VATICAN CITY – The Roman Catholic Church must figure out what it is doing wrong in the battle for souls since so many Catholics are leaving the Church to join Pentecostal and other evangelical movements, a top Vatican cardinal said Friday.
Cardinal Walter Kasper, who heads the Vatican's office for relations with other Christians, told a meeting of the world's cardinals that the Church must undergo a "self-critical pastoral examination of conscience" to confront the "exponential" rise of Pentecostal movements.
"We shouldn't begin by asking ourselves what is wrong with the Pentecostals, but what our own pastoral shortcomings are," Kasper told the gathering, noting that such evangelical and charismatic groups count 400 million faithful around the world.
The Vatican has been increasingly lamenting the rise of Protestant evangelical communities, which it describes as "sects," in Latin America, Africa and elsewhere and the resulting flight of Catholics. In Brazil alone, Roman Catholics used to account for about 90 percent of the population in the 1960s; by 2005 it was down to 67 percent.
Kasper's comments came on the eve of Saturday's ceremony to elevate 23 new cardinals. As he did during his first consistory in 2006, Pope Benedict XVI asked the world's cardinals to come to Rome early for a meeting to discuss church concerns.
This year, Kasper briefed the cardinals on relations with other Christians, focusing on the church's relations with the Orthodox, Protestants and Pentecostal movements.
Kasper said the rise of independent, often "aggressive" evangelical movements in Africa and elsewhere had complicated the church's ecumenical task. Nevertheless, Kasper told reporters that "ecumenism is not an option but an obligation."
Kasper opened his remarks by updating the cardinals and cardinal-designates on an important new document approved by a Vatican-Orthodox theological commission that has been working to heal the 1,000-year schism between the Catholic and Orthodox churches.
In the document, Catholic and Orthodox representatives both agreed that the pope has primacy over all bishops — although they disagreed over just what authority that primacy gives him.
The development is significant since the Great Schism of 1054 — which split the Catholic and Orthodox churches — was precipitated largely by disagreements over the primacy of the pope.
Kasper told the cardinals that the document was an "important turning point," since it marked the first time that Orthodox churches had agreed that there is a universal level of the church, that it has a primate, and that according to ancient church practice, that primate is the bishop of Rome — the pope.
Kasper said that the Vatican's relations with the Russian Orthodox Church, in particular, had become "significantly smoother" in recent years.
"We can say there's no longer a freeze but a thaw," Kasper said.
Tensions between the two churches have been strained over Orthodox accusations that the Vatican is seeking converts on traditionally Orthodox territories, particularly in eastern Europe — charges that Rome denies.
The rift has precluded a meeting between a pope and Patriarch Alexy II, long sought by Pope John Paul II and pursued by Benedict.
Kasper noted that Moscow had "never categorically excluded" such an encounter.