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Vatican document reasserts Catholicism as superior to other faith expressions

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–A Vatican document issued Sept. 5 won’t set well with Southern Baptists and other evangelicals and Protestants.

As described in the lead paragraph of a Washington Post story, it “declares that individuals can attain full salvation from earthly sin only through the spiritual grace of the Catholic Church and that other faiths — including Protestant Christian ones — have defects that place their followers in a ‘gravely deficient situation’ in seeking salvation.”

As recounted in the lead paragraph of a Los Angeles Times story:

“Censuring what it called the spread of ‘religious relativism,’ the Vatican on Tuesday instructed Roman Catholics to uphold the dogma that their church is the sole path to spiritual salvation for all humanity.”

The 36-page Vatican document was released at a news conference in Rome by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the principal Vatican body for defining and upholding theological tradition.

Vatican officials said the document has the explicit approval of 80-year-old Pope John Paul II, who has occupied the papacy for 22 years.

Titled “Declaration Dominus Iesus [Lord Jesus] … On the Unity and Salvific Universality of Jesus Christ and the Church,” the document is the culmination of two years of study, though it breaks no new ground theologically for the Catholic Church, according to news reports, which also noted the document was aimed mainly at Catholic theologians and its timing coincides with the millennial celebration of Jesus’ birth.

Jerry Rankin, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s International Mission Board, and Rudy Gonzalez, director of interfaith evangelism for the SBC’s North American Mission Board, issued statements Sept. 6 about the Vatican document.

Rankin said:

“I think most Southern Baptists would strongly agree that the trend toward religious relativism and pluralism should be rejected. The way to salvation is a narrow path. We emphatically disagree with the Vatican, however, on the direction that path takes.

“Salvation comes by God’s grace through faith in Jesus Christ and Christ alone — not through any institutional church body, be it Baptist, Catholic or otherwise,” Rankin continued. “That’s why we have always sent missionaries even to ‘Catholic’ countries, because people come to salvation only though personal faith in Jesus Christ. That is the message of the Christian gospel according to Scripture, and that is the message shared worldwide by our missionaries.”

Gonzalez said:

“I agree with the Vatican’s statement of respect for all faith groups and share their concern that our culture and our world have all but deified religious relativism. I also agree that the Bible teaches salvation is through Jesus Christ.

“However, I am bound by biblical teachings that salvation is found in a personal relationship with Jesus Christ through faith alone, and not through sacramental or ritualistic religion,” Gonzalez continued. “That conviction is not born out of a disrespect for other faiths, but out of a love for the Bible. True unity will only found in that personal relationship with Jesus Christ and his teachings.”

A NAMB interfaith evangelism bulletin on Roman Catholicism is available through the SBC’s LifeWay Christian Resources at 1-800-448-8032.

Statements requested by Baptist Press from two key Southern Baptist proponents of Catholic-evangelical dialogue, Charles Colson and Timothy George, were not received when BP’s deadline arrived Sept. 6.

Colson, founder of Prison Fellowship, and George, dean of Samford University’s Beeson Divinity School in Birmingham, Ala., have been at the forefront of controversial “Catholics and Evangelical Together” documents released in 1994 and 1997, sparking ardent opposition in various Southern Baptist and evangelical quarters.

Jerry Moser, a Louisiana Baptist pastor who has taken an active role in opposing Catholic-evangelical dialogues over Catholicism’s embrace of a sacrament-based approach to salvation, also could not be reached for comment Sept. 6.

Among the Vatican document’s assertions, according to news reports:

— “This truth of faith does not lessen the sincere respect that the [Catholic] Church has for the religions of the world,” but it “rules out, in a radical way, … the belief that one religion is as good as another.”

— Non-Catholic Christian churches “suffer from defects,” partly because they do not recognize the authority of the pope, but they “have by no means been deprived of significance and importance in the mystery of salvation.” Other Christian denominations are not “churches in the proper sense,” but their members are, through baptism, “in a certain communion, albeit imperfect, with the [Catholic] Church.”

— The office of the pope is rooted in “the will of God,” with the entire church “governed by the Successor of Peter and by the Bishops in communion with him.”

— Other religions, though not specifically named in the document, have “gravely deficient” chances for salvation due to “superstitions or other errors [that] constitute an obstacle to salvation.”

— Catholic missionaries have a duty to evangelize adherents of other faiths, to teach that Jesus is “the sole redeemer.” The inter-religious dialogue in which the Catholic Church has engaged other faiths, the document said, is simply “part of her evangelizing mission.”

— The Catholic Church opposes such beliefs as divine truth being elusive; different truths that exist for some cultures; that the last judgment of God does not loom; and that reason can be the only source of knowledge.

— “The lack of unity among Christians is certainly a wound for the church,” the document said, hindering “the complete fulfillment of her universality in history.”

The Los Angeles Times noted that the document was preceded by a Vatican order in June that bishops avoid references to “sister churches” and instead remember that “the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church is not sister but ‘mother’ of all the particular [Christian] churches.”

Several news reports noted that the document seemed to be a departure for Pope John Paul II, who is a Catholic traditionalist but has engaged in numerous overtures to mend rifts between Catholicism and other Christian communions such as Eastern Orthodoxy, Anglicans and Lutherans and to promote understanding between Catholics and Jews, Muslims and adherents of other non-Christian religions.

In a report released last September detailing the findings of the five-year “conversation” regarding Scripture between eight Southern Baptist leaders — under the auspices of the North American Mission Board’s interfaith evangelism team — and eight representatives of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, it was noted that while both groups share a deep appreciation for Scripture, they hold vastly different beliefs on foundational issues of the Bible’s nature, authority and role in the Christian faith.

The report was consisted largely of outlining the different definitions Southern Baptists and Roman Catholics apply to such terms as revelation, Word of God, inspiration, inerrancy, infallibility and canon.

Revelation to Southern Baptists, for instance, refers primarily to the written revelation of Scripture, the report noted, while Roman Catholics point to Jesus Christ as the revelation of God, with both Scripture and church tradition bearing witness to that revelation.

The dialogue group met at both Roman Catholic and Southern Baptist institutions, sharing their different perspectives and studying a variety of theological documents from both traditions.
Erich Bridges, Martin King & James Dotson contributed to this article.