This declaration is already being criticized as another step backwards from Vatican II, a council that Pope Benedict attended as a young man. It is said that he has long complained about what he considers the erroneous and liberal interpretation of that council.
Most disheartening to me about this declaration is the reuse of that normative defense that developed out of the second century debates between apostolic churches and others. The Vatican document claims that the reason for the Pope's decision is that “Christ ‘established here on earth’ only one church,” Thus other Christian communities “cannot be called ‘churches’ in the proper sense” because they do not have apostolic succession — that is they cannot trace their bishops back to Jesus' twelve apostles.
So the Protestant churches particularly are criticized in this new document which says that they are not true churches but merely ecclesial communities. Therefore Protestants are not saved because their churches do not have the “means of salvation” [NOTE: Please see Update below]. Orthodox churches do not fare much better in this document. They are acknowledged as “churches” because they have apostolic succession and so enjoy “many elements of sanctification and of truth.” But the document makes clear that the Orthodox churches are deficient because they do not recognize the primacy of the Pope — a defect, or a “wound” that harmed them.
So here we are again faced with issues of power and domination, of one institution of faith competing with another to own the whole pot. The normative lines and arguments are drawn and presented by one "apostolic" tradition, in hope of gaining the upper hand.
It seems to me that the study of the past, particularly the second century, is even more vital now, because it provides a mirror of normative activity and discourse that continues to be engaged by the Catholic Church and its newest Pope. If we want to know what it was like for the "other" forms of Christianity in the second century, today's declaration gives us some insight. It should be recognizable from this that the Gnostics and the Marcionites and the Ebionites considered themselves orthodox, were powerful movements, facing a strong and authoritative rhetoric against them - just as the Protestants and Orthodox churches suddenly face today. So much for religious tolerance and constructive dialogue.
I am corrected in the comments that the Catholic Church is simply reaffirming its position that only its sacraments are valid, and that this is not necessarily the same thing as the possibility of being saved outside the Catholic Church, as was implied by the news article.
So I stand corrected that the Catholic Church is not saying now that other church traditions are not valid in terms of salvation (the document says that they are neither deprived of significance nor importance of the mystery of salvation). This appears to be a misrepresentation in the media.
Once I actually found the document (thanks to Gdelassu), I am still troubled to read that the Catholic Church wishes to reaffirm this on the one hand (regarding Protestantism):
According to Catholic doctrine, these Communities do not enjoy apostolic succession in the sacrament of Orders, and are, therefore, deprived of a constitutive element of the Church. These ecclesial Communities which, specifically because of the absence of the sacramental priesthood, have not preserved the genuine and integral substance of the Eucharistic Mystery cannot, according to Catholic doctrine, be called "Churches" in the proper sense.While also saying this (regarding Protestant traditions):
The use of this expression, which indicates the full identity of the Church of Christ with the Catholic Church, does not change the doctrine on the Church. Rather, it comes from and brings out more clearly the fact that there are "numerous elements of sanctification and of truth" which are found outside her structure, but which "as gifts properly belonging to the Church of Christ, impel towards Catholic Unity".
"It follows that these separated churches and Communities, though we believe they suffer from defects, are deprived neither of significance nor importance in the mystery of salvation. In fact the Spirit of Christ has not refrained from using them as instruments of salvation, whose value derives from that fullness of grace and of truth which has been entrusted to the Catholic Church".
And this (regarding Orthodox traditions):
The Council wanted to adopt the traditional use of the term. "Because these Churches, although separated, have true sacraments and above all – because of the apostolic succession – the priesthood and the Eucharist, by means of which they remain linked to us by very close bonds", they merit the title of "particular or local Churches", and are called sister Churches of the particular Catholic Churches.
"It is through the celebration of the Eucharist of the Lord in each of these Churches that the Church of God is built up and grows in stature". However, since communion with the Catholic Church, the visible head of which is the Bishop of Rome and the Successor of Peter, is not some external complement to a particular Church but rather one of its internal constitutive principles, these venerable Christian communities lack something in their condition as particular churches.
This all seems to me to be walking a very fine line. And at the end of the day what does it say about those who are the "other" churches? That they are deficient. That they are lacking and worth less. This is all language of normation. It is language that subjugates and controls. I ask all my readers for a moment to put yourself on the other side of this. How does it make you feel to be a Protestant? An Orthodox believer? A Jew?
I'm with those in the comments who want to know why this document would be released now? To what purpose is it? And to respond to Rebecca's concern about the Jewish population, one of the first links in the press article takes you to another press article on the Jewish reaction to another decree released on Saturday, July 7th.
Update 2: 7-10-07
Thank you to Judy Redman who replied in the comment section:
Re your update: I think that the subtle difference is that if the Catholic church denied that there is ever any possibility of salvation outside the Roman Catholic church, they would be denying the possibility of a gracious act by God in conferring salvation on some who had not had the opportunity to receive the sacraments. The whole discussion around limbo and unbaptised babies highlights this problem.Update 3: 7-10-07
Re why now? One possibility is that Benedict put this on the agenda of the Congregation as a non-urgent soon after he became Pope and now is when they managed to get the paperwork together. It may also have some internal ramifications. If you look at the bit before the questions, it is quite clear that there is disapproval about the teaching of some theologians:
Among the many new contributions to the field, some are not immune from erroneous interpretation which in turn give rise to confusion and doubt. A number of these interpretations have been referred to the attention of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Given the universality of Catholic doctrine on the Church, the Congregation wishes to respond to these questions by clarifying the authentic meaning of some ecclesiological expressions used by the magisterium which are open to misunderstanding in the theological debate.
Gdelassu offers this in the comments as a further clarification:
1) The Catholic Church does not claim (as per Dr DeConick) "that only its sacraments are valid." The Catholic claim is that all Trinitarian baptisms with water are valid, regardless of the affiliation of the one administering this sacrament. Given that baptism is the only sacrament strictly necessary for salvation in the Catholic understanding, this has a rather obvious impact on the rather breathless protests in circulation here and elsewhere about the implications of this document's claims vis-a-vis the salvation of non-Catholics. Meanwhile, however, Ms Redman is correct that the Catholics do not recognize the holy orders of any Protestant communion (including the Anglicans), for whatever that non-recognition is worth.
2) With an eye towards the question "why now," I think it would be helpful to read this document together with the motu proprio which preceeded it by a few days. The restoration of the Latin Mass and the reaffirmation of the unique status of the Catholic Church are sticking points for the (schismatic) Society of St Pius X (the Lefebvrists). There is currently a leadership struggle underway in the SSPX between Bernard Fellay (who is eager for reunion with Rome) and Richard Williamson (who was a vocal critic of Ratzinger before he ascended to the papacy and who is still openly hostile to Benedict XVI now). As such, considered together these two documents look like they are intended to provide ammunition for Fellay in his fight against Williamson. That is, I would submit that the pope is trying to show that Williamson's suspicions of the Vatican are overstated, so as to encourage that party of the SSPX which favors reconciliation to come back into communion with Rome. It remains to be seen whether these documents will serve to that end, but I suspect that this is the context in which they are being issued.