In what Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory of Atlanta called “a milestone on the ecumenical journey,” the U.S. Catholic bishops affirmed an agreement to recognize baptisms in four Protestant church communities.
By a 204-11 vote Nov. 16 in Baltimore, the bishops approved the “Common Agreement on Mutual Recognition of Baptism,” which was drawn up over the past six years by a team of scholars from the Catholic-Reformed dialogue group, made up of representatives of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Christian Reformed Church in North America, Presbyterian Church (USA), Reformed Church in America and United Church of Christ.
Archbishop Gregory, chairman of the bishops’ Committee on Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs, said in a statement after the vote that the agreement “will allow Catholic ministers to presume that baptisms performed in these communities are ‘true baptism’ as understood in Catholic doctrine and law.”
“The presentation of a baptismal certificate by Reformed Christians who wish to come into full communion with the Catholic Church, or to marry a Catholic, assures Catholic ministers that the baptism performed by a Reformed minister involved the use of flowing water and the biblical invocation of God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit,” he added.
While other bishops’ conferences around the world have entered into similar agreements with Protestant communities in their regions, the document is unprecedented for the U.S. Catholic Church.
The agreement had already been ratified by the Presbyterian Church. With the USCCB approval, any baptisms performed in either Catholic or Presbyterian churches will be mutually recognized, as long as the proper formula is used and documented.
The other three Protestant communities are to consider the agreement at their national meetings in the coming months.
Calling baptism “the sacramental gateway into the Christian life,” the agreement says baptism “is to be conferred only once, because those who are baptized are decisively incorporated into the body of Christ.”
For baptisms to be mutually recognized by the five churches, the baptismal rite must use flowing water and the Trinitarian formula, “Father, Son and Holy Spirit,” the document says. It also encourages Reformed church communities to use baptismal registers, as Catholic parishes already do, and to document the liturgical formula used in the ceremony.
The agreement encourages continued dialogue between Catholic and Reformed leaders “about theology and pastoral practice from local to international settings.”
“Pastoral leaders engaged in such dialogue embody our hopes for unity, collaborative effort and common witness,” it said. “We believe that respectful dialogue can provide a strong witness to the wider church about our commitment to a relationship in Christ and can stand as a safeguard against the unreflective judgments that have, at certain times in our history, diminished and distorted our relations.”
Each church also will issue its own “reception statement,” designed to explain the new agreement to its own members.
The Catholic reception statement, also approved Nov. 16, says the common agreement “signifies a renewed dedication to theological dialogue between the Catholic Church and the historic Protestant communions.”
The common agreement on baptism was one result of the seventh round of the Catholic-Reformed dialogue that ended with a meeting in Henryville, Ind., in October.
The dialogue also produced a report on baptism, titled “These Living Waters,” and a document on the Eucharist/Lord’s Supper called “This Bread of Life.”