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Non-Catholics label pope's 'church' view irrelevant Area clerics see no retreat from ecumenical efforts

Pope Benedict XVI approved a document last week that said the Rev. Peter Jackson pastors a church not a part of Christ's ordained "church."

But Jackson, pastor of Saints Theodore Orthodox Church in Williamsville, said he doesn't care.

"Why does anyone care what the pope says about them if they're not under the pope?" Jackson asked. "If the pope says I'm defective -- whatever. It's irrelevant. . . . All he's saying is that there are some people that aren't Catholic."

The document, which says non-Catholic churches have "defects" and only the Catholic Church is the true church, has drawn disgruntled statements from world church leaders.

But many local clergy join Jackson in wondering at all the fuss.

Despite voicing their disagreement with the Vatican's statement, local non-Catholics said the Vatican introduced no new doctrines in the document, saying it merely expressed traditional Catholic positions. Although they don't agree with the new release, they say it will not stop local ecumenical discussion.

The Rev. Jeff Carter of Ephesus Ministries in Buffalo said he found the document offensive on an ecumenical level, but he said Buffalo's ecumenical relationships will outlast the aftermath of the papal statement. After all, he said, many Christians join the pope in claiming their church holds the fullness of God's grace and truth leading to salvation.

"That's the same thing that we teach in many of our Protestant churches, and so it's not a surprise to hear the pope say the same thing," he said. "We just choose to believe that he's not correct."

Bishop Edward U. Kmiec of the Catholic Diocese of Buffalo said no local non-Catholics have contacted him about the document, which he said the Vatican intended to direct only to Catholics, specifically theologians, as a clarification of church doctrines.

Even if the Vatican statement does spark a response from non-Christians, he said, he believes ecumenical discussion should recognize how much all Christians have in common.

"We have many more things that are common to us, have a common interest to us and common in our beliefs, but there are things that still divide us," he said. "Hopefully, one day God will unite us."

Some world leaders have said the document modifies the pronouncements of Vatican II, the 1960s council that declared Catholics could consider those from other churches as "Christians" and "brothers."

But the Rev. G. Stanford Bratton, executive director of the Network of Religious Communities, a Western New York ecumenical organization, said he saw no change in dogma from Vatican II.

"It says that Roman Catholicism believes they are the true church," he said about the new document. "It doesn't say anything to suggest that those who aren't a part of it -- the Roman Catholic Church -- are deprived in any way of salvation."

>Orthodox 'sister churches'

The Rev. Peter Drilling, Catholic professor of theology at Christ the King Seminary in the Town of Aurora, agreed, saying the pope is encouraging the ecumenical dialogue begun after Vatican II.

"I guess that it's also saying, even as they go forward, there are certain elements of the Catholic Church that . . . we consider to be essential to the meaning of church," he said.

Bratton said such understanding is crucial to ecumenical relations.

"If they're going to enter into religious dialogue, they must have a good strong understanding of their own doctrine and their own faith," he said.

In addition to its pronouncements about all non-Catholic Christians, the document recognized Eastern Orthodox churches as "sister churches" to the Catholic Church because both ordain their priests using apostolic succession and both administer the Eucharistic sacrament. Orthodox churches, therefore, earn the title of "church," the papal statement said, a label the Vatican will not give to other denominations.

But Orthodox churches do not recognize the universal authority of the pope, so the document said they still do not belong to the Christ-ordained church, found in the Catholic Church alone.

The Rev. Christos Christakis of Buffalo's Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church said the Orthodox Church is willing to honor the pope as "the first among equals" but not to give him authority over other bishops.

"This document makes it clear: We're not one church," he said. "This doesn't mean that we cannot work together [or] we cannot dialogue, but the division is there."

Jackson, who was an evangelical Christian before he joined the Orthodox Church, said the document's preferential treatment toward orthodoxy should not bother other Christians.

"As an evangelical, if I heard this statement from the pope, I wouldn't think, 'The pope says Eastern Orthodox churches are second-class citizens, and I'm a third-class citizen' " he said. "It can only bother them if they think the pope has authority over them."

>'Upfront about differences'

Jackson called the document generous, saying the Vatican pointed to the good in other Christian churches. He thinks the statement will help lead to unity.

"I think what the pope has been trying to do has been to say, 'Let's be upfront with our differences,' " he said. "You don't achieve unity by pretending there's no differences. You achieve unity by starting from your differences."

Timothy Wadkins, an Episcopalian who is a religious studies professor at Canisius College, a Jesuit institution, said the document might have a greater effect on ecumenical relations by offending liberal Catholics than by upsetting non-Catholics.

"Liberals in the church will take this as a slam against their . . . ideas that the church is broader than what this document is teaching," he said.

But the Rev. Scott Thomas of Amherst Community Church, a United Church of Christ congregation in Snyder, said, "It might take a while to get the good feeling back" concerning ecumenical relations.

"It does hurt to have your church called defective, and certainly there is emotion attached to that feeling," he said. "But really our calling to be a part of the church of Jesus Christ is a gift of God, not of the Vatican, and I think churches outside the Catholic Church need to recognize that we take our orders from God and that our . . . legitimacy is not a function of human pronouncement."


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