Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Newsmakers II: The "True Church"

It has been amusing in recent weeks that many Catholics approach me and say something like, "I can't believe what the pope just did," and they might be referring to one of two different events, the new permission given for 'Tridentine' Mass and the new document supposedly affirming extra ecclesia non salus (outside of the Church there is no salvation).

This document, officially given the formidable title, "RESPONSES TO SOME QUESTIONS REGARDING CERTAIN ASPECTS OF THE DOCTRINE ON THE CHURCH," actually says very little that is new. The 2000 document Dominus Iesus was much more comprehensive and in a way challenging, especially given the sense that the official ecumenical movement has not produced much in the intervening seven years.

More than one Catholic bishop today laments the fact that governance of a diocese must always take into consideration the potentially disruptive and distorting role of the media. There is at least one priest in most dioceses who will share even a personal letter from the ordinary with a reporter, and it will become a sensation. The fact is, when one is speaking in a specialized, even closed group, one should be free to use technical vocabulary in an effort to clarify the group's self-understanding and mission. When a third party looks in over your shoulder and lacks the full context of what is being said, misunderstanding is hardly avoidable.

Non-theologians should attempt to read the Responsa in this light. Catholic theologians have a sacred duty, as do all in Holy Orders, to pass on the Traditional teaching of the Magisterium, holding in faith that it is the salvific teaching given and willed by the Lord Himself. On the other hand, the formulations given in such documents is in no way binding on non-Catholics, who should feel free to propose their own formulations according to the beliefs of their particular churches and ecclesial communities. In fact, it would be refreshing to hear some authoritative teaching come from, say, the ELCA stating clearly the defects of the Roman Church in their eyes. Would there be an outcry against such a hypothetical document? Maybe, but I would judge such an outcry to be just as wrong-headed as the current one against the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

Yes, to say that Protestant communities suffer 'defects' sounds harsh. On the other hand, surely non-Catholics must in some sense hold that the Catholic Church is defective. Were it not, what would prevent unity? It is manifestly the case that on some certain points: the Real Presence, priesthood reserved for men, devotions to Mary, relics, etc, the Catholic Church is judged by outsiders as wrong. I disagree, but I judge it essential that we all be clear about this. The path to true unity as opposed to mere detente is through charity and truth; 'small t' truth in the sense that we all have to be clear about what is most important in our personal and ecclesial relationships with Jesus Christ. If the Catholic Church is not permitted to say clearly what she considers herself to have held since Apostolic times, then there can be no reasonable objections raised to that teaching. And legitimate objections can and should be raised, with the goal of coming to a profounder formulation of ecclesial dogma. This is a time-honored method practiced quite consciously since the Advent of scholasticism (every article of St. Thomas Aquinas' Summa contains objections--not a single one does Thomas ridicule or dismiss outright!).

On this point, I can end with something very positive. In the worry, anger and confusion that comes from these two strong documents recently released from Rome, there is always the potential to reach a deeper understanding of the Church and a deeper faith. The keys are 1) learning to read for understanding, to read patiently and non-judgementally; and 2) to be open to the most charitable possible interpretation of the document. This is, in the words of a graduate student friend of mine, "extremely difficult!" I have found, however, that in discussions that take place clear of the goading influence of various media, every Christian I have spoken to desires this. Is there better proof that the Holy Spirit is indeed at work in the Church for full communion? God grant us all the patience and charity we need to consent to the will of Jesus Christ, "That all may be One."

1 comment:

Bob said...

As a Christian who laments the division that exists in the Church and who looks forward with great excitement at the possibility that the Great Schism of 1054 is on the verge of finally being repaired as we approach its millennial anniversary, I initially took the Pope's statement as very discouraging. It seemed to draw a very harsh line in the sand by denying Protestant communities the use of the word "church" for self-identification. Many Protestants I know heard this as well.

But after thinking about it some more and understanding the context of the statements, I realize the depth (and truth) of them. There really is One Church. Countless Christians profess every week that they believe in "one holy, catholic, and apostolic church". And all know that the the church catholic (to distinguish from the Roman Catholic church) is clearly described in Scripture.

When we step back and look at history, I see that this statement (as well as most of the statements that came out of Vatican II and related councils) are the true responses to the issues brought out in the Reformation. Vatican II changed the Roman church significantly--and most of those changes were "admissions" to the truths exposed by the Reformers (as opposed to the "Fine! Go to hell then!" statements of Trent).

Part of the reconciliation process is understanding the other--in their own terms rather than in the meanings we ascribe to their words.

The Reformation was the first step, Vatican II the second. It may take another 300 years for the next step. I'm willing to wait as long as the steps continue to be towards each other.


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If I, who seem to be your right hand and am called Presbyter and seem to
preach the Word of God, If I do something against the discipline of the Church
and the Rule of the Gospel so that I become a scandal to you, The Church, then
may the whole Church, in unanimous resolve, cut me, its right hand, off, and
throw me away.

Origen of Alexandria
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