A few days ago the Vatican issued a document that has stirred up a bit of theological controversy about an argument that has been around for 2000 years–Which church is the “real” church? Admittedly, in these days of ecumenical give-and-take, this is not a Politically Correct question. We aren’t supposed to think like that and it’s not nice to say anything in public that might make the followers of some other denomination feel bad. But the Pope put the word out in a document called Responses to Some Questions Regarding Certain Aspects of the Doctrine of the Church, which sounds like something a committee came up with. It’s not as memorable as “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows,” and it’s not as long either.
This brief statement is meant to remind Catholics of the primacy of the Church of Rome. That’s basically the whole story right there–and it’s not big news nor is it new news. It’s a way of reminding the faithful that Catholics believe that their church is the true expression of the church of Jesus Christ on the earth. Given that Catholics number roughly 50% of all self-confessed Christians, that takes care of half of the flock. But what of the rest of us? The document refers to the “oriental Churches,” meaning the various branches of the Orthodox Church. Although they made the mistake of separating from Rome, they still are called “sister Churches” because they recognize apostolic succession and the proper meaning of the Eucharist. But because they do not recognize the Pope as their true spiritual leader, the Orthodox churches “lack something.”
That leaves the Protestants to deal with. Because they do not recognize apostolic succession and therefore lack a “sacramental priesthood,” they cannot be called “Churches” in the proper sense. They are “Christian communities” and “ecclesial Communities.”
Overall, the document has a good tone to it. There is no invective against non-Catholics, no relegating us to hell for not being Catholics. It is a straightforward statement of Catholic doctrine written in an irenic tone. Having said that, a few comments are in order:
1) Everyone agrees that this is nothing new. The document simply restates traditional Catholic understanding regarding the church.
2) It would be unusual if the Pope thought the Catholic Church was “pretty close” to being the true church but not the real thing.
3) Most churches think that their understanding of the Christian faith comes the closest to the truth.
4) It is a good thing to be reminded that doctrine still matters. There remains a serious theological divide between Catholics and Protestants. On our side of the divide, we reject the primacy of Rome and the claim that the Pope is the true successor to Peter. And we do not accept Catholic doctrine regarding the Eucharist.
5) To say that is not to say anything about the spiritual condition of any person in the Catholic Church. We leave the final verdict in the hands of the Lord, who judges all people righteously and infallibly.
6) When great issues are at stake, we should all strive for candor, clarity and charity. Candor so that we can be honest about what we believe. Clarity so we can be clear about what we believe. Charity so that we can disagree without rancor about what we believe. The Vatican document admirably achieves these goals.
7) The document is not meant to offend evangelical Christians, nor should it. If we know history, we won’t be surprised. If we know our own faith, we won’t be shaken. If we know the Bible, we won’t be worried.
Al Mohler offers a very helpful analysis called No, I’m Not Offended. Here is part of his conclusion:
"I actually appreciate the Pope’s concern. If he is right, we are endangering our souls and the souls of our church members. Of course, I am convinced that he is not right — not right on the papacy, not right on the sacraments, not right on the priesthood, not right on the Gospel, not right on the church."
"The Roman Catholic Church believes we are in spiritual danger for obstinately and disobediently excluding ourselves from submission to its universal claims and its papacy. Evangelicals should be concerned that Catholics are in spiritual danger for their submission to these very claims. We both understand what is at stake."
I am grateful to the Vatican for stating its position plainly. In these days of theological fuzzification, it’s good to have someone step forward and say, “We are the true church.” Those of us who disagree will admire the courage and grace of the document and we will not be offended. If it makes all of us–Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant–stop and think about what we believe, then we can agree to disagree about who went to church last Sunday and who was in an “ecclesial community.”