refer especially to the Wesley hymns to make this point. It would be “symmetrical” if Catholic references to the Eucharistic poetry or hymns of St. Thomas Aquinas could also be used. Paragraph 127 does refer to Thomas’ O sacrum convivium, but it would be a nice touch if the thought of the great thinkers of both communities were to be placed, as it were, side by side. The Eucharist exceeds the defining powers of rational discourse, so the evidence that both communities have had to resort to the suggestive power of poetry or hymnody would be a good indication of the faith both communities have in the Eucharistic mystery, a mystery that reason alone cannot adequately grasp.

c) Ordained Ministry

Paragraphs 149 and 153 speak of a special calling that distinguishes the ordained ministry from the baptismal vocation. This calls to mind LG’s statement that the common priesthood and the ministerial priesthood differ in essence and not simply in degree (LG 10). While the Report does not adopt such terminology, it does assert that ordained ministry is a vocation, not dependent “on human choice and capacity” (§150). This points the way forward towards a possible future agreement on the content of LG 10. Paragraph 170, in fact, clearly and excellently states that “ordained ministers do not receive their authority by delegation from the people of God. Likewise, the priesthood of the ordained ministry is not derived from the common priesthood of the people of God.”

Paragraph 152, quoting Brighton §63, points the way towards a possible agreement in the future regarding what the Latin Church calls the sacramental character. The quote carefully speaks of the ordained being “irrevocably called and set apart by God.” Since the Catholic tradition holds that one of the reasons for positing the indelibility of a sacramental character is the unmovable will of God,[10] it may be possible in the future for Catholics and Methodists to link the irrevocable nature of the calling to the indelibility of a sacramental character.

Although §158 states that Methodists, unlike Catholics, do not speak of ordination being indelible, it does state that Methodists may only be ordained once; they are never re-ordained, “and their orders are in this sense irremovable.” Catholics and Methodists alike can look back to the sensus of the early Church that some sacraments were not repeated, which led to the belief that those sacraments could not be repeated because their effect could not be removed. It was reflection on this that led to the emergence of the notion of character, and it would be fruitful for Methodists and Catholics to pursue this reflection together.


II.  Points of Divergence

a) Baptism

The Report acknowledges a divergence between Catholics and Methodists regarding Confirmation. Since Methodists do not regard Confirmation as a sacrament, their view of Baptism stresses the duty of those washed free of sin to engage in public ecclesiastical more strongly than is the case among Catholics.[11]

In §24 the Report notes the Catholic Church’s stress on “importance of visible continuity in the Church’s life,” while Methodists acknowledge “discontinuities at various points.” It would be profitable to elaborate on the nature of this divergence. Otherwise, the paragraph’s final statement, “In that light [presumably, the light of the Catholic understanding of the Church of Christ subsisting in the Catholic Church], it is indeed notable that Catholics and Methodists ‘nowadays see the opportunity of setting Methodist ministry within a more recognisable framework of apostolic succession’” sounds hopeful, but does not communicate with precision. What does a “more recognisable framework of apostolic succession” mean? More recognizable than what? It would be useful to note the difference between an agreed understanding of the point of apostolic succession (viz., the handing on of the faith that dates back to the time of the apostles, along with the perdurance in the Church of the sanctifying and governing munera), and a disagreement about the means of assuring that point, namely, the visible continuity in the apostolic office from the time of the apostles. Such a clarification would likewise refer to how the term “historic episcopate” is understood by Methodists.

Given that the following paragraph mentions the problem in Catholic-Protestant conversations posed by understanding the bishops in apostolic succession as priests who offer the Eucharistic sacrifice, it is desirable that the notion of apostolic succession be fleshed out.

Paragraph 58 states, “when Catholics affirm the effects of Baptism, they are not saying that the rite is the single simple cause of such effects.” This would be more accurately phrased: “when Catholics affirm the effects of Baptism, they are not saying that the effects can only come through the sacrament; at the same time, they are affirming that Baptism is the normal means of communicating those effects.” The purpose of this is to avoid making Baptism simply one means relative to many others. Sacraments communicate their effects with certitude; that is their raison d’être. So while the effects may be found without Baptism, in the lives of some they may, in fact, be absent. It could be further noted that the Catholic tradition generally holds that the sacramental character is only communicated through the sacramental rite itself.

b) Eucharist

Paragraph 85 states that the Holy Spirit is invoked upon the bread and wine at “many” Methodist eucharistic liturgies. A discrepancy in the lex orandi within the Methodist community can lead to divergent leges credendi.

Another point of contrast is that Methodists do not uniformly require the Eucharist to be presided over by ordained ministers (see §164).

c) Ordained Ministry

Paragraph 140 speaks of the whole people of God being sent by Christ, and thus, being apostolic. When, however, that paragraph continues by describing a unique ministry that is called apostolic “because it began with Christ’s choosing from among his disciples,” it stops short of mentioning apostolic succession. Thus, the next paragraph (§141) affirms that “apostolic ministry in the Church did not cease with the death of the Twelve but is necessary in every age.” The different understandings between the two communities concerning the mechanism of apostolic succession (see §§142 and 143) make it impossible for a common statement to be agreed on at this time.

The Report says that “in effect Methodists treat continuity in the ordained ministry as both a sign and instrument of apostolic succession in the Church” (§144). Nevertheless, the Report likewise notes, in the same paragraph, that Methodists distinguish between visible continuity as a symbol of the Church’s continuity, and visible continuity as an instrument of the Church’s continuity. From the Catholic perspective, the instrumentality is precisely what constitutes the visible symbol as well.

However, as noted in the section on convergences, from the point of view of necessity (“it is necessary in every age”), there is some agreement. That necessity pertains in particular to the prophetic, or teaching and preaching, role of bishops and other ministers. Even though not all Methodists have an episcopal office, the felt need for continuity in, or the handing on of, the faith of the apostles by designated leaders is something shared with Catholics.[12]

Because of the diverging views of apostolic succession, the Report’s language concerning ordination, or, the sacrament of Orders, is cautious. Clearly the question of how the Church continues to preserve her doctrine, ministry, sacraments and life, which is a question of how God does this, and through what officials duly consecrated, is still in need of common exploration. Given that the common need has been expressed, it can be hoped that some agreement may someday be reached about how that need is met in God’s design.

Paragraph 146 presents several problems. Brighton §168 is quoted to affirm that “the ministries and institutions of our two communities are means of grace…” Such a statement can be interpreted broadly in a positive way, but in fact, Catholics see the word means in the paragraph as subject to two distinct, if analogous, meanings. If the analogy is not described, it could mislead some into seeing agreement where there is, in fact, still a significant difference. Catholics understand ordained ministries as infallible means of grace. This paragraph is speaking of ordained ministries. Catholics understand that ministries exercised by those not ordained can also be means of grace. The first sense derives from the Catholic belief that Orders were instituted by Jesus. The second is due to less predictable activity of the Holy Spirit. Certainly, in line with UR 3 (cf. UR 23), the Report sees means as denoting the graces that the Spirit bestows on believers through the service of their ministers. But whether such ministries are means in the sense of habitual occasions of grace, or means in the sense of communicating grace through their sanctifying ministry, remains to be clarified.

This paragraph (§146) also mentions the opportunity “of setting Methodist ministry within a more recognizable framework of apostolic succession”[13] and opines that there could flow from that a “mutual recognition of ordained ministries [following] from ‘a fresh creative act of reconciliation…’” The language here avoids mention that the Catholic Church currently insists on clergy of Reform communities who are to be accepted into the ranks of its clergy to undergo absolute ordinations unless there is, in exceptional cases, reason to proceed with a conditional ordination. Consistent with this insistence, it is difficult to envisage a “fresh creative act” that would make it possible for the Catholic Church to recognize ordination in a community where, historically, there has been an interruption in episcopal ordinations. Difficulty in envisaging such an act does not mean there could not be one, but it needs to be acknowledged that right now that difficulty seems insuperable on the Catholic side.

Although §157 contains much that is true about the Catholic understanding of the sacramental character of Orders, the statement that “Nowadays Catholics tend to interpret the sacramental character of ordination as signifying an irreversible consecration to serve God and the people of God” is not adequate. The word consecration sometimes has an ontological connotation, but often it does not. A person who is baptized is consecrated, and that consecration includes an ontological “character”-ization. A person who professes the evangelical counsels is also consecrated, but undergoes no ontological change. At Mass, bread and wine are consecrated and undergo a change in their very being. But the chalice and paten used to hold the elements at Mass are also consecrated—set apart—but undergo no change when being consecrated; only their use is restricted or dedicated. Since the Catholic Church holds for an ontological change in the subject of Holy Orders, this paragraph should mention it. This would also help clarify the idea expressed in §159 which states that Orders effects a new and permanent relationship with Christ.

Paragraph 178 states that the precise number of sacraments “need not be regarded as constituting an ecumenical impasse.” Given, however, that Catholics believe it to be an article of faith that seven sacraments were instituted by Christ, it is misleading to insert, in this paragraph, that “Catholics and Methodists agree that ‘the Church has authority to institute other rites and ordinances which are valued as sacred actions and signs of God’s redeeming love in Christ.’” Such a statement corresponds to the Catholic belief about sacramental, instituted by the Church, not sacraments, instituted by Christ. Since Catholics hold that Orders is a sacrament instituted by Christ, not a sign instituted by the Church, this statement should be struck. It is not helpful to the conversation.


III.  Clarifications

a) Baptism

Paragraph 23 describes ex opere operato as meaning that the grace of God is unfailingly offered when [sacraments] are rightly celebrated. However, they also enable the individual to have a subjective experience of salvation as the grace offered is recognized and embraced, and this aspect is more prominent in Methodist teaching on “assurance”. As objective and subjective aspects of the same reality, respectively, Catholic and Methodist approaches not only can be reconciled but have much to gain by being drawn together to complement one another in this area. There is no need for Catholics and Methodists to regard this particular difference between them as divisive.

The description of ex opere operato is correct as far as it goes, and the inclusion of the term in a Report of this kind is remarkable. Likewise, it is true that the objective reality (res) of a properly celebrated sacrament does enable the individual to have a certain (in the sense of definite) experience of salvific grace. So, indeed, there is no need for the difference of emphasis to be divisive.

Nevertheless, this particular paragraph could be improved by spelling out what is meant by a sacrament “rightly celebrated.” If this were done, the reason for the Report’s conclusion that this teaching need not be divisive would become clear. It is precisely because one of the factors that figures in judging a sacrament to be efficacious ex opere operato is the intention of the recipient (the “subject”), that the other factors—the proper matter, form, and minister who has the intention to do what the Church does—are objectively efficacious. It would also be helpful to state that when a sacrament is celebrated ex opere operato, grace is not just “offered…recognized…and embraced,” but is unfailingly received, because the subject’s desire for that grace is an essential part of the concept of ex opere operato.

Paragraph 47, after mentioning Original Sin, says that “before God all persons are lost, helpless to save themselves, and in need of divine mercy and forgiveness.” Immediately it adds, “Baptism is the sacrament of God’s unconditional grace through which he heals everything that separates us from him and gives us new life in Christ by the power of the Spirit.” This passage as written can only be accepted by Catholics if a number of conditions are met, and the Report would be helped if those conditions were spelled out, namely:

  • “All persons are lost” refers to humans without grace. One of the questions touched on by the International Theological Commission in its 2007 study, The Hope of Salvation for Infants Who Die Without Being Baptized concerns the responsibility of the damned for being without grace, as opposed to the gratuitousness of grace and salvation for those cooperating in the work of salvation.[14]
  • In the Latin rite of the Catholic Church, only the rite for the Baptism of infants explicitly mentions Original Sin. Sources as old as Thomas Aquinas and as recent as the Second Vatican Council speak of salvation and grace apart from the sacramental system.[15] These are incompatible with Original Sin, and so if salvation and grace are found among those not baptized, it is only possible to say that before God all persons are lost, etc., if one adds that one is referring simply to human nature apart from grace.
  • The use made of the International Theological Commission of the concept of the hierarchy of truths could also be injected into this text to give it a more positive note: “[T]he Church begins by clearly reaffirming the primacy of Christ and his grace, which has priority over Adam and sin” (§7).

The discussion in § 48 to 57 about regeneration presents the traditional Methodist ambivalence on the question, and Catholics recognize that their pastoral activity is frequently directed towards baptized persons whose behavior often shows no evidence of regeneration. In this context, and especially in §57, it might be useful to distinguish between the sacramental character, which is indelible, inter alia, because Christ wills it to be so and does not withdraw it once given,[16] and grace. Such a distinction would also include the notion of the reviviscence of the sacrament in those spiritually dead, making it possible to posit the permanence of regeneration at the same time that one admits that many baptized persons seem not to enjoy newness of life.

If this were done, then §61, which holds that “for both of our communions the celebration of Baptism and the effect of regeneration or new birth are held together” would be cogent. That is, a discussion of the sacramental character would give content to “are held together.”

Paragraph 63 in its first bullet point quotes from Rio §101, but a paraphrase could make the point more emphatic, namely: “original sin is erased, all sins are forgiven…”

Paragraphs 69 to 72 are situated in the section devoted to being baptized into the life and mission of Christ. Paragraph 70 describes the difference between Catholic and Methodist approaches to Confirmation, but the wording of §69 is such that the lack of a sacramental appreciation of Confirmation among Methodists implies something awkward for Catholics, viz., “Being baptized does not so much place us statically in a particular community; rather it commissions us as disciples for mission in service of the coming kingdom.” For Catholics, the commissioning for mission is more normally associated with Confirmation. That is not a problem in this paragraph, since right away in paragraph 70 that is effectively said. However, the meaning of “being baptized does not […] place us statically in a particular community” is not clear. Catholics hold that one is baptized into a particular community (e.g., the Methodist community, the Lutheran community, the Greek Orthodox Church, etc.), even as one is made, together with all the other baptized, a member of the Body of Christ. We are not generically baptized, but baptized into a faith community. The problematic word is “statically,” and it would be helpful to state carefully what that means.

This concluding section of the Report’s treatment of Baptism repeats the points of convergence treated earlier. It is good, but it could be improved if in addition to speaking of Baptism as a call, the Report referred in some way to an ontological change, meaning that with God’s call comes the means to respond to it. It would also be improved by mentioning, even if only in passing, the perspective afforded Baptism in the Catholic Church by the fact that Catholics hold that Confirmation is a second sacrament of initiation, whose effects to some extent are found in the Methodist positions on Baptism.

b) Eucharist

Paragraph 78 refers to Gospel indications of the distinctive form of Christ’s presence, revealed at the Last Supper. It would be good to include as well a reference to 1 Cor 11:23-29 which stresses the distinctiveness of the form of Christ’s presence in the Eucharist.

Footnote 126, referring to the text of §85, presents the much-discussed text of Eucharistic Prayer 2 (so that they may become for us the body and blood…) and the Great Thanksgiving in The United Methodist Book of Worship (Make them be for us the body and blood..) Although the Report’s text states that the presence of Christ does not depend on the faith of the faithful, it might be useful to insert into this note the same reference. Otherwise, the final example of the note, from The Methodist Worship Book (that these gifts of bread and wine may be for us the body and blood…) could be taken in precisely the wrong sense. Paragraph 88 likewise states, “For both, Christ is present for us here and now…” Of course this is true, but the Catholic custom of reserving the sacrament shows that “for us here and now” does not mean just for those present at the eucharistic liturgy at a particular time.

Paragraph 133 refers to purgatory and prayer for the dead in connection with the once-for-all sacrifice of Christ. This Report shows, however, that among the issues regarding the deceased that does not need to be discussed is the reality that the sacrifice, real in all time for every human, is real even outside time for humans who are not yet enjoying the fullness of the Kingdom.

c) Orders

It will be necessary to spell out what is meant by saying that ordained ministers act as signs and instruments of Christ’s grace and power (§147). It is true that both communities refer to the minister as part of the “instrumental causality” in sacred actions, with “Christ … himself the source of ministry” (§147). Catholics believe that ordained ministers are made instruments through the ontological change wrought in ordination, and it would be useful to see that mentioned in this paragraph.

Paragraph 164, following on paragraphs that correctly situate the ministerial priesthood within the ever-efficacious priesthood of Christ, weakens the impression of common doctrine significantly by stating, “In the Catholic Church, and normally [sic] in Methodist Churches, Christ’s presidency at the Eucharist is signified and represented by an ordained minister…” The Catholic Church holds that presidency at the Eucharist is always and only exercised by someone in sacerdotal Orders. Communion services in the absence of a priest are not celebrations of the Eucharist, precisely because the priest is absent. Once again, the question of the sacramental character of the ordained which distinguishes them essentially, and not merely in degree, from those who exercise the baptismal priesthood, shows its importance. That Methodists tolerate, even in exceptional circumstances, lay presidency at the Eucharist shows that there is still a ways to go before the convergence about the irrevocable nature of the calling to ministry can be described in terms that are agreeable to the faithful of both communities. Paragraph 186 notes this difficulty explicitly, and paragraph 187 suggests that Methodists could, perhaps, reconsider their position.

Paragraphs 171 and 172 show that further work does, indeed, need to be done concerning the essential difference and the “capacity of the ordained to act […] on behalf of Christ [which] depends […] on the particular effect that ordination has on an individual.” For Catholics, this effect is described in terms of the character that distinguishes the ordained from the laity, a character which deputes the ordained so to take part in Christ’s priestly activity that they are commonly called priests by Catholics—a term eschewed by Methodists.

Paragraph 177, coming as it does after an affirmation that Methodists hold that only Baptism and Eucharist are sacraments, not surprisingly speaks of “a basic theological agreement that ordination is sacramental.” The use of the adjective rather than the noun (sacramental rather than sacrament) is irenic. It would be better to add, at the end of the clause, “even though the two communities do not agree in calling ordination a sacrament.”

From the Catholic perspective, a clarification is needed about the notion of “the indefectibility of the Church” mentioned in §183. The “confidence in the guidance and faithfulness of the Holy Spirit” can sound naïve to Catholic ears, since the Catholic Church considers the assistance of the Holy Spirit something that works through human structures.[17] Precisely because human curiosity and changing circumstances pose challenges in every age to the correct understanding of revealed truth, the Catholic Church sees infallibility concerning faith and mores not as a substitute for indefectibility, but as a guide for it.

The final section on Holy Orders lists areas still to be explored. Among the areas not already mentioned are the question of the threefold structure of ordained ministry, the issue of who may validly ordain (an issue whose theological and canonical ramifications were the subject of some study in Catholic circles in the twentieth century, when papal rescripts allowing priests to ordain were discovered),[18] and the question of ordaining women.


IV. Concluding Observations

The Report shows that the Commission’s members are aware of points of real and potential convergence and areas of difference. The Commission consciously and laudably seeks not to be conditioned by some of the positions of the past which, it feels, used certain linguistic constructs to suggest theological differences which may not be very disparate.

It may be useful simply to list areas which could profit from further dialogue.

1. The liturgy as a constitutive element of Tradition; Tradition as an expression of Revelation.

2. The distinction between sacraments and sacramental; at the same time, the meaning(s) associated with the notion of institution by Christ and institution by the Church, respectively.

3. The difference between a reaffirmation of baptismal faith and the sacrament of Confirmation.

4. For Baptism, Confirmation, and Orders, the notion of a sacramental character: in particular, what it means to call it a sharing in the priesthood of Christ.

5. The notion of the reviviscence of Baptism after one has committed personal sins.

6. The connection between Orders and presiding at the Eucharist.





[1] See, in particular, §75.

[2] §17.

[3] §173.

[4] §18.

[5] §20.

[6] LG 1: “Ecclesia […] in Christo veluti sacramentum seu signum et instrumentum intimæ cum Deo unionis totiusque generis humani unitatis…”

[7] The word sacramental is used in different ways elsewhere in the report. These ways, and the problems associated with them, will be noted.

[8] The occasions when Methodists make such a renewal are described in Gerard Austin, O.P., The Rite of Confirmation: Anointing with the Spirit (New York: Pueblo Publishing, 1985), 90-91. Austin notes that the first rite of renewal of baptismal promises is sometimes called ‘confirmation’.

[9] See CIC 879: “…perfectius Ecclesiae vinculantur…arctiusque obligat ut verbo et opere testes sint Christi fidemque diffundant et defendant.”

[10] See Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae III, 63, 5 ad 2.

[11] See §22.

[12] See Herbert Vorgrimler’s discussion in Sacramental Theology (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 1992) 250.

[13] Quoting Seoul §106.

[14] See §§7 and 49, in International Theological Commission, Vol. II (San Francisco: Ignatius, 2009).

[15] See Summa Theologiae I-II, 89, 6 and Lumen Gentium 16.

[16] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, III, 63, 5 ad 2.

[17] See the Relatio of Bishop Gasser at Vatican I (referenced four times in Lumen Gentium), in James T. O’Connor, ed., The Gift of Infallibility (San Francisco: Ignatius, 2008) 46-47.

[18] Boniface IX, Bull Sacrae Religionis (February 1, 1400), Denzinger-Schönmetzer 1145; Martin V, Bull Gerentes ad vos (November 16, 1427), Denzinger-Schönmetzer 1290.