The Vatican has dealt a blow to Catholic-Protestant relations by reaffirming its doubts about the validity of Protestant churches and by officially ordering Catholic bishops not to use the term "sister churches" in reference to them. An official "note" by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, prefect of the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, warns that describing Protestant churches as "sister churches" can cause "ambiguities."

Another document, Dominus Iesus: On the Unicity and Salvific Universality of Jesus Christ and the Church, also published today by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, declares that churches that do not have a "valid Episcopate [bishops] and the genuine and integral substance of the Eucharistic mystery are not Churches in the proper sense."

The two documents suggest a distinction between, on the one hand, the Roman and Orthodox churches which, according to Rome, are closely related, and, on the other hand, the Protestant communities. Both documents pointedly avoid using the word "church" when referring to Protestants, adopting instead the non-committal word "ecclesial communities."

Protestant churches contacted by ENI today were politely critical of the Vatican statements, although they pointed out that the documents contained nothing that had not been said before.

Cardinal Ratzinger's note on the expression "sister churches," dated June 30, 2000, was published this week by Adista, a Catholic publication in Rome. Cardinal Ratzinger has also sent a separate letter to the heads of Catholic bishops' conferences around the world warning that bishops should not use the term when speaking of "the Anglican communion and non-catholic ecclesial communities."

The cardinal's note, approved by Pope ...

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