A new document authorised by Pope Benedict XVI restating Roman Catholic views that Protestant denominations are not churches "in the proper sense" has been criticised as setting back the quest for Christian unity - write Luigi Sandri and Stephen Brown from Rome and Geneva.
"An exclusive claim that identifies the Roman Catholic Church as the one church of Jesus Christ, as we read in the statement released today [10 July 2007], goes against the spirit of our Christian calling towards oneness in Christ," said the Rev. Setri Nyomi, general secretary of the Geneva-based World Alliance of Reformed Churches. The alliance groups 214 churches with roots in the 16th century Protestant Reformation.
Nyomi made his comments in a letter to Cardinal Walter Kasper, the Vatican's top official for promoting Christian unity, following the 10 July release in Rome of the Vatican document, which sets down questions and answers about the doctrine of the church.
The Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith said the document had been produced to correct, "erroneous interpretations which in turn give rise to confusion and doubt".
The document says that Protestant denominations of the Reformation "have not preserved the genuine and integral substance of the Eucharistic mystery [and] cannot, according to Catholic doctrine, be called 'Churches' in the proper sense".
In his letter to Cardinal Kasper, Nyomi said of the document, "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. It makes us question whether we are indeed praying together for Christian unity."
Also in Geneva, in a response that some observers said could indicate displeasure with the latest development, the World Council of Churches spoke of "the importance of genuine ecumenical dialogue, and of common Christian witness on the problems facing the world today".
The WCC groups 347 churches, mainly from Protestant, Anglican and Orthodox traditions. The Catholic Church is not a member but has representatives on some WCC bodies.
Using the term "catholic" in the sense of "universal", the WCC stated, "Each church is the Church catholic and not simply a part of it. Each church is the Church catholic, but not the whole of it. Each church fulfils its catholicity when it is in communion with the other churches."
In Paris, the Protestant Federation of France said it hoped that every church, "including the Roman Catholic Church", would seek ways to promote dialogue, "rather than being content with repeating its own convictions".
Still, French Lutheran theologian André Birmelé said, "It's much ado about nothing. The text is meant for internal consumption, to reassure people."
In Rome, Italian Protestant theologian Paolo Ricca, however, questioned whether it still made sense to engage in dialogue with the Catholic Church.
"The Vatican document is very clear: it's the old doctrine of the return to the fold," Ricca told Ecumenical News International. "At this point we can ask ourselves if it makes sense to continue the dialogue with Rome. With many Catholics, yes, but with the Roman institution maybe not," he said.
The Vatican said Pope Benedict had "ratified and confirmed" the document.
In 2005, immediately after his election as pontiff, Benedict said he was "disposed to do all in his power to promote the fundamental cause of ecumenism".
However, with the latest document, "Hopes for a change in the ecumenical situation have again been pushed into the remote future," said Wolfgang Huber, Germany's top Protestant bishop.
Huber noted that the latest statements repeated those contained in a Vatican declaration from 2000, called "Dominus Iesus", and drawn up by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger before he became Pope in 2005.
Some ecumenically-minded theologians had later suggested that "Dominus Iesus" was a result of carelessness, said Huber, who heads the Evangelical Church in Germany (EKD). "No one can speak any more of carelessness," said Huber. "This is a premeditated act."
[With grateful acknowledgements to ENI. Ecumenical News International is jointly sponsored by the World Council of Churches, the Lutheran World Federation, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, and the Conference of European Churches]