I have read a few blogs over the past several months that have taken the Vatican to task over a publication issued this past summer. After looking at the document in question, it would seem that many of those who have been offended are reacting more to news media coverage of the document rather than the content of the document itself. Their characterizations of the content don’t exactly match up with what is actually written.
As background, in late July, the Offices of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith of the Roman Catholic Church issued some clarifying statements related to the Second Vatican Council. (The OCDF was formerly headed by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now known as Pope Benedict XVI.) You can read the entire publication (in 8 different languages) by clicking here.
The blogs have focused on a Catholic contention that Protestant churches cannot rightly be called “churches.” And that is exactly what the OCDF said. But, whether or not someone should get all worked up over this conclusion, boils down to a matter of semantics, perspective and authority.
The Roman Catholic Church has claimed for centuries that it is the “one true church.” And they have a doctrinal construct that supports their own point of view. From their perspective, nothing else IS a church, THEY alone are. Their contention centers specifically on matters of apostolic succession within their priesthood and their particular view of the Eucharist (aka the Lord’s Supper or Communion). Yes, there are other significant doctrinal differences between Catholics and all other Christian denominations, but according to the OCDF, the priesthood and the Eucharist are the main issues. So, why should it come as a surprise that they would reserve the term “church” exclusively for themselves? To allow that designation to be used by any other body would in essence be disingenuous to their own stand. I think their integrity on the subject is something to be commended, even if you disagree with the point of view. The OCDF has assigned the title ecclesial Communities to Protestant and non-Catholic bodies of believers.
Protestants and non-Catholics have disputed the validity of the “one true church” claim by the Vatican for almost 500 years. So why take offense now? Protestants and non-Catholic communions rejected the authority of the Vatican in 1517. Why retrace those steps again in 2007? To sweat this semantic distinction now, implicitly offers back to the Vatican, the authority that was challenged so long ago. The bottom line, Protestants and other non-Catholic bodies are free from authoritative opposition by the Vatican to call themselves “churches” if they wish.
On a more positive note, the OCDF did clarify and reinforce a statement made in a Papal encyclical from John Paul II that says:
“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 (emphisis, mine)that are present in them.”
It is my belief that sanctification is a process that follows justification, also called salvation. Through John Paul II’s statement, the Catholic Church has affirmed that for those who God elected, He has also regenerated and brought into a state of salvation. If they are in the process of sanctification, they are by definition “saved” and secure in spite of the fact that they are outside the Roman Catholic Church.
For those who are upset by the Vatican’s assertion that we worship not in churches but instead in “ecclesial Communites,” at least this much should be viewed as good news! But I have not seen that commented on in those other blogs.