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Vatican statement reaffirms ecumenical nature of church council

New York City, July 10, 2007 The Vatican statement on the doctrine on the church is an opportunity of hope says the staff head of the National Council of Churches USA's Faith and Order Commission.

"This reaffirms that the ecumenical nature and purpose of the Second Vatican Council is still very much alive within and outside Catholic circles," said Dr. Ann Riggs, NCC's associate general secretary for Faith and Order, in an interview with NCC News.

"Even though this was written for Catholic theologians," said Riggs, "it affords us all an opportunity for more dialogue and more insight."

The release of the Vatican document and Riggs' comments come just one week before the 50th anniversary conference [] of the Oberlin, Ohio gathering that prompted the entrance of the Roman Catholic Church into the modern ecumenical movement.  The participation of Catholic observers at the 1957 event is viewed by many as a scene setter for the Second Vatican Council.  NCC's Faith and Order Commission traces its birth to that Oberlin event.

Remarks of Dr. Ann Riggs,
on 'The Doctrine on the Church'

"The Vatican statement says it is a clarification of erroneous interpretation which has given rise to some confusion and doubts about what Catholic doctrine on the Church is.  These interpretations, doubts and questions are found in Catholic theological debate.  That's what the document addresses. 

Of course, in our ecumenical age, we from other churches take an interest in what it says to its own members.  So the document is also being interpreted by many others including members of the National Council of Churches USA.  We are not the ones to whom this document is addressed.  It is addressed to Catholics. 

Some of these questions may not come from the United States but nonetheless we are reading the answers along with those around the world.

"Each of the five questions concerns teachings of the Second Vatican Council:
1)  Did the Second Vatican Council change the Catholic doctrine on the Church?
2)  What is the meaning of the affirmation that the Church of Christ subsists in the Catholic Church?
3)  Why was the expression 'subsists in' adopted instead of the simple word 'is'?
4)  Why does the Second Vatican Council use the term 'Church' in reference to the oriental Churches separated from full communion with the Catholic Church?
5)  Why do the texts of the Council and those of the Magisterium since the Council not use the title of 'Church' with regard to those Christian Communities born out of the Reformation of the sixteenth century?

"The issue that is at the center of these five questions is the nature of the Church.  This document acknowledges there are numerous elements of sanctification and truth outside the Catholic Church and those institutions have been used by the spirit of Christ as instruments of salvation.

"For some non-Catholics, as an example, some Protestant communities say, while there are some Christians within the Catholic Church, they are being saved despite the Catholic Church.  Yet other Protestant communities would ask, has the spirit of Christ used this institution as an instrument of salvation?  If the answer is yes, then they must be a real church.

"From the Catholic point of view the differences with the separated churches of the East around understanding the ministry of the Bishop of Rome is so important to Catholics.  Catholics view the Orthodox lack of acknowledgment of the primacy of the Pope as a defect from Roman Catholic interpretation.  From an Orthodox point of view there is more of a defect in the Roman Catholic Church."

"This statement is responding only to some very specific questions about the Catholic doctrinal position on some Christian churches and is not a blanket statement on all non-Catholics.  The statement does not address, for example, Old Catholic churches, Pentecostal churches, or the Salvation Army, about whose status new question were not asked.

"The Vatican clarification is only stating their own doctrine from their point of view.  There are ways in which the Catholic Church understands the Church differently than those churches born out of the sixteenth century Reformation.  Rome is certainly not saying the door is closed on ecumenical dialogue.  But we see there is still a lot more to talk about.  There is more to discuss.

"George Lindbeck, a Lutheran theologian in the U.S., talks in his book, 'The Nature of Doctrine,' about the problem that we find in ecumenical circles.  He says every word and phrase refers to that particular doctrinal heritage and must be viewed in that way.  In the ecumenical dialogue we still often find we don't have the capacity to fully understand the pre-understandings and doctrinal heritage of the partner.  The document, written for Catholics and their particular understanding, may seem odd to those who are not Catholic and do not understand Catholic thought from within.

"Even though this was written for Catholic theologians it affords us all an opportunity for more dialogue and more insight.  This reaffirms that the ecumenical nature and purpose of the Second Vatican Council is still very much alive within and outside Catholic circles."

NCC News contact:  Dan Webster, 212.870.2252,


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