Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site


Ecumenical roads no longer lead to Rome

  • 25 July 2007

The 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