Pope Benedict XVI has drawn broad criticism, but also some support, for approving a document released yesterday that said Christian communities that did not belong to the Roman Catholic Church were not full churches of Jesus Christ. The controversial 16-page document by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith said that though non-Catholic denominations “suffer from defects, [they] 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."
The document goes on to reiterate the Church’s stance that because Protestant denominations cannot trace their bishops to the original 12 apostles (what the Church refers to as apostolic succession), they "cannot be called ‘churches’ in the proper sense." The document restates several sections of “Dominus lesus,” a document the Pope wrote in 2000 when he was an official of the congregation that angered many non-Catholics with its statement that they did not have the “means of salvation.”
Protestant leaders responded angrily to the new document, and some even questioned the Church’s commitment to unity. In a statement released by the World Alliance of Reformed Churches (which represents 75 million Protestants around the world) officials said, "It makes us question whether we are indeed praying together for Christian unity … It makes us question the seriousness with which the Roman Catholic Church takes its dialogues with the reformed family and other families of the church."
A bishop for the U.S. Episcopal Church told Reuters, "For us as Anglicans I don’t believe it’s any different. It’s what they’ve said before. We’ve been in this (ecumenical) dialogue for 40 years but we continue to stay at the table and disagree with that position."
Many people see Pope Benedict XVI as a conservative who favors traditions of the Catholic Church, a view that was recently furthered when he revived the old form of Latin Mass. Though some Catholics viewed the move as a step backward from the more liberal reforms of Vatican II, it received praise from others.
Though some members of non-Catholic denominations are largely unconcerned with rulings by the Roman Catholic Church, the statements remind some Protestants of a turbulent past and years of division and even violence. For American Evangelicals, many of whom have no official denominational affiliation, the role of established church organizations holds little influence in weekly worship, but the issue of unity within the body of Christ still holds a key place in prayer and objective.