The 36-page "Declaration Dominus Iesus" ("On the Unicity and Salvific Universality of Jesus Christ and the Church") expressed "sincere respect" for other religions but attacked "religious relativism which leads to the belief that one religion is as good as another."
"If it is true that the followers of other religions can receive divine grace, it is also certain that objectively speaking they are in a gravely deficient situation in comparison with those who, in the church, have the fullness of the means of salvation," the Vatican said of non-Christian religions. It called non-Catholic Christian bodies "defective."
Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, issued the document at a Vatican news conference as part of what appeared to be an ongoing but urgent effort by the Vatican to reassert traditional Catholic doctrine.
Ratzinger said in a recent letter to bishops' conferences throughout the world that the Catholic Church is the "mother" of all Christian churches, and told them to stop referring to the Orthodox, Anglican and Protestant churches as "sister" churches.
And on Sunday, Pope John Paul II beatified Pope Pius IX, a conservative 19th century pontiff who proclaimed the doctrines of papal infallibility and the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary and also fought the unification of Italy, restricted religious freedom and locked Rome's Jews into a ghetto. John Paul held up his predecessor's spiritual virtues for "imitation and veneration."
Tuesday's declaration raised concern among other churches.
In London, Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey, spiritual leader of the worldwide Anglican Communion, called Ratzinger's statements "unjustified" and said they did "not reflect the deep comprehension that has been reached (by Catholics and Anglicans) through ecumenical dialogue and cooperation during the past 30 years."
"Of course," Carey added, "the Church of England and the worldwide Anglican Communion does not for one moment accept that its orders of ministry and Eucharist are deficient in any way. It believes itself to be a part of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church of Christ, in whose name it serves and bears witness, here and round the world."
In Geneva, the World Council of Churches, largely comprised of Anglican, Protestant and Orthodox bodies, warned that the growth of ecumenical dialogue could be "hindered--or even damaged" by what it called "language which precludes further discussion of the issues."
But Cardinal William Keeler of Baltimore, a leader in the Catholic Church's dialogue with both the Orthodox churches and Jews, said Ratzinger's pronouncement is "in full accord with what Vatican II has said."
Keeler, who attended the Vatican news conference, said he did not expect the new declaration to have a negative effect on ecumenical and interfaith dialogue.
In England, in an exercise in damage limitation, Archbishop Cormac Murphy-O'Connor of Westminster, chairman of the department of mission and unity of the Catholic bishops' conference of England and Wales, said the new document "does not attempt to change the teaching of the Catholic Church regarding ecumenism."
He said its main purpose was to warn against a tendency to regard all religions as equivalent and it was written principally for Catholic bishops and theologians.
"Certainly no slight is intended by its comments regarding other Christian communities," he said. "As Christians we share a common baptism, and the Catholic Church believes this brings us all into a real, if imperfect, communion. This was made clear in the documents of the Second Vatican Council, where it said that other Christians `with good reason are accepted as our brothers and sisters.'"
Archbishop Tarcisio Bertone, secretary of Ratzinger's congregation, said the document carried the full authority of infallibility because it was "explicitly approved and confirmed by the pope." He said the pope had indicated it was "his will that what it contains be believed by all the church."
"With the coming of the Savior Jesus Christ, God has willed that the church founded by him be the instrument for the salvation of all humanity," the declaration said.
"This truth of faith does not lessen the sincere respect which the church has for the religions of the world, but at the same time, it rules out, in a radical way, that mentality of indifferentism characterized by a religious relativism which leads to the belief that one religion is as good as another," it said.
At the same time, the declaration gave a special status to the Orthodox churches, saying that "the church of Christ is present and operative also" in them although they are not in full communion with the Catholic Church and do not accept the doctrine of papal primacy.
Referring to the Anglican and Protestant churches, the document said, "The ecclesial communities which have not preserved valid episcopate and the genuine and integral substance of the eucharistic mystery are not churches in the proper sense."
But, it said, "those who are baptized in these communities are, by baptism, incorporated in Christ and thus are in a certain communion, albeit imperfect, with the church."
While accusing religious relativists of manipulating religious tolerance, Ratzinger denied the declaration was intended to impinge on freedom of religion.
"The principle of tolerance as an expression of the respect for freedom of conscience, thought and religion, defended and promoted by the Second Vatican Council and put forward again by this declaration, is a fundamental ethical position present in the essence of the Christian credo," he said.