LORENZAGO DI CADORE, Italy (AP) - Pope Benedict XVI reasserted the primacy of the Roman Catholic Church, approving a document released Tuesday that says other Christian communities are either defective or not true churches and Catholicism provides the only true path to salvation.
The statement brought swift criticism from Protestant leaders. “It makes us question whether we are indeed praying together for Christian unity,” said the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, a fellowship of 75 million Protestants in more than 100 countries.
“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,” the group said in a letter charging that the document took ecumenical dialogue back to the era before the Second Vatican Council.
It was the second time in a week that Benedict has corrected what he says are erroneous interpretations of the Second Vatican Council, the 1962-1965 meetings that modernized the church. On Saturday, Benedict revived the old Latin Mass – a move cheered by Catholic traditionalists but criticized by more liberal ones as a step backward from Vatican II.
Among the council’s key developments were its ecumenical outreach and the development of the New Mass in the vernacular, which essentially replaced the old Latin Mass.
Benedict, who attended Vatican II as a young theologian, has long complained about what he considers its erroneous interpretation 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, which Benedict headed before becoming pope, said it was issuing the new document Tuesday 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 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.”
The commentary repeated church teaching that says the Catholic Church “has the fullness of 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 that although the document contains nothing new, “I don’t know what motivated it at this time.”
“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 Anglicans and Catholics and all the other groups and Catholics,” she said.
The document said that Orthodox churches were indeed “churches” because they have apostolic succession and enjoyed “many elements of sanctification and of truth.” But it said 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 that accompanied the text.
Despite the harsh tone, the document 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 the Vatican apparently did not consider that “mutual respect for the church status” was required for any ecumenical progress.
In a statement titled “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 Vatican document.
The Vatican statement, 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 it now, 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, a Brazilian clergyman who left the priesthood and was a target of then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger’s crackdown on liberation theology in the 1980s.