Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Can it be true? The Pope declares Catholic Church the Only True Church

David Hamilton just forwarded me a link to a msnbc news article reporting on a Vatican declaration just released. It declares the universal primacy of the Roman Catholic Church and says that Orthodox churches are defective and that other Christian denominations are not true churches.

This declaration is already being criticized as another step backwards from Vatican II, a council that Pope Benedict attended as a young man. It is said that he has long complained about what he considers the erroneous and liberal interpretation of that council.

Most disheartening to me about this declaration is the reuse of that normative defense that developed out of the second century debates between apostolic churches and others. The Vatican document claims that the reason for the Pope's decision is that “Christ ‘established here on earth’ only one church,” Thus other Christian communities “cannot be called ‘churches’ in the proper sense” because they do not have apostolic succession — that is they cannot trace their bishops back to Jesus' twelve apostles.

So the Protestant churches particularly are criticized in this new document which says that they are not true churches but merely ecclesial communities. Therefore Protestants are not saved because their churches do not have the “means of salvation” [NOTE: Please see Update below]. Orthodox churches do not fare much better in this document. They are acknowledged as “churches” because they have apostolic succession and so enjoy “many elements of sanctification and of truth.” But the document makes clear that the Orthodox churches are deficient because they do not recognize the primacy of the Pope — a defect, or a “wound” that harmed them.

So here we are again faced with issues of power and domination, of one institution of faith competing with another to own the whole pot. The normative lines and arguments are drawn and presented by one "apostolic" tradition, in hope of gaining the upper hand.

It seems to me that the study of the past, particularly the second century, is even more vital now, because it provides a mirror of normative activity and discourse that continues to be engaged by the Catholic Church and its newest Pope. If we want to know what it was like for the "other" forms of Christianity in the second century, today's declaration gives us some insight. It should be recognizable from this that the Gnostics and the Marcionites and the Ebionites considered themselves orthodox, were powerful movements, facing a strong and authoritative rhetoric against them - just as the Protestants and Orthodox churches suddenly face today. So much for religious tolerance and constructive dialogue.

Update: 7-10-09
I am corrected in the comments that the Catholic Church is simply reaffirming its position that only its sacraments are valid, and that this is not necessarily the same thing as the possibility of being saved outside the Catholic Church, as was implied by the news article.

So I stand corrected that the Catholic Church is not saying now that other church traditions are not valid in terms of salvation (the document says that they are neither deprived of significance nor importance of the mystery of salvation). This appears to be a misrepresentation in the media.

Once I actually found the document (thanks to Gdelassu), I am still troubled to read that the Catholic Church wishes to reaffirm this on the one hand (regarding Protestantism):
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[19] cannot, according to Catholic doctrine, be called "Churches" in the proper sense[20].
While also saying this (regarding Protestant traditions):
The use of this expression, which indicates the full identity of the Church of Christ with the Catholic Church, does not change the doctrine on the Church. Rather, it comes from and brings out more clearly the fact that there are "numerous elements of sanctification and of truth" which are found outside her structure, but which "as gifts properly belonging to the Church of Christ, impel towards Catholic Unity"[11].

"It follows that these separated churches and Communities, though we believe they suffer from defects, are deprived neither of significance nor importance in the mystery of salvation. In fact the Spirit of Christ has not refrained from using them as instruments of salvation, whose value derives from that fullness of grace and of truth which has been entrusted to the Catholic Church"[12].

And this (regarding Orthodox traditions):
The Council wanted to adopt the traditional use of the term. "Because these Churches, although separated, have true sacraments and above all – because of the apostolic succession – the priesthood and the Eucharist, by means of which they remain linked to us by very close bonds"[13], they merit the title of "particular or local Churches"[14], and are called sister Churches of the particular Catholic Churches[15].

"It is through the celebration of the Eucharist of the Lord in each of these Churches that the Church of God is built up and grows in stature"[16]. However, since communion with the Catholic Church, the visible head of which is the Bishop of Rome and the Successor of Peter, is not some external complement to a particular Church but rather one of its internal constitutive principles, these venerable Christian communities lack something in their condition as particular churches[17].

This all seems to me to be walking a very fine line. And at the end of the day what does it say about those who are the "other" churches? That they are deficient. That they are lacking and worth less. This is all language of normation. It is language that subjugates and controls. I ask all my readers for a moment to put yourself on the other side of this. How does it make you feel to be a Protestant? An Orthodox believer? A Jew?

I'm with those in the comments who want to know why this document would be released now? To what purpose is it? And to respond to Rebecca's concern about the Jewish population, one of the first links in the press article takes you to another press article on the Jewish reaction to another decree released on Saturday, July 7th.

Update 2: 7-10-07
Thank you to Judy Redman who replied in the comment section:
Re your update: I think that the subtle difference is that if the Catholic church denied that there is ever any possibility of salvation outside the Roman Catholic church, they would be denying the possibility of a gracious act by God in conferring salvation on some who had not had the opportunity to receive the sacraments. The whole discussion around limbo and unbaptised babies highlights this problem.

Re why now? One possibility is that Benedict put this on the agenda of the Congregation as a non-urgent soon after he became Pope and now is when they managed to get the paperwork together. It may also have some internal ramifications. If you look at the bit before the questions, it is quite clear that there is disapproval about the teaching of some theologians:

Among the many new contributions to the field, some are not immune from erroneous interpretation which in turn give rise to confusion and doubt. A number of these interpretations have been referred to the attention of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Given the universality of Catholic doctrine on the Church, the Congregation wishes to respond to these questions by clarifying the authentic meaning of some ecclesiological expressions used by the magisterium which are open to misunderstanding in the theological debate.
Update 3: 7-10-07
Gdelassu offers this in the comments as a further clarification:
1) The Catholic Church does not claim (as per Dr DeConick) "that only its sacraments are valid." The Catholic claim is that all Trinitarian baptisms with water are valid, regardless of the affiliation of the one administering this sacrament. Given that baptism is the only sacrament strictly necessary for salvation in the Catholic understanding, this has a rather obvious impact on the rather breathless protests in circulation here and elsewhere about the implications of this document's claims vis-a-vis the salvation of non-Catholics. Meanwhile, however, Ms Redman is correct that the Catholics do not recognize the holy orders of any Protestant communion (including the Anglicans), for whatever that non-recognition is worth.

2) With an eye towards the question "why now," I think it would be helpful to read this document together with the motu proprio which preceeded it by a few days. The restoration of the Latin Mass and the reaffirmation of the unique status of the Catholic Church are sticking points for the (schismatic) Society of St Pius X (the Lefebvrists). There is currently a leadership struggle underway in the SSPX between Bernard Fellay (who is eager for reunion with Rome) and Richard Williamson (who was a vocal critic of Ratzinger before he ascended to the papacy and who is still openly hostile to Benedict XVI now). As such, considered together these two documents look like they are intended to provide ammunition for Fellay in his fight against Williamson. That is, I would submit that the pope is trying to show that Williamson's suspicions of the Vatican are overstated, so as to encourage that party of the SSPX which favors reconciliation to come back into communion with Rome. It remains to be seen whether these documents will serve to that end, but I suspect that this is the context in which they are being issued.

16 comments:

gdelassu said...

Therefore Protestants are not saved because their churches do not have the “means of salvation.”

This seems to my mind a misrepresentation of the claims of the document in question, which is at pains to emphasize that "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." In any event, I have linked to the document itself so each can see for himself or herself what precisely the document says.

David said...

GDELASSU

Thank you for the courtesy of providing the article link. Thank you also for the reminder, as I take it, that the media tends to sensationalize and over-interpret things like this.

However, when I read the article on the Vatican web site, it confirmed for me the the basic statements of the MSNBC article. To paraphrase and strongly reduce:

1. We (RCC)are the only true church.
2. Every other self-proclaimed supposedly Christian church is either defective or invalid.
3. The only standard that can be used is our own standard.
4. Oh, and by the way, the primacy of the RCC is tied directly to our other organizational myths, such as Apostolic Succession, Peter as the First Pope, etc.

Although the MSNBC article quoted an Anglican rep as saying this was nothing new, I don't believe that leaders put forward this kind of statement unless they have an agenda, want to make a point, or are consolidating power. Otherwise, why bring this forward in the public NOW? What more obvious a statement of superiority and arrogance can a church leader make, and why would he make it NOW?

APRIL

I concur whole-heartedly with your assessment: "It seems to me that the study of the past, particularly the second century, is even more vital now". For me, independently-minded -- as much as possible -- scholarship and open inquiry are the only way I can think of to shed light on the validity of myths such as these.

I suspect some bloggers will assume that I am categorically anti-RCC. Not so. If the RCC were to divest itself of such patently absurd myths as Roman primacy, Petrine origin, and Apostolic Succession, not to mention the perpetual virginity of Mary, then I would be happy to embrace the RCC as a potential source of spiritual truth. End of rant.

Judy Redman said...

I think gdelassu is correct on this. The document simply reaffirms the official Catholic doctrine that churches outside the Roman Catholic and Orthodox communions do not have valid ordinations and therefore do not offer valid sacraments. It doesn't exclude the possibility that people within those churches are saved, although I don't think this is language that the Catholic church uses much.

What it is saying is "no matter what trendy liberal theologians might have been saying, we are still the One True Church". This comes as no surprise, but the reason given is "because we said so", which isn't particularly convincing. I don't think this takes anything away from April's basic argument.

David said...

"churches outside the Roman Catholic and Orthodox communions do not have valid ordinations".

Is this really true? I have 3 Episcopal priests in my immediate family tree, and I was under the impression that Anglican clergy also could make the claim to Apostolic Succession. My memory of Methodist and Lutheran status is less certain.

Rebecca said...

One wonders what will happen to the other declarations of the Second Vatican Council about the Catholic relationship with the Jewish people.

Judy Redman said...

David,

Anglican clergy are of the opinion that they have a valid claim to Apostolic succession. The Catholic church disagrees with them, and we are dealing with the Catholic understanding here. You might like to look at the Catholic Encyclopedia article on this at http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/01641a.htm and the article at http://www.bringyou.to/apologetics/a34.htm

I don't think that either the Lutheran or Methodist churches were particularly interested in Apostolic succession as the Catholic church understands it ie that in order to have Apostolic succession of clergy, ordination needs to be by someone who can trace his (not her) ordination back in an unbroken line to Peter.

Judy Redman said...

Can I also affirm what the Anglican representative in the msnbc article says - there is much goodwill amongst Catholic priests, religious and lay people. Many of my Catholic friends will be horrified and embarrassed by this.

David said...

Judy, that brings me back to the fascinating question: Why would he say this now? What is the purpose?

When I studied Critical Theory in grad school, I learned that every communication, whether written or oral, has an agenda, or rather the creator of the message has an agenda. Without understanding the agenda, it's easy to miss the real meaning of the communication.

So why did they put this out now and what is the real intent?

Start a theological war?
Try to scare other Christians to return to the fold?
Solify this Pope's hold on power?
Support a new campaign?
Other???

April DeConick said...

All,

Thank you for the link to the document. Please see my update in the actual post.

Judy Redman said...

Re your update: I think that the subtle difference is that if the Catholic church denied that there is ever any possibility of salvation outside the Roman Catholic church, they would be denying the possibility of a gracious act by God in conferring salvation on some who had not had the opportunity to receive the sacraments. The whole discussion around limbo and unbaptised babies highlights this problem.

Re why now? One possibility is that Benedict put this on the agenda of the Congregation as a non-urgent soon after he became Pope and now is when they managed to get the paperwork together. It may also have some internal ramifications. If you look at the bit before the questions, it is quite clear that there is disapproval about the teaching of some theologians:

Among the many new contributions to the field, some are not immune from erroneous interpretation which in turn give rise to confusion and doubt. A number of these interpretations have been referred to the attention of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Given the universality of Catholic doctrine on the Church, the Congregation wishes to respond to these questions by clarifying the authentic meaning of some ecclesiological expressions used by the magisterium which are open to misunderstanding in the theological debate.

gdelassu said...

Two comments in response to various ideas floating around this thread:

1) The Catholic Church does not claim (as per Dr DeConick) "that only its sacraments are valid." The Catholic claim is that all Trinitarian baptisms with water are valid, regardless of the affiliation of the one administering this sacrament. Given that baptism is the only sacrament strictly necessary for salvation in the Catholic understanding, this has a rather obvious impact on the rather breathless protests in circulation here and elsewhere about the implications of this document's claims vis-a-vis the salvation of non-Catholics. Meanwhile, however, Ms Redman is correct that the Catholics do not recognize the holy orders of any Protestant communion (including the Anglicans), for whatever that non-recognition is worth.

2) With an eye towards the question "why now," I think it would be helpful to read this document together with the motu proprio which preceeded it by a few days. The restoration of the Latin Mass and the reaffirmation of the unique status of the Catholic Church are sticking points for the (schismatic) Society of St Pius X (the Lefebvrists). There is currently a leadership struggle underway in the SSPX between Bernard Fellay (who is eager for reunion with Rome) and Richard Williamson (who was a vocal critic of Ratzinger before he ascended to the papacy and who is still openly hostile to Benedict XVI now). As such, considered together these two documents look like they are intended to provide ammunition for Fellay in his fight against Williamson. That is, I would submit that the pope is trying to show that Williamson's suspicions of the Vatican are overstated, so as to encourage that party of the SSPX which favors reconciliation to come back into communion with Rome. It remains to be seen whether these documents will serve to that end, but I suspect that this is the context in which they are being issued.

Jared said...

This is a fantastic discussion, especially since I am lecturing on the history of Christian soteriology tomorrow morning, and part of that lecture includes the debate between Augustine and the Donatists. I recall that Augustine made a distinction between a sacrament's validity and its efficacy. And, since he "won" the debate in the eyes of the church universal, his distinction was important for the history of Latin Christianity (the proverbial "long shadow of Augustine"). In any case, a sacrament is "valid" or potentially efficacious if it has been performed in a traditional way, with the proper materials, and with the correct speech. But, although it is "valid" that does not mean it is "efficacious." To be efficacious, you needed to be a part of the universal church in communion with the churches of apostolic succession. So, with the Donatists, their baptisms were valid, but were not efficacious. They became efficacious once a Donatist "rejoined" the a church in communion with the "Great Church" (therefore, they did not need to be rebaptized).

April DeConick said...

Jared,

I don't know what the Catholic Church's position on the distinction between efficacious and valid is today. Since my use of the word may cause misunderstanding, I have replaced it.

Leon said...

One reason why the Catholic Church may be making these statements now is simply that the Pope's true conservative nature is just coming out. Some people feared the worst when Cardinal Ratzinger was chosen because he was so conservative. Up to now, there was considerable surprise that he has been so moderate. A Pope is really no different than any other politician. He plays games to win some favor and then hits you with what he really believes when he thinks he has a chance to get away with it.

The most conservative thing I've read about him in these recent reports is his statement (quoted in the MSNBC report) that what was sacred to past generations must still be sacred now and it cannot suddenly become harmful. That is a very weird thing to believe. You could justify almost anything from the past that way. That is why the Catholic Church has such a mixed record on improving relations with Jews. It wants to advance, yet it has a hard time admitting any mistakes were made in the past. Some leaders may have made mistakes but the Church must always be considered pure and holy. It's not surprising that it could endorse an ancient prayer calling for conversion of Jews.

A few years ago, the Vatican issued some statement rejecting supersessionism, but it's still there in the official Catechism. It can never make up its mind to go fully forward. Need I point out how ironic all this is? Jesus, as part of his own Pharisaic/rabbinic culture, considered repentance and turning around to be far more important than maintaining the perfection of your own office. The irony is built into the very name of the Church — the Roman Catholic Church. It identifies more with Rome than with an ancient rabbi from Galilee.

Leon Zitzer

Rebecca said...

I have to say that in this case I agree with Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League - that it is offensive that the Catholic Church is reviving a version of the Good Friday Mass that calls for the conversion of the Jews, as if we needed to become Catholics to be saved. Even if this Mass is said very infrequently, the offense remains, because the revival of the Mass is a signal to us that our religion is not acceptable and must be changed. This is exactly the message that the Catholic Church gave us throughout the long years before the Second Vatican Council, and it resulted in many atrocities being committed against Jews, including forced conversions.

Rebecca said...

And another point - what does the revival of the older Mass mean for Jewish-Catholic dialogue? In my past experience with dialogue, I found that although we obviously disagreed on many theological points, that there was a great deal of respect for Jews and Judaism. Perhaps the Pope is trying to appease this particularly conservative group that has left the Catholic church - but what about what I hope is a much larger number of Catholics who do respect Jews and people of other religions?