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There are Catholics and then everyone else
By WAVENEY ANN MOORE
Published July 15, 2007
One God, many faiths.
In the heart of ecumenism beats a belief that good people can worship God in myriad ways, and that despite differences of religion, can work together for the commonweal on this Earth and each earn their own reward as equals in a rapturous afterlife.
But ecumenism has a turbid reality roiling beneath its tranquil surface. If God loves all his children equally, why do separate faiths even exist? For example, if it is a sin for a Catholic to miss Mass on purpose, how can a believing Catholic trust that a Protestant - let alone a Jew, a Muslim or a Buddhist - is in the grace of God if that worshiper never attends Mass at all?
And if people truly believe in their faith as the one true path, why don't they feel compelled to convert the people closest to them instead of living and letting live each in their own faith?
These questions were theoretical and theological, matters of mere conversational interest until last week, when Pope Benedict XVI divided the world into Catholics and everyone else. And in so doing, the pope has reignited a debate about whether ecumenism is at its core a secular means of doing good works on Earth that is silent on God's eternal plan for the souls of those earnestly toiling in this vale of tears, singing Kumbaya in chorus before they return to the dust from whence they came.
In March, Roman Catholic Bishop Robert N. Lynch received a standing ovation and thunderous applause from 1,500 Episcopalians grateful that he had allowed them to use the Cathedral of St. Jude the Apostle in St. Petersburg for the consecration of their new bishop.
In Pinellas County, Roman Catholic priests, Baptist ministers, other Christians and Jews are banding together to fight for social justice.
And worldwide, Anglicans, Pentecostals, Lutherans, Methodists and Orthodox Christians, among others, have been in years-long dialogue with Catholics in a quest for Christian understanding and unity.
But when the Vatican issued its controversial document last week, it may have put those painstaking efforts for rapprochement at risk.
Saying that non-Catholic churches "suffer from defects," or worse, might not even be churches in "the proper sense," doesn't exactly make for friendly exchange. Some Protestant and Orthodox leaders are not pleased. Others are taking a more sanguine view and say the document could lay the foundation for good, honest talk.
"I suspect one of the reasons for the announcement is this may reflect Pope Benedict's leadership," said Father Thomas Rausch, a Jesuit priest and professor of theological studies at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles.
"He is very concerned about relativism and part of that is the notion that one church is as good as another."
Ann Riggs, head of the National Council of Churches' ecumenical effort, says the document - issued in the form of five questions and answers - is simply a clarification.
"If you did not realize that's what the Catholic Church taught, then you would find it astonishing news," she said.
Put out by the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith - which the pope headed when he was Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger - the document states that the Church of Christ "subsists" in the Catholic Church.
It concedes, however, that although non-Catholic churches and communities "suffer from defects," they are "deprived neither of significance nor importance in the mystery of salvation."
A Quaker, Riggs said, "I don't think they are at all dismissing other Christians," adding that Catholic leaders aren't saying other Christians can't live a good life. "They are saying that this is the best way to live a good life."
Missing in the reaction to the new Vatican document is an acknowledgement that some conservative Christians are even harsher toward Catholics, she said. They think that the church is dangerous to believers.
So if the Catholic Church is the full expression of Christ's church on Earth, but other churches also lead to salvation, does affiliation even matter? Yes, says Rausch.
"The point is, Christ calls Christians to unity. In the Gospel of John, he prays that we all may be one," he said.
For the Vatican, that unified church is Catholic.
"All we're saying is that we believe from a historical perspective we have a link back to Jesus Christ himself that is unique and we invite other people to learn about it and talk about it," said the Rev. Robert Schneider of Espiritu Santo Catholic Church in Safety Harbor. "It has nothing exclusively to do with salvation. Buddhists are going to heaven."
As for ecumenism, the new document helps clarify Catholic belief for Catholics, Schneider said.
"I think it's kind of an internal thing that the pope is reminding Catholics that there are certain tenets that are authentic and unchanging and when I go to dialogue with an ecumenical group, I need to know what my church teaches and reflect that honestly," said Schneider, former co-chair of the Pinellas County interfaith social action group, Faith and Action for Strength Together, or FAST.
"The Catholic Church has a very clear idea of what it is to be fully the church," said Geoffrey Wainwright, professor of theology at Duke University and an ordained minister in the British Methodist Church who discussed theological issues with Benedict before he became pope.
"There are matters of faith or doctrine and there also are matters of church structure and government, and the Catholic Church believes that it is structured as Christ ordered it to be and set Peter in charge," with succeeding popes as his successor.
Wainwright, a member of the World Methodist Council and chairman of the commission that has been in talks with the Catholic Church for the past 40 years, doesn't believe last week's document will bring ecumenism to a screeching halt. "Some will be disappointed by it, but they shouldn't stop working together," he said.
Christian cooperation at the grassroots level will continue, he said, adding that "should then be a stimulus to theologians and church leaders."
Last year, the World Methodist Council and Catholics issued a statement that he finds profound:
"It is time now to look one another in the eye, and with love and esteem to acknowledge what we see to be truly of Christ and of the Gospel, and thereby of the church, in one another."