Pope says Protestants not churches 'in the proper sense'

Pope says Protestants not churches 'in the proper sense'

July 10, 2007
Written by Bennett Guess

VATICAN CITY -- The Vatican on July 10 reasserted the primacy of the Roman Catholic Church, calling other Christian churches defective and saying Protestant denominations are not even churches "in the proper sense."

The statement, which was "ratified and confirmed" by Pope Benedict XVI and published with his approval, reiterates some of the most controversial ideas in a 2000 Vatican declaration published under Benedict's authority when he was still Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger.

Tuesday's four-page document purports to correct "erroneous interpretation" and "misunderstanding" of the teachings of the Second Vatican Council of the 1960s, which paved the way for ecumenical dialogue between Catholics and other Christian churches.

The new document said Vatican II "neither changed nor intended to change" the teaching that the "one Church of Christ ... subsists in the Catholic Church" alone. Other Christian denominations, it argues, can also be "instruments of salvation," but "suffer from defects" insofar as they depart from Catholicism.

Eastern Orthodox churches, though lacking communion with Rome, nonetheless deserve the term "Church" because their priests follow in the succession of bishops and priests that started in the early church, the document explains.

Protestant denominations, however, "because of the absence of the sacramental priesthood, have not preserved the genuine and integral substance of the Eucharistic Mystery," and are therefore to be termed mere "Christian Communities."

Tuesday's document breaks little new ground but is likely to open old wounds from Dominus Iesus, the 2000 document produced by Ratzinger, which said non-Christians are in a "gravely deficient situation" on the question of salvation and that Catholics alone have "the fullness of the means of salvation." It, too, said Protestant churches suffer "defects."

One ecumenical scholar suggested the document is a piece of historical revisionism.

"From a careful reading of the documents of Vatican II, it is clear that the Roman Catholic Church wished to affirm the ecclesial reality of the Protestant churches," said the Rev. Vincent Cushing, former president of Washington Theological Union.

Cushing sees Tuesday's statement as part of a trend that has marked Benedict's papacy in which Vatican officials reinterpret the teachings of Vatican II as merely the reassertion of traditional doctrines, not something new.

The document will have a damaging effect on relations with other churches, Cushing believes, much like Dominus Iesus angered many Protestants in 2000.

"We're like a dysfunctional family sometimes. We keep going back to the same old argument and effectively insult our Protestant brothers and sisters," he said.

Georges Lemopoulos, deputy general secretary of the World Council of Churches, on Tuesday reiterated a WCC statement from 2006 that said no church is "simply a part of" nor "the whole of" the universal Christian church.

The Rev. Mark Hanson, the presiding bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and president of the Lutheran World Federation, was studying the Vatican statement and preparing a statement, a spokesman said Tuesday.

One Protestant theologian with long ecumenical experience called the document a necessary clarification of Catholic doctrine that could actually promote communication across denominational lines.

"It's an occasion for Catholics to explain their own faith and doctrinal life to others in ways that others can understand," said Ann K. Riggs, who directs the Faith and Order Commission of the National Council of Churches.

"It's always an occasion for more dialogue, not less, to have to explain, `what do we mean by this?"

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