Aren't you offended? That is the question many Evangelicals are being asked in the wake of a recent document released by the Vatican. The document declares that the Roman Catholic Church is the only true church -- or, in words the Vatican would prefer to use, the only institutional form in which the Church of Christ subsists. 

No, I am not offended. In the first place, I am not offended because this is not an an issue in which emotion should play a key role. This is a theological question, and our response should be theological, not emotional. Secondly, I am not offended because I am not surprised. No one familiar with the statements of the Roman Catholic Magisterium should be surprised by this development. This is not news in any genuine sense. It is news only in the current context of Vatican statements and ecumenical relations. Thirdly, I am not offended because this new document actually brings attention to the crucial issues of ecclesiology, and thus it presents us with an opportunity.

The Vatican document is very brief -- just a few paragraphs in fact.  It's official title is "Responses to Some Questions Regarding Certain Aspects of the Doctrine on the Church," and it was released by the Vatican's Congregation for the Defense of the Faith on June 29 of this year.  Though many media sources have identified the document as a papal statement from Pope Benedict XVI, it is actually a statement from the Congregation for the Defense of the Faith that was later approved for release by the Pope (who, as Cardinal Ratzinger, headed this Congregation prior to assuming the papacy).

The document claims a unique legitimacy for the Roman Catholic Church as the church established by Christ.  The document stakes this identity on a claim to apostolic succession, centered in the papacy itself.  As the document states, "This Church, constituted and organised in this world as a society, subsists in the Catholic Church, governed by the successor of Peter and the Bishops in communion with him."

Lest anyone miss the point, the document then goes on to acknowledge that the churches of Eastern Orthodoxy also stake a claim to apostolic succession, and thus they are referred to as "Churches" by the Vatican.  As for the churches born in whatever form out of the Reformation -- they are not true churches at all, only "ecclesial communities."

Look at this:

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.

Pope Benedict was already in hot water with the media because of his recent decision related to the (limited) reinstitution of the Latin mass, complete with a call for the conversion of the Jews. He was not likely to be named "Ecumenist of the Year" anyway. This latest controversy just adds to the media impression of big changes at the Vatican under the current papacy.

There have been changes for sure. Benedict is truly a doctrinal theologian, whereas his popular predecessor, Pope John Paul II, was more a philosopher by academic training. Those familiar with the current pope know of his frustration with the tendency of liberal Catholic theologians and laypersons to insist that the Second Vatican Council (known popularly as "Vatican II") represented a massive shift (to the left) in Catholic doctrine.  Not so, insisted Cardinal Ratzinger as head of the Congregation for the Defense of the Faith.  Now, as Pope, Benedict is in a position to shape his argument into a universal policy for his church.  Vatican II, he insists, represented only a deepening and reapplication of unchanging Catholic doctrine.