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Wuerl: Others can be saved

Thursday, September 07, 2000

By Ann Rodgers-Melnick, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

A statement issued by the Vatican Tuesday does not mean that only Catholics will be saved or that Protestants are not Christians, local Catholic and non-Catholic religious leaders said yesterday.

Referring to a Los Angeles Times story that ran in yesterday's Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Bishop Donald Wuerl of the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh said, "If that article were a tire, it's so full of defects it would be recalled."

"Dominus Iesus" -- Latin for "Lord Jesus" -- argues that Jesus Christ is the only way of salvation. It defends evangelism against claims that non-Christian faiths such as Hinduism and Islam are just as valid as Christianity for leading people into a true relationship with God and taking them to heaven.

The document says that while non-Christian faiths contain many true and beautiful ideas that can point people toward God, it is only Jesus Christ who saves.

In order to explain how Jesus works through the Church, the document uses highly technical language from Vatican II to explain the relationship between the Catholic Church, the Orthodox churches and the Protestant churches.

Many ecumenists were upset that the declaration did not use the more progressive language from the more recent encyclicals of Pope John Paul II, who speaks of "sister churches" and has written of the need for Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox Christians to cooperate in evangelism.

But the point of the passage is that all faith communities that baptize in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit bring salvation, said the Rev. John G. Panagiotou, chancellor of the Greek Orthodox Diocese of Pittsburgh, who has degrees in both Catholic and Orthodox theology.

"It affirms that grace is present in all of these confessing communities. It does talk about a uniqueness in the Catholic tradition...but it doesn't say anything derogatory," Panagiotou said. "I think the media has taken a big spin on this and made it a polemic instead of explaining what the document really says."

Bishop Donald McCoid of the Southwestern Pennsylvania Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, president of the ELCA Council of Bishops and a leader in Catholic-Lutheran relations, said he was dismayed by the 35-year-old definitions of ecumenical relationships. Catholics and Protestants in Vatican-approved dialogues have found a great deal of common ground since Vatican II, and that progress was not reflected in the document, he said.

He was most worried about the news stories, which he believed his laity would take as a repudiation of last year's celebrations marking Catholic-Lutheran consensus on the key doctrine of justification by faith.

"My concern is over how people will read this, about what they are experiencing and feeling," he said. While the Vatican document speaks of Protestant churches as imperfect, "a Lutheran would never say to a Catholic, 'You are imperfect because you have things that we question in terms of the development of your doctrine and theology.' "

Much unpleasantness could have been avoided, McCoid said, if the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith had consulted with Orthodox and Protestant theologians to get their input in the statement.

"We have honest differences. But the Roman Catholic church needs to share these things with us...not just say, 'These are our pronouncements.' I had hoped we had moved beyond that."

The document was written primarily for Catholic theologians, Wuerl said.

In Wuerl's view, it is aimed at some theologians in Asia, who have been trying to incorporate Hinduism, Islam and Buddhism into the Catholic understanding of the Gospel. That may be a reason that the document makes no mention of Judaism, which is considered a special case among non-Christian religions.

The document first defines the Christian faith with the Nicene Creed -- a creed affirmed by Catholics, Orthodox and Protestants. It then asserts the necessity of proclaiming the Christian faith to those who do not yet believe it. That mission, the document said, is endangered by those who assert that Jesus Christ is just one revelation of God among many.

"Certainly it must be recognized that there are some elements in [sacred scriptures of non-Christian faiths] which countless people throughout the centuries have been and still are able today to nourish and maintain their life-relationship with God....The Church's tradition, however, reserves the designation of inspired texts to the canonical books of the Old and New Testaments, since these are inspired by the Holy Spirit," the document said.

Referring to dialogue to achieve understanding with non-Christian faiths, the document said, "Inter-religious dialogue, therefore, as part of her evangelizing mission, is just one of the actions of the church in her mission [to non-Christians]. Equality, which is a presupposition of inter-religious dialogue, refers to the equal personal dignity of the parties in dialogue, not to doctrinal content, nor even less to the position of Jesus Christ -- who is God himself made man -- in relation to the founders of other religions."

The confusion over what the document says about other Christians stems from the explanation of how Christ works through "The Church."

"Therefore, there exists a single Church of Christ, which subsists in the Catholic Church, governed by the successor of Peter and by the bishops in communion with him. The churches which, while not existing in perfect communion with the Catholic Church, remain united to her by means of the closest bonds, that is by apostolic succession and a valid Eucharist, are true particular churches. Therefore the church of Christ is present and operative in these churches," the document said, in reference to the Orthodox.

Protestant churches, it says, are not "churches in the proper sense" because they do not claim bishops who are directly descended from the original apostles or, in most cases, teach that the consecrated bread and wine become the body and blood of Jesus.

"However, those who are baptized in these communities are, by baptism, incorporated in Christ and thus are in a certain communion, albeit imperfect, with the Church."

That passage looks at "the Church" as a single institution which Christ founded 2,000 years ago, but which has become fragmented over the centuries, Wuerl said. The Catholic church teaches that the church that Christ founded is most fully expressed in the Catholic church, and almost as fully in the Orthodox churches.

Although Protestant churches have more serious differences with the Catholic church, even the most rabidly anti-Catholic independent congregation is still in an imperfect communion with the Catholic church, because it, too, stems from Christ's original foundation.

Thus, when the document says that salvation comes through "the Church," it includes the Orthodox and Catholic churches, he said.

"This says that we are all in some way, either through baptism or profession of the revelation of the word of God, related to each other. Those are elements of the true church that we share," Wuerl said.

The full English text of Dominus Iesus is on the Web at

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