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Vatican stance 'nothing new,' say church leaders

World Methodist Council leaders meet with Pope Benedict at the Vatican in 2005. Responding to a recent papal document on the primacy of the Roman Catholic Church, United Methodist leaders say it does not change relations between the two Christian churches. A UMNS file photo courtesy of the World Methodist Council.

A UMNS Report
By Linda Bloom*

July 20, 2007

A recent Vatican statement should not significantly affect relations between United Methodists and Roman Catholics, according to United Methodist officials.

Noting that the two Christian churches have been in dialogue for more than 40 years and "have reached clarity on several major theological issues," the United Methodist Council of Bishops said it found "nothing new or radically different" in the document and added that "all the positives remain in our relationship."

The Vatican statement, titled "Responses to Some Questions Regarding Certain Aspects of the Doctrine of the Church," came from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and was ratified and confirmed by Pope Benedict XVI on June 29 and released on July 10. It reasserts the position that only Catholics constitute the true church, while Protestants are merely "Christian communities" and not churches "in the proper sense."

The Second Vatican Council, which occurred in the 1960s under Pope John XXIII and Pope Paul VI, often is heralded as a turning point in ecumenical relations for the Roman Catholic Church. That council did not change Catholic doctrine on "the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church," according to the new Vatican document, but more fully explained it.

'The fullness of the Church'

The United Methodist Council of Bishops, in a response released on July 18, said United Methodists affirm "the one true Church, Apostolic and Universal."

"We believe that apostolicity is based on the faithfulness of the Church through the ages rather than on historical succession," the bishops wrote.

The bishops acknowledged that the Vatican does not consider The United Methodist Church to be a church "in the full sense, because we lack from their viewpoint the mark of oneness and sacramental priesthood and the fullness of the Eucharist. We understand ourselves, by God’s grace, to share in the fullness of the Church through faithful ministry and mission, and the Table of the Lord. That is a difference we can continue to explore. Someday we pray that this difference will be overcome."

The council’s response was signed by Bishop Janice Huie, president; Bishop William Oden, ecumenical officer; Bishop Ernest Lyght, secretary; and Bishop Roy Sano, executive secretary.

"As United Methodists, we share in the pain of the brokenness of Christ’s Body and prayerfully long for unity around the Table of the Lord," the bishops concluded.

A statement from the United Methodist Commission on Christian Unity and Interreligious Concerns points out that the Vatican document "is actually a restatement" of a 2000 declaration titled "Dominus Iesus." A key component of that declaration was "the pronouncement of the primacy of historical continuity and permanence, with the fullness of the Church of Christ subsisting in the Catholic Church."

But the grace of salvation "is present and operative in the churches and ecclesial communities not yet fully in communion with the Catholic Church," said the commission’s statement, signed by the Rev. Larry Pickens, its chief executive.

"Within all of our churches are the elements of sanctification and truth that represent the presence of the Holy Spirit and the reality of Jesus Christ."

Continuing dialogue

For decades, United Methodists have engaged in dialogue with Catholic colleagues through the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, while an international dialogue has continued between the World Methodist Council and the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity.

"Our dialogues have taught United Methodists and Catholics to realize that by baptism and faith in Christ, United Methodists enjoy a communion, although imperfect, with the Catholic Church," the commission’s statement declared.

"Our dialogues have also taught us that there is a positive appreciation that is felt between our two communions and serves as a foundation for addressing other church-dividing issues that face both of our churches."

Representatives of the Commission on Christian Unity visited the Vatican and the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity in April 2006. "During that time we shared our mutual concern that the national and international dialogues involving the United Methodist Church and the Catholic Church should continue," the statement said.

*Bloom is a United Methodist News Service news writer based in New York.

News media contact: Linda Bloom, New York, (646) 369-3759 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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