By JOHN L. ALLEN JR.
In an address to members of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith currently meeting in Rome for their plenary assembly, Pope Benedict XVI confirmed recent Vatican declarations on Catholicism as the “one true church” and the necessity of seeking converts to the faith, and also offered a preview of a coming document on bioethics.
Pope Benedict made the comments this morning in an audience for members of the doctrinal congregation in the Sala Clementina, inside the Apostolic Palace.
In late June, the congregation issued a document on the famous phrase from the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) that the one church of Christ “subsists in” the Catholic church. In essence, the congregation asserted that the phrase means the Catholic church alone possesses the fullness of what it means to be a church.
During the council, some analysts interpreted the phrase “subsists in” as a departure from the traditional claim that the Catholic church is the lone “true” church. When the doctrinal congregation issued its clarification, some leaders of other Christian denominations warned of negative ecumenical fallout.
It’s a critique which Benedict obviously does not accept, insisting that the clarification is actually “necessary for the correct development of ecumenical dialogue.”
“Far from impeding authentic ecumenical dialogue,” Benedict said, “it will be a stimulus, so that the debate on doctrinal questions is always marked by realism and full awareness of the aspects that still separate the Christian confessions.”
“To cultivate a theological vision that regards the unity and identity of the church as attributes ‘hidden in Christ', so that historically the church would exist only in multiple ecclesial confessions, reconcilable only in an eschatological perspective, would generate a slowdown and ultimately paralysis in ecumenism itself,” the pope said.
Benedict also defended a recent doctrinal note on evangelization, asserting that the quest for explicit conversion to Christ remains an essential duty of the faith.
“The recognition of elements of truth and goodness in the religions of the world,” he said, “and of the seriousness of their religious efforts, dialogue with them and a spirit of collaboration for the defense and promotion of the dignity of the person and universal moral values, cannot be understood as a limitation on the missionary duty of the church, which compels it to incessantly announce Christ as the way, the truth and the life,” he said.
In remarks to the pope at the beginning of the audience, American Cardinal William Levada, Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, confirmed that his office is preparing a new document on bioethics as a follow-up to the 1987 text Donum Vitae.
Levada mentioned cloning, embryonic stem cell research, and the situation of frozen embryos as issues to be addressed in that document.
Levada’s reference to frozen embryos suggests that the congregation may take up the controversial question of so-called “embryo adoption,” which has been much debated in pro-life circles in recent years. Essentially, one side believes that even though these embryos should never have been created, now that they exist, women should be encouraged to bring them to term, allowing them to develop as human beings. Another party, however, regards that as cooperation in a fundamentally immoral act, and worries that promoting adoption may simply encourage artificial creation of embryos.
In his comments, Benedict said two basic values must be affirmed in bioethics debates:
•tUnconditional respect for the human person from conception to natural death
•tRespect for the originality of the transmission of human life through the acts proper to a married couple
The pope then ticked off a set of contentious issues: the freezing of human embryos, embryo ‘reduction,’ pre-implantation diagnosis, embryonic stem cell research and attempts at human cloning.
“When human beings in the weakest and most vulnerable state of their existence are selected, abandoned, killed or utilized as mere ‘biological material,’ how can one deny that they’re being treated not as a ‘someone,’ but as a ‘something,’ thus calling into question the very concept of the dignity of the human person?” the pope asked.
Benedict said that the church encourages scientific progress, but also considers it a duty to inform consciences about ethical safeguards to ensure that science promotes human dignity rather than compromising it.