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A document released this week by the Vatican, which declares the Catholic Church's primacy and can be seen as deeming other Christian communities defective, has stirred up outrage.
Pope Benedict XVI signed off on the statement, only days after he moved to reinstitute the Latin Mass (which also rankled some), as a way to correct "erroneous interpretation" of the Second Vatican Council's 1960s teachings, which many considered a breakthrough in fostering dialogue between Christian traditions.
As a result, letters of criticism have flourished among some Protestants whose denominations, in the statement, are referred to as "communities" and not churches "in the proper sense." Orthodox churches, on the other hand, are considered "sister" churches because they "have true sacraments" and "apostolic succession," a continued succession of bishops dating back to St. Peter.
Calling the statement, which refers to the Catholic Church as the "one Church of Christ," "disappointing and regressive," Bishop Carolyn Tanner Irish of the Episcopal Diocese of Utah wondered in a written response why, in a time already steeped in division and when ecumenism is most necessary, the pope would issue comments that "will not help our efforts to find common ground and to move forward together."
"I don't believe any church owns the door to salvation or the table to which Christ invites us," she said.
But Bishop John Wester of the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City said Thursday he didn't see the cause for concern. Like so many religions who view their own way as the right path, he said, "We believe that this is the way to salvation. . .but that doesn't mean no one else can be saved, as I read the document."
Scott Trotter, spokesman for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, weighed in Friday saying, "We are neither offended nor concerned when other faith traditions assert their authority. As stated in our 11th Article of Faith: 'We claim the privilege of worshiping Almighty God according to the dictates of our own conscience, and allow all men the same privilege, let them worship how, where or what they may.' "
Based on history and personal understanding, Wester said he knows Pope Benedict XVI to be "very interested in ecumenical and interfaith dialogue." He called Tuesday's statements "technical, theological clarifications," meant to lay out for Catholics "how we as a Catholic Church define what a church is." Word choices such as "defects," in describing what other communities "suffer from," are technical, too, he said, and aren't meant to offend or be viewed "in the parlance of everyday language."
By clarifying terms internally, Wester hopes the statement will allow Catholics "to have a more effective dialogue."
Tom McClenahan shares the same hope. The academic dean of the Salt Lake Theological Seminary, Utah's only graduate school for Protestant clergy, said Friday he was "surprised by the flap."
"We knew that the Roman Church insists that everyone recognize the primacy of the pope," he said. Those who are upset "seem to think this might hurt their ecumenical conversations with Rome, but it seems Pope Benedict is just saying what the Vatican has said before."
Even in Vatican II, McClenahan said Protestants were referred to as "separated brethren." The fact they are described as "ecclesial communities" in this statement is a step up, he said.
"I'll go for that," McClenahan said. "That's a long way from pronouncing anathemas on Martin Luther. There's great hope in this kind of talk."