Will the Catholic Church's controversial restatement of its belief about the church derail ecumenical dialogue? What does the future hold?
On July 11, 2007, the Vatican restated its position that the Catholic Church is the only true church established by Jesus Christ. In a brief document titled "Responses to Some Questions Regarding Certain Aspects of the Doctrine of the Church," the Vatican's doctrinal office repeated controversial claims made in a doctrinal paper published seven years ago, "Dominus Iesus."
According to the Vatican, other Christian denominations may have certain elements of biblical truth, but they cannot claim apostolic succession—the ability to trace their bishops back to the apostle Peter. Rome therefore reasons that such denominations cannot properly be called churches.
The response of various Protestant leaders was to be expected. The idea that non-Catholic churches are deficient because they do not accept papal authority and the primacy of the pope generally caused offense and was seen as a blow to the interdenominational dialogue fostered by the late Pope John Paul II. On the other hand, the Vatican's unequivocal position gives a clear indication what the word ecumenical means for the Catholic Church.
The new Vatican document was signed by U.S. Cardinal William Levada, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and personally approved by Pope Benedict XVI before publication. Pope Benedict is also the man responsible for appointing Levada to his position as the Vatican's doctrinal watchdog, a position that Benedict held before becoming pope. And it was Benedict himself who, as German cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, wrote the paper seven years ago that first irked Protestants.
As part of his effort to establish a distinct church identity, Pope Benedict apparently wants to clarify some of the confusion resulting from the Second Vatican Council of 1964, when the term "sister churches" was used in reference to non-Catholic denominations.
Benedict's position is that apostolic succession is an important key to identifying the only true church. A "sister church" is therefore a denomination that can trace its roots back to Peter as the supposed first pope, but is currently separated from the Roman Catholic Church as a result of an earlier schism. In the Vatican's view, one church in this category would be the Eastern Orthodox Church.
The clarifying statements released July 11 and seven years ago make another part of the Second Vatican Council clear: For the Catholic Church, the word ecumenical means movement on the part of the others. There won't be a restoration of Christian denominational unity involving Catholics and Protestants meeting halfway. Instead, if there is to be unity, non-Catholics will meet the Vatican on its terms by recognizing papal authority.
Protestants already accept papal authority
One church leader probably surprised by the Vatican's new document may have been the head of Germany's Lutheran Church, Wolfgang Huber. Just one day after the Vatican statement was released, Bishop Huber responded to the Vatican by saying that the Lutheran Church is not willing to pay every price for the sake of the ecumenical movement.
Perhaps Bishop Huber should not have been surprised in the first place. After all, just one month ago he indirectly confirmed the authority of the Catholic Church over his own Lutheran Church—and nearly all other non-Catholic churches.
In June 2007 the Lutheran Church found itself siding with the Roman Catholic Church on an issue that has surfaced in Germany several times in the last few years. It involves Germany's "store closing law," which mandates that normal business may not be conducted on Sundays and holidays.
In today's Germany a paragraph adapted from the prewar Weimar Constitution provides constitutional protection for Sunday as a day of rest from work: "Sunday and state recognized holidays enjoy legal protection as days of rest from work" (paragraph 139).
In decisions rendered in 1992, 1995 and 2004, Germany's Supreme Court in Karlsruhe has confirmed that employers have the constitutional obligation "to protect the rest from work on Sunday and holidays."
So what's the problem? For years the city of Berlin, which is also one of Germany's 16 federal states, has taken the lead in an attempt to get around the "store closing law."
In 1999 a "shopping Sunday" raised eyebrows when over 50,000 people showed up on a Sunday in August at a large Berlin department store. Late last year Berlin approved a change that allows stores to be open on 10 selected Sundays this year from 1 to 8 p.m. Other German states also have "shopping Sundays," but none has as many as Berlin.
Last month, Berlin's Catholic archbishop, Cardinal Georg Sterzinsky, announced his church's plan to take the city of Berlin to court in an attempt to get the city to reduce the number of "shopping Sundays." Cardinal Sterzinsky accused the Berlin senate of making Berlin the federal state in Germany that least respects the value of Sunday.
"I deeply regret that Berlin has to be the example for eroding the constitutional protection given to Sunday," Cardinal Sterzinsky emphasized, adding that Sunday should be a day of rest and spiritual uplifting.
The issue of Sunday as a day of rest is where Lutheran Church leader Wolfgang Huber agrees with the Catholic Church. His own church will also be a party to the legal challenge against the city of Berlin. In a press release Bishop Huber emphasized that Sunday has been a Christian religious holiday in Western culture for 1,700 years.
In voicing support for the lawsuit, Bishop Huber acknowledges indirectly that Sunday was not a religious holiday for Jesus, His disciples and the first Christians. Of course, he is right about that. The first Christians did not keep Sunday as their weekly day of rest. Instead, they kept the Sabbath, commonly referred to as Saturday in today's weekly cycle.
So which church made Sunday a Christian religious holiday many years after Jesus and His disciples walked the earth? The Roman Catholic Church!
James Cardinal Gibbons, Catholic educator and archbishop of Baltimore at the beginning of the 20th century, was blunt about the authority of his church. In a book called The Faith of Our Fathers he wrote: "You may read the Bible from Genesis to Revelation, and you will not find a single line authorizing the sanctification of Sunday. The Scriptures enforce the religious observance of Saturday, a day which we never sanctify."
Without realizing it, any Christian who observes Sunday as the weekly day of rest has already accepted the leadership of the Roman Catholic Church, symbolized by papal authority. In so doing, that person is already on the road to true ecumenical unity the way the Vatican envisions it: a Christian world united under the leadership of the pope, who claims to be a successor to the apostle Peter.
Viewed this way, one has to wonder why the leader of Germany's Lutheran Church and other Protestant church leaders were upset about the Vatican's latest document on the one true church. For all practical purposes, Lutherans and other Sunday-keeping Protestants already accept papal authority for changing the Bible day of rest from Saturday to the Catholic day of rest, Sunday. They already accept Catholic authority for traditional holidays like Christmas and Easter instead of the days the Bible commands.
Since they already accept that authority, it would seem logical and consistent for them to accept the pope's authority on others matters too.
Prophecy provides the answer to church unity
Bible prophecy indicates that the question of church authority in the traditional Christian world will likely be solved in the coming years by the appearance of a dynamic church leader.
In prophecies in the books of Daniel and Revelation, the Bible describes a succession of empires, beginning with Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar's, that will culminate in an end-time resurrection of the Roman Empire just prior to the promised return of Jesus Christ to the earth.
The final appearance of the Roman Empire will be a political union of 10 kings dominated by a religious system called "Babylon the Great" that emanates from "the great harlot who sits on many waters, with whom the kings of the earth committed fornication, and the inhabitants of the earth were made drunk with the wine of her fornication" (Revelation:17:1-2).
The true Church of God is pictured in the Bible as a chaste bride waiting to be married to Christ. The harlot of Revelation 17 is a deceptive religious system masquerading as a true system of worship.
The final resurrection of the Roman Empire, like the original empire and its subsequent "resurrections," will be centered in Europe. It appears that it can be seen today in its embryonic form in the European Union. That does not mean that all current EU nations will be part of the final configuration, but those that choose to participate will combine to form a short-lived, powerful union influenced by a traditional religious system based in Rome, the modern heir of ancient Babylon.
Since the "great harlot" of Revelation 17 is pictured as continually being the dominant religion of the "beast" system, it follows that the final revival of the Roman Empire will be influenced by the same traditional religious system that has been allied with the earlier attempts to restore the Roman Empire. In other words, it will be a "Christian" influence.
Revelation:13:11-14 confirms this viewpoint by describing a "beast" that looks like a lamb but speaks like a dragon. A lamb is a biblical symbol for Jesus Christ, and the dragon is a biblical symbol for Satan the devil.
In other words, this particular "beast" is some kind of religious authority appearing or claiming to represent the true lamb—Jesus. In reality, though, it is a tool of Satan. This religious beast causes the world to worship another beast (verses 1-9) and enforces obedience to its dictates (Revelation:13:16), which will be contrary to the law of God.
It is this religious beast that Satan will use in the end-time to persecute the true followers of Jesus who have His testimony and keep the commandments of God (Revelation:12:17).
Miracles and the "man of sin"
One of the special characteristics of this religious power will be its ability to perform miracles, including calling down fire from heaven (Revelation:13:13). In so doing, it will deceive the vast majority of people (verse 14).
We find a similar prophecy given by the apostle Paul in 2 Thessalonians 2. Here as well a great religious deception will be perpetrated by an individual who will even claim to be God. The Bible calls this end-time religious leader "the man of sin."
Notice what it says: "Now, brethren, concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our gathering together to Him, we ask you, not to be soon shaken in mind or troubled, either by spirit or by word or by letter, as if from us, as though the day of Christ had come.
"Let no one deceive you by any means; for that Day will not come unless the falling away comes first, and the man of sin is revealed, the son of perdition, who opposes and exalts himself above all that is called God or that is worshiped, so that he sits as God in the temple of God, showing himself that he is God" (verses 1-4).
The actions of this "man of sin" will go beyond the actions of any previous prophetic figure when he proclaims "he is God." Note that he does not claim merely to represent God or to be as God, but rather he claims he is God.
To pull this unprecedented work of deception off will require the behind-the-scenes help of the archdeceiver of mankind, Satan the devil, who will provide "signs, and lying wonders" (verse 9) to accomplish the job.
The final revival of the Roman Empire will take place under the influence of a religious system called "Babylon the Great" and its charismatic, miracle-working leader-prophet. He will have an electrifying effect on nominal Christians of all denominations, who may profess Christ but are generally ignorant of His teachings and the Bible.
Not knowing what the Bible says about the deceptiveness of miracles (see Deuteronomy:13:1-4), millions of these Christians will be swayed by the supernatural signs performed by this dynamic, Satan-inspired religious leader.
Those miracles will have an immediate unifying effect and will no doubt resolve the question of the "one true church" for traditional Christianity. The few who refuse to accept the leadership of this false prophet and his church will be persecuted.
Oddly enough, at this time true Christian unity will be just ahead as the Lamb of God, Jesus Christ of Nazareth, returns to the Mount of Olives with thousands of resurrected saints to establish the Kingdom of God on the earth.
When that happens, all discussion on denominational supremacy and apostolic succession will cease, as the Lord of Lords and King of Kings will establish His government and teach the entire world the true Christian way of life (Isaiah:2:1-4). WNP