What did Pope Benedict XVI Really Say about the true Church?

13 Jul

So I finally had a chance to read up on the latest juicy talk about the Catholic Church and the Pope’s alleged endorsement of a document that reverses Vatican II by stating that the only church is the Catholic Church. Hold the phone. Do what?!?

I had two different people ask me if I heard the Pope’s recent comments. I hadn’t so I spent some time reading news stories on the Google News tonight. I read all sorts of commentary and what the Pope has said and endorsed. I tracked down the original document that has caused all the ruckus. After reading it, I am not so shocked by the Pope’s opinions. I don’t really see what the big deal is.

Vatican II was a big deal.
It was revolutionary.
I am not an expert on it, but I understand a few of the key concepts. You need to have a working knowledge of Vatican II to understand what has happened recently.
What happened recently anyway?

Here is what I have pieced together. On Tuesday, Pope Benedict XVI approved a document that clarified Roman Catholic doctrine as related to the doctrine of the Church. The document is entitled “RESPONSES TO SOME QUESTIONS REGARDING CERTAIN ASPECTS OF THE DOCTRINE ON THE CHURCH.”

I certainly no scholar on Catholic doctrine, but I don’t see what has got people all upset. The document validates that other churches (besides the Catholic Church) are a part of the mystery of salvation. The document is made up of five questions and five answers. Here are the questions, pieces of the response and my commentary in italics. To be clear, these are not the complete responses, just selected quotes.

June 29, 2007

Did the Second Vatican Council change the Catholic doctrine on the Church?

The Second Vatican Council neither changed nor intended to change this doctrine, rather it developed, deepened and more fully explained it.

Vatican II did open the doors of communication between Catholics and Protestants. A part of the opening of the doors was to clarify what the Catholic Church believed about the nature of the church.

What is the meaning of the affirmation that the Church of Christ subsists in the Catholic Church?

Christ “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.

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. Nevertheless, the word “subsists” can only be attributed to the Catholic Church alone precisely because it refers to the mark of unity that we profess in the symbols of the faith (I believe… in the “one” Church); and this “one” Church subsists in the Catholic Church.

The comment in bold is important to note. It was one of the great clarifications of Vatican II. The Catholic Church acknowledges “the Church of Christ is present and operative in the churches and ecclesial Communities not yet fully in communion with the Catholic Church.” Let me explain this. The Church of Christ, that is the true spiritual Church that Jesus is building, subsists (exists) in the Catholic Church, according to their doctrine, but the true spiritual Church also is PRESENT and OPERATIVE in non-Catholic churches.

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

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….“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.

Did everyone miss this? The document is saying that separated churches (including Protestant churches like mine) have defects, according to Catholic Doctrine, but we are SIGNIFICANT and we are IMPORTANT in the MYSTERY OF SALVATION. I have no problem with that statement. I may say the same thing about the Catholic Church. In my opinion they have defects, but they are important to the mystery of salvation.

Why does the Second Vatican Council use the term “Church” in reference to the oriental Churches separated from full communion with the Catholic Church?

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”, they merit the title of “particular or local Churches”, and are called sister Churches of the particular Catholic Churches.

This response deal with Eastern Orthodox churches. Again, the Catholic Church is calling Easter Orthodox Churches as “sister churches”.

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?

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.

This statement is probably the one that got everyone upset, but I think it must be read in the context of the previous four statements. The Catholic Church calls Protestant church (these are the churches that were born out of the 16th century Reformation) Christian Communities. We are not called “Churches” because we deny the authority of the Pope and we do not practice communion (the Eucharist) like Catholics.

So we are not a church, we are a community. Honestly, I don’t need the Pope or the Catholic Church to validate my church. I don’t mean that sarcastically or disrespectfully. I am just stating it as a fact. I appreciate the Catholic tradition and I feel that they are keeping the door of ecumenical dialogue open by noting that we protestants are important in the mystery of salvation. I think people are unnecessarily making a snap judgment to this recent document. The Catholic Church continues to teach that they are the Church in the truest sense and that we are communites with defects. I find no offense here.


Posted by on July 13, 2007 in Theology



2 responses to “What did Pope Benedict XVI Really Say about the true Church?

  1. Jeff Vreeland

    July 15, 2007 at 12:50 am

    Is the Catholic Church not contradicting itself with the response to question 3 and question 4?

    First they are stating that non-catholic church’s are valid and real, but follow that with a statement that we are not validated?

    I am lost by the thought process of the Catholic Church here, where on one hand we are important to the ” mystery of salvation.”

    Maybe I am misunderstanding the statement, but it seems to be a quite inconsistent statement.

  2. Derek Vreeland

    July 15, 2007 at 9:14 am

    It is complicated. They don’t really validate non-Catholic churches. They essentially say that Protestant “communities” have defects (don’t all churches have defects?), but that the true Church of Christ can operate within them.

    They say that the Church of Christ only subsists in (exsists within) the Catholic Church, because they are connected to Peter through Papel succession and the mystery of the eucharist.

    Crazy isn’t it?


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