Vatican actions worry some in other faith traditions

Times Staff Writer

Twice in the last week, Pope Benedict XVI acted to clarify what he described as mistaken interpretations of the Second Vatican Council, the landmark conference in the 1960s that modernized the Roman Catholic Church.

But those actions, which were cheered by Catholic traditionalists, have raised concerns among leaders of other religious traditions that the pope could be taking the church in a more conservative direction, and away from a period of more open dialogue with other faiths.

In a document approved by the pope and released Tuesday, the Vatican reasserted its position that Roman Catholicism provides the only true path to salvation and that other Christian denominations suffer from “defects,” or are not true churches.


The statement, which was released as the pope began his summer holiday, repeated many of the controversial elements of a document issued in 2000 by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican body that enforces doctrine. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, as he was known before being elected pope in 2005, led that panel for more than two decades and signed the document.

The new statement, using similar language to the old, said that in the Catholic Church “alone are found all the elements that Christ himself instituted.” It explored the Vatican view of what constitutes a church, which it defined as reliant on apostolic succession -- meaning that its bishops are an unbroken chain of successors to Christ’s original apostles.

Orthodox churches, the document said, could properly be called churches because although they are “separated” from the Catholic tradition, they rely on apostolic succession and “numerous elements of sanctification and of truth.” Still, the document said, “these venerable Christian communities lack something in their condition as particular churches.”

The document also stated that Protestant churches, which split from Catholicism during the Reformation of the 16th century, “cannot, according to Catholic doctrine, be called ‘churches’ in the proper sense,” but instead should be considered Christian “communities.”

Although Catholicism offers the only valid path to salvation, the document said, other beliefs can be “instruments” to help achieve salvation.

“These separated churches and communities, though we believe they suffer from defects, are deprived neither of significance nor importance in the mystery of salvation,” it said. “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 was signed by Cardinal William J. Levada, the former archbishop of San Francisco, who was appointed by Benedict as his successor in doctrinal matters.

Despite its strong language, the document emphasized that the Vatican remained committed to ecumenical dialogue. Even so, it was immediately criticized by many Protestant leaders.

“It makes us question whether we are indeed praying together for Christian unity,” the World Alliance of Reformed churches said in a letter to the Vatican released Tuesday.

The fellowship, which represents 75 million Protestants in more than 100 countries, said the Vatican document could return ecumenical dialogue to a time before the modernizing influence of the Second Vatican Council, a three-year conference that ended in 1965.

“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,” the group wrote.

The Rev. Mark S. Hanson, presiding bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, said that he found the Vatican document “troubling,” but that his church would remain committed to ecumenical dialogue. Nonetheless, the response of Christians around the world to the latest document demonstrated that “what may have been meant to clarify has caused pain,” he said in a statement.

Others said the document should not have been a surprise.

“This doesn’t change anything for us and is certainly nothing new for the Roman Catholic Church,” said Bishop Christopher Epting, ecumenical officer for the Episcopal Church. Episcopalians “believe that we are a ‘church’ in every sense of the word,” he said.

A leader of the Orthodox Church in America said that although the Vatican’s language might have been painfully direct, it was honest in its view of existing divisions among Christian denominations.

The Rev. Leonid Kishkovsky, who is active in interfaith efforts as his church’s ecumenical officer, said it was important in such collaborations to be straightforward and clear about one’s own beliefs.

“The abstention of holding to your core faith commitments I don’t take as being either ecumenical or helpful in interfaith dialogues,” he said.

He said the document probably would have no effect on what he described as a very productive dialogue between the Orthodox and Catholic churches, either in the U.S. or internationally. During a visit to Turkey in November, the pope joined the spiritual leader of the world’s Eastern Orthodox Christians for prayer and blessings, an effort to bridge the 1,000-year-old rift between Catholics and the Orthodox.

Several scholars said it was not clear why the statement was released now, especially since the 2000 document, “Dominus Iesus,” covered many of the same points.

“It’s puzzling to me,” said Joseph Prabhu, a professor of philosophy and religion at Cal State L.A. who is active in local interfaith discussions.

“I just find it difficult to understand, and I’m saddened more than anything else,” said Prabhu, who is Catholic.

The stated purpose of the latest document was a “clarification” of church doctrine after disagreements among Catholics in the years since the Second Vatican Council. The new document asserted, as Benedict has previously, that contrary to the views of some Catholics, the conference had not fundamentally changed church doctrine.

The pope made a similar argument a week ago in a long-awaited decree easing restrictions on use of the old Latin Mass, which has been largely supplanted by services in local languages. Critics said the decision has raised questions about the pope’s commitment to changes made during the council.

It also angered Jewish groups, because the old service contains a passage calling for the conversion of the Jews, but several scholars and Jewish leaders said this week that the language of the decree was confusing on that point.

They said it was unclear whether the passage, which is contained only in the rite’s Good Friday prayers, would actually be used. The American Jewish Committee and the International Jewish Committee for Interreligious Consultations have asked the Vatican for clarification on the issue.