LORENZAGO DI CADORE, Italy — Pope Benedict XVI reasserted the primacy of the Roman Catholic Church, approving a document released yesterday that says other Christian communities are either defective or not true churches and Catholicism provides the only true path to salvation.
The statement brought swift criticism from Protestant leaders. “It makes us question whether we are indeed praying together for Christian unity,” said the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, a fellowship of 75 million Protestants in more than 100 countries.
“It makes us question the seriousness with which the Roman Catholic Church takes its dialogues with the reformed family and other families of the church,” the group said in a letter charging that the document took ecumenical dialogue back to the era before the Second Vatican Council.
It was the second time in a week that Benedict has corrected what he says are erroneous interpretations of the Second Vatican Council, the 1962-65 meetings that modernized the church. On Saturday, Benedict revived the old Latin Mass — a move cheered by Catholic traditionalists but criticized by more liberal ones as a step backward from Vatican II.
Among the council’s key developments were its ecumenical outreach and the development of the New Mass in the vernacular, which essentially replaced the old Latin Mass.
Benedict, who attended Vatican II as a young theologian, has long complained about what he considers its erroneous interpretation by liberals, saying it was not a break from the past but rather a renewal of church tradition.
The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which Benedict headed before becoming pope, said it was issuing the new document yesterday because some contemporary theological interpretations of Vatican II’s ecumenical intent had been “erroneous or ambiguous” and had prompted confusion and doubt.
The new document — formulated as five questions and answers — restates key sections of a 2000 text the pope wrote when he was prefect of the congregation, “Dominus Iesus,” which riled Protestant and other Christian denominations because it said they were not true churches but merely ecclesial communities and therefore did not have the “means of salvation.”
The commentary repeated church teaching that says the Catholic Church “has the fullness of the means of salvation.”
“Christ ‘established here on earth’ only one church,” said the document released as the pope vacations at a villa in Lorenzago di Cadore, in Italy’s Dolomite mountains.
The document said that Orthodox churches were indeed “churches” because they have apostolic succession and that they enjoyed “many elements of sanctification and of truth.” But it said they lack something because they do not recognize the primacy of the pope — a defect, or a “wound” that harmed them, it said.
Despite the harsh tone of the document, it stresses that Benedict remains committed to ecumenical dialogue.
“However, if such dialogue is to be truly constructive, it must involve not just the mutual openness of the participants but also fidelity to the identity of the Catholic faith,” the commentary said.
The document, signed by the congregation prefect, U.S. Cardinal William Levada, was approved by Benedict on June 29, the feast of Sts. Peter and Paul — a major ecumenical feast day.