Published July 10, 2007
LORENZAGO DI CADORE, Italy – For the second time in a week, Pope Benedict XVI has corrected what he says are erroneous interpretations of the Second Vatican Council, reasserting the primacy of the Roman Catholic Church and saying other Christian communities were either defective or not true churches.
Benedict approved a document released Tuesday from his old office, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which repeated church teaching on Catholic relations with other Christians.
While there was nothing doctrinally new in the document, it nevertheless prompted swift criticism from Protestants, Lutherans and other Christian denominations spawned by the 16th century reformation.
"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," said the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, which groups 75 million Reformed Christians in 214 churches in 107 countries.
"It makes us question whether we are indeed praying together for Christian unity," the alliance said in a letter to the Vatican's key ecumenical official, Cardinal Walter Kasper, charging that the document took ecumenical dialogue back to the pre-Vatican II era.
One of the key developments from Vatican II, the 1962-65 meetings that modernized the church, was its ecumenical outreach.
Another key change was the development of the New Mass in the vernacular, which essentially replaced the old Latin Mass. On Saturday, Benedict revived the old Latin Mass, saying it was wrong for bishops to deny it to the faithful because it had never been abolished. Traditional Catholics cheered the move, but more liberal ones called it a step back from Vatican II.
Benedict, who attended Vatican II as a young theologian, has long complained about what he considers the erroneous interpretation of the council by liberals, saying it was not a break from the past but rather a renewal of church tradition.
The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith said it was issuing the new document on ecumenism because some contemporary theological interpretations of Vatican II's ecumenical intent had been "erroneous or ambiguous" and had prompted confusion and doubt.
The new document -- formulated as five questions and answers -- restates key sections of a 2000 text the pope wrote when he was prefect of the congregation, "Dominus Iesus," which riled Protestant, Lutheran and other Christian denominations because it said they were not true churches but merely ecclesial communities and therefore did not have the "means of salvation."
"Christ 'established here on earth' only one Church," said the document released as the pope vacations at a villa in Lorenzago di Cadore, in Italy's Dolomite mountains.
The other communities "cannot be called 'churches' in the proper sense" because they do not have apostolic succession -- the ability to trace their bishops back to Christ's original apostles -- and therefore their priestly ordinations are not valid, it said.
The Rev. Sara MacVane, of the Anglican Centre in Rome, said there was nothing new in the document.
"I don't know what motivated it at this time," she said. "But it's important always to point out that there's the official position and there's the huge amount of friendship and fellowship and worshipping together that goes on at all levels, certainly between Anglican and Catholics and all the other groups and Catholics."
The document said Orthodox churches were indeed "churches" because they have apostolic succession and that they enjoyed "many elements of sanctification and of truth." But it said they lack something because they do not recognize the primacy of the pope -- a defect, or a "wound" that harmed them, it said.
"This is obviously not compatible with the doctrine of Primacy which, according to the Catholic faith, is an 'internal constitutive principle' of the very existence of a particular Church," said a commentary from the congregation which accompanied the text.
Despite the harsh tone of the documents, they stressed that Benedict remains committed to ecumenical dialogue.
"However, if such dialogue is to be truly constructive it must involve not just the mutual openness of the participants but also fidelity to the identity of the Catholic faith," the commentary said.
The top Protestant cleric in Benedict's homeland, Germany, complained that the Vatican apparently did not consider that "mutual respect for the church status" was required for any ecumenical progress.
In a statement headlined "Lost Chance," Lutheran Bishop Wolfgang Huber argued that "it would also be completely sufficient if it were to be said that the reforming churches are 'not churches in the sense required here' or that they are 'churches of another type' -- but none of these bridges is used in the 'answers."'
The document, signed by the congregation prefect, American Cardinal William Levada, was approved by Benedict on June 29, the feast of Saints Peter and Paul -- a major ecumenical feast day.
There was no indication why the pope felt it necessary to release the document, particularly since his 2000 document summed up the same principles. Some analysts suggested it could be a question of internal church politics, or that the Congregation was sending a message to certain theologians it did not want to single out. Or, it could be an indication of Benedict using his office as pope to again stress key doctrinal issues from his time at the Congregation.
In fact, the only theologian cited by name in the document for having spawned erroneous interpretations of ecumenism was Leonardo Boff, the Brazilian who was a target of the former Cardinal Ratzinger's crackdown on liberation theology in the 1980s.