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Ecumenical roads no longer lead to Rome

Andrew Hamilton |  25 July 2007

Rome turns ecumenism focus from structures to Christian valuesThe Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith recently clarified the relationship between the Catholic Church and other churches. Its document provoked mixed responses. Vatican officials insisted it said nothing new; many others, including Catholics, found it offensive. Both responses were understandable. But taken together they pointed to a lack of attention in preparing such documents.

The Congregation addressed the view that the Roman Catholic Church is simply one of a number of brands offering the same product and that adherence to any church is simply a matter of individual choice. This attitude is part of the cultural air we breathe.

Against this view the Congregation insisted that Christian bodies must be judged by the extent to which their faith and structures represent the shape of the early church. All churches agree with this claim. But they define, in different ways, what continuity with the early church means. Catholic and Orthodox churches emphasise continuity in faith and structure, while Bible-based churches generally emphasise continuity in a particular form of faith. By these standards they judge whether particular Christian bodies truly represent Christ’s church.

In the Catholic theology that prevailed before the Second Vatican Council, the Catholic Church alone could claim to be Christ’s church. It drew sharp boundaries between the one true church and other false churches.

The Second Vatican Council stressed the value of positive elements in other churches, insisting that God could work through these churches for the good of their members. Members of other churches shared Christian faith and their baptism was of decisive significance. The Council reconciled this insight with its conviction that the Catholic Church had a unique place in salvation by using the concept of participation. The Catholic Church shares fully in the reality of Christ’s church. Other churches participate to greater and lesser degrees. The Council caught the distinction in its statement that the Church of Christ subsists in the Roman Catholic Church, and by referring to other Christian bodies as ecclesial communities rather than as churches.

The image of participation has two corollaries. It makes less absolute the boundaries between the Catholic Church and other churches. We cannot divide churches into true and false, but into greater and less. We must say that other churches and their ministries are not equivalent to the Catholic Church, but we may not say that they are without value.

The image of participation also brings out the difference between the abstract shape of faith and church structure and the way in which faith is lived out. To say that the Catholic Church uniquely embodies the faith and structured life of the early church does not imply that its structures function as Christ would have wanted, or work better than those of other churches.

Rome turns ecumenism focus from structures to Christian valuesFrom this perspective the goal of ecumenical endeavour is not, as Catholics would once have said, that other churches should return to Rome. The priority is that in all churches, their members’ lives, their relationships and their structures correspond to Christ’s values. If they are faithful their paths may lead to a form of unity that is today unimaginable.

That is the background to the document. But although it affirms the text of Vatican II, its context is different. Vatican II wanted to make space for conversation between churches and Christians by emphasising what they share. It shaped its decrees to ensure that they were open to those who were not Catholic. The Congregation's document emphasises the boundaries between the Catholic Church and other churches by denying their equivalence. It is not concerned to win or to encourage those outside the Catholic Church in their living of faith. For that reason when it quotes the statements of Vatican II that speak of ecclesial communities and of ministries, the passages have a different resonance than they had in the context of the Council. They seem to be judgemental and naturally give offence.

The document points to the need for the Catholic Church to find a language that expresses the logic of participation. This will emphasise what they share in common, and will speak of differences in this light. It requires attending to the living faith of other churches and not simply to their abstract deficiencies. It is a language that attends first to faces and only then to organisation. This document is lacking in this kind of attention.

In attentive conversation it is possible to say honestly that in Catholic understanding, only the Catholic Church embodies structurally the fullness of church and ministry. But to imply that other churches are not really churches, and that their ministry is not really Christian ministry, would fail to attend to the way in which Christians, including Catholics, commonly use words. The implication of the claim is gratuitously offensive. We should presume that the offence was not intended. But if it is to be avoided, a different kind of attention is needed.



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Submitted comments

Amen! As a Catholic working with young people I am constantly confounded by the faith, zeal and skill that other Christians - especially the beyond the pale pentecostals and evangelicals - bring to the field. Confronted by our own unreflective failure and our new found bigotry I am looking to working and in and joining such an 'ecclesial community'. I will participate in Eucharist but otherwise I will be another statistic.

James Paul 26 July 2007

Wow! What double talk. The document was quite clear in what it had to say. What is unclear is your comments, especially the last three paragraphs.

Sample, ...."their ministry is not really Christian ministry, would fail to attend to the way in which Christians, including Catholics, commonly use words." Pray tell me, how do we use words?

The next example is ....."That is the background to the document. But although it affirms the text of Vatican II, its context is different." What is different? Sounds like more double talk.

More - you state the document shows a lack of attention in preparing such documents - what would you suggest be said?

With all due respect to your station I have to ask how, as a Catholic priest, do you determine what you agree with in the Catholic Chruch and what you don't agree with. More so, how do you determine what you believe? Your type of article simply confuses.


Domenic Di Girolamo 26 July 2007

Fr Andrew Hamilton's praiseworthy concern that the recent document from the CDF on the relationship between the Catholic Church and other ecclesial bodies may lead to misunderstandings, ignores one important point.

The Protestant churches, the ones that have been identified as those not really entitled to use that word, lack valid sacraments because of the loss of apostolic succesion. As John Paul II said in his enyclical "Ecclesia De Eucharistia", the Church grows from the proper celebration of the Eucharist. As John, chapter 6 says unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you shall not have life in you. The Orthodox Churches, while not in communion with Rome, do have valid sacraments, hence a eucharistic life on which to build a community. That is not to say that the faith life of our Protestant brothers and sistes is not without worth, but that they cannot be considered churches in the strict sense, but the lesser term ecclesial communities.

Andrew Rabel 26 July 2007

I found Andy's aricle very helpful - thank you, Andy

Fr. Clem Cafarella 26 July 2007

well reasoned article, logical and compassionate. Is the desirable minimum vatican position "the least said, the soonest mended"?

Paul Gill 26 July 2007

Makes one recall the early days of the church....."Shall we call down fire on them...?" So little changes, even with the vast passage of time.

Power and the need to be seen to weild it..reegardless of the damage, the hurt and thr total disregard.

Odd, the need to fence in the Holy Spirit even although scripture tells us all It will(as It must) travel and blow where It will.

The Catholic church needs to be seen to be about doing the Word....as opposed to playing with words.

I find it an ongoing irony that if the church's mission is indeed to communicate the Word, It's the one vital task that appears almost totally beyond it!

Perhaps the debate ought to be widened out to seriously ponder the values and merits of papal retirement.After all, if logic is welcome at the table, why should Pontiffs be excluded from a commonsense ruling that governs every other clergy member of the church in terms of times up?

There are times where one can be really ashamed to be part and parcel of the Roman church...this is one of them!

Perhaps those who thus ruminate and lay waste as a result of their ramblings could be given a job at the coalface where they can be introduced to the realities of the real world...and where they can perhaps play a practical part.

Brian Haill 26 July 2007

Thanks, Andy, for this comment, especially your emphasis on 'conversation', and that it is 'faces' whom we meet in dialogue (from official meetings to daily living) before we encounter church structures.
That said, as an Anglican engaged in official dialogue with Rome, I found the statement much less offensive than others seem to have found it, for two reasons. First, I read the CDF as mainly addressing ultra-conservatives who wanted to replace 'subsistit in' with 'est' - THAT would be a huge backward step. And secondly, I was surprised to read ONLY ecclesial words used of Protestants, rather than these plus viewing us as individual Christians.
And, again as an Anglican, I have to confess that my tradition views bodies such as the Uniting Church and the Lutherans as less than fully 'church', even wounded by the absence of a personal mode of episcope ...

Charles Sherlock 26 July 2007

I feel profound disappointment that my church, the Uniting Church in Australia, in which I serve as an ordained minister, is dismissed so lightly by Roman Catholic theology emanating anew from the Vatican. I had hoped that in my lifetime, the barriers to ecumenical brotherhood and sisterhood in Christ would be lessened, but now I see this is not to be. Shame on us all, as the folk of other religions must view our distrust and disunity. I will continue to pray for the life and mission of the Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Lutheran, Baptist, Anglican and Reformed churches of the world.

Neil Tolliday 26 July 2007

A very balanced and helpful article.

I cannot accept that any Christian church, community or whatever, has a monopoly on the truth, or has the complete truth. We will not know that this side of death.

Yet many adherents of many of the Christian churches (to use the term inclusively) maintain that their manner of worship is the only one that is valid.

I can only interpret this as ignorance, or closed mindedness, or arrogance, or self-aggrandisement, or search for power or authority which they feel a need to assert.

I am disappointed by the tone of the Vatican document, which builds a wall between me and my Catholic friends.

Mark Tweeddale 26 July 2007

I am disappointed that the Orthodox are not credited with being fully "true Church". As an ex-Protestant, I must confess that the unholy mess known as protestantism did cause me to be skeptical re authenticity, not as Christians, but as Church.Then again, us Catholic mob, being authentically Church, do not always live it!!!

Francis Charles 26 July 2007

Thank you for a most helpful comment. As a quondam convert from Anglicanism with Anglican friends and family I welcome such an approach.

I would sum up my agreement by observing what one says is one thing but how one says it might be crucial.

Right now I am in Istanbul which puts the matter in a very different perspective. Perhaps the Congregation should meet here for a change.

Andrew Hamilton! (yes another one) 26 July 2007

Mr Haill, not that I ever would want to see anybody leave the Catholic Church, you seem to have mentally left it long ago. Every public statement you make is about how "ashamed" you are to be a Catholic.

And what has papal retirment got to do with it? Are you implying this statement was only issued because the Pope is too senile to do his job? Read his latest book which reflects a mind like a steel trap. And no, there is no compulsory retirement age for "all other clergy", only for pastoral bishops. I know several serving parish priests who are older than the Pope.

Peter Kennedy 27 July 2007

The Catholic Church says the churches estalished during the Reformation are wrong because the clergy are not in direct apostolic succession from the disciples, and lack valid sacraments.
Well, I left the Catholic Church two years ago and joined the Lutheran Church. The Lutheran Church believes their ordained clergy are in direct apostolic succession, and Baptism and Holy Communion are sacraments.
Obviously, both consider the other in error.

Ann McEvoy 27 July 2007

The document was very clear in what it wanted to say. I salute the Pope
for telling it like it is. Time we stopped sugar coating Catholic teaching just to make someone else happy. We do not force our belief on
anyone so they can take or leave it.

Duane 27 July 2007

I think your article brings out the hidden agenda of Benedicts words - they're wrong and they had better recognise it and return to the true "church". He hasn't changed!

Brian Kennedy 27 July 2007

A couple of clarification of my article. Clearly, as Charles Sherlock points out, not only Vatican officials but those well versed in ecumenical theology could recognise that the statement contains nothing new. And Charles offers reasons for gratitude for that.
When I referred to the Document's inattention to the way in which Christians commonly used words, I had in mind the common usage of Church, in which it refers to a group of people who believe in Jesus Christ and whose common life strengthens their faith. From that perspective, it would be insulting to imply that these group are not churches. Similarly, valid sacraments normally are taken to imply that Christ works through them. The Congregation uses the term in a more limited sense of equivalence.
When I said that attention is important in writing, I meant that we must keep in mind the faces of those who will read what we say, and as far as we can, to avoid unnecessary hurt and misunderstanding. This is a difficulty in Church documents which are addressed directly to a restricted and knowledgeable audience, but will be read by a broader audience. They too must be attended to.
How should Catholics respond to documents of Roman Congregations? I think we should attend to the faces of the writers and try to understand what they want to say. It is then appropriate to comment in a way that illuminates both the document and the issue with which it deals. I leave it to others to judge whether my own comments have failed or succeeded in these respects

Andrew Hamilton (the writer of this piece) 27 July 2007

What prompted the Pope to raise the matter in the first place/ seems to me totally unnecessary

Bill Burns 27 July 2007

This article does not reflect what this document says. It is the personal spin of the author of the article. Unity amonst Christians in mndated and the document clearly proclaims this is to be found only within the Catholic Church. It implies that only in unity with the ctholic church will the orthodox churches and protestent sects find the true Chritian church founded by Christ. There are things we have in common yes but to greater or lesser degree as these exist they impell unity and promote it. Vat II taught nothing new and since it was not a doctrinal council any interpretation given must be totally in accord with before and after the council. We want unity.

Chris 27 July 2007

In any assessment of true doctrine we cannot ignore the writings of the early fathers and the experience of the early church from which the creeds were formulated. As an Anglican I am abhorred by the antics of extreme charismatics who ignore two thousand years of "experience" and claim that their literal interpretation of Scrpture comes straight from God. We can not ignore the Traditions of the Orthodox and Coptic churches who are making an important contributuion to the ecumenical life of Australian churches john ozanne

john ozanne 28 July 2007

Fr Hamilton says we cannot divide churches into true and false. What's wrong with the proposition that if there are a lot of different churches (and I do call them churches) with their own different (more or less) sets of beliefs, either one is right (meaning it holds no false beliefs) and the others are wrong (in at least one way), or they are all wrong?

Gavan Breen 30 July 2007

During the treason trials for priests accused for simply possessing the sacred vessels used in the saying of Mass, the Eucharist was ridiculed as the 'Jack-in-the Box'. This behaviour obtained as late as the reign of James the First in early seventeenth century England. So what does this mean? It means that the rejection of the doctrine of Transubstantiation broke the Apostolic Succession for the English Protestant Church. When the prosecutor of a priest, accused of treason during that time, spoke of Protestant bishops, the accused replied 'No Mass-no priest, No priest-NO BISHOP', and consequently NO APOSTOLIC SUCCESSION - No apostlic succession-No true Christian Church-Only admirers and imitators.Anyone who has experienced the hunger for the Eucharist that Anglicans feel, will know in which direction the fullness of truth lies. Please don't deny Christophiles the opportunity to enjoy the fullness of communion, by dissuading them from entry into the One True Church, Holy and Indivisible.

Claude Rigney 01 August 2007

Thanks, Andrew. This is helpful to me in my relationship with Christians of other churches.

Iain Radvan 01 August 2007

Amen! The title of this article says it for all (things other than Ecumenical) roads no longer lead to Rome.

--- http://pope-ratz.blogspot.com/

When did Christ ever wear red expensive shoes, don on ornate ceremonial albs, be surrounded and protected by a private army, be a political head of state, write in Ph.D books no one can understand except himself and by a few men, oppress those who work with and for the poor like Jon Sobrino? If Christ were to visit Rome today, what would he say about the worse sins of pedophile priests seething beneath the Vatican archives which are worse than the sins at the Temple of Solomon?

Would he recognize the Peter-the-Rock clones residing at the grand palace of the Vatican rivaling the palace of the Ceasars of Rome? Christ would gag at his ostentious "Vicar of Christ" when they meet for the first time, they'd be like the Prince and the Pauper, the Pope being (and dressed as) the Prince!

Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever and he would do like what he did when he got very angry with the marketeers at the Temple and turned the tables upside down because they have "made God's temple a den of thieves" . But this time the Temple of the Vatican has become the Opus Dei (Ambrosiano Bank)den ... worst of all now the Vatican has become a "den of High Priests-pedophiles"! So Christ would repeat the curse of the Temple of Solomon that "not one stone will be left standing" about the Temple of the Vatican now owned and operated by the Octopus Dei.

We follow-up on the autocracy of Benedict XVI and the Opus Dei Archbishop of El Salvador and their subtle Galileo-style treatment on Jon Sobrino

Charles 11 August 2007

I was pleased to see the article as I had learned about the CDF article while I was in the USA. As a Roman Catholic turned Anglican 26 years ago I had to smile to myself as it once again reminded me that the RC Church has not lost its belligerency and bigotry. As for 'true' Church, Christ came into this world to establish a body of followers who would work together in peace and harmony for the glory of God. There is no such thing as 'true' Church except that genuine Christians who follow Christ are 'The Church'. As a historian and a theologian I truly despair when I hear RCs claim that only they are the 'true' Church. If they would only read their history books and stop being so protective, we might all get some sleep. As a Catholic-Anglican I protest against Rome's claims for adulation and remind RCs that, together with the Orthodox, Lutherans we Anglicans are an apostolic church and publicly state this in the creed to which we all attest.

Sr Mhoira, CCC 13 November 2007

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