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 John Paul on June 9, is "to be held as authoritative and binding," according to Cardinal Ratzinger's letter to the bishops' conferences. The four-page note gives a detailed history of the use of the term "sister churches," explaining that it was used in reference to the Orthodox churches with which Rome was in communion for many centuries. However, even on this point, Cardinal Ratzinger claims Rome's superiority to other churches, stating: "In this connection, it needs to be noted that no Roman Pontiff ever recognized this equalization of sees or accepted that only a primacy of honor be accorded to the See of Rome"—meaning that Rome has superior authority.

Cardinal Ratzinger adds that in modern times, the expression "sister churches" was used by the late Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, Athenagoras I (patriarch from 1948 to 1972), who "often expressed the hope of seeing the unity between the sister churches re-established in the near future." Pope Paul VI and Pope John Paul II have also used the expression in reference to Orthodoxy, the note adds.

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But the cardinal adds: "It must always be clear, when the expression 'sister churches' is used in this proper sense, that the one, holy, Catholic and apostolic Universal Church is not sister but 'mother' of all the particular Churches." He also states that "one cannot properly say that the Catholic Church is the sister of a particular church or group of churches. This is not merely a question of terminology, but above all of respecting a basic truth of the Catholic faith: that of the unicity of the Church of Jesus Christ. In fact, there is but a single Church, and therefore the plural term churches can refer only to particular churches."

The cardinal's note ends with a warning: "The expression 'sister churches' in the proper sense, as attested by the common tradition of East and West, may only be used for those ecclesial communities that have preserved a valid episcopate and Eucharist."

The other declaration published today—Dominus Iesus—is largely a reprimand of Catholic theologians who "have argued that all religions may be equally valid ways of salvation." According to the declaration, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith is concerned about "the rapid spread of the relativistic and pluralistic mentality" among theologians. It points out that Catholics must "firmly believe" in the "unicity" (unique nature) of the Catholic Church and "in an historical continuity between the church founded by Christ and the Catholic Church." The declaration adds further that while there can be "many elements of sanctification and truth" in other churches and ecclesial communities, "they derive their efficacy from the very fullness of grace and truth entrusted to the Catholic Church."

According to one leading Italian newspaper, La Stampa, of Turin, the note from Cardinal Ratzinger means that "the churches born of the Protestant Reformation are automatically excluded from the list of 'sister churches'."

The Repubblica newspaper in Rome states: "With this definition, the Reformed and Lutheran churches are reduced to a lower level. To say this, half a century after the Second Vatican Council, is a step backwards."

In Geneva Paraic Reamonn, press officer for the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, which has 215 Protestant churches as members, told ENI: "Vatican II's statement that the one church of Jesus Christ 'subsists' in the Roman Catholic Church was widely recognized as opening up an ecumenically important distinction between the Christian church and the Church of Rome. Dominus Iesus is part of a sustained effort by Catholic conservatives to deny this, and to return to what is, even in Catholic terms, an over-simple identification of the two. Again, Cardinal Ratzinger's denial that the relationship of the Roman Catholic Church with Orthodox churches is a relationship 'between sister churches' is hard to reconcile with papal statements, even by the present Pope, that his note itself quotes."

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It is not easy to see how these documents are consistent with the letter of Vatican II or with subsequent ecumenical progress. They are certainly not consistent with the spirit of Vatican II, and will cause widespread irritation among Catholics."

The world's leading ecumenical organization, the World Council of Churches (WCC), also based in Geneva, reacted to Dominus Iesus by affirming in a statement "the importance of genuine ecumenical dialogue, and of common Christian witness on the problems facing the world today."

Dr Tom Best, a theologian and WCC staff member, said in the WCC statement: "All churches have gained enormously from the recent entry—through the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s—of the Roman Catholic Church into the ecumenical movement. Within the framework of the WCC, and in the wider ecumenical movement, many sensitive conversations are underway about the relationships of the churches to one another. What a loss if these were hindered—or even damaged—by language which precludes further discussion of the issues. In addition, one would hope for an acknowledgement of the many positive developments in common Christian confession, witness and service which have happened within the ecumenical movement over the past 100 years."

In London the Archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey, leader of the world-wide Anglican Communion, said in a statement about today's declaration that his communion "does not for one moment" accept that its ministerial orders and Eucharist are deficient. Dr Carey pledged to continue improving relations with Roman Catholics.

The statement also pointed out that a meeting in Toronto, Canada, earlier this year between senior bishops of both churches, headed by Dr Carey and Cardinal Edward Cassidy, the Vatican's specialist in ecumenical affairs, had produced "striking advances" over a range of issues and had proposed the establishment of a Joint Unity Commission to carry matters forward."

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By restating the long-held view of the Roman Catholic Church on the position of other Christian churches, this document breaks no new ground," Archbishop Carey said. "But neither does it fully reflect the deeper understanding that has been achieved through ecumenical dialogue and co-operation during the past 30 years."

The idea that Anglican and other churches are not 'proper churches' seems to question the considerable ecumenical gains we have made."

Arun Kataria, Archbishop Carey's spokesman, told ENI: "Dominus Iesus is not part of the ecumenical dialogue. The Canadian meeting earlier this year was very productive. As far as we're concerned, it's business as usual."

John Wilkins, editor of the Tablet, an influential Catholic newspaper published in London, described the declaration as "very, very backwards … enormously negative." He said of relations between the churches: "It [the declaration] sees the glass as half-empty, yet since Vatican II we have looked at the glass as half-full."

At least the declaration would challenge liberal Catholic theologians to "use their creativity to get round it," which might lead to firmer ground than existed before it was published.

Wilkins told ENI he believed the Roman Catholic commitment to ecumenism was irreversible, but he acknowledged that the Pope must also have been involved in Dominus Iesus: "He can't have ignored this document."

In Hanover, Germany, Manfred Kock, the council president of the Evangelical Church in Germany (EKD), the country's main Protestant body, described the "signs from Rome" as "a strengthening of the traditional self-image of the Roman Catholic Church and a set-back for ecumenical co-operation."

Dominus Iesus meant, Kock said, that in Rome's view the churches of the Reformation were at the "lowest level of the order of ecclesiastical precedence," and that Rome had rejected the principle of equal treatment "with a clarity that leaves no room for doubt."

Despite this, he added: "The future of the church will be an ecumenical one as promised by Jesus Christ and as required for the witness and service of the church in Germany and in other places. We cannot let ourselves be put off by the Congregation for Doctrine of the Faith."

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Related Elsewhere

More on the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith is available at the Vatican's Web site.

Read Dominus Iesus, a declaration reiterating Catholic teachings on the uniqueness of the church.

Read the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification, signed by Catholics and Lutherans in October 1999.

Recent stories about the Vatican's declaration from other media sources include:

Vatican Rejects Equality of Religions | Associated Press (Sept. 5, 2000)
Vatican Declaration Provokes Churches | BBC (Sept. 5, 2000)
Carey Dismisses Vatican Attack on 'Deficient' Faiths | The Telegraph (Sept. 5, 2000)
'Defective Churches' Storm Brewing | The Irish Independent (Sept. 5, 2000)
Churches Stunned by Pope's Attack on 'Defects' | The Times (Sept.4, 2000)

Previous Christianity Today articles about Catholics and evangelicals include:

Pope and LWF President Praise Agreement between Catholics and Lutherans | Work toward Eucharistic sharing next, say Leaders (December 13, 1999)
Lutherans and Catholics Sign Declaration on Justification | Milestone in reconciling two divergent doctrines. (October 25, 1999)
Lutherans and Catholics Step Closer | Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification. (Aug. 8, 1998)
Evangelicals, Catholics issue Salvation Accord | The gift of salvation defined. (Jan. 12, 1998)
Evangelicals and Catholics Together—Improved | A remarkable statement on what we mean by the gospel. (Dec. 8, 1997)

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