Vatican to Al and Dubya: JFK Was Holier Than Thou

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If Joe Lieberman's evangelizing has got you into a giddy whirl of ecumenism in which all the major religions seem to be equal, the Vatican has some sobering news: Never mind Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims and Jews; even Christians who don't accept the pope as God's representative on Earth are going to have a hard time getting through the Pearly Gates.

Protestant leaders have expressed disappointment and alarm at the contents of a new theological declaration, endorsed by Pope John Paul II, which warns against viewing other Christian denominations as "sister churches" and warns that their failure to accept the primacy of the pope made them "deficient" churches. Followers of non-Christian faiths, meanwhile, have a "gravely deficient" chance for salvation, and most certainly not through merely following their own religious rituals. That would mean, of course, that the Catholic John. F. Kennedy would have been first among deceased American presidents to get an appointment with St. Peter.

There's nothing new in all of this, of course — the Vatican has always claimed such primacy on the basis of its origins with the Disciple Peter, the first pontiff. But the restatement of that principle at a time when John Paul II has been doing his utmost to build bridges both to other Christian denominations and to non-Christian faiths has raised eyebrows. The bad news for non-Catholics came in "Dominus Iesus," a 36-page declaration by Pope John Paul II's doctrine chief, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, that will be sent to every Catholic bishop warning against the temptation to view other denominations as equals. "There exists a single Church of Christ, which subsists in the Catholic Church," writes Ratzinger. Churches that don't accept papal primacy are, he says, in "imperfect communion" with the church, and are "not Churches in the proper sense."

The declaration is a further sign of an ongoing theological power struggle within the Vatican over the limits of the ecumenism promoted by John Paul II himself — or even of the more general friction between the church's more liberal and more conservative strands under his tenure. Monsignor Tarcisio Bertone, who introduced the document Tuesday, made explicit that the document was released to correct the "errors and ambiguities" of unnamed moderate Catholic theologians that had become widespread. Ratzinger added that such theologians were "manipulating and exceeding" the principle of religious tolerance by allowing for an equivalence between different religions.

While it had become commonplace over the past four decades for Catholic clergy to refer to other denominations as "Sister Churches," Ratzinger insists that Catholicism should be recognized as the "mother" church without peer. And by extension, that others are her errant children. Indeed, Ratzinger's document insists that when the Catholic Church engages in interfaith dialogue, it only does so as "part of her evangelizing mission" in which Catholic clergy are obliged to preach to believers of other faiths that Christ is "the sole redeemer." That sentiment may be consistent with Catholic doctrine, but it's hardly surprising that other clergy are treating it as something of a cloudburst on their ecumenical parade.