Mandate of the Bishop’s Committee For Ecumenical And Interreligious Affairs

Approved by the Bishops November 1968

The Bishops’ Committee for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs is a commission of bishops assisted by experts for ecumenical affairs established by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. This committee is the territorial commission for ecumenical matters in the United States in accord with the directives set forth is the Directory for the Application of the Decisions of the Second Ecumenical Council to the Vatican Concerning Ecumenical Matters (Nn. 7, 8 & 6) promulgated by His Holiness, Pope Paul VI on May 14, 1967, Pentecost Sunday.

The Bishops’ Committee for Ecumenical And Interreligious Affairs has a mandate from the USCCB to give guidance in ecumenical and interreligious affairs and determine concrete ways of acting in accordance with the Decree on Ecumenism and on Non-Christian Religious of the Second Ecumenical Council of the Vatican and with other ordinances and legitimate customs, taking account of the time, place and persons they are concerned with but also of the good of the universal Church.

This Committee is assisted by a permanent secretariat.

The function of this Committee in its work of fostering Christian Unity include the following:

  • putting into practice the rules and instructions issued by the Apostolic See in these matters;

  • giving advice and assistance to Bishops who are setting up an ecumenical commission in their own dioceses;

  • giving spiritual and material help where possible to both existing ecumenical institutions and to ecumenical enterprises to be promoted either in the field of instruction and research or in that of pastoral care and the promotion of Christian life according to the principles set out in the Decree on Ecumenism (Nn. 9 to 11);

  • establishing dialogue and consultation with the leaders and with the ecumenical councils of the other Churches and Communities which exist on a national or territorial (as distinct from diocesan) scale;

  • appointing those experts who, by a public mandate of the Church are designated for the conversations and consultations with experts of the Communities referred to under (d) above;

  • furthering in an appropriate manner special ecumenical relations with the Easterns;

  • maintaining relations between the USCCB and the Holy See with regard to ecumenical matters;

  • fostering spiritual ecumenism according to the principles laid down in the Decree on Ecumenism (see especially n. 8) about public and private prayer for the unity of Christians;

  • promoting friendliness, cooperation and charity between Catholics and their brothers and sisters who are not in full communion;

  • initiating and guiding full dialogue with them, bearing in mind the adaptation to be made to the types of participants according to nn. 9 and 11 of the Decree on ecumenism;

  • promoting in common those not in full communion joint witness to the Christian faith as well as cooperation in such areas as, e.g., education, morality, social and cultural matters, learning and the arts: (cf. Decree on Ecumenism n. 12, also the Decree Ad Gentes n. 15);

  • offering help and encouragement for the instruction and education to be given to clergy and laity and for conducting one’s life in an ecumenical spirit, with special emphasis being given to preparing seminary students, or preaching, catechetics and other kinds of teaching dealt with in the Decree on Ecumenism no. 10;

  • maintaining relations with the diocesan ecumenical commissions, receiving their advice and suggestions, and in addition, when circumstances suggest, sending useful information to the Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity in Rome, which can help the latter in carrying on its own work;

  • maintaining liaison with the other territorial commissions of the hemisphere (Canadian Catholic Conference and CELAM).

In addition to its work for Christian Unity, the Bishops’ Committee for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs shall actively seek ways to foster through dialogue and other forms of cooperation the relations of the Catholic Church in the United States with the Jewish community in this country, with the people of the non-Christian religions and with the secularist world. In carrying out these activities the Committee will maintain liaison with the Secretary for Catholic-Jewish Relations at the Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity, with the Secretariat for Non-Christian Religions and the Secretariat for Non-believers, as well as other competent bodies established by the Holy See.

Historical Note

Meeting in Rome during the third session of the II Vatican Council, the bishops of the United States established their Commission for Ecumenical Affairs, as it was originally called. Anticipating the ecumenical developments that would follow upon the actions of the Council, in April 1964 the Administrative Board of the Bishops' Conference appointed a special ad hoc committee under the chairmanship of Albert Cardinal Meyer to investigate the potential tasks and responsibilities the conference and the bishops would be facing in the ecumenical field and how a commission dedicated to this work might assist them.

The following November the full body of bishops voted approval of a mandate entrusted to this new commission which at that time consisted of seven bishop members with Lawrence Cardinal Shehan as its first chairman. Among the tasks originally set before it were these: the preparation of suggested guidelines for common prayer and worship, the establishment of eight subcommissions to explore the possibilities of formal conversation and exchange with Orthodox, Protestant and Jewish bodies, endorsement of national workshops for those entrusted with ecumenical responsibilities by their dioceses, approval of similar workshops for representatives of the nation's seminaries, exploring the establishment of an Inter-Confessional Institute for Ecumenical Research, and enlistment of experts to assist the bishops in ecumenical endeavors.

With then Monsignor (now Cardinal) William W. Baum S.T.D. as its first executive director, the staff office of the Commission opened on January 7, 1965 at the headquarters of the National Catholic Welfare Conference in Washington, D.C. In November 1966 the Rev. John F. Hotchkin was named its assistant executive director, and the following June the Rev. Edward H. Flannery was named its executive secretary for Catholic - Jewish relations. Monsignor Baum concluded his service as executive director in mid-1967 and was succeeded in 1968 by then Monsignor (now Cardinal) Bernard F. Law, who served in that capacity until 1971. He was succeeded by Fr. Hotchkin who served as executive director until his death in 2001.

The Commission met for the first time on March 10, 1965 in Washington, D.C. Quickly it was joined by a number of counterpart agencies in the establishment of dialogue commissions and working groups. The U.S.A. Committee of the Lutheran World Federation helped establish the Lutheran - Catholic Dialogue which first met on March 16, 1965 in Baltimore. This was followed by the Anglican - Roman Catholic Consultation in the U.S.A. cosponsored with the Standing Commission on Ecumenical Relations of the Episcopal Church, beginning its work on June 22, 1965 in Washington.

Then came the Roman Catholic / Presbyterian and Reformed Theological Consultation, organized with the help of the North American Area Council of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches. It convened its opening session on July 27, 1965, also in Washington. Shortly thereafter the Standing Conference of Canonical Orthodox Bishops of America joined in cosponsoring the Orthodox - Catholic Consultation which began its preliminary discussions on September 9, 1965 in New York.

Subsequent years saw the number of these bilateral consultations expand. The Board of Global Ministries of the Methodist Church (later the United Methodist Church) joined in establishing the Methodist - Catholic Dialogue which held its first session on June 28, 1966 in Chicago. The Council on Christian Unity of the Christian Church, Disciples of Christ joined in the inauguration of the Roman Catholic - Disciples of Christ Dialogue on March 16, 1967 in Indianapolis. Consultations with the (then named) American Baptist Convention began on April 3, 1967 in DeWitt, cosponsored by its Division of Co-operative Christianity. On May 8, 1967 in Winston-Salem conversations with Southern Baptists opened under the aegis of the Ecumenical Institute at Wake Forest University, later to be taken up by the Department of Interfaith Witness of the Southern Baptist Convention Home Mission Board. The Oriental Orthodox - Roman Catholic Consultation was co-sponsored by the Standing Conference of Oriental Orthodox Churches in America, including the Armenian Apostolic, Coptic, Ethiopian, Syrian Orthodox and Malankara Syrian Orthodox Churches. It initiated its regular meetings on January 27, 1978 in New York. The Polish National Catholic - Roman Catholic Dialogue had its beginning on October 23, 1984 in Passaic.

While these bilateral exchanges were developing the Commission for Ecumenical Affairs established early contact with the Division of Christian Unity of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A. and with it established a Joint Working Group in May 1966. Contacts were also quickly made with the Commission on Faith and Order of the National Council and in 1969 Roman Catholics became full members of that body which brings together experts from a large number of churches for study and discussion of questions related to church order and teachings. Also the Commission took over from the Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity in Rome the naming of observers and consultants to the meetings of the Consultation on Church Union and the U.S. Conference of the World Council of Churches.

The American Baptist - Roman Catholic Consultation ended in 1971. The Joint Working Group with the National Council of Churches and its successor, the Study Committee on the Relationship of the NCC and the RCC, completed work in 1971 with a "Report on Possible Roman Catholic Membership in the National Council of Churches." All other bilateral consultations and Catholic participation in the work of the Faith and Order Commission continue. In 1981 Catholic sponsorship of the Disciples of Christ- Roman Catholic Dialogue was taken up by the Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity, Rome. In 1987 the U. S. member churches of the Lutheran World Federation joined to form the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America which then assumed Lutheran sponsorship of the Lutheran - Catholic Dialogue. In 1997 the Canadian Catholic Conference joined in sponsorship of the North American Orthodox-Catholic Theological Consultation.

In November 1966 the National Conference of Catholic Bishops expanded the mandate and changed the name of the commission to the Bishops' Committee for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs, often known by its acronym: BCEIA. The new name not only reflected the activities undertaken in conjunction with the American Jewish Committee, the American Jewish Congress, the Anti-Defamation League and later with the Synagogue Council of America, it also reflected the fact that the Committee was now entrusted with the task of fostering contacts and relationships with the Muslims and other major religious communities in the U.S. Over the years ahead the Committee developed relationships and joint projects with the American Muslim Council, the Islamic Society of North America, the Islamic Circle of North America, Imam W. D. Mohammed's Muslim American Society, the Buddhist Sangha Council of Southern California and others. Also in 1966 the committee was asked to pursue contact with the world of secular humanist thought. Bishops were named as moderators of each of these three dimensions of the Committee's work in addition to its activity in pursuit of greater unity among Christian churches. The Committee was asked to serve as liaison for the Conference with the Rome offices of the Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity, the Secretariat for Non-Christian Religions and the Secretariat for Non-believers. Subsequent experience proved that this mandate was too broad to be pursued effectively by a single committee, and so in November 1974 the NCCB again revised the Committee's mandate, removing from it the task of building relations with the world of "non-belief" (which in this case included contact with the world of the positive sciences) and entrusted that to a newly formed Bishops' Committee for Human Values, later renamed the Bishops' Committee for Science and Human Values.

From 1987, the amount of work in interreligious relations increased significantly with the hiring of staff especially oriented for that work. By 1999, three “regional” dialogues with Muslims, each with a Catholic bishop co-chairman, were meeting annually and staff was participating in several other projects with Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists. An official regional dialogue with Ch’an Zen Buddhism on the West Coat completed its first quadrennium in 2006 and will continue to meet annually. With an increasing amount of time needed for interreligious relations on the BCEIA’s agenda for the semi-annual meetings, the committee chairman in 2000 decided to appoint a Subcommittee on Interreligious Dialogue, which continues to meet annually. The Subcommittee chairman reports to the BCEIA. Beginning in 2003, the Subcommittee sponsored a series of institutes for bishops on interreligious relations, focusing initially on Islam and Catholic-Muslim relations. The Committee also has a relationship with the Interfaith Relations Commission of the National Council of Churches of the USA.

The bishops who have served as chairmen of the BCEIA are:

Lawrence Cardinal Shehan (1964-65), John Cardinal Carberry (1965-69), Bishop Charles H. Helmsing (1969-72), William Cardinal Baum (1972-75), Bernard Cardinal Law (1975-78), Bishop Ernest L. Unterkoefler (1978-81), Archbishop John F. Whealon (1981-84), William Cardinal Keeler (1984-87), James Francis Cardinal Stafford (1987-90), Archbishop Rembert G. Weakland, O.S.B. (1990-93), Archbishop Oscar H. Lipscomb (1993-96), Archbishop Alexander J. Brunett (1996-99), Bishop Tod D. Brown (1999-2002), Bishop Stephen E. Blaire (2002-2005), and Bishop Richard J. Sklba (2005-present). There are now twenty-five bishops serving as members and consultants to the BCEIA. They are joined by over ninety Catholic theologians and other experts participating in the ongoing dialogues and consultations in which the Committee is currently engaged. Rev. James Massa, Ph.D., is Executive Director of the Committee’s Secretariat. The Associate Directors are Eugene Fisher Ph.D., Rev. Ronald G. Roberson CSP, S.E.O.D., and Rev. Francis V. Tiso, Ph.D.