A spur to promote ecumenism, says theologian of new Vatican document

Thursday, July 12th, 2007
The current controversy caused by a recent Vatican document on the differences between Catholics and Protestants can be good for ecumenism, according to Fr Tom Norris, joint secretary of the Irish Inter-Church Committee.

He was respondinging to the release of Responses to Some Questions Regarding Certain Aspects of the Doctrine on the Church, a document produced by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, published Tuesday.

The document caused a storm of protest from other church leaders after it reaffirmed Catholic teaching that other Christian denominations were not churches in the full sense of the word.

However, Fr Norris told ciNews that the document could be a spur to ecumenism in that it reminded people that doctrinal ecumenism remained vital work. Questions about the validity of sacraments, the status of the Eucharist and the authority of bishops remained serious issues, he said.

"These questions won't go away," he went on.

He pointed out that the Reformation tradition had given the Catholic Church great gifts. Referring to statements made by Pope John Paul II, Fr Norris said that the Orthodox Church had a beautiful liturgical tradition, while Protestants had a powerful appreciation of the power of the Word of God. Meanwhile, the Catholic Church itself had been given great gifts, such as the charisms which underlay many of the great orders and lay movements.

"All these gifts come from the one Gospel," he added. "Ecumenism will bring us together, but it will bring us together enriched."

He gave concrete examples of how the Reformed traditions had already helped the Catholic Church, mentioning that the work of the Council of Trent, which helped to clarify and consolidate Church teaching, was largely a response to questions posed by Martin Luther, the first of the Reformers.

"We have already enriched each other, and we will continue to do so."

Fr Norris acknowledged that the statement reaffirming that Protestant denominations were not Churches would cause genuine offence to many of good will. However, he said that this teaching should not be taken out of context. "It's not the only thing we're saying," he went on.

The document also says of Christians of other denominations: "It is possible, according to Catholic doctrine, to affirm correctly that the Church of Christ is present and operative in the churches and ecclesial communities not yet fully in communion with the Catholic Church, on account of the elements of sanctification and truth that are present in them," Fr Norris pointed out.

"In other words, the other ecclessial communities have elements of the Church in them."

However, he accepted that the document may present practical difficulties in terms of engaging with ecumenists of other denominations. Fr Norris said that similar difficulties arose when an earlier Vatican document, Dominus Iesus, was issued in 2000.

"That time, we held a study day on the document. We studied it together and it led to some progress," he said.