The Vatican sought overnight to downplay a document claiming the Roman Catholic Church was the “one true Church of Christ” after it provoked outrage among other Christian faiths.
“What unites us is bigger than what divides us,” said Cardinal Walter Kasper, who is responsible for the church’s relations with other denominations.
The Vatican’s doctrinal watchdog yesterday released a document, which was ratified by the pope, to clear up “confusion and doubt” about the Catholic Church’s relationship with other faiths.
It recognised the “many elements of sanctification and truth” in other Christian denominations but said Protestant and Anglican Churches were “not churches in the proper sense of the word”, but rather “ecclesial communities”.
The document provoked a wave of condemnation from churches, which said it was a “slap in the face” for the ecumenical community, provoked tensions and “goes against the spirit of our Christian calling”.
But Cardinal Kasper said the declaration “does not say that Protestant Churches are not churches, but that they are not churches in the proper sense, that is they are not churches in the way the Catholic Church understands the word church”.
In any case, he said, Protestant churches “do not want to be churches in the sense of the Catholic Church”, because they have different ideas of what the church and its ministers should be.
He said that setting out the remaining differences between the Christian faiths “should stimulate us and not be viewed as a catastrophe”.
“In the final analysis, the Vatican’s declaration is an invitation to serenely continue discussions,” Cardinal Kasper said.
A spokesman for Egypt’s Coptic Church, the largest Christian community in the Middle East, warned today that comments such as those expressed in the Vatican document “fan tensions and arouse negative emotions”.
The World Council of Churches, which represents 340 churches including Orthodox and Protestants, insisted that “each church is the church catholic”, using catholic in the sense of universal.
The World Alliance of Reformed Churches, which represents over 200 Protestant churches, said the document “goes against the spirit of our Christian calling towards oneness in Christ”.
“At a time of societal fragmentation all over the world, the one Church of Jesus Christ in which we all participate ought to strengthen its common witness and affirm our oneness in Christ,” said secretary general Setri Nyomi.
The liberal Catholic movement Wir Sind Kirche in Germany said the document was a “fresh and unnecessary slap in the face of the ecumenical community” and questioned whether the Vatican was serious about interfaith dialogue.
The Evangelical Church in Germany also termed it “a snub” for the interfaith community and “a major set-back” for the dialogue between Churches.