A new accord between U.S. Catholic leaders and Reformed churches would be a “milestone in the ecumenical journey” and would aid interaction with Reformed Christians at the parish level, a bishops’ conference official has said.
The document, titled “Common Agreement on Mutual Recognition of Baptism,” is the result of six years of study and discussion between the U.S. bishops’ Committee for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs and representatives from the Presbyterian Church-USA, the Reformed Church in America, the Christian Reformed Church, and the United Church of Christ.
The U.S. bishops will vote on the accord and on an accompanying statement at their fall assembly Nov. 15-18.
Fr. Leo Walsh, associate director at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ (USCCB) Secretariat for Ecumenical and Inter-religious Affairs, explained the proposed accord in a Nov. 12 e-mail to CNA.
He explained that the accord would foster awareness of Baptism as the basis for “the real but imperfect communion that exists among Christ’s followers.” It would also prohibit the use of “innovative” liturgical formulas.
Key to the agreement is its provision that baptisms are valid only when performed with “flowing water,” with the right intention of the Church, and “in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”
Mutually recognizing Baptism as “the gateway to eternal life” would advance Christian unity in obedience to Jesus’ prayer that “all may be one,” Fr. Walsh added.
He noted that similar agreements are in place between Catholic bishops' conferences and their ecumenical partners in Australia, Brazil, The Netherlands, Germany, Poland and Slovakia.
For Catholic parish life, the accord would be advantageous in cases where someone baptized in the Reformed traditions wishes to enter full communion with the Catholic Church or wishes to marry a Catholic. Less frequently, the accord would assist cases when a Reformed Christian applies for an annulment.
In these cases, canon law requires verification that the person involved was validly baptized in a manner that the Catholic Church recognizes as valid. If the accord is passed, the validity of these baptisms could be presumed.
Fr. Walsh said that after the agreement takes effect the Catholic and Reformed partners will use common wording in certificates for baptisms they perform.
Asked to explain the different churches’ understanding of Baptism, he said that the commonalities are “much more numerous” than the differences. Both Catholic and Reformed traditions believe that baptism makes someone a part of the body of Christ, the Church, and establishes “a bond of unity” among all Christians.
Baptism is “the sacramental gateway” into the Christian life and should be conferred only once. Both traditions affirm that Baptism is a sacrament of the church done in obedience to Christ’s words.
The differences between the churches are primarily “ecclesiological,” he said. This means they involve the nature of the universal Church and how the Church is expressed locally.
Members of the dialogue took seriously the Vatican’s concern that a Baptism by sprinkling water on several people at once risked being invalid.
“A thorough discussion and review of the baptismal rites of our Reformed partners affirmed that the form and matter used in their rites are sufficient to be recognized as valid by the Catholic Church,” Fr. Walsh reported.
According to the U.S. bishops’ conference, in 2002 the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity urged national bishops’ conferences to examine Christians’ mutual understanding of Baptism. Concerns included baptismal practices conducted by sprinkling or in the name of the “Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier.”
The bishops' conference said the proposed accord is “unprecedented” for the Catholic Church in the U.S.