Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Luther said, "Popes can err..."

Many people were surprised, or maybe not, last week when Pope Benedict XVI declared that non-Roman Catholic Churches are outside the true faith. This affirmation of older, more traditional RCC teaching has not been reaffirmed in church-wide commentary really since Vatican II in the 1960s. In addition, many church bodies, including the Lutheran World Federation, had felt progress was being made in ecumenical relationships with Rome.

The document is an attempt to clarify some matters of RCC faith that may have seemed murky to some for the past forty years.

Some highlights include:

Why do the texts of the Council and those of the Magisterium since the Council not use the title of "Church" with regard to those Christian Communities born out of the Reformation of the sixteenth century?

Response: 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.

Why was the expression "subsists in" adopted instead of the simple word "is"?

Response: 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".

"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".

In very technical language, the document basically explains the Roman Catholic Church understands itself to be the closest and truest expression, on Earth, to what Christ intended for the church.

You can read ELCA Presiding Bishop Mark Hanson's response here.

I believe the reiteration of Roman Catholic beliefs in this manner is saddening, given the state of the world today. When divisions in the church are emphasized, the ultimate price is paid by the Gospel message we are supposed to spread. What kind of story can we tell about Amazing Grace when we cannot yield it to one another in fellowship in Christ. Though the Vatican document acknowledges the work of Christ in other Christian communities, it implies that such communities are ultimately in great error because of their continuation in separation from the Church at Rome.

As a person who has spent much time answering questions by non-Christians about the Christian church and faith, it is difficult and sometimes frustrating to spend much of a conversation answering questions about the differences between denominations rather than talking about Christ's action in the world.

Speaking of, that may be the most difficult part of the document to swallow. The Eucharist is a mystery! We do not know how what happens happens, but Christ has promised his presence in that meal and when he throws a party, he always shows up! We should rejoice in the expansive opportunities the gift of faith allows us in encountering Christ, rather than wonder if we are really in a church where such events occur.

By the way, when we say the Apostle's Creed we state, "I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic Church, the communion of saints..." This doesn't mean we're sneaking a heretical belief into the Lutheran service every Sunday or secretly we wish we were back in Rome. It's actually a blatant statement of our belief in the universal nature of Christ's Church and work in the world. Little "c" catholic means universal. Big "C" Catholic refers to the church in Rome. All three Creeds are ancient ecumenical creeds, embracing the teaching of the apostles and early Church fathers (and mothers!) about the Trinity, the Church and the World. Ironically, when we say that creed, we join our voices with all those saints each Sunday who say the same words ...all those people believing in Christ- the one True Head of the Church.

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