VATICAN CITY (Catholic Online) – The Catholic Church is the one, holy, apostolic church of Christ, while other Christian Orthodox and Protestant denominations that “suffer from defects” share elements of “sanctification and of truth,” said the Vatican’s doctrinal congregation.
Released July 10 under the title "Responses to Some Questions Regarding Certain Aspects of the Doctrine on the Church," the 1,200-word document was signed by U.S. Cardinal William J. Levada, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and congregation secretary Archbishop Angelo Amato, and approved by Pope Benedict XVI before publication.
In the document — formulated as five questions and answers — the Vatican seeks to set the record straight on the intent of ecumenical efforts undertaken after the Second Vatican Council more than 40 years ago, saying some contemporary theological interpretation had been “erroneous … which in turn give rise to confusion and doubt.”
The document, published in Latin, English, French, Italian German, Polish, Portuguese and Spanish, was issued three days after the papal release of a document that revisited another key aspect of Vatican II by relaxing restrictions on the celebration of the Latin-language Tridentine Mass.
Noting that churches and ecclesial communities not yet fully in communion with the Catholic Church “suffer from defects,” the doctrinal congregation acknowledged that “elements of sanctification and truth” may be present in them.
“It follows that these separated churches and communities … are deprived neither of significance nor importance in the mystery of salvation,” the congregation said. “In fact, the spirit of Christ has not refrained from using them as instruments of salvation, whose value from that fullness of grace and of truth which has been entrusted to the Catholic Church.”
The doctrinal congregation made clear that Vatican II did not modify but rather clarified and made explicit what may have been uncertain or unclear in the field of ecumenical relations. “The Second Vatican Council neither changed nor intended to change” Catholic doctrine on the church, it said, “rather it developed, deepened and more fully explained it.”
It said that the Second Vatican Council was clear in stating that Christ’s church “subsists in the Catholic Church, governed by the successor of Peter and the bishops in communion with him.”
That phrase affirms that the “historical continuity and the permanence of all the elements instituted by Christ” are only present in the Catholic Church, the congregation said.
It noted that the Orthodox faith communities are called “churches,” though separate from the Catholic Church, as they have retained apostolic succession, the ordained priesthood and the Eucharist. Because of those close bonds, the congregation said, they merit the title of churches and are seen as “sister churches” of specific Catholic churches.
Yet, Christian communities “born out of the Reformation” do not share that union as they “do not enjoy apostolic succession in the sacrament of orders,” the Vatican congregation said.
“These ecclesial communities which, specifically because of the absence of the sacramental priesthood, have not preserved the genuine and integral substance of the Eucharistic mystery cannot, according to Catholic doctrine, be called churches in the proper sense,” it said.
In a “commentary” issued with the document, the congregation said that “ecumenical dialogue remains one of the priorities of the Catholic Church.”
Yet, it stressed that such dialogue must be founded on “not just mutual openness of the participants but also fidelity to the identity of the Catholic faith.”
The congregation noted that, while "Catholic ecumenism might seem, at first sight, somewhat paradoxical,” the Second Vatican Council has sought to “try to harmonize two doctrinal affirmations” that, despite existent Christian divisions, “the church of Christ continues to exist fully only in the Catholic Church” and that “elements of sanctification and truth do exist … in ecclesial communities that are not fully in communion with the Catholic Church."
“The fullness of the Catholic Church, therefore, already exists, but still has to grow in the brethren who are not yet in full communion with it and also in its own members who are sinners.”
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