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The Catholic Church's views of other faith groups

Current and historic Church teaching

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Current teaching:

The current views of the Roman Catholic Church (RCC) concerning other Christian denominations and other religions are explained in a Vatican declaration Dominus Iesus, issued in the year 2000 and confirmed by Pope Benedict XVI during 2007-JUL.

According to the Times News Service, the declaration implies that:

"Churches such as the Church of England, where the apostolic succession of bishops from the time of St. Peter is disputed by Rome, and churches without bishops, are not considered 'proper' churches. They suffer from 'defects'."

Religions other than Christianity are considered to be "gravely deficient." Their rituals can constitute "an obstacle to salvation" for their followers. 1,2

Archbishop Tarcisio Bertone, secretary of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith said that the document was infallible since it was "explicitly approved and confirmed by the pope." Pope John Paul II had said that it was "his will that what it contains be believed by all the church." 3

The Church teaches that an eternity in Hell awaits the unsaved. If this is true, then the adverse consequences of an individual following another religion (or following a Christian denomination other than the RCC) are severe -- perhaps involving infinitely long painful punishment in Hell.

There is really nothing new in this document. It reflects decades-long inclusivist beliefs of the Roman Catholic Church: that the Church alone possesses the full truth, while all other faith groups have only elements of truth. To a secular individual, this may seem like an arrogant stance. However, it is hardly unique. Many, perhaps most, faith traditions also believe that they alone possess the entire truth, and view all other religious groups as being at least partly deficient.

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History of the RCC's relationship with other faith groups:

The relationship between the Roman Catholic Church and other religions has historically been stormy and, until recent centuries, bloody:

bulletIn the primitive Christian movement of the first century CE, there was much animosity between the Jewish Christians (the reform Jewish group organized by Jesus' followers under the leadership of Mark) and the Pauline Christian movement (the Christian churches organized by Paul, largely directed at converting the Pagan Gentiles). Some of this is recorded in the Christian Scriptures' (New Testament's) Book of Acts and in certain of St. Paul's epistles.
bulletDuring the second century CE, many very different Christian-Gnostic sects had formed at the eastern end of the Mediterranean. Their beliefs and practices clashed with those of the Pauline Churches.
bulletPauline Christianity grew to become the Roman Empire's established religion -- the Catholic Church -- late in the fourth century CE. The church then attained a near monopoly within the Empire. They persecuted followers of Judaism, blaming them for the execution of Jesus Christ. They wiped out other competing religious voices: Gnostic Christianity, the Mystery Religions, the various other Pagan religions, etc. They forcibly converted, exterminated, or exiled the leaders of these and other faith groups, and appropriated their property.
bulletThreats to the Catholic Church in later years were typically resolved through violence. Examples were the extermination of the Cathars, elimination of the Knights Templar, and execution by burning at the stake tens of thousands of Witches and other persons who deviated from the Church's teachings.
bulletThe Fourth Lateran Council in 1215 declared that: "There is but one universal Church of the faithful, outside which no one at all is saved." This is the principle, as expressed in Latin, that "Extra Ecclesiam nulla salus" (Outside the church, there is no salvation)-- as described in a separate essay.
bulletThe Protestant Revolution led to wars between Catholics and Protestants in western Europe. Exhausted by decades of intra-religious warfare, political leaders sought a means to reduce conflict. Religious tolerance became accepted in some countries -- a new idea whereby individuals were allowed to follow whichever religious and spiritual path that they chose.
bulletFear of the immense power of religion to generate hatred and civil disturbance caused the founders of the United States to separate religious power from the government's authority. The first amendment of the U.S. Constitution has been interpreted in recent years by the U.S. Supreme Court as requiring a wall of separation between church and state.
bulletSince the early 20th century, the RCC has promoted unity within Christianity. In 1908, they set aside a Week of Prayer for Christian Unity each year to pray for unity through "the return of heretics and schismatics to the Church of Rome." Unity was to be achieved by having individuals leave their church of origin and join the RCC -- the "the one true Church of Christ." However, in recent decades, the RCC has conducted ecumenical negotiations with various Christian groups (e.g. Anglicans, Evangelical Protestants, Eastern Orthodoxy, Lutherans, Mennonites) in order to resolve past disagreements and work towards Christian unity.
bulletDuring the year 2000, the then Cardinal Ratzinger sent a letter to bishops' conferences throughout the world titled "Dominus Iesus." It stated that the Catholic Church is the 'mother' of all Christian churches. He told them to stop referring to the Orthodox, Anglican and Protestant churches as 'sister' churches." 3 Many non-Catholic denominations were offended by its contents.
bulletDuring 2007-JUL, Pope Benedict XVI issued a document that reiterated the contents of "Dominus Iesus."

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References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. "Other churches have defects, Catholics say." The Times News Service, London. 2000-SEP-5
  2. Joseph Cardinal Retzinger, "Dominus Iesus on the unicity and salvific universality of Jesus Christ and the church," Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. See: http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/congregations/cfaith/ 
  3. Peggy Polk, "Vatican declares only the Roman Catholic Church brings salvation," Religious News Service. Distributed by pcusaNews mailing list as Note #6183. Issued 2000-SEP-7

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Site navigation: Home > Christianity > Roman Catholic Church > Other churches > here

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Copyright © 2000 to 2007 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2000-SEP-12
Latest update: 2007-JUL-16
Author: B.A. Robinson

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