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September 13, 2000
Vatican document stresses Catholic superiority, irks theologians
George Iype in Kochi
A new Vatican ecumenical document asserting the superiority of the Catholic Church over other Christian denominations has upset Indian theologians and church leaders, who fear that it will affect the ongoing inter-religious dialogue in the country.
Last week, the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith published the document titled 'Declaration Dominus Iesus: On the Unicity and the Salvific Universality of Jesus Christ and the Church' reaffirming the unique role of Jesus Christ as saviour of all people on earth.
Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, prefect of the Congregation, who accompanied Pope John Paul II to India last year had released the document which asserts that churches are not equal. It also doubts the validity of Protestant Churches and asks Catholic bishops conferences across the world not use the term "sister churches" in reference to Protestant Churches.
The Pope has also written to bishops in Asia warning that they should not use the term "sister churches when speaking of the Anglican communion and non-Catholic ecclesiastical communities."
Claiming Vatican's superiority over all other churches, the document says that "no Roman pontiff ever recognised the equalisation of Sees or accepted that only a primacy of honour be accorded to the Holy See," meaning that Rome has superior authority.
"Churches that do not have a valid episcopate and the genuine and integral substance of the eucharistic mystery are not churches in the proper sense," it said, adding that the Vatican is seriously concerned about the rapid spread of relativistic and pluralistic mentality among theologians.
Experts have pointed that the Vatican document is aimed at Asia, and particularly India, thanks to the development of theologies and religious pluralism in the region.
While Protestant Churches in Europe have criticised the Vatican document, theologians in India have reacted that it will thwart the church's ongoing talks with other religions -- especially the Hindu religious leaders -- for communal peace and social harmony.
"The Vatican document and its latest position asserting the superiority of the Catholic Church over other churches is certainly a setback to the ecumenical and inter-religious movement in India," Bishop Sam Mathew of the Church of South India told rediff.com.
He said the Protestant Churches will not accept the Vatican's assertion of superiority. "I fear that the document was ill-timed, as it clearly affects the ecumenical movement in which all churches in India have made tremendous progress," the Bishop added.
But the country's most prominent inter-religious dialogue expert, Father Albert Nambiaparambil, claimed that the document does not pose any threat to the ongoing inter-religious dialogue in India and across the world.
"What the Vatican has done is to repeat its traditional teachings through the document. These teachings have always asserted the unicity of the Catholic Church. Therefore, the ecumenical movement and inter-religious dialogues in India can not be blocked by the document," Father Nambiaparambil told rediff.com.
But he said what has triggered protests against the document across the world is "the language used in it". "Theologians and other church leaders are upset that the language used by the Vatican is one of superiority. They are not disturbed by the document's content," he said.
"I too feel that for any inter-religious dialogue to succeed, we need to use open-ended language, not a possessive one," the inter-religious dialogue expert pointed out.
Baseliyos Marthomma Mathews II, head of the Kerala-based Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church said the document will nullify the significant progress that churches have made in ecumenical and inter-religious fellowships especially in a country like India.
"Vatican's assertion that Protestant Churches should not be called sister churches is not a good development. It sets the clock back on unity within the churches," he added.
According to Dr Joseph Kolangadan, an Indian church history scholar, the Vatican affirmation denying the "sister churches" appellation to Protestant Churches "is a bad and conservative development". "Though the document is consonant to the Catholic tradition of superiority, it definitely marks as a reverse trend from the Holy See," he said.
But the Syro Malabar Church head, Major Archbishop Varkey Vithayathil, said the apprehensions about the document's contents are needless. "It has just reiterated the basic elements of faith and the unique role of Catholic Church. Therefore, it can never block any inter-religious dialogue or theologies dealing with inter-religious relations," he told rediff.com.
He added that the Vatican and its documents are not obstacles in the path of ongoing dialogue with other churches and other religions, especially in a country like India.
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