Religion today

Vatican City - In 1995, Pope John Paul II defined the top issues that would have to be resolved before Christianity could be reunited, including seemingly intractable differences over beliefs about Mary, the mother of Jesus.

Now, a decade later, those obstacles suddenly don't seem so great.

A joint commission of Roman Catholic and Anglican scholars last week raised the prospect that "issues concerning doctrine and devotion to Mary need no longer be seen as communion-dividing."

The Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission (ARCIC) released a 57-page statement that is the first major Protestant-Catholic accord on Marian devotion and doctrine.

Though official acceptance of the proposals will require long-term consideration by the respective churches, the Vatican and Anglican Communion headquarters appointed the 20 negotiators who worked out the unprecedented agreement.

"It's an extraordinary document," says the Rev. Arthur Kennedy, the U.S. Catholic bishops' ecumenical director.

Key points in the accord:

_Non-Catholics typically say the Immaculate Conception, Mary's freedom from original sin and resulting sinlessness, contradicts the Bible's teaching that "all have sinned" (Romans 3:23) and that Jesus is the sole exception (Hebrews 4:15). On that question, the accord says "we can affirm together that Christ's redeeming work reached 'back' in Mary to the depths of her being, and to her earliest beginnings" without violating Scripture.

_Mary's Assumption into heaven at the end of her life is not taught in the Bible. But the accord says "we can affirm together the teaching that God has taken the Blessed Virgin Mary in the fullness of her person into his glory as consonant with Scripture," since God directly received others (Elijah, Stephen, the thief on the cross).

_"We are agreed that Mary and the saints pray for the whole Church," the accord states, and it's appropriate to request their prayers, just as Christians on earth ask each other for prayers. Most Protestants, however, see no biblical justification for this practice.

_Regarding traditional Catholic belief in Mary's lifelong or "perpetual virginity," most Protestants hold that the Bible contradicts this by saying Joseph and Mary didn't come together "until" Jesus was born (Matthew 1:25). Without committing the Anglicans to a specific belief, the accord says "our two communions are both heirs to a rich tradition which recognizes Mary as ever virgin."

_"Mary's role in the redemption of humanity" and her biblical words ("all generations will call me blessed"), the accord says, support "appropriate devotion" to her in both private and public prayer. But it emphasizes that veneration of Mary cannot supplant Jesus as "the one mediator" between humans and God (1 Timothy 2:5).

The new accord notes, but doesn't resolve, a related snarl.

In 1854, Pope Pius IX proclaimed that the Immaculate Conception must "be believed firmly and constantly by all," and any dissenter is "condemned" and "separated" from true Christianity. Similarly, Pope Pius XII's 1950 declaration on the Assumption said doubters "incur the wrath of Almighty God."

Yet an Anglican principle, dating from 1562, holds that "Holy Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation so that whatsoever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required."

Western Michigan University historian Rozanne Elder, the only U.S. Episcopalian on ARCIC, says ecumenists hope that Catholics will eventually agree teachings proclaimed during the centuries of church separation cannot be binding on non-Catholics.

Mary deserves more honor and attention from fellow Protestants, admits the Rev. Timothy George, Southern Baptist dean of Alabama's Beeson Divinity School. But he says Protestants cannot accept non-biblical teachings, especially the Immaculate Conception: "Mary was a sinner in common with all sinners, and therefore a model of the church."

The Rev. Robert Jenson, an American Lutheran long engaged in Marian debates, said that he personally finds the new accord "theologically successful," but "whether it represents progress between the churches or not is more doubtful." Like George, he finds the Immaculate Conception especially difficult.

The pact is all the more surprising because it occurs during a chilly era for Catholic relations with Anglicanism. Like conservative Anglicans, Catholic leaders are displeased by the elevation of a gay bishop in the Episcopal Church (Anglicanism's U.S. branch) and same-sex blessings in parts of the U.S. church as well as Anglican Church of Canada.

Jenson fears that if the Episcopal Church doesn't change its gay policies and world Anglicanism accepts this, serious doctrinal negotiations with Rome would break down. More optimistically, Elder says the gay issue may not divide Christians 50 years from now.