It was, according to all reports, a drab and colorless meeting. There was little new, little that had not been said before and probably said better, little advance in the cause of world-wide ecumenicity. There would be little point in reporting on it except that The World Council of Churches has become an issue within the churches of the Reformed tradition. At present the Gereformeerde Kerken in the Netherlands have decided that, while they will not join for the present, there is no real reason why they cannot join. And the Christian Reformed Church, although they have repudiated membership in the WCC, sent observers to this year’s meeting in Uppsala, Sweden.
The meeting lasted for sixteen days and the Council listened to no less than 75 speeches and attempted to digest about 10 tons of mimeographed reports and statements.
The opening address to the 750 delegates was made by Dr. D.T. Niles, a universalist of the Methodist Church. He was substituting for the murdered Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He addressed the council on its theme: “Behold I make all things new.” But the speaker as well as the Council as a whole made it very clear that all things must be made new by man and not by Christ. They reiterated their firm conviction that this newness of all things would come about through world revolution and through finding solutions to the world’s problems, in order to usher in a utopia of the earth. All the speeches and papers pointed in this direction.
Some of the more interesting examples:
James Baldwin, the negro American novelist, addressed the assembly on the problem of the races. He told the delegates that the churches had betrayed black Christians; that “the destruction of the Christian church as it is today may not only be necessary but desirable”; that “the church began in revolution and will probably have to be reborn in revolution.” Although he is an agnostic, his views were quite generally acceptable to the Council. He spoke in defense of Stokely Carmichael and insisted that black power advocates were not as dangerous as many whites in the United States and South Africa.
In another speech, Barbara Ward, a British economist, proposed a world tax of one per cent of the gross national product of each nation to help the poor and hungry nations.
As far as decisions were concerned, social issues almost completely dominated the assembly. The delegates approved of the principle of selective conscientious objection and-urged nations to adopt proposals for a Peace Corps as an alternative to military service. The American delegates, some 200 strong, voiced their support of four men (including Dr. Benjamin Speck and Rev. William Slone Coffin Jr.) who have been found guilty by the courts for violating the Selective Service laws by aiding men in escaping the draft. By doing this the delegates supported the principle of civil disobedience at any time a man disagrees with a particular law.
The Council also once more demanded that Communist China be admitted to the United Nations. The delegates did not vote outright for a proposal which condemned American Vietnam policies, but it did adopt a resolution calling for immediate and unconditional cessation of the bombing of North Vietnam by American planes. And it made a plea to both sides in the conflict to end their military activities.
The question of union with Rome was also high on the agenda. The recent papal “confession of faith” (Cf. below) cast a shadow over this part of the proceedings, but the Council moved ahead in the only way possible under the circumstances. The Roman Catholic Church had various observers present at Uppsala, but no formal plans for union could yet be made. Jesuit Roberto Tucci addressed the Council but said that psychological and practical obstacles bar a union in the immediate future. He did propose that the WCC and the Vatican jointly study the advantages and disadvantages of Roman Catholic membership in the WCC. This proposal was endorsed by the delegates and nine Roman Catholic theologians were appointed to the World Council’s staff.
Strangely enough it was the Russian delegates, branded by many as being Communist agents within the World Council, who complained most loudly about the lack of theological concern in the assembly. The well-known Metropolitan Nikodim opposed a Western proposal for broadening “Marxist-Christian dialogue” on the grounds: “How can there be dialogue when the basic beliefs of one are denied by the other?” A delegate of the Russian Orthodox Greek Catholic Church of America expressed disappointment and disillusionment that there was almost no theological discussion at the Council. And it was the Orthodox bloc which voted for a conservative (by council standards) report on the reforming of Christian liturgy.
How anyone who has the love of the Church of Christ in his heart can imagine that this organization is representative of the unity of the body of Christ is an insoluble mystery. The WCC is a powerful, noisy, and influential representative of apostate Christianity and dreadful omen of the role which the apostate church shall play in the future.
Pope Paul’s Conservatism
If Pope John XXIII opened the windows of the Roman Catholic Church to the winds of change, Pope Paul is determined to slam them shut once again. At the continuation of the Vatican Council meeting over which Pope Paul presided after the death of his predecessor, it was supposed that Paul might follow the example of John—although many suspected that the vigor of John would be lost. They have been badly disappointed.
Two recent events have demonstrated this.
Marking the end of the Roman Catholic Year of Faith, the Pope addressed some remarks to his church concerning the faith of the church in this age. In affirming the position he occupies as successor of Peter, he used these statements to make “a profession of faith, pronounce a creed which, without being strictly speaking a dogmatic definition, repeats in substance, with some developments called for by the spiritual condition of our time, the Creed of Nicea, the creed of the immortal tradition of the Holy Church of God.”
Paul insisted on his own authoritative position in the church as Vicar of Christ and used this position to reaffirm some traditional doctrines which the Romish Church has held to, but which are coming increasingly under attack. He followed chiefly the general outline of the Apostle’s Creed, but directed his remarks especially to those who, within his own church, have shown a strong desire to go in the way of modem theological liberalism.
In doing all this he filled the liberals within his own church and ecumenical leaders of Protestantism with dismay. It was generally interpreted as an attempt to keep the Romish Church bound up in the traditions of the past and to protect the church from the threat of renewal and possible union with Protestantism.
Then, in the early part of August, the Pope added insult to injury when he came out with his decisions on the question of birth control. This question had assumed increasing importance in the church, and the pope had appointed a commission to study the matter in the light of modem contraceptive developments. This commission worked for three years and presented their opinions. It is reported that the recommendations of the commission were that the traditional stand of the Romish Church be altered, the stand that the use of all contraceptive devices is a violation of natural law and is therefore a “mortal sin.” Essentially the commission wanted to make the use of contraceptives a matter of conscience. But Paul rejected out of hand the advice of his commission and reaffirmed in the strongest possible language the traditional stand of the Church. He insisted that this was the stand of the church in the past, that there were no reasons for altering it, that this was the position of the church today, and that all members of his church must adhere to this pronouncement of the pope who speaks as the Vicar of Christ, that failure to do so will involve one in mortal sin. The encyclical in which this position was set forth fell short of an infallible pronouncement of the pope speaking ex cathedra, but all the authority of the papal chair lies behind it nonetheless. Paul addressed himself to his own members, to governments around the world urging them to cease taking an active role in birth control programs and to scientists to whom he assigned the task of making the rhythm method (approved by the Romish Church) a scientifically safe method of birth control.
His pronouncements aroused a storm of protest. So much so that Paul called a special “press conference” to tell the world and his church how much suffering the decision had caused him but how deeply he felt about it.
It is estimated that as high as 60% of Roman Catholic married couples make use of artificial birth control devices. And most of them are not about to bow before the latest papal pronouncement. But this puts them in a most serious dilemma. A mortal sin is a serious matter and will have to be confessed in the confessional. Many are hoping that priests who disagree with the stand of the pope simply will not ask questions concerning this matter of those who appear in the confessional; but one theologian has described the situation as “a crisis of conscience” to which the people should not be subjected.
But even many clergy and theologians in this country and in Europe were shocked and dismayed. Already in Europe a committee of clergymen is sending a Protest to the pope and in it firmly insists on their right to dissent. In this country too many clergy are already assuring their troubled parishioners that they have every intention of disregarding the pope’s position.
And so the question really comes down to one of tine authority of the church. Many leaders in the Roman Catholic Church thought that this question had been decided when the last Vatican Council defined, apparently with Paul’s approval, the extent of papal authority and transferred much of it to the church’s bishops. But now Paul is flying in the face of these decisions and pulling the reins of absolute authority out of the hands of the lesser clergy and grasping them firmly with his own. It is this which troubles Roman Catholics most deeply. They do not want an autocratic pope who can speak and expect the whole church to bow in humble submission and admiration.
It is difficult to tell who will prevail for the present. There are enough clergy who disagree to make this issue of birth control the focal point of the struggle for authority. Some are already talking about the possibility of schism in the ranks of Roman Catholicism. But Paul is old. He may be able to close the windows in the church part way and keep out the winds of change. But others will follow. The windows will be thrown open once again. The pressures of union with Protestantism are too great from both sides to be resisted permanently.