Mixed signals from the Vatican

Confusion: Reaffirmation of Catholic Church's primacy raises questions about interfaith progress.

September 12, 2000

AS PARKINSON'S disease and age are taking their visible toll on 80-year-old Pope John Paul II, Vatican actions are starting to prompt second-guessing about the future. That's why a relatively routine doctrinal declaration caused a stir earlier this month.

The declaration reaffirmed the primacy of the Catholic Church over other Christian denominations by inferring that Anglicans and other Protestants "are not churches in the proper sense." It also recommitted Catholics to proselytizing by declaring that Jesus is "the sole redeemer."

There is no scandal in any of this. This, after all, is what the Catholic Church has traditionally believed. The strong reaffirmation is striking only because it seems to rebuff the remarkable progress on ecumenism that has been achieved among leading Christian denominations over the past 50 years. That reconciliation, in turn, has made possible links to other religions, including Judaism, Islam and Hinduism.

Indeed, full-page ads by Jewish scholars Sunday in The Sun and several other newspapers acknowledged dramatic changes in Christianity's view of Judaism. But it added that what separates the two faiths "will not be settled by one community insisting that it has interpreted Scripture more accurately than the other; nor by exercising political power by the other."

The timing of the Vatican doctrinal statement was startling. It came just days after Pope John Paul II beatified Pius IX (1846-1878), who proclaimed papal infallibility and is called anti-Semitic by many Jewish scholars.

True, that beatification was paired with a similar recognition of John XXIII (1958-1963), who brought the church into the modern era. Indeed, his broader doctrinal interpretations rising from the Second Vatican Council allowed interfaith contacts.

While expressing "sincere respect" for other world religions, the Vatican statement condemned the "mentality of indifference that leads to the belief that `one religion is as good as another.'"

As Pope John Paul's II day-to-day leadership weakens, Vatican conservatives are flexing their muscles. Much will depend on the next pope, of course, but the future of everyday ecumenism is in the hands of ordinary Catholics. In countries such as the United States, they have proved a canny ability to follow Vatican dicta they like and to reject what they don't.

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