Written by Bennett Guess
For all the uproar it caused, the Vatican's recent statement affirming Catholic claims to be the continuation of the one church instituted by Christ has created little turmoil among those working for Christian unity.
Ecumenical leaders at last week's "On Being Christian Together" conference at Oberlin College in Oberlin, Ohio, said the document may help clarify the hard work ahead as talks move beyond combating prejudice and working together for social good to confronting more difficult theological differences forged over centuries.
"There's nothing new. Nobody can say there's a shocker here," said the Rev. Martin Marty, a prominent Lutheran author and religious historian from the University of Chicago. "Nobody in ecumenical work ever thought otherwise."
In the statement approved by Pope Benedict XVI, the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith restates the point it made in a 2000 document that the church established by Christ on earth "subsists in the Catholic Church, governed by the successor of Peter and the bishops in communion with him."
The document also restated Catholic teaching that other Christian churches, while significant in the mystery of salvation, suffer from defects. Reformation churches that do not have apostolic succession back to Peter are considered Christian communities rather than churches, according to Catholic doctrine.
While the content did not surprise Protestant leaders, the tone and emphasis did create some anger and resentment.
"There's a certain sense he says, `We are church, and you are playing church,' " Marty said.
But Marty and others also realize the document was intended for internal use within the Catholic Church.
Brother Jeffrey Gros, professor of ecumenical and historical theology at Memphis Theological Seminary, said the pope was attempting to reject the perception that it does not matter which church a person belongs to and to assure Catholics the church is not rejecting its claims to theological truth.
The pope's message, Gros said, was, "We bring our convictions to the table, and we don't compromise."
What the pope does not say is that there is no salvation outside the Roman Catholic Church, said the Rev. Thomas Reese of Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.
"When you get rid of all the double negatives, the document says that the non-Catholic churches and communities are significant and important to the mystery of salvation, and the spirit of Christ uses them as instruments of salvation," Reese said in a statement.
Ann Riggs, associate general secretary for faith and order for the National Council of Churches, called the Vatican document an opportunity for hope.
"This reaffirms that the ecumenical nature and purpose of the Second Vatican Council is still very much alive," she said in a statement.
Yet the remarks also led some at the Oberlin conference, sponsored by the Faith and Order Commission of the National Council of Churches, to speak of new ways to approach ecumenical dialogue.
Catholic Cardinal Avery Dulles, a professor of religion and society at Fordham University in New York City, said instead of making the goal agreement on doctrine, each participating Christian group should share its distinctive heritage, finding unity in diversity.
"Far from being ashamed of their own distinctive doctrines and practices, each partner should feel privileged to be able to contribute something positive that others still lack," he said. "By accommodating what other communities are trying to tell us, we may be enriched with new and precious gifts. By accepting the full riches of Christ, we lose nothing, except our errors and defects."
Being open to both appreciating the faith of other Christians and being willing to correct one's own faults is in the spirit of the Vatican II declaration that in the ecumenical movement, "all are led to examine their own faithfulness to Christ's will for the church and accordingly to undertake with vigor the task of renewal and reform."
In other words, Gros said, "We dare not lose any of the gifts God has given us in our separation."
David Briggs writes for The Plain Dealer in Cleveland.