A week after publishing a document which casts doubt on the validity of Protestant Christianity and asserts Roman Catholic superiority over all other churches, the Vatican continues to draw criticism both from other churches and from within its own ranks.

The general secretaries of two organizations representing major wings of Protestantism have publicly lamented the harm done to ecumenism by Dominus Iesus, on the Unicity and Salvific Universality of Jesus Christ and the Church, published on September 5 by the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. The document 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". Another document from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith published in an Italian magazine this month orders Catholic bishops not to use the term "sister church" in reference to Protestant churches. This too has also caused dismay in ecumenical circles.

Although many theologians pointed out that there is nothing new in the Vatican documents, the reaffirmation that the Vatican does not consider Protestant churches to be authentic churches has provoked widespread irritation, especially within those organizations involved in long-standing dialogue with the Vatican.

Commenting on the two documents, Dr Ishmael Noko, general secretary of the Lutheran World Federation, which represents 59 million of the world's 63 million Lutherans, pointed out that on October 31 last year the Vatican and the LWF signed the "Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification" which uses the word "church" in reference to Lutherans and Catholics "to reflect the self-understanding of the particular churches, without intending to resolve all the ecclesiological issues related to them".

In his statement, issued on September 8 at LWF headquarters in Geneva, Dr Noko expresses "dismay and disappointment" that 35 years of ecumenical dialogue between Roman Catholics and Lutherans seem not to have been considered in the documents issued by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. He adds that the impact of the recent statements from the Vatican is more painful because they reflect a different spirit "than that which we encounter in many Lutheran-Roman Catholic relationships."

He adds that "Lutheran churches, together with other churches of the Reformation, are not ready to accept the categories now emphasized by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, nor the definitions and criteria underlying them".

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Also in Geneva, Dr Setri Nyomi, general secretary of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, has written to Cardinal Edward Cassidy, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, to express "disappointment and dismay" about Dominus Iesus.

Dr Nyomi, whose organization represents more than 75 million Christians in 215 Congregationalist, Presbyterian, Reformed and United churches world-wide, says in his letter to Cardinal Cassidy that the declaration is "made without ecumenical sensitivity" and "seems to go against the spirit of Vatican II ... and the progress made in relationships and dialogues since then".

"We in the World Alliance of Reformed Churches have attached much importance to the dialogue we have engaged in for a long time now," Dr Nyomi says. "In many nations a number of our constituent members have made major strides in relationship, often relating as 'sister churches' in common witness and diaconal work vis-a-vis challenges in their communities."

Dr Nyomi draws attention to the Catholic decree on ecumenism, Unitatis Redintegratio, approved in 1964 by the Second Vatican Council, which committed the Roman Catholic Church to whole-hearted participation in the ecumenical movement and was widely seen as the beginning a new phase in ecumenism.

By contrast, he states in the letter to Cardinal Cassidy, slighting remarks on other Christian communities in Dominus Iesus, coupled with the note on the use of the term "sister churches", seem to be "part of a sustained effort by Catholic conservatives" to deny the growing relationship and respect between the Roman Catholic and Reformed and other churches.

By seeming "to contradict commitment to ecumenical co-operation within the Christian family or even to take us back to a pre-Vatican II spirit", such statements raise questions, Dr Nyomi writes, concerning "how we can continue in dialogue with integrity - trusting and respecting one another".

Ironically, Dominus Iesus was issued a week before WARC was scheduled to begin a further session of international bilateral dialogue with the Catholic Church. WARC considered calling off this session pending clarification from the Catholic Church over what it has described as the "special affinity and close relationship" binding it to Protestant churches.

WARC has however decided to go ahead with the session, but Dr Nyomi states in the letter that "we will be putting on the table for discussion the questions we have regarding how the Roman Catholic Church views the Reformed family, and its implications for our continued dialogue".

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The Evangelical Church in Germany (EKD), the country's main Protestant body, issued a statement on September 7 pointedly declaring that it wanted, despite the statements from Rome, to improve ecumenical co-operation with its "Catholic sister church".

The governing board of the United Evangelical Lutheran Church in Germany (VELKD), which has as members eight regional Lutheran churches, said on September 8 that there was no biblical justification for the claim in Dominus Iesus that only the Catholic Church fully incorporated the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church. "To make this claim at the present time shows a lack of ecumenical sensitivity."

The publication of Dominus Iesus took place a day after representatives of the VELKD and the Catholic Church in Germany published a new statement on the nature of the church drawn up by a joint working group. The VELKD board said that it was confident that the German (Catholic) Bishops' Conference would deal with the statements of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in an "ecumenical spirit" and that there would continue to be a good partnership between Lutherans and Catholics in Germany in further bilateral discussions.

However, in Switzerland, Heinrich Bolleter, bishop of the Evangelical Methodist Church of central and southern Europe, said that he could not understand "why Protestants are getting so excited about the statements". According to the Reformierte Nachrichten (RNA), based in Zurich, Bishop Bolleter said: "In our practical ecumenical work we have always known that we are not of one mind when it comes to the issue of the nature of the church. We too easily forget how in recent decades we have dealt with the issue of mutual recognition. We have always avoided the question of the understanding of the church. But we have constructed a common platform on which we can have fellowship despite different ecclesiologies."

In Italy, Gianni Genre, newly elected moderator of the Waldensian church, said that he was concerned about the "anti-modernist accent accents being set in recent times by the Catholic Church", RNA reported.

In Paris a prominent Orthodox theologian, Olivier Clement, commenting on Dominus Iesus, said it was an "act of blasphemy against the church to say that the Eucharist celebrated by Anglicans and Protestants is empty".

Asked by a Swiss news agency, Agence de Presse Internationale Catholique, if Orthodox Christians were closer to Roman Catholics than Protestants, Clement replied: "Of course, I'm convinced of that. But another step should be taken - a step which would prove that the closer relations between Orthodox and Catholics have positive ramifications for Anglicans and Protestants. But we can't see any sign of such a step. I would like to add that the beatification of Pope Pius IX [in Rome early this month] is a disaster for the Orthodox, for he is the man of the First Vatican Council [which proclaimed] the dogma of papal infallibility which poisoned relations between the divided churches."

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In London, the deputy general secretary of the Baptist Union, Myra Blyth, told the Baptist Times: "We are all part of the one holy, catholic, and apostolic church. For one part of Christ's Church to claim superiority over the other is inappropriate for the times in which we live, and is unhelpful to the cause of mission."

In the United States, Joe Hale, general secretary of the World Methodist Council (WMC), and Geoffrey Wainwright, the chair of the WMC's committee on ecumenism and dialogues, said that the WMC welcomed the reaffirmation in Dominus Iesus of "Jesus Christ as the one Saviour of the world" but added that in its continuing dialogue with the Roman Catholic Church it looked forward to "further explanation on the question of how each partner can come to a fuller recognition of the churchly character of the other".

For many progressive Catholics, Dominus Iesus was at best embarrassing, and at worst offensive. The German branch of the We Are Church movement, a Catholic organization campaigning for radical changes in the church, described the declaration as a "questionable attempt to bring back the absolutist view of the church of the First Vatican Council with the unlimited primacy of the Pope". The declaration, it continued, was "in stark contrast to the hopeful endeavors initiated by the Second Vatican Council for ecumenism and inter-religious dialogue". It warned that the declaration was putting at risk plans to hold an ecumenical Kirchentag (church convention) in Berlin in 2003. We Are Church called for a clear statement by Germany's Catholic bishops distancing themselves from the declaration.

Hans Kung, a prominent Swiss Catholic theologian often at odds with the Vatican, told an Italian news agency that Dominus Iesus was "a mixture of medieval backwardness and Vatican megalomania."

In London, The Tablet, a leading independent Catholic publication, described Dominus Iesus as "a public relations disaster ... what a pity that it sounds notes of triumphalism that the sympathetic style and way of acting of Pope John XXIII [who initiated the Second Vatican Council], newly beatified, seemed to have dispelled forever."

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Related Elsewhere

See last week's coverage of Dominus Iesus, "Not All in the Family | Vatican official proclaims Protestant churches not "sister churches" to the Roman Catholic faith." (Sept. 6, 2000)

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:

Partnership Is Still a Goal of the Catholic Church—Cardinal Roger Mahony, Los Angeles Times (Sept. 10, 2000)
Priests in Britain Reaffirm EcumenismLos Angeles Times (Sept. 9, 2000)
Protestants Are Not Our Equals, Vatican Says—ReligionToday (Sept. 8, 2000)
Vatican declaration provokes churches—BBC (Sept. 5, 2000)
Vatican Rejects Equality of Religions | Rejecting 'religious relativism,' it says Catholic Church is the only true 'instrument for the salvation of all humanity'—Religion News Service / Beliefnet (Sept. 5, 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)