Document Released By Pope Stirs Catholic Controversy

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Yesterday, the Vatican released a document, written by the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and approved by Pope Benedict XVI, about Catholic “ecclesiology”— the study of the way, according to Catholic theology, God works through the Church to bring about the eternal salvation and happiness he desires for all people of all faiths.

Because I have received a barrage of e-mails asking what this document means — not a few expressing sentiments of great concern — I will try to explain in common terminology its purpose and significance for Christians of all denominations.

Just in case you’ve been reading mainstream media headlines, we should probably start out with this: Pope Benedict does not believe, and has never suggested, non-Catholics are all going to hell because they are not members of the Catholic Church.

Regardless of what you may be reading on news sites and blogs elsewhere, this document does not represent a shift away from the teaching of the late and revered Pope John Paul II about ecumenism (relationship and dialogue with Christians of other denominations.) It is not a return to pre-Vatican II theology. It is not a move to drive a wedge between Catholics and Protestants. In fact, it is an attempt to lay the foundations for eventual unity by clearly expressing the theological disagreements that currently divide Christian communities. Unity based on a whitewashing of differences, according to Pope Benedict, is a facade and only stalls fruitful dialogue.

The new document is a summary and clarification of “Dominus Iesus,” a theological treatise about ecclesiology published by the Vatican in the year 2000 during the pontificate of John Paul II. Pope Benedict and his collaborators released yesterday this new summary — in an easily accessible question and answer format — “to clarify the authentic meaning of some ecclesiological expressions used by the magisterium [teaching of the Catholic Church] which are open to misunderstanding in the theological debate.”

This quotient from the introduction to the document puts us into the full context of the five questions and answers the document presents. With these introductory words, the Pope is tipping the reader off to the fact that he is speaking primarily to theologians, and he is making his theological distinctions within a context of highly sophisticated theological debate. One way to understand his academic approach is that if “inside baseball,” so to speak, was to a great extent responsible for the breaking of ecclesial and theological union in centuries past, a full reunion of this sort will require confronting head-on, equally nuanced issues. The Pope considers it necessary for lasting unity to go beyond “sound bite” friendly journalism, when dealing in theological debate, even if he runs the risk of being misunderstood in the short term.

If we read this document, therefore, as if it were a press release to media outlets, we simply won’t get it. The headlines I have seen in the mainstream media confirm most journalists are not theologians, and in this case didn’t bother to consult experts of sound, Catholic theology regarding what the debate is all about. Without a proper context, we read that the Pope says some non-Catholic Christian communities are not churches “in the proper sense of the word” — meaning, they are not part of the one Church Jesus established while on Earth — and think he is trying to say if a person’s name and address is not registered in the local Catholic parish, he or she is not going to heaven. The Pope doesn’t mean that. I’ll say it again; the Pope is not saying only registered, baptized Catholics can be saved, and any journalists or critic who says otherwise, has officially missed the point.

Speaking of salvation, from the sight of things as I see it, it is quite possible that many present day non-Catholic Christians who are fervent believers in, and practitioners of, the teachings of Jesus will get to heaven before the throngs of wishy-washy, nominal Catholics who only show up to the church doors for infant baptism, the taking of marriage vows, and their own funeral. Of course, I don’t know who will be on the other side of the pearly gates, but I believe, with the Pope, that there is more to the challenge of personal justification and salvation than calling oneself a Catholic — or a Christian, for that matter. God works everywhere and in mysterious ways, and if we respond generously to him in as much as he reveals himself to us, I believe his grace will be sufficient. In this most recent document, the Pope puts this principle like this:

“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…”

The Pope, along with all Christians, believes salvation comes from belief in and acceptance of Jesus Christ as one’s personal Lord and Savior, as the only mediator between God and man. The Bible says as much. But in this document, Pope Benedict also affirms the long-standing doctrine of the Catholic Church that Jesus chose to work out this plan of salvation through his Church, under the direction of his 12 apostles and their successors (bishops in communion with the Pope):

“Jesus 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. […] 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.”

The Pope believes not even the imperfections and sins of some Catholic leaders in the past and present (we could all enumerate many) have been able to eliminate the “apostolic succession” (or authority received from Jesus, as head of the Church) passed on from the apostles to the bishops.

Should we be surprised that the Pope thinks the Catholic Church was established by Jesus Christ and is the one, true Church? No, after all, if he thought the Methodists, Baptists, or any of the other thousands of Christian denominations were right, he would have joined up long ago, and he certainly wouldn’t be Pope. But he doesn’t see the unapologetic expression of theological differences as a barrier to friendship, respect and brotherhood. Have you noticed, that a false sense of tolerance has made it now almost impossible to say, “I think I’m right,” without being called a bigot?

Steadfast belief in true religion is never the cause of uncivilized discord or war. Religious conflict is the work of insecure people who feel they must take up violence to defend their own position of weakness, instead of trusting in the power of God to work out his plan, in his time. They abuse God’s name in the process.

The headlines you and I have seen in reference to this document sound “retro” and “intolerant” because contemporary society is not used to hearing people like Benedict XVI express strong personal views, in a respectful and reasonable way, as an overture to honest dialogue. The Pope is keenly aware that thousands of other denominations think they’ve understood Jesus’ intentions better than him. He is hoping to hear them say it, and explain their reasoning, as he has done in this most recent document.

Here’s a hint to understand Pope Benedict: he’s a German academic by trade. He says the same things as the late Pope John Paul II, but instead of using camera angles and international voyages to tell his story, he most often uses a pen, behind which, he feels most comfortable, and perhaps most effective. The new approach will take a while to get used to, I admit, but it may be exactly what a world now unfamiliar with dialogue needs in its present crisis of truth.

God bless, Father Jonathan

P.S. As is usual, on Friday I will post some of your responses to this article.

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