On being a "proper" Church (I)

Last week there was considerable fuss about a document, “Responses To Some Questions Regarding Certain Aspects Of The Doctrine On The Church”, released by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, theological watchdog of the Vatican.

According to the article signed by Richard Owen and Ruth Gledhill that appeared in many news sources, this “Responses” document stated that Protestant groups were “not proper Churches”, and the “wound” present in them meant that it was “difficult to see how the title of ‘Church’ could possibly be attributed to them”.

These phrases do not, however, appear in the document. The most tendentious of these comments all appear in a quite separate commentary published in l’Osservatore Romano – the Vatican newspaper (which, by the way is very hard to find - but see now the link above for the Italian text). While its appearance in what is certainly the party organ means that the commentary has some weight, the confusion between this commentary article and the official document is remarkable and unfortunate. While more interesting – precisely because it is ruder – the commentary is much less definitive.

The actual “Response” is something of a non-event – it is a re-statement of elements of the encyclical Dominus Iesus. The closest equivalent to the more inflammatory statements quoted in the wider press is the line that Churches lacking the apostolic succession of bishops “cannot, according to Catholic doctrine, be called “Churches” in the proper sense”. The Latin text is “…secundum doctrinam catholicam Ecclesiae sensu proprio nominari non possunt”. This means something like “cannot, according to Catholic doctrine, be called Churches in the strict sense of the word”.

There is no more to like or dislike in the “Response” than in other recent Vatican documents about the Church. It is something of a shame that subsequent journalistic commentary has not been more accurate or fair – since the necessarily frank response required to the “Responses” document and especially of the L’Osservatore commentary needs to be well-grounded. On that, more soon…


  1. Anonymous4:22 pm

    Dear Andrew
    Thank you for writing these characteristically thoughtful and useful observations. I had hoped to see you in Oxford last week. Do keep in touch.


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