Document presents ecumenical difficulty


The document Dominus Iesus does not say anything new with regard to the way in which the Roman Catholic Church understands itself. The section Unicity and Unity of the Church stresses the uniqueness of the Roman Catholic Church and that the single Church of Christ subsists in that church. This is clearly found in the documents of the Second Vatican Council.

It then goes on to express a distinction between those churches, on the one hand, which retain the apostolic succession and a valid Eucharist where the Church of Christ "is present and operative" and, on the other, those "ecclesial communities which have not preserved the valid Episcopate and the genuine and integral substance of the Eucharistic mystery", which it further says are "not churches in the proper sense".

The conclusion to this section is quite blunt. "The lack of unity among Christians is certainly a wound for the church; not in the sense that she is deprived of her unity, but "in that it hinders the complete fulfilment of her universality in history."

It is this small section of the document which raises difficulty for the Church of Ireland - and indeed, one would venture to say - for most churches with a real ecumenical commitment. It is this section that links naturally to the Note (from Cardinal Ratzinger) on the use of the terminology "sister churches" which has provoked such strong reaction.

Before turning to the Note, it is worth reflecting on the section as a whole.

Those who say that through the issuing of Dominus Iesus nothing has changed in the official documents of the Roman Catholic Church may be strictly correct. However, the document raises the whole question of the adequacy of the use of doctrinal statements as effective tools for ecumenical relations.

Churches with confessional statements and historical formularies (Reformed, Anglican, or Lutheran) framed in the early days after the Reformation frequently find that the terminology, and indeed the tone, of these statements are unhelpful to modern theological dialogue, and generally desist from using them in dialogue.

Such a recognition enabled the Lutheran churches to reach a new agreement with the Roman Catholic Church in 1999 on the Doctrine of Justification. In the same spirit, the General Synod of the Church of Ireland in 1999 passed a resolution stating:

"Historic documents often stem from periods of deep separation between Christian churches.

Whilst, in spite of a real degree of convergence, distinct differences remain, negative statements towards other Christians should not be seen as representing the spirit of this church today.

"The Church of Ireland affirms all in its traditions that witnesses to the truth of the Gospel. It regrets that words written in another age and in a different context should be used in a manner hurtful to or antagonistic towards other Christians."

The documents of Vatican II were framed likewise in the very early days following the entry of the Roman Catholic Church into the modern ecumenical movement. One should ask whether they really provide an adequate basis for ecclesiology 30 years later, in the light of the way that the Roman Catholic Church has moved in its relationship with all major Christian traditions, especially at the local level.

The tone of Dominus Iesus and the Note with reference to sister churches does not reflect the manner in which ecumenical partners enter into dialogue today. The English Roman Catholic journal, the Tablet, in an editorial on September 9th, 2000, concludes: "What a pity that it sounds notes of triumphalism that the sympathetic style and way of acting of Pope John XXIII, newly beatified, seemed to have dispelled for good."

This is borne out by some senior cardinals who have distanced themselves from it to a greater or lesser extent.

Cardinal Martini of Milan suggested the tone "risks being rather strong", and that it should be read in the context of the "wider and more encouraging framework of Ut Unum Sint" (Pope John Paul's document on Christian unity).

Another disturbing element in Dominus Iesus is the manner in which the term "church" is denied to some Christian communions and ascribed to others.

Preserving a historic episcopate but without a papacy would place Anglicans in the same category as the Orthodox. In the very arbitrary definition of the rectitude of Eucharist doctrine, then one might say that, in the light of the official response of the Vatican to the report of the first Anglican Roman Catholic International Commission (ARCIC), questions have still to be answered.

Such sharp distinctions undermine the ecumenical endeavour. This has been well expressed by Bishop Eero Huovinen of the Church of Finland, in a statement following the publication of Dominus Iesus.

He speaks of the possible obstacle in this distinction "to equal partnership" and of the "lack of mutual respect in ecumenical dialogue".

He continues that "it is my hope that old wounds will not be opened again. In a situation like this it would be important to rather seek for what unites than to remind of disagreements."

In concluding his presentation to the IICM Dr Eames said: "The tone of the Note and indeed of the statement Dominus Iesus reflect little of the journey on which we believe that God is bringing us together as Christians and, though we can understand it from a merely academic point of view, we would wonder what it will achieve for the healing of the church.

For the Church of Ireland this document, coming so soon after the statement One Bread, One Body, causes substantial difficulty in maintaining the momentum of ecumenical progress.

Our prayer and wish is that it will not damage the growing awareness of the unity that has already been achieved through our Baptism into Christ, and our sharing in a common goal in the ecumenical movement."

The full text of Dr Eames's presentation is available at