Roman Catholic leaders in Poland have expressed strong support for a controversial Vatican document released early this month which restates the belief that Protestant denominations are not churches but "ecclesial communities."However, as in many other countries, Poland's Protestant church leaders have criticized the document—Dominus Iesus, on the Unicity and Salvific Universality of Jesus Christ and the Church—and predicted that it could endanger improving ecumenical relations in this predominantly Catholic country.Dominus Iesus is mainly directed at Catholic theologians who "have argued that all religions may be equally valid ways of salvation." But the declaration also firmly restates the Vatican's belief that the Roman Catholic Church fully represents the one holy Catholic and apostolic church and that Protestant denominations are "ecclesial communities."Adam Szulc, spokesman for Poland's Catholic Bishops' Conference, said that Dominus Iesus clarified "mistaken theological conceptions" and was an attempt "to reveal afresh the truth and mission of the church.""It's a theological rather than pastoral document, so reading it requires a certain theological preparation. It's not surprising that some people with insufficient knowledge feel threatened after reading it," said the Jesuit priest, who was responding to criticism of the controversial document, issued last week by the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith and its prefect, Cardinal Josef Ratzinger.Szulc told Poland's Catholic Information Agency (KAI) that predictions of harm to ecumenical dialogue reflected a "mistaken interpretation" of the document, which was intended to refute "relativist theories" which claim that there were "many ways to salvation.""It's hardly surprising that such ruses concern the Congregation, which also draws attention to the dangers of reading Holy Scripture in isolation from the church's tradition and magisterium [papal teaching]," Szulc said. "Paradoxically, this document opens the way to further ecumenical dialogue by making the church's thinking more precise."Another Catholic official accused critics of Dominus Iesus of a holding a "post-modernist mentality in which there is no center or single reference system, and where all interpretations are equally good." Archbishop Jozef Zycinski continued: "The Holy Father has reminded us through Cardinal Ratzinger that we are the Church of Jesus Christ, not a collection of private chapels. It is not that people can go to church and choose [what to believe]- there are certain fundamental truths which a Christian should know."But a Lutheran bishop, Jan Szarek, who is also head of Poland's Ecumenical Council, told ENI that the Vatican declaration was a "cold shower" for those hoping for further ecumenical progress. "It's very strongly stressed here that only the Catholic Church is the church, and that we are not. How can one square this with words the Pope himself has addressed to us?" (The Ecumenical Council includes Poland's seven main minority churches, Protestant and Orthodox.)"In this situation, we can only stress our own identity, and strengthen our statements in response—that we alone possess the full truth, that only our church genuinely proclaims the Gospel, and that's that."The 92,000-member Lutheran Church in Poland said in a statement that Dominus Iesus had "struck at the good climate" of celebrations for the Christian millennium. "This claim to exclusiveness [in Dominus Iesus] on questions as fundamental as salvation evokes our deepest concern," the Lutheran bishops said."We will carefully observe the work of our commission for dialogue with the Roman Catholic Church in the expectation that it proceeds without impediments, in honesty and truth, and achieves results."The Roman Catholic Church has links with the Ecumenical Council through a commission set up in 1974. In recent months churches in Poland have significantly improved their relations, notably in January with the mutual recognition of baptism, and in March with the nation's first jointly organized ecumenical service.However, Polish Catholics have often been accused of being half-hearted on ecumenism and of uncritically supporting all decisions from Pope John Paul, himself a Pole.Bishop Szarek told ENI that he agreed with the Christological elements of the Vatican's declaration, but not with its "extended interpretation of the essence of the church."He added that the document would call into question the "future direction" of dialogue with the Lutheran World Federation – with which the Vatican signed a major joint declaration last year – as well as the search for joint solutions to "many pastoral problems" in Poland."We don't need the Catholic Church's mediation—there is full truth in our church too," the 64-year-old Lutheran bishop said. "If someone wishes to talk to someone else, and reach a common position, it's clear they must make room for each other."Asked about reactions from Poland's 570,000-member Orthodox church, the rector of the country's ecumenical Christian Academy, Orthodox Archbishop Jeremiasz, told ENI that it was up to Roman Catholics to decide whether the new declaration "posed obstacles" to further dialogue.But he added that he hoped Dominus Iesus would be "quietly forgotten," like a previous Roman Catholic claim that only the Latin Bible was "canonically valid.""The Catholic Church believes it is the true church—but so do Orthodox Christians, Baptists, Adventists and others. We have to learn to live in a Christian way without doing injustices to each other," Archbishop Jeremiasz said."The internal problems of the Catholic Church, like the internal disorders of a human being, cannot be solved by verbal philosophical declarations, but by inner transformation and closeness to God. Such attempts to impose discipline won't contribute anything to spiritual life."Copyright © 2000 ENI
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.For perspective on some of the ecumenical dialogue the Roman Catholic church has engaged in with Protestants, read the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification, signed by Catholics and Lutherans in October 1999.Previous Christianity Today articles about Dominus Iesus include:Dominus Iesus a 'Public Relations Disaster' for Ecumenism, Say Critics | Vatican's statement reasserting itself as the one true church lamented inside and outside Catholicism. (Sept. 13, 2000) Not All in the Family | Vatican official proclaims Protestant churches not "sister churches" to the Roman Catholic faith. (Sept. 6, 2000)Recent media coverage of Dominus Iesus includes:'Ecumenism Not Optional But Essential to the Church'—African Church Information Service (Sept. 18, 2000) Vatican Voices: Ecumenism is again the focus of heated debate—The Sunday Times (Sept. 15, 2000) Church calls for answers on Vatican stance—The Irish Times (Sept. 12, 2000) Vatican statement seen as a challenge—Vancouver Sun (Sept. 11, 2000) Catholic document complicates relations with other Christians—The Bergen Record (Sept. 8, 2000)
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