Vatican Reaffirms Catholic Primary

By Phil Stewart
Tuesday, July 10, 2007

VATICAN CITY, July 10 -- The Vatican said Tuesday that Christian denominations outside the Roman Catholic Church were not full churches of Jesus Christ. Some Protestant leaders responded that this would hurt interdenominational dialogue.

A 16-page document prepared by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which Pope Benedict XVI headed when he was a cardinal, described Christian Orthodox churches as true churches, but suffering from a "wound" because they do not recognize the primacy of the pope.

The document said the "wound is still more profound" in the Protestant denominations. "Despite the fact that this teaching has created no little distress . . . it is nevertheless difficult to see how the title of 'Church' could possibly be attributed to them," it said.

In five questions and answers issued with the document, the Vatican stated that "these separated churches and Communities, though we believe they suffer from defects, are deprived neither of significance nor importance in the mystery of salvation.

"In fact the Spirit of Christ has not refrained from using them as instruments of salvation, whose value derives from that fullness of grace and of truth which has been entrusted to the Catholic Church."

The document, which restates the controversial document "Dominus Iesus" issued in 2000, said the Church wanted to stress these points because some Catholic theologians continued to misunderstand them.

The document is Benedict's second strong reaffirmation of Catholic tradition in four days, following a decree on Saturday restoring the Tridentine Mass, or old Latin Mass, alongside the modern liturgy.

The Rev. Augustine Di Noia, undersecretary for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, said the document did not alter the Vatican's commitment to ecumenical dialogue but was aimed at asserting Catholic identity in those talks.

"As you know," he told Vatican Radio, "it is fundamental to any kind of dialogue that the participants are clear about their own identity. That is, dialogue cannot be an occasion to accommodate or soften what you actually understand yourself to be."

Bishop Wolfgang Huber, head of the Evangelical Church in Germany, a Protestant umbrella group, said the new Vatican document effectively downgraded Protestant churches and would make ecumenical relations more difficult. He said the new pronouncement repeated the "offensive statements" of the 2000 document.

Bishop C. Christopher Epting, in charge of ecumenical and interfaith relations for the U.S. Episcopal Church, said: "For us as Anglicans I don't believe it's any different. It's what they've said before. We've been in this dialogue for 40 years, but we continue to stay at the table and disagree with that position."

A statement from the French Protestant Federation said that while the document was an internal pronouncement of the Catholic Church, it would have "external repercussions."

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