Religion Beat column by Michael Miller.
The Vatican's statement on the primacy of the Roman Catholic Church has riled some non-Catholic Christians in the ecumenical movement, but Catholic leaders and some Protestants are saying it's nothing to be concerned about and certainly nothing new.
The statement, released July 10, affirmed Catholic teaching that "Christ established here on earth only one Church. . . . This one Church of Christ, which we confess in the creed as one, holy, catholic and apostolic . . . subsists in the Catholic Church."
The document also said that Orthodox churches, while having apostolic succession, or authority handed down from Jesus' apostles, are "wounded" and that Protestant churches are "defective" although they still can be used by God for salvation purposes.
An ecumenical officer with the U.S. Council of Catholic Bishops said the document "is aimed primarily at bishops and Catholic theologians to remind them of some of the key elements of Catholic doctrine."
According to the Rev. James Massa, executive director of the USCCB's department of ecumenical and interreligious affairs, the statement says that "Christ is present in these other Christian communities and churches achieving God's purposes."
One of the difficulties of addressing or interpreting such a document is that non-Catholics listening to the Vatican talk to its own theologians and bishops can miss the context.
"(Cardinal Walter) Kasper made the point that this is saying the Protestant communities are not churches in the sense by which Catholics define themselves as a church," Massa said. "They (Protestants) call themselves churches. We recognize that they have the right to define themselves as churches."
On the other hand, "I don't think they'd want to define themselves as the church in the way that the Catholic Church defines itself."
In a July 12 statement, Bishop Daniel Jenky of the Catholic Diocese of Peoria referred to "sensational treatment" of the Vatican document. He said that "this highly technical instruction is really only a restatement of the decrees of the Second Vatican Council."
"As the bishop of Peoria, I would like also to clearly state my conviction that those who call Jesus their Lord, accept the authority of Scripture and pray to our father are Christian believers and therefore my brothers and sisters in faith," Jenky said.
Some of those "brothers and sisters in faith" weren't so enamored with the document, though.
"Similar statements and perspectives precipitated the 16th-century Reformation nearly 500 years ago," said Gerald Kieschnick, president of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod in a statement. "At that time Martin Luther said, 'Popes and councils can err.' Apparently that is still true today."
However, Kieschnick said that the LCMS looks "forward to the continuation of our theological dialogues with Roman Catholic leaders in discussion of this very important matter and to strengthening our common witness on such matters as the sanctity of life."
That "sanctity of life" movement is one of several where Catholics and other Christians participate on a grass-roots level. Another area of cooperation is the Cursillo renewal movement, which in the Diocese of Peoria has historically been marked by Protestant involvement. Such interaction will probably continue without a noticeable hitch.
That's the feeling of the Rev. Steven Tibbetts, pastor of Zion Evangelical Lutheran Church in South Peoria. Tibbetts has been involved in ecumenical efforts since the early 1980s. He's also a "non-Roman" spiritual adviser on Cursillo weekends and takes part in the conferences of the Center for Catholic and Ecumenical Theology.
"It is almost as if the pope is trying to get Catholic ecumenists to give a more consistent message to the various communions and groups with whom they have dialogues," said Tibbetts, whose church is part of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.
The statement's impact will be minor, Tibbetts said, "because ecumenical relations aren't really going anywhere beyond the committees having the discussions -- at least formally."
"I think that, in this statement, the Vatican is challenging 'Protestant' ecumenists, and the churches themselves, to seriously deal with a doctrine of the church, of which the ministry-priesthood and apostolic succession are an indispensable part."
Michael Miller covers religion for the Journal Star. Write to him in care of the Journal Star, 1 News Plaza, Peoria, IL 61643.
Peoria (Ill.) Journal Star