Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Christ established only one Church

Here we go again. You know, sometimes I think that the media just can't help themselves. The headline on page 3 of my local paper today, "Pope reasserts Church's domination." The New York Times, "Pope cites 'defects' of other faiths." The Boston Globe, "Pope reasserts salvation comes from one church." The general tenor of these articles, "Pope Benedict XVI reasserted the primacy of the Roman Catholic Church, approving a document released yesterday that says other Christian communities are either defective or not true churches and Catholicism provides the only true path to salvation." Like I said, here we go again.

The challenge is that a good headline and lead often trumps the truth or the details which are inevitably more complex and complicated than anything that you could fit in a headline. The Pope has not made any type of move to invalidate the goodness that exists in many of the different Christian denominations or even other religions in the world. As usual for our theologian-Pope, he is seeking again to clarify things.

Anyone who knows me knows that I often speak of what I call the theological question of our time. Every era has a theological debate that seems to be teased out and find answers in their time. You need only look to the 3rd Century and the great Christological debates over the nature of Jesus personhood, with the resulting Council's and decrees leading us to the Nicene Creed and its definitive statement on who Jesus truly is to understand. Thank goodness they didn't have newspapers in their day. Lord knows what the headlines would have read, "Pope says Jesus no longer a man." "Church thinkers reassert Jesus is no god at all," and so on.

The question of our time, in our great era of ecumenism is this: How do we understand the Roman Catholic Church as the normative means of salvation in a religiously plural world? Or perhaps more easily - how can we at the same time recognize and affirm that which is good in other denominations while still holding true to what we believe to be the pre-eminent place in the economy of salvation enjoined upon the Roman Catholic Church? How can we be who we truly are and still place nice with other Christians?

As with any debate of this nature and scope, we have to pause from time to time and remember some of the critical issues along the way that we can't loose in the process.

What did the document from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (notice they didn't even get right who said this) say? The document said, "Christ 'established here on earth' only one Church and instituted it as a 'visible and spiritual community', that from its beginning and throughout the centuries has always existed and will always exist, and in which alone are found all the elements that Christ himself instituted." That last part is important. The Roman Catholic Church is the historic Church founded by Christ. It is one that traces its development all the way back - the only one. Secondly, what we hold so importantly is that phrase "in which alone are found all the elements that Christ himself instituted." This is the crux of what we believe. All the means of salvation that Christ intended to give us - Word, Sacrament, Unity, Apostolic Succession, etc. - exist in and only in the Roman Catholic Church.

Is the Pope saying the Church is flawless? No. Is the Pope saying that we're some how holier than everyone else? No. The Pope is simply stating that there is a pre-eminent position held by the Roman Catholic Church that no other church enjoys. That all of the means of salvation are in the Roman Catholic Church alone.

When the document says that other Churches are "defective" in some way, or are not real Churches, these are not insults but technical theological terms. Again to quote, "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." It means not that they are "defective" i.e. "rejects" of some sort. But simply that they have a lack - maybe they lack the Sacraments, maybe they lack a priesthood born of Apostolic Succession, maybe they lack some portion of the Word of God.

Are they, therefore evil and bad? Again, no. Here's something I'm sure you won't find reported in any mainline media about other Christian denominations, "It is possible, according to Catholic doctrine, to affirm correctly that the Church of Christ is present and operative in the churches and ecclesial Communities not yet fully in communion with the Catholic Church, on account of the elements of sanctification and truth that are present in them...There are 'numerous elements of sanctification and of truth' which are found outside her [the Roman Catholic Church] structure...In fact the Spirit of Christ has not refrained from using them [other Christian denominations] as instruments of salvation, whose value derives from that fullness of grace and of truth which has been entrusted to the Catholic Church."

A point of real conflict might be over the fundamental part of the equation - there are many other denominations that believe that a diversity of Christian expressions is a good thing. And while the Catholic Church wouldn't disagree with that per se, I think the Church is trying to say, "But, unity is better. Unity is what Christ intended." And, this must be a unity that doesn't become a least common denominator unity; a bland, generic Christianity. Rather, it needs to be one that embraces the fullness, the completeness of what Christ came to reveal and offer us as a means for our salvation. This fullness subsists in the Roman Catholic Church.

For too long, the ecumenical movement has become a sort-of passive aggressive, keep-the-peace encounter. A "let's not fight" discussion. And, I'm not encouraging fighting, but rather real discussion. It isn't enough to affirm what we agree on - even though that is wonderful. We have to eventually dive into what we disagree about if there is every to be a true unity within the Christian family.

And, highly emotionalized, inaccurate articles like the ones splashed over the media today don't help. The question of the relationship of all of the communities of Christ in the world is a complicated one. We need to give it the time, the prayer and the space to be a real, truthful, communal conversation.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for this great explanation, Fr. Tom.

    God bless,