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Ratzinger’s latest: Don’t call us ‘sister church’

NCR Staff

A new Vatican assertion that the Catholic church cannot be anyone’s “sister church” because it is the “mother” of individual churches represents a potentially serious blow to relations between Catholicism and other branches of Christianity, according to several ecumenical experts.

The most direct impact will be felt in the Catholic/Orthodox dialogue, observers said, where the term “sister church” is most common, but the underlying thinking has implications for the full range of conversations between Catholics and other Christian bodies.

“Many Orthodox will see this as a kind of proof that there never was any real intent of following through on improved relations,” Fr. Leonid Kishkovsky, a New York-based Orthodox priest involved in dialogue with Catholicism, told NCR. “They will think that use of the phrase ‘sister church,’ which went on happily enough in an earlier stage of our dialogue, was possibly deceptive.”

Bishops around the world have been asked to attend to the new document, titled a “Note on the Expression ‘Sister Churches.’ ” Sent to presidents of bishops’ conferences on June 30 by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the Vatican’s top doctrinal official, the document is presented as a correction of ambiguities “in certain publications and in the writings of some theologians,” especially the habit of referring to the Catholic church as a “sister” of some other Christian body, or using the phrase “our two churches” with respect to Catholicism and another group.

Ironically, the term “sister church” was first used by a pope, Pope Paul VI, who referred to Anglicans as a “sister church” in 1970. Pope John Paul II has endorsed the concept, referring to Eastern and Western Christianity as the “two lungs” of the church.

Properly speaking, the new document says, Catholicism cannot be a sister of another Christian body such as the Orthodox because it “implies a plurality … on the level of the one, holy, Catholic and apostolic church confessed in the Creed, whose real existence is thus obscured.”

“The one, holy, catholic and apostolic universal church is not sister but ‘mother’ of all the particular churches,” the document says.

Several observers predicted the document could have wide ecumenical repercussions.

Tom Best of the Geneva-based World Council of Churches told NCR that while the vocabulary of “sister churches” is associated with the Catholic/Orthodox dialogue, the suggestion that Catholicism best represents the “one church of Christ” is likely to irk other Christian bodies.

“We would hope for a certain ecumenical discretion,” said Best. “We would encourage people not to use language that seems to preclude open relationships.”

Robert Edgar of the U.S.-based National Council of Churches, a federation of Christian denominations, said the Vatican sensitivity over “sister churches” illustrates the need for “new relationships … on the basis of equality and our mutual belonging to one body.”

“Perhaps it would be best to refer to each other as ‘colleagues in Christ,’ ” he said.

Local Catholic churches, according to the document, can be sisters of non-Catholic churches “that have preserved a valid episcopate and Eucharist,” the document says, but Catholicism as such may not.

“This is not merely a question of terminology, but above all of respecting a basic truth of the Catholic faith: that of the unicity of the church of Jesus Christ. In fact, there is but a single church, and therefore the plural term churches can only refer to particular churches.”

Ratzinger’s office did not respond to an NCR request for comment.

A cover letter from Ratzinger adds that use of “sister church” to describe the ties between Roman Catholicism and the Anglican Communion, as well as “non-Catholic ecclesial communities,” is also “improper.”

That is just how Pope Paul VI used the term on Oct. 25, 1970. During the canonization of a group of English martyrs, the pope referred in his homily to the Anglican church as an “ever-beloved sister in the one authentic communion of the family of Christ.”

The retraction implied by Ratzinger’s letter irritated some Anglicans.

“So Paul VI was in error, was he?” asked the Rev. Barry Norris, an Anglican priest involved in ecumenical dialogue in England. “What other term do you use? I mean, either you’re sister churches or you’re not. If you’re not, then it’s just the Catholics and the heretics.”

As recently as this summer, some Anglican and Roman Catholic officials used the term “sister churches” to describe their ties. The Anglican bishop of Windsor, Michael Scott Joynt, and the Catholic archbishop of Florence, Cardinal Silvano Piovanelli, signed an agreement for a “twinning relationship” on July 14 that states: “The churches of the Anglican Communion and the Roman Catholic church are able as sister churches to bring shared gifts to their joint mission to the world.”

Norris said, “I think Anglicans have always accepted the term ‘sister church’ in the sense Paul VI meant it, as a friendly thing to call one another. I do believe that there is an acceptance of one another today that is brotherly and sisterly. I think people will be exceedingly put out to hear that at the universal level such language is no longer permitted.”

As for the Orthodox, several observers noted that leaders of the various branches are themselves not in agreement about use of the term “sister church.” Some conservatives inside Orthodoxy argue, much as conservative Catholics do, that it weakens their claim to embodying the lone church of Christ.

Jesuit Fr. Robert Taft, an expert in Eastern Christian churches who teaches at Rome’s Gregorian University, told NCR that some Orthodox churches reject the concept of being anyone’s “sister church.”

“They do not conceive of sacraments as operative outside Orthodoxy, and hence Catholic sacraments are not ‘valid’ and they rebaptize Catholics” who convert, Taft said. “What they fail to realize is that the sister churches idea is the only theological basis for us not being obliged to proselytize them.”

Fr. John Matusiak, communications director for the Orthodox Church in America, said, “Some Orthodox do reject the term, because it makes no one particular church the church of Christ. If the church is one, then you can’t have sister churches, which implies there are at least two churches,” he said.

Matusiak also noted that some voices within Orthodoxy have long objected to Pope John Paul II’s frequent habit of referring to Eastern and Western Christianity as the “two lungs” of the church. “To some, that makes it sound like Orthodoxy is only half of the church,” he said.

Matusiak said that other Orthodox leaders “don’t see a problem with being a sister church.”

The concept of Catholicism and Orthodoxy as sister churches became prominent, according to several observers, at the time of a 1993 agreement known as the “Balamand Statement.” In it, Catholic officials agreed to refrain from seeking converts in predominantly Orthodox territories, and the Orthodox agreed to recognize the legitimacy of the so-called “uniate” churches — 21 Christian groups that utilize Orthodox liturgies but profess allegiance to Rome.

Not all the Orthodox bodies were represented at the negotiations leading to the Balamand Statement, and some rejected it. Some Orthodox leaders also believe Rome failed to honor its end of the bargain, pointing to evangelizing activities in Russia and elsewhere by new Catholic movements such as the Neocatechumenate.

These tensions were reflected in the most recent Catholic/Orthodox dialogue, which took place in Emmitsburg, Md., and which Kishkovsky said produced only “a description of the present impasse” rather than a breakthrough.

Still, a North American Orthodox-Catholic Theological Consultation, which met in Brookline, Mass., June 1, was able to find enough common ground to invoke the term now discouraged by the Vatican:

“We are convinced that a unique relationship exists between our churches in spite of our division,” its statement said. “It is for this very reason that in recent times the Catholic and Orthodox churches have been described as ‘sister churches.’ ”

The new Vatican document is not the first time Ratzinger has voiced reservations about the term “sister church.” In June 1997, he appeared at a news conference to promote a new book on ecumenism by Italian theologian Fr. Nicola Bux, who asserted that “sister church” is a meaningless phrase unless one understands the “mother church” is in Rome.

Ratzinger’s letter accompanying the new document says that while the ban on use of “sister church” with respect to Catholicism as a whole is “authoritative and binding,” the document will not be published in the Acta Apostolicae Sedis, the official compendium of Vatican legislation. Observers say this means it carries less official weight, though given Ratzinger’s signature it is unlikely to be ignored.

Not everyone, however, was prepared to declare a crisis. Harvard theologian and veteran ecumenical expert Harvey Cox downplayed the potential significance of the document. “I think Protestants have gotten used to Roman Catholic claims about some unique status and simply take them with a grain of salt,” he told NCR.

The full text of “Note on the Expression ‘Sister Churches.’ ” is available on the NCR Web site: http://www.natcath.com/NCR_Online/documents/index.htm.

The e-mail address for John L. Allen Jr. is jallen@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, September 8, 2000