Ecumenical Trends
A New Document and Old Obstacles
A commentary on Dominus Iesus by Archbishop Michael J. Champion, DD., MA. Th.

Published in Sobornopravna, Fall 2000 Issue

His Eminence, Archbishop MICHAEL There is certainly much debate going on over the recent Declaration of the Vatican Curia's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, entitled Dominus Iesus: On the Unicity and Salvific Universality of Jesus Christ and the Church. Taking its name from the initial Latin words of the text: "The Lord Jesus," the Declaration gives official church teaching on the centrality of Christ in the salvation of all peoples, and sees the redemptive role of Christ as the source of all salvation, including the possibility of that salvation can be attained by those of other than Christian and specifically of non-Catholic faith. The publishing Congregation, that for the "Doctrine of the Faith" assists the Roman Pontiff in governing the Catholic Communion in matters of faith and morality. Referred to as the "magisterium" or "teaching office of the church, prior to the Second Vatican Council, this branch of the Roman Curia was called "The Holy Office" or "The Inquisition."

The impact of Dominus Iesus is being felt on the inside and on the outside of the Roman Church and from other Christians and non-Christians as well. Already, we can see the role of theology and theologians taking shape, as the document is interpreted by academic and religious leaders. The Pope himself, gave a carte blanche approval of the Congregation's work in his Sunday Angelus address on October 1. John Paul used the occasion to clarify the meaning of the Declaration, saying that "Our confession of Christ as the only Son, through whom we ourselves see the face of the Father, is not arrogance that shows contempt for other religions, but the joyful recognition that Christ showed himself to us without any merit on our part," the Pope told the crowd gathered in St. Peter's Square.

Many observers believe that this particular document will cause the ecumenical movement and the church's dialogue with other world religions to regress to levels not seen since Vatican II, and that it will negate the many accomplishments in this area throughout John Paulís twenty-two year pontificate. The Pope disagrees with this kind of interpretation, though, stating that the declaration "clarifies the essential Christian elements, which do not obstruct the dialogue, but show its basis, because dialogue without foundations would be destined to degenerate into empty verbosity."

In fact, John Paul and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith believe that Dominus Iesus merely continues the theology of the Second Vatican Council, which taught that there is the possibility of salvation for non-Catholics and even non-Christians, but that their salvation has its ultimate source in Christ and in the Paschal Mystery, that is, Christ's death and resurrection. "By this revelation then, the deepest truth about God and the salvation of man shines forth in Christ, who is at the same time the mediator and the fullness of all revelation . . . especially through his death and glorious resurrection from the dead and finally with the sending of the Spirit of truth, he completed and perfected revelation and confirmed it with divine testimony," the document states.

Now that the fog created by the documentís release is beginning to clear, it is necessary to ask whether it really will harm ecumenical dialogue and what the particular impact of Dominus Iesus, from the perspective of the Orthodox Church and Orthodox faithful in general will be. No Orthodox theologian would argue with the teaching that all salvation comes in and through the person of Jesus Christ. The centrality of Christology to Orthodox liturgical and spiritual life gives firm basis to a Christological understanding of the whole cosmos, the universe and everything and everyone created by God, in his own image and likeness. While most Orthodox clergy and theologians would agree that any possibility of salvation to non-Christians, those who have not heard or accepted the message of salvation in Christ, comes in and through Jesus himself, there are many in extremist factions and even the so-called "mainline" Orthodox circles who would not permit salvation to anyone who was not Christian and more than likely any non-Orthodox Christians.

The document is much more limiting and hesitant of Protestant denominations than towards its Orthodox "sister" churches. Referring to the reformed movement, Dominus Iesus states that "the ecclesial communities which have not preserved the valid Episcopate and the genuine and integral substance of the Eucharistic mystery, are not Churches in the proper sense." This, expectedly, has caused a defensive response from Protestant leaders. Never-the-less, the document concedes that "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. In the bulk of Orthodox teaching also, other communities, which have separated themselves from the "true Church of Christ," the "Holy Orthodox Church," are not to be considered "real" churches, not only from the point of view of apostolic succession and valid sacraments, but because of the fact that they do not exist in communion with the "Great Church of Christ," which exists only in the worldwide alliance of selected Orthodox local churches. So actually, we can again observe that Orthodox praxis is in agreement with or even much stronger than that expressed in Dominus Iesus.

The Orthodox fare much better in the Declaration than do their reformed brothers and sisters. Dominus Iesus is specifically speaking of Orthodox Churches when it says "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." This teaching affirms the progress that has been made in the ecumenical movement between the two churches since Pope Paul VI and Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras lifted the mutual bans of excommunication imposed by both churches against each other in 1054 CE. The Roman Church recognizes the Orthodox Church as equal in dignity to itself and really as a sister church who remains separated because of age old disagreements on only a few matters. The document hits directly on some of these ancient sensitive points, and indeed one in particular, seen as the major obstacle to Orthodox/Catholic unity. This obstacle is the Catholic teaching, only defined since Vatican I in the last century, of Papal Infallibility or the Primacy of Peter. The Declaration explains: "Therefore, the Church of Christ is present and operative also in these Churches, even though they lack full communion with the Catholic Church, since they do not accept the Catholic doctrine of the Primacy, which, according to the will of God, the Bishop of Rome objectively has and exercises over the entire Church."

This renewed emphasis on papal primacy will make it increasingly easier for Orthodox commentators to accuse the Vatican of superiority, but, it is not a new phenomenon. The way in which Rome has dealt with Eastern Churches in communion with the Catholic Church and therefore, "real" Catholics, has been a cause for consternation from Orthodox ecumenists. As is well known, the majority of Orthodox theologians accept the role of Peter's successor as one of primacy of honor, or "presiding in love," among the other, autocephalous churches, but do not give any precedence in authority, decision or declaration of faith to the Bishop of Rome himself.

The point of contention of the declaration Dominus Iesus is centered around on part four, entitled Unicity and the Unity of the Church and the particular teaching contained therein, "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."

This idea is hard to accept for non-Catholic Christians, and especially the Orthodox, in which the document suggests that there is, due to their lack of communion with Peter's successor, something essentially lacking. This imperfect condition in the one Christian Church, here refers to the combined entities of those Eastern Orthodox Churches, who, as the document testifies, possess a valid Eucharist and are therefore, true particular churches, indigenous Christian communities, which make up the entire Body of Christ. What then is lacking in the Churches of the East which are not in communion with the See of Peter. What about real apostolic churches, where Peter had also been bishop? Is the lack of communion hindered by either side, or both, because of human frailty and pride? Again, we put forth the thesis, that most any Orthodox theologian would say the same for those outside of communion with accepted world Orthodoxy, and would go further, some far enough to say that there is a lack of grace and "efficacy" of the sacraments in these such churches.

This most recent piece of official church teaching joins the wealth of concilliar, papal and patriarchal documents issued over the centuries. It is natural that much more discussion and interpretation will take place in the coming months and years. At this point, it is fair to say that for Orthodox/Catholic dialogue, the teachings in Dominus Iesus reflect the real state of the relationship between the two churches. It points to the all too evident situation of "stalemate" that has been attained, despite the many years of discussion, despite the mutual recognition and common prayer exercised by both parties. Without an honest attempt to redefine the role of the "Petrine ministry" on the part of the Vatican, future unity between East and West is an impossibility. Statements by John Paul II earlier this year, that he would be willing to re-examine the role that the primacy of Peter's successor plays in the universal church, must be taken seriously, without simply re-defining, regardless of an ecumenical sensitivity, the interpretations of the First Vatican Council and the recently beatified, Pope Pius IX. The fact that this very Pope, who was responsible for the declaration of Papal Infallibility, the major stumbling block in Orthodox/Catholic dialogue, was recently pronounced "blessed" by John Paul, will create a further obstacle, despite any personal heroic virtues that Pius IX may have exhibited in his life. Only in a spirit of hope, can the Popeís own words describing Dominus Iesus, speak to both churches, so that, ď. . . after so many mistaken interpreptations, this heartfelt declaration will finally be able to achieve its clarifying function . . .Ē


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