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CHURCH-REACTION (UPDATED) Jul-11-2007 (1,010 words) xxxi

Protestant groups dismayed at new document on identity of 'church'

By Cindy Wooden
Catholic News Service

ROME (CNS) -- Several Protestant organizations reacted with dismay to the Vatican's recent document on the identity of the church, but the Vatican's chief ecumenist, an Orthodox leader and a Swiss bishop said that, by clarifying its position, the Vatican actually is helping ecumenical dialogue.

The document from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, "Responses to Some Questions Regarding Certain Aspects of the Doctrine on the Church," was released July 10 at the Vatican.

It reaffirmed Catholic teaching that the Catholic Church is the one, true church of Christ, even if elements of truth and Christ's saving grace can be found in separated churches and communities.

The most ecumenically sensitive part of the new document was its assertion that while the term "sister church" can be used to refer to any of the Orthodox churches, a Christian community born out of the Protestant Reformation cannot be called "church" in the way Catholic theology defines the term.

The text said the Orthodox churches, although separated from the Catholic Church, have preserved apostolic succession, the ordained priesthood and the Eucharist. Nevertheless, they "lack something in their condition as particular churches" because they are not in union with the pope.

The Protestant communities, however, are not churches because they do not have apostolic succession -- the unbroken succession of bishops going back to St. Peter, it said.

The Rev. Setri Nyomi, general secretary of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, published an open letter July 10 addressed to Cardinal Walter Kasper, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity.

"An exclusivist claim that identifies the Roman Catholic Church as the one church of Jesus Christ ... goes against the spirit of our Christian calling toward oneness in Christ," Rev. Nyomi wrote. "It makes us question the seriousness with which the Roman Catholic Church takes its dialogue with the Reformed family and other families of the church. It makes us question whether we are indeed praying together for Christian unity."

Rev. Nyomi also said, "For now, we are thankful that our calling to be part of the church of Jesus Christ is not dependent on the interpretation of the Vatican. It is a gift of God."

In a July 11 statement, Cardinal Kasper said that while initial reactions were marked by "irritation among Protestant Christians" a second reading of the document should lead to the conclusion "that the document does not say anything new," but rather provides a synthesis of Catholic teaching.

By explaining what still divides Christians, he said, the document "does not limit dialogue, but promotes it."

"The document does not say that the Protestant churches are not churches, but that they are not churches in the precise sense, that is, they are not churches in the way that the Catholic Church uses the term 'church,'" he said.

At the same time, Cardinal Kasper said, all Christians must recognize that "at the basis of dialogue there is not just that which divides us, but that which unites us, and that is greater than what divides us. For that reason, one should not skim over what the declaration affirms in a positive way about the Protestant churches, and that is that Jesus Christ is effectively present in them for the salvation of their members."

"The document renders a service to clarity and, consequently, to progress in the dialogue," he said.

Thomas Wipf, president of the Community of Protestant Churches in Europe, said the original characteristics of the church of Christ are preaching the Gospel and administering the sacraments.

"That -- and no more -- is needed to be able to be seen as an authentic expression of the one church of Christ," he said.

"The Gospel, and not apostolic succession in the sacrament of ordination, constitutes the church," he said. "We recognize the Roman Catholic Church as a church. It is and remains regrettable that this is not made possible the other way around."

At the same time, Wipf said that making explicit the fact that the document represents the Roman Catholic understanding of "church" could lead to greater clarity in ecumenical dialogue.

Metropolitan Kirill of Smolensk and Kaliningrad, head of the Russian Orthodox office for ecumenical dialogue, told the Interfax news agency that the July 10 document "is an honest statement. It is much better than the so-called 'church diplomacy.' It shows how close or, on the contrary, how divided we are."

In a brief statement Georges Lemopoulos, deputy general secretary of the World Council of Churches, quoted a statement approved by the WCC 2006 general assembly: "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 fulfills its catholicity when it is in communion with the other churches."

While he said an honest sharing of differences is necessary in dialogue, "the World Council of Churches affirms the importance of 'genuine' ecumenical dialogue and of 'common' Christian witness on the problems facing the world today."

In a long theological reflection on the document, Catholic Bishop Kurt Koch of Basel, president of the Swiss bishops' conference, said he understood how the document could be confusing or even hurtful to Protestants and to Catholics who usually refer to the Protestant communities as churches.

The new Vatican document, he said, is looking at the term in a "strictly theological" way, explaining that if the Catholic Church believes apostolic succession and valid sacraments, particularly the Eucharist, are essential aspects of the church established by Christ it cannot recognize as "church" those communities who do not have them.

Bishop Koch also said the document and reactions to it underline a clear difference in the Catholic and Orthodox ecumenical goal and the ecumenical goal of the Protestants.

The Catholic and Orthodox churches, he said, aspire to full, visible unity, while the Protestant communities work for mutual recognition of the multiplicity and diversity of churches, "even with their possible contradictions."


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