January 31, 2011


Julien Hammond says Catholic and United churches have an imperfect but real unity.


OTTAWA — A Catholic Church and United Church of Canada dialogue group is preparing a joint-statement on marriage, despite their churches taking opposing sides in the same-sex marriage debate.

The upcoming statement "will be an important contribution to an already ongoing conversation that necessarily involves honesty and respect," said Bede Hubbard, assistant general secretary of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Hubbard said Pope Benedict has noted that the search for Church unity must include "dialogue about what unites us as well as about what separates us."

The draft is the result of six years of focused dialogue on marriage and it could be another two years before it is made public. Hubbard said while the CCCB and United Church appointed the dialogue participants, the group does not speak in the name of the Catholic Church or the bishops.

"At the same time, the statement will be an important document for reflection by all the Catholic bishops, and will also be studied with great interest by all Catholics," he said.

Julien Hammond, ecumenical officer for the Edmonton Archdiocese and a dialogue participant, said those who read the document "will be surprised the dialoguers have so much agreement."


The churches presented "drastically different positions" before the Supreme Court of Canada in the 2004 marriage reference, Hammond said. They realized they could not talk about anything else unless they dealt with marriage.

The Catholic Church argued marriage is a social institution composed of a man and a woman in a life-long commitment that best provides for the procreation and raising of children for the greater good of society. The United Church argued that marriage should be redefined to two persons so as to include committed, life-long relationships between same-sex partners.

When the inter-church marriage dialogue began, they started with an exploration of the presentations each Church had filed with the Supreme Court.

"We realized in very short order that that was not a very helpful ecumenical approach," Hammond said.

The court presentations were set up in an adversarial system with a winners-take-all approach that was "contrary to the whole spirit of ecumenism," he said.

"We had to distance ourselves from the approach of the statements."

They decided to take a theological tack, exploring tradition, Scripture, the sociological context and "what our respective Church teachings mean for this time and place," he said.

Hammond said it has been fascinating how the two churches can look at the same verse in Genesis and arrive at different conclusions, not based on their approach to the text but on a different ecclesiological position.

"The United Church is always pushing towards a greater inclusiveness, while the Catholic Church is wanting to respect the tradition that has been handed down," he said.

The different understandings of the nature of the Church mean that while the Catholic and United churches "basically agree on the theology of marriage," they don't agree on "the people who are going to be subject to that theology."


The churches agree that marriage is a lifelong commitment involving fidelity and love, he said.

Despite the differences, they share a great deal even on something as divisive as the redefinition of marriage.

Hammond said that when Christians disagree, "it's not a time to denounce the other as less than Christian."

It's not the time "to let go of hands, but to grasp hands more tightly, even though we have those differences, and to struggle to hold to the unity we have already by virtue of our Baptism and our being members of the Body of Christ."

There is a big difference when you enter into discussions in a spirit of prayer and fellowship, immersed in a dialogue of life than when you are putting their lawyer's text against ours, he said.