These two documents contain nothing new. They simply clarify what the Catholic Church has always taught about herself. More specifically, they clarify some ecclesiological points of certain Vatican II documents (specifically Lumen Gentium and Unitatis Redintegratio) that have been occasionally misunderstood by both Protestants and Catholics. If one understands the difference between development and change, then one will better understand that nothing that comes later in Catholic doctrine contradicts what came before. There is deepening, and making explicit of what was implicit. But since the first century after Christ, the Catholic Church has claimed to be the Church Christ founded, and the documents of Vatican II did not (and in fact could not) abandon that doctrine. Vatican II was not embracing ecclesial pluralism or claiming that Christ founded an essentially invisible Church that is visible only in the sense that some of its members are visible. Rather, Vatican II was acknowledging that non-Catholic communities of Christians do have "numerous elements of sanctification and truth". The purpose of the Vatican II statements was thus not in any way to 'downgrade' the historic identity of the Catholic Church. The Catholic Church has always believed and taught that she is the one and only Church Christ founded. The purpose of the Vatican II documents was to acknowledge in fact what non-Catholic Christians do have that is true and good.
Another point of confusion has to do with the word 'Church'. In Catholic ecclesiology the word 'Church' can refer to a particular (i.e. local) diocese or Eucharistic assembly. The word 'Church' can also refer to the one universal [i.e. Catholic] Church. While there are many particular Churches, these are all part of the one universal Catholic Church. The Catholic Church at Rome is a particular Church. The Catholic Church [under the authority of Peter's successor], however, is not a particular Church, but is rather the institution in which Christ's Church subsists. There is only one Catholic (i.e. universal) Church, because Christ has only one bride. This too is one of the four marks of the true Church; it is one. "We believe in one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church". This is why acknowledging that there are various Orthodox Churches is not incompatible with the claim that the Catholic Church is the "one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church". When the Vatican speaks of "Orthodox Churches", it is talking about *particular* Churches. They are sister Churches. But the Catholic Church [not to be confused with the Catholic Church at Rome] is neither a particular Church nor a sister Church; it is the universal Church, and they are particular Churches.
Finally, I want to say something about ecumenical unity in relation to these two Vatican documents. In an article titled, "Protestants criticize, Orthodox welcome Vatican document", Catholic World News quoted the Rev. Setri Nyomi of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, as saying that the new Vatican document:
makes us question the seriousness with which the Roman Catholic Church takes its dialogues with Reformed family and other families of the Church.On July 11, 2007, the Washington Times published an article titled "Pope Asserts Catholic Primacy". (Access it here.) That article contains the following quotation:
It makes us question whether we are indeed praying together for Christian unity," said the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, a fellowship of 75 million Protestants in more than 100 countries.I wish I knew the reasoning process by which the Rev. Nyomi moves from the Catholic Church's position about itself to the conclusions that (1) the Catholic Church does not deeply desire Christian unity and (2) that the Catholic Church is not serious in its ecumenical dialogues with non-Catholic Christians. Apparently the Rev. Nyomi thinks that if any Church believes it is the one true Church that Christ founded, then that Church cannot desire Christian unity and cannot be serious when it says it desires such unity. Apparently, for the Rev. Nyomi, in order to desire Christian unity and be serious about Christian unity, one must believe that no present Church is the Church which Christ founded. In other words, the Rev. Nyomi's reasoning implies that in order to be serious about Christian unity one must believe either that Christ founded an invisible Church (visible only in the sense that some of its members are visible) or that if Christ did found a visible institution, the gates of hell prevailed against it.
That Catholic World News article also says the following about the response of the World Council of Churches:
The World Council of Churches (WCC) also expressed disagreement with the Vatican. In its own statement addressing the role of the Catholic Church, the WCC argued that the term "catholic" should be understood to mean "universal." In that sense, the WCC argued, "Each church is the Church catholic and not simply a part of it. Each church is the Church catholic, but not the whole of it.(The WCC statement can be found here.)
Revealed in the WCC's statement is an implicit rejection of the Catholic Church's position about herself. In other words, only if the Catholic Church is not what she says she is does the WCC have the authority to correct Catholic doctrine. But if the Catholic Church is what she says she is (i.e. the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church founded by Christ), then the WCC does not have the authority to determine the Catholic Church's ecclesiology. Of course the WCC does not even attempt to refute the Catholic Church's claims about herself; it is simply assumed that no existing Church could be the Church that Christ founded. So anti-Catholicism is implicit in the assumptions upon which the WCC makes its response to this Vatican document. From the Catholic point of view, however, the Catholic Church is almost 2,000 years old, being a divine institution because it was founded by Christ Himself; the WCC, by contrast, is only 59 years old, having been founded by mere men. And we must listen to God rather than mere men.