The Magazine of The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America


Sister churches?

When the Vatican released Dominus Iesus Sept. 6, people of many faiths took notice. Headlines such as this from the Chicago Tribune appeared widely: "All religions are not equal, Vatican says in decree on primacy."

The declaration seems to distance the Roman Catholic Church from other churches. Yet it says its purpose is to "set forth again the doctrine of the Catholic faith" regarding Jesus as the only way of salvation.

It claims: "[E]cclesial 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."

A June letter from the Vatican to its bishops advised them not to use the term "sister church" to refer to Protestants, but "ecclesial communities."

The letter and statement left Lutherans wondering about the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification signed by Lutherans and the Vatican October 1999. Many expressed concern about harm to ecumenical work. Ishmael Noko, general secretary of the Lutheran World Federation, expressed disappointment that the Vatican seemed not to have considered 35 years of dialogue in the June 30 letter. Noko recommitted the LWF to ecumenical dialogue: "Ecumenism is not optional but essential to the church."

An ELCA statement says: "We recognize no deficiency in our self-understanding as 'church.' Issues raised by Dominus Iesus will be discussed in our ongoing Lutheran-Roman Catholic dialogue."

Many local ecumenical relations appear unaffected by the Vatican document, including in St. Peter, Minn. Lutherans and Catholics there continue to worship in the same space after a 1998 tornado destroyed the Catholic church's facility (March 1999).

"The church sign still reads: 'First Lutheran Catholic Church,' " says Alan Bray, the ELCA pastor. "In St. Peter the mood is upbeat and conciliatory."


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