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 Issues | Ecumenical | The Church of Rome has erred
Toward Reunion

Paper delivered by Dr Garry Williams to a fringe meeting of the General Synod in July 2001 following the release of the Vatican statement Dominus Iesus.

Toward Reunion

On 8th Sept last year the Church Times carried this headline: ‘We are a proper Church, says Carey’, along with the subtitle: ‘Archbishop of Canterbury reacts angrily to restated Vatican definition of what a Church is’.(1) The Church of England Newspaper carried a similar headline: ‘Cardinal deals blow to ecumenism’.(2) Both stories were concerned with the declaration Dominus Iesus, issued on 6th August by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.  

            The storm which blew up around Dominus Iesus is very puzzling. It is puzzling because it is normal to have headlines in newspapers which bring new information. But the fact that the Roman Curia denies that the Church of England is a church is not new. This is clear even in the Church Times subtitle: ‘Archbishop of Canterbury reacts angrily to restated Vatican definition’. And in the Church of England Newspaper we read that the declaration ‘contained no new position on the part of the Roman Catholic Church, but nevertheless shocked Anglican leaders with the blunt negativity of its tone’.(3)

Why, we may wonder, did Anglican leaders react angrily as if this were news? Perhaps they had believed the myth that Vatican II changed everything for the Roman Catholic church. Certainly they must have ignored the actual teaching of the Council which is plain to see in the official documents. Let us look briefly at the Roman Catholic church’s ecclesiology and her principles on ecumenism as we find them there.  

It is true that Vatican II had a quite different tone from the Council of Trent (1545-63) and Vatican I (1869-70). Its friendliness to outsiders was seen in the presence of observers from other denominations. What is more, Unitatis Redintegratio, the Decree on Ecumenism, states explicitly that ‘Promoting the restoration of unity among all Christians is one of the Chief concerns of the Second Sacred Ecumenical Synod of the Vatican’.(4)

But what about the theological substance?   Tone is one thing, but how does Vatican II think about the processes of ecumenism? First, it is clear that the Roman Catholic church holds that she is the one and only true Church. Vatican II’s Lumen Gentium, the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, states plainly that the unique Church of Christ ‘constituted and organized in the world as a society, subsists in the Catholic Church, which is governed by the successor of Peter and by the bishops in union with that successor’.(5) There is only one true ‘Church’ in the singular, and it is the Roman Catholic Church. This one Church alone has ‘the fullness of the means of salvation’.(6) Indeed, this one Church is already a perfect unity; unity ‘dwells in the Catholic Church as something she can never lose’.(7)

Secondly, the Roman Catholic church thinks that outside her there are indeed found ‘elements of sanctification and of truth’. But these elements are actually ‘gifts properly belonging to the Church of Christ’.(8) They are being drawn into her since they ‘possess an inner dynamism toward Catholic unity’.(9) These elements also ‘derive their efficacy from the very fullness of grace and truth entrusted to the Catholic Church’.(10) We may illustrate: the Roman Catholic church is like a magnetized block of iron, already possessing fullness and unity, drawing in the scattered filings of truth from other Churches and communities.  

Thirdly, this has dramatic implications for other so-called churches. The churches of the East may legitimately be termed ‘Churches’, since they share a true apostolic succession and have the true Eucharist.(11) But even they are not the Church. The non-Roman Western churches, by contrast (such as the Church of England), are not churches at all. They have neither true orders nor therefore the true Eucharistic mystery. They are referred to merely as ‘ecclesial communities’.(12)

In the light of such theology, Dominus Iesus is no surprise. At each point of its discussion of ecumenism it merely reiterates the doctrine of Vatican II.(13) It repeats the idea of ‘the single Church of Christ’ which ‘continues to exist fully only in the Catholic Church’.(14) It repeats that there are other ‘Churches’ and ‘ecclesial communities’.(15) It agrees that the Church is wounded by division, but only in one sense: ‘not in the sense that she is deprived of her unity, but “in that it hinders the complete fulfilment of her universality in history”’.(16)

Each of these points had also been made in the encyclical Ut Unum Sint (1995). That too states that there is one Church, that she has unity, that elements of truth elsewhere are being drawn into her, that the East has ‘Churches’ and the non-Roman West has ‘ecclesial communities’.(17) Indeed, much of Ut Unum Sint is material quoted straight from Vatican II. It is therefore curious that one Anglican bishop is quoted in the Church Times as thinking that Dominus Iesus contradicts the positive emphasis of Ut Unum Sint.(18) It does not: it is a faithful repetition of Vatican II and Ut Unum Sint. Hence we read at the end of its text that the Pope has confirmed Ratzinger’s declaration ‘with sure knowledge and by his apostolic authority’.

This is the Roman Catholic church’s view of ecclesiology and of ecumenism. We must ask if it is indeed safe to be drawn back into her fold. Has she changed in such a way since the Reformation that we should rejoin her? There are (at least) two further questions which we need to ask to assess the possibility of such a move. These are the two most important theological questions which we can ask. First, how do we gain authoritative knowledge of the truth? Secondly, how are we saved?

The first question is so important because it is the filter for all other theological questions, the eye through which the Christian sees the world.   Change the eye, and the whole view changes with it. The Council of Trent decreed that the one divine revelation is found in two forms, written and unwritten. One is Scripture, the other is the Tradition of the Church. They are to be received and venerated equally.(19) Vatican I in 1870 taught that when the Pope makes ex cathedra pronouncements he does so in the power of the Spirit and they are infallible. They define the true meaning of Scripture and Tradition.(20)

Vatican II changed none of this. In Dei Verbum, the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, it repeated the doctrine of Trent, for example: ‘it is not from sacred Scripture alone that the Church draws her certainty about everything which has been revealed. Therefore both sacred tradition and sacred scripture are to be accepted and venerated with the same sense of devotion and reverence’.(21) Both together ‘form one sacred deposit of the word of God’, which thus exists in two forms.(22) According to Dei Verbum it is the role of the Magisterium to provide the authoritative interpretation of this word of God.(23) The Magisterium stands under co-equal Scripture and Tradition as their authoritative interpreter. The authority of the Pope stated at Vatican I is reaffirmed in Lumen Gentium: ‘his definitions, of themselves, and not from the consent of the Church, are justly styled irreformable […] they need no approval of others, nor do they allow an appeal to any other judgment’.(24) There was certainly a strong emphasis on the collegiality of bishops and the role of the laity at Vatican II, but this was in addition to Papal infallibility, not instead of it. And of course the bishops who have collegial authority are Roman bishops, a fact which ARCIC III seems to overlook in its excitement about the possibility of Anglican collegiality with Roman bishops. It is evident that on the question of authority, the Roman Catholic church thinks as she has always thought, with added emphases perhaps, but with the core the same. We may contrast with her doctrine the teaching of Jesus against the traditions of men in Mark 7:1-15 and the Anglican emphasis on the sufficiency of Scripture and the fallibility of councils (Articles 6 and 21).

Being surprised at texts like Dominus Iesus therefore reveals a degree of theological naïveté. Rome’s own doctrine of authority means that she holds what she has held. Vatican II was not long ago. Are we really to expect that its teaching on the true Church has been forgotten already? Are we to be surprised when it is reiterated? The Roman Catholic church does not have theological amnesia, nor should we.      

            We turn to our second question which asks how we are saved. Trent made clear that faith is the beginning of justification. But it explained that our justification grows with our good deeds, that it is sacramentally given, and that on the Day of judgement we can merit eternal salvation on the basis of our Spirit-given good works alone.(25) The subsequent Councils have not changed any of this. It remains the understanding given in the Catechism. In fact Vatican II has added more on the role of Mary as Mediatrix. Mary, we are told at the end of Lumen Gentium, is the one who pours out blessings on the church. This is not just in the sense that she said ‘Yes’ to bearing Jesus Christ, though the Council affirms this as a free human response. It refers to her present saving intercession.(26) This is one of the dominant themes of Lumen Gentium, a text significant for putting Mariology at the heart of Roman ecclesiology, and therefore at the heart of Roman soteriology. Rome still holds that we are justified by faith and works, by the sacraments, and now has a clear statement that we are saved by the intercession of Mary. We may contrast with this the teaching of the Apostle Paul and of the Anglican church. Article 11 follows Ephesians 2:1-10 when it states: ‘that we are justified by Faith only is a most wholesome Doctrine’.

Texts such as ARCIC II (1987) and the Lutheran-Roman Catholic Augsburg Declaration (1999) have not succeeded in resolving this crucial divergence from the true doctrine of justification by faith alone, and many of them have not been accepted by the Magisterium. Let me give one example of an unresolved issue. The Augsburg text claims that reconciliation has been achieved.   But a closer look reveals that this does not mean that full agreement was reached. Rather, the document itself re-states the Lutheran and Roman Catholic views in a way that makes their disagreement clear. For example, it correctly states that Lutherans view justification as by faith alone, and that ‘a distinction but not a separation is made between justification itself and the renewal of one’s way of life that necessarily follows from justification’.(27) Then it correctly gives the Roman Catholic view that ‘the justification of sinners is forgiveness of sins and being made righteous by justifying grace’.(28) These two views contradict one another, but the Declaration withdraws earlier anathemas. This is not agreement, it is merely saying that while disagreement remains it is not that serious.

In sum, the Roman Catholic church has what we may term an acquisitive attitude to ecumenism. She thinks that she has unity and fullness, and lacks only universality. Absorbing the Church of England would serve principally to extend her rule, giving to her what is already rightfully hers. But the Roman Catholic church remains what she once was on the key issues of authority and salvation. This means that now is not the time for reunion with Rome, but for explicit theological repentance by Rome. Then there can be unity in the truth. This is what we must seek and pray for.  This is the path of true love for Roman Catholics, the path toward reunion. In the meantime, given that Rome has not changed, let us be grateful for men like Cardinal Ratzinger who plainly, honestly, and consistently expound the theology of their church. With them, we know where we stand. And it is not in Rome. Nor should it be.

1 Church Times, No. 7177, 8th September, 2000, p. 1.(return)

2 Church of England Newspaper, No. 5530, 8th September, 2000, p. 1.(return)

3 Ibid.


4 Unitatis Redintegratio, Introduction, 1, Documents of Vatican II, ed. W.M. Abbott (New York: Guild Press, 1966), p. 341.   Also in the more recent version, Vatican Council II: The Conciliar and Post Conciliar Documents, ed. A. Flannery (Leominster: Fowler Wright, 1975), and online with most of the other documents referred to here from the Roman Magisterium at http://www.newadvent.org.(return)

5 Lumen Gentium, i. 8, Documents, p. 23.(return)

6 UR, i. 3, Documents, p. 346.(return)

7 UR, i. 4, Documents, p. 348.(return)

8 LG, i. 8, Documents, p. 23; cf., UR, i. 3, Documents, p. 346.(return)

9 LG, i. 8, Documents, p. 23.(return)

10 UR, i. 3, Documents, p. 346.(return)

11 UR, iii. 14-18.(return)

12 UR, iii. 22, Documents, p. 364, reflecting the Bull, Apostolicae Curae (1896).(return)

13 Chapter 4 is concerned with ecumenism, cited here from the Vatican website http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/congregations/


(accessed 18 i 2001). There is a printed edition (London: Catholic Truth Society, 2000).(return)

14 Dominus Iesus, § 16.(return)

15 Dominus Iesus, § 17.(return)

16 Ibid.(return)

17 Ut Unum Sint, §§ 10, 13, 14, 50ff., 64ff. (return)

18 Church Times, No. 7177, 8th September, 2000, p. 1.(return)

19 Decree Concerning the Canonical Scriptures (8th April, 1546).(return)

20 Pastor Aeternus, First Dogmatic Constitution on the Church of Christ, c. 4.  (return)

21 Dei Verbum, ii. 9, Documents, p. 117.(return)

22 DV, ii. 10, Documents, p. 117.(return)

23 DV, ii. 10.(return)

24 LG, iii. 25, Documents, p. 49.(return)

25 Decree on Justification (13th January, 1547), especially c. 16.(return)

26 LG, viii. 62.(return)

27 Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification, § 26, cited here from the website http://www.elca.org/ea/jddj/declaration.html (accessed 5 vii 01).(return)

28 Joint Declaration, § 27.(return)


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