Bishop's Blog

One Step Forward or Two Steps Back?

My dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ:

The recent publication of a three page document from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith with the seemingly innocuous title, “Responses to Some Questions Regarding Certain Aspects of the Doctrine of the Church” has created quite a pastoral and theological brouhaha.

I don’t have problems with the document itself but I am disappointed in the overheated and under-nuanced media coverage that has fuelled all kinds of unnecessary tears, anger and ecumenical upset.

I am equally disappointed with the Vatican’s lack of pastoral sensitivity as it should have been better prepared to handle the very predictable pastoral confusion the document’s release created.

In combatting the phenomenon of modern day relativism, attention must not only be focussed on abstract truth but also on controlling the spin as the teaching touches not only minds, but hearts, souls, and relationships.

The reaction of one commentator is significant: “As one who has tried to build bridges between Protestants and Roman Catholics, I cringed last week when Pope Benedict XVI released his shocking statement on “catholic identity”. In clear, non-negotiable and jaw-dropping terms, the pontiff stated that (1) only Catholics are true Christians; (2) other Christian denominations are “not true church”; and (3) all non-Catholics lack the “means of salvation. Boom! Just like that, Benedict blew up every ecumenical bridge that has been built since the reforms of the Second Vatican Council of the 1960s.”

I can only conclude that either the author didn’t read the document or, if he did, he failed to appreciate the teaching of the Second Vatican Council and the Decree on Ecumenism.

First of all, I would encourage all Christians to read the brief document from the Congregation (

Secondly, the document addresses five questions about the nature of the Church and all five are a commentary on Vatican II documents.

Vatican II didn’t say that the church of Christ “is” the Catholic Church. The council document (Lumen Gentium) said that the church of Christ “subsists in” the Catholic Church.

The Congregation points out that the latter phrase of subsistence brings out more clearly the fact that there are numerous elements of sanctification and of truth which are found outside her structure.

It is true that the document points out that there are “defects” in the other Christian communities but hastens to add “these ..... are deprived neither of significance nor importance in the mystery of salvation. In fact the Spirit of Christ has not refrained from using them as instruments of salvation, whose value derives from that fullness of grace and of truth which has been entrusted to the Catholic Church.”

According to Catholic doctrine, these communities do not enjoy apostolic succession in the sacrament of Orders, and are, therefore, deprived of a constitutive element of the Church.

These ecclesial communities, specifically because of the absence of the sacramental priesthood, have not preserved the genuine and integral substance of the Eucharistic Mystery. Therefore, they cannot, according to Catholic doctrine, be called “Churches” in the proper sense.

The congregation also points out that the Catholic Church falls short of what it should be. “Because of the division between Christians,” it says, “the fullness of universality is not full realized in history.”

There are some who think ecumenical or religious dialogues are like other dialogues - for example, negotiations between countries, bargaining between labour and management, or any attempts to find middle ground between disputing parties. This is not the case. Dialogue in society involves compromise, that’s how we get things done, and that is good.

But when people of faith talk to one another, they are not attempting any compromise. Our goal in ecumenical dialogue is not to pretend that our differences don’t exist and seek to construct one religion, but to share and learn from one another.

Religious dialogue is both a process of spiritual growth and a set of experiences that can have a transforming effect on those engaged in it. This kind of dialogue is the art of spiritual communication. The participants maintain their religious practice, they invite their partners to be present with them when they pray and they seek to understand how each of them understands what one must do to be holy.

We seek to understand one another, to challenge one another to understand each of our beliefs most deeply and to grow in our understanding of the greatness, abundance, and mercy of God.

In religious dialogue we are also compelled to make our language understandable, acceptable, and well-chosen, so that we can be both truthful and charitable to one another.

Our recent forays indicate that this is not an easy task.

Sincerely yours in Christ,

☩ Frederick Henry
Bishop Emeritus

Related Offices Ecumenical & Interreligious Affairs Office Bishop's
Related Themes Ecumenical Vatican II

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