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Drawing distinctions

Religion | Benedict ruffles feathers by reasserting Roman Catholic claims

Issue: "Big bucks ministries," July 28, 2007

When the Vatican released a statement on July 10 that the Roman Catholic Church is the only valid church, it made some Protestant ecumenists reach for their antacid tablets, but left many evangelicals yawning. After all, this was nothing new; hadn't the Catholic Church always held this position?

Pope Benedict approved the short document and signed off on its release. It was drawn up by the Vatican's doctrinal watchdog agency, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which he formerly headed as Cardinal Ratzinger. It was billed as "responses to some questions" that grew out of "false interpretations" of the Second Vatican Council's reforms of the 1960s regarding the doctrine of the church. It largely repeated "with clarity" what the same agency had said in 2000.

It made five main points:

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(1) Vatican II did not change Catholic teaching about the church. "What was, still is."

(2) The one Church of Christ, with all its historic and permanent elements, "subsists" only in the Catholic Church. However, in a nod to non-Catholics, it said "the Church of Christ is present and operative in the churches and ecclesial communities not yet fully in communion with the Catholic Church, on account of the elements of sanctification and truth that are present in them."

(3) These "separated churches and communities, though we believe they suffer from defects, are deprived neither of significance nor importance in the mystery of salvation," and God has used them as "instruments of salvation."

(4) The Orthodox churches share the same historic background and apostolic succession to qualify as real churches, but "lack something"-allegiance to the head of the Church, the Bishop of Rome and successor to Peter.

(5) Because the Christian "communities" born out of the Reformation of the 16th century lack apostolic succession and "sacramental priesthood," they cannot be considered "churches" in "the proper sense."

Vatican II opened the way for more dialogue on unity between some Protestant leaders and Catholic officials. Such ongoing talks have led to general agreement on some doctrinal issues. For example, the Lutheran World Federation (LWF) and the Vatican in 1999 signed a historic affirmation of common understanding about salvation.

But the latest "clarification" and timing of its release disturbed some ecumenical leaders. Setri Nyomi, an evangelical Presbyterian minister from Ghana who serves as general secretary of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, with 75 million members worldwide, said: "It makes us question the seriousness with which the Roman Catholic Church takes its dialogues with the Reformed family and other families of the church."

Some others took a more relaxed view. Presiding bishop Mark Hanson of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), who also is president of the LWF, representing 66 million Lutherans worldwide, acknowledged the Vatican's "exclusive claims" are "troubling" and caused "pain." But, he added, it won't alter the ELCA's commitment to ecumenism and ongoing discussions with Catholic leaders.

But evangelical stalwart Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Seminary, declared he was not "offended" by the statement: The Vatican was simply reaffirming historic Catholic teaching and emphasizing the seriousness of it all.

"I appreciate the document's clarity [and] the spiritual concern it reflects," he said. "If [Pope Benedict] is right, we are endangering our souls and the souls of our church members. Of course, I am convinced that he is not right-not right on the papacy, not right on the sacraments, not right on the priesthood, not right on the gospel, not right on the church."

He added: "Evangelicals should be concerned that Catholics are in spiritual danger for their submission to these very claims. We both understand what is at stake."

Edward E. Plowman
Edward E. Plowman

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