00.10.01 - The mother of all churches?
Summary: The Vatican published Dominus Iesus, a 36-page document which affirmed the Catholic belief that their denomination is the one true Bride of Christ.

Sometimes, stating the obvious is all it takes to get into the news.

The Roman Catholic Church received plenty of attention in the press last month when the Vatican published Dominus Iesus, a 36-page document which affirmed the uniqueness of Jesus Christ as well as the Catholic belief that their denomination is the one true Bride of Christ.

The Vatican also published a note from Cardinal John (sic) Ratzinger, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, in which he said the Catholic Church could not be put on an equal footing with other denominations. The Church in Rome is not their sister, he said, but rather, it is the mother of all the particular churches.

Many reporters zeroed in on a statement in Dominus Iesus which declared that non-Catholic churches suffer from defects. The document also claimed that, while followers of other religions may receive divine grace, they are in a gravely deficient situation, whereas Catholics have the fullness of the means of salvation.

Most non-Catholics who responded to the document admitted that there was little, if anything, new about it; it mainly repeated beliefs that the Catholic Church has always held. Even the word defects appears only in a quote taken from a document issued during the Second Vatican Council, a meeting of Catholic hierarchy in the 1960s in which the Church made significant strides towards dialogue with other faiths.

But Dominus Iesus was still criticized by church leaders who felt that its bluntness posed a threat to interdenominational relations.

George Carey, Archbishop of Canterbury and head of the Anglican Church, issued a press release criticizing the document for failing to fully reflect the deeper understanding that has been achieved through ecumenical dialogue and cooperation during the past 30 years.

Manfred Kock, chair of the Evangelical Church of Germany, said future efforts could be jeopardized if churches do not meet on equal terms.

Even some Catholics expressed disappointment. Thomas J. Reese, editor of America, told The Washington Post he was dismayed that the document made practically no reference to recent ecumenical dialogues, which have led to joint statements between the Catholic and Lutheran churches, affirming the beliefs they hold in common.

However, some say the Vatican's declaration will have little impact on the growing rapport between Catholics and other Christians. Protestant historian Martin E. Marty said that Protestants and Orthodox Christians, each of whom claim a closer bond with the early Church than the Catholics, would do little more than sulk at their next gatherings and take the Catholic teaching with larger grains of more salt than usual.

Christ's body

Archbishop Adam Exner, who oversees the Catholic Archdiocese of Vancouver, admits the document could have expressed itself in a more tactful way. However, he says the Vatican published it for two important reasons.

First, the Catholic Church has been in dialogue with the major religions of Asia for some time, and there was a growing concern that some people in that conversation, including some Asian Catholic theologians, seemed to lean too far in the direction of saying all religions are equal, he says.

Second, the Vatican was responding to the pluralistic worldview of some Catholics who are involved in interdenominational dialogue and tend to regard all branches of the Church as equally good.

That's a position that the Catholic Church has always had difficulty with, says Exner.

The archbishop says Jesus commanded the Church to be united in John 17, and he says Catholics have always believed their Church was instituted by Christ himself to be his body here on earth.

"Jesus made it clear that working towards Christian unity is not an option, it's a command," he says. "So we are reaching out to other Christians, there's no question."

However, he says the Vatican never intended to diminish the saving elements that the Church recognizes in other denominations. And indeed, Dominus Iesus specifies that non-Catholic churches share in the significance and importance in the mystery of salvation.

Clearing the air

One evangelical who applauds the Vatican's announcement is J.I. Packer, professor of theology at Regent College. Although he does not agree that the Catholic Church is uniquely privileged among the denominations, he says the declaration gives an appropriate rap on the knuckles to those Anglicans who have constantly compromised in their dialogues with Catholics.

"I am glad that Rome has come out in black and white to remind the world that, from the Catholic standpoint, all our Protestant churches lack things which by Catholic standards are essential," he says. "I am glad, frankly, that the air is being cleared by that forthright statement."

For the past six years ago, Packer has been one of the major participants in Evangelicals and Catholics Together, a movement that emphasizes points where evangelicals and Catholics share the same basic doctrine and are rooted in the historical faith.

Packer says this movement will not be affected at all by the Vatican's declaration. "We have insisted right from the start that what we are doing is based on conviction, not compromise," he says.

Absolute truth

Paradoxically, churches that adopt such firm stances may do more for Church unity than those which downplay their convictions. BC Catholic editor Paul Schratz wrote in a recent editorial that some liberal denominations, in pursuing unity at any cost, have strayed from core Christian beliefs, and may be more divisive in the long run.

Indeed, Catholics on the ground are working hand-in-hand with Christians of all stripes to affirm common essential beliefs. Catholics have been taking part in the Alpha program, a course on the basics of Christianity, for some time; and the Catholic Church sponsored the North American Catholic Alpha Conference in Burnaby this past summer.

Sally Start, national coordinator for the Alpha program in Canada, says the 1,400 delegates who attended the event were about evenly divided between Catholics and other Christians. It was truly ecumenical; it was wonderful, she says, adding that there should be about 25 to 30 Alpha courses in Catholic parishes by January of next year.

"I don't see that announcement from Rome having any impact locally, in terms of what the Lord seems to be doing at the grassroots level," she says. "One of the beauties of the Alpha course is that its very basic Christianity. It teaches the tenets of Christianity on which we are undivided."

Exner agrees. "One approach to ecumenism that I think is very helpful," he says, "is to go back to the fathers of the Church in the early centuries. That's the nucleus. That's the seedbed of the Christian Church for every denomination. Look for what was essential to the Church as it developed in those early centuries. I think there we can find some common ground."

That was the Church as it was before the divisions occurred.

This article by Peter Chattaway is from the October, 2000, edition of BC Christian News.

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