Professor Greg Bloomquist is an Anglican priest teaching at St. Paul's Roman Catholic University in Ottawa. He has today (August 6, 2000) posted the following on the Canadian Evangelical Theological Association Discussion list:


The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has written to bishops around the world cautioning them on how they use the expression "sister Churches" when engaged in ecumenical dialogue. The document says the Catholic Church is not a sister, but mother of all particular Churches.

The three-and-a-half page "note", Robert Mickens reports from Rome, was signed on 30 June by the prefect of the congregation, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, and its secretary, Archbishop Tarcisio Bertone. It attempts to clarify the proper sense of the expression "sister Churches", which "may only be used by those ecclesial communities that have preserved a valid
episcopate and Eucharist".

"While there is certainly a legitimate use of this expression (sister Churches)", says the Vatican text, "an ambiguous use has become prevalent in contemporary writings on ecumenism" and "it is therefore appropriate to recall the correct and proper use of this expression".

The congregations document sketches what it calls "the origin and development of the expression" and then spells out "directives" on its use. It says that "the significance which the expression sister Churches has assumed in the ecumenical dialogue. . . makes the correct theological term even more important". According to the document, "sister Churches are
exclusively particular Churches" while "the one, holy, Catholic and apostolic Universal Church is not sister but mother of all particular Churches".

One theologian said privately that it was his general opinion that the letter resurrected the pre-Vatican II "one, true Church" doctrine without explicitly saying so. He suggested that the document be read "in the context of the post-conciliar effort by Cardinal Ratzinger and others to formulate a revisionist interpretation of article 8 of Vatican II's constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium: This Church . . . subsists in the Catholic Church. . . . "

The new document's timing remained unclear. Though it is dated 30 June, it appears that the text was not actually sent to the bishops until well after the high-level Roman Catholic-Orthodox summit which took place from 9 to 19 July in the United States. In the light of the stalemate at those July talks (the two sides were not even able to issue a concluding joint statement), the letter on sister Churches is likely to be to cause further irritation in non-Catholic church bodies.

The new document says: "There is but a single Church, and therefore the plural term Churches can refer only to particular Churches." When speaking of the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church or Churches, it says, "one should avoid. . . the use of such formulations such as our two Churches" so as not to cause "misunderstanding and theological confusion".

Confusion aside, the congregation's note is likely to cause a further stir by its rejection of the first millennium practice in the East of placing patriarchs at the head of the Church, with Rome having first place among these patriarchal sister Churches. The document states clearly: "It needs to be noted that no Roman pontiff ever recognized this equalization of sees or accepted that only a primacy of honour be accorded to the see of Rome. It should be noted too that this patriarchal structure typical of the East never developed in the West."

In a letter accompanying the congregation's "note", Cardinal Ratzinger said this new document should be "held as authoritative and binding" since it was approved by Pope John Paul II among whose titles is "Patriarch of the West".

The Archbishop of Canterbury's response:

ACNS 2219 Lambeth Palace 5 September 2000

Statement by the Archbishop of Canterbury concerning the Roman Catholic Document 'Dominus Ieusus'

By restating the long-held view of the Roman Catholic Church on the position of other Christian churches, this document breaks no new ground. But neither does it fully reflect the deeper understanding that has been achieved through ecumenical dialogue and co-operation during the past thirty years. Even though the document is not part of that process, the idea that Anglican and other churches are not "proper churches" seems to question the considerable ecumenical gains we have made.

It is important that we recognise and celebrate ecumenical progress. It is a task to which I remain fully committed on behalf of both the Church of England and the world-wide Anglican Communion. It is one I shall continue to pursue with both Roman Catholic and other church leaders on the basis of deep mutual respect.

Indeed, at an important meeting of senior Anglicans and Roman Catholics in Toronto, earlier this year, which I chaired jointly with Cardinal Cassidy, we made striking advances in acknowledging substantial agreement on a range of issues and in proposing a new Joint Unity Commission to carry things forward.

Of course, the Church of England, and the world-wide Anglican Communion, does not for one moment accept that its orders of ministry and Eucharist are deficient in any way. It believes itself to be a part of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church of Christ, in whose name it serves and bears witness, here and round the world.

Opinionated comment by Bob Brow :

It is time we went back to the NT picture of only one church in each city (Antioch, Ephesus, Corinth, Ephesus, Rome, etc). In our day members of that one church meet in many places under various denominational labels.

There is no harm in denominations (including the Roman Catholics and Anglicans) supporting a variety of styles of training, worship and forms of expression (like different kinds of flower in a garden). But denominations are not churches in any NT sense. The Roman Catholic Church, the Greek Orthodox Church, the Anglican Church, etc. are all misnomers.

Most lay people have long since rejected the idea of denominational loyalty. Here in Kingston, Ontario, they intend to have fellowship with other members of the one body for worship and service as the Holy Spirit moves them. That is one reason for the apparent drop in "church" attendance. I suspect there are more people involved in the one body of Christ in Kingston than ever before.

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