Pastor Wants to Move Past Vatican Dispute

Vatican City - The leader of the World Council of Churches said Thursday he wanted to move beyond a rift between the Roman Catholic Church and other Christians over mutual recognition and welcomed indications from Pope Benedict XVI that he, too, wanted to improve ties.

The Rev. Samuel Kobia, a Methodist pastor and general secretary of the Geneva-based council, said he was encouraged by pledges from the new pope to make improving relations with other Christians and healing the 1,000-year-old rift with the Orthodox Church a "primary" task of his papacy.

In Turkey on Thursday, the spiritual leader of the world's Orthodox Christians, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew II, also welcomed Benedict's outreach but said both sides must be "realistic about the cost and the time involved in this process."

During a meeting with Kobia at the Vatican, Benedict repeated his pledge that "concrete gestures" were necessary to forge unity. "The commitment of the Catholic Church to the search for Christian unity is irreversible," Benedict said.

The World Council of Churches is a fellowship of more than 300 churches from nearly all Christian traditions, including Protestants and the Orthodox. The Roman Catholic Church is not a member but cooperates with it.

Protestants were deeply offended by a 2000 document, "Dominus Iesus," from the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith that framed the role of the Catholic Church in human salvation in an exclusive manner.

The document, written by Benedict when he was Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger and prefect of the congregation, said non-Catholic or Orthodox "ecclesiastical communities" were "not churches in the proper sense."

Kobia told a news conference after his meeting with the pope that he wanted to make Benedict's statements since he became pontiff, not those he made before, "the point of departure" for ecumenical discussions.

He said that in his discussions with Benedict, "I have said that one of the concrete steps that will take us closer to the unity that we seek is by the recognition, the mutual recognition of churches as churches."

Benedict made no mention of the issue in his remarks to Kobia, although he stressed his desire to work "tirelessly" to unify all Christians.

In an interview before the meeting, Kobia said he wasn't asking Benedict to renounce "Dominus Iesus," but merely put it behind him.

"There are many Protestant churches that are members of the WCC and are concerned that they are defined as 'ecclesiastic communities' and not full churches," Kobia told The Associated Press. "I don't want to revive all the pain that many churches felt after Dominus Iesus. If we could say we have moved beyond it, it would be helpful."

In his remarks to the pope, Kobia said Orthodox members of the World Council of Churches often are asked to reflect on whether there was "space" for other churches in Orthodox doctrine.

Responses to these fundamental questions "will certainly affect whether or not our member churches recognize each other's baptism, as well as their ability or inability to recognize one another as churches," he said.

Benedict has emphasized his pledge to ecumenism on several occasions in his nearly 2-month-old papacy, gestures welcomed by Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew II.

"Such rapprochement — what Pope Benedict XVI called 'spiritual ecumenism' — is our obligation to God and our commitment to the world," Bartholomew said in written responses to questions from the AP. "At the same time, we must be realistic about the cost and the time involved in this process."

Bartholomew said reconciliation won't be easy.

"The genuine work of unity is slow and painful, and it must be treated with sensitivity to theological truths, honesty before historical events, and realism in the face of cultural distinctions. This is why reconciliation can only blossom when there is sincerity and continuity in this delicate process of healing," Bartholomew wrote.

Bartholomew has long been receptive to Rome's outreach to the Orthodox, meeting several times with John Paul II. However, the main resistance to improved ties has come from the Russian Orthodox Church, which refused John Paul's longtime request to visit Russia.

Russian Orthodox Patriarch Alexy II called for more cooperation with the Roman Catholic Church following Benedict's recent remarks. But he continued to urge Rome to stop what he considers the poaching of souls in his territory — the main source of tension between the two churches.