Alexander's Column

Catholic v. catholic: Christian unity?

Mark Alexander · Jul. 13, 2007

“The reformation was preceded by the discovery of America, as if the Almighty graciously meant to open a sanctuary to the persecuted in future years, when home should afford neither friendship nor safety.” –Thomas Paine

Joseph Alois Ratzinger became the 265th Pope of the Roman Catholic Church on 19 April 2005, taking the name Benedict XVI, which is Latin for “the blessed.”

In the two years since his election to lead the largest denomination of Christians in the world, Benedict has been outspoken in his decrial of theological relativism and has been a strong advocate for the authority of Scripture.

The Pope has been resolute in his discernment of controversial social issues, especially his denunciation of the killing of unborn children and the normalization of homosexuality.

We praised Benedict last September when he boldly and rightly called attention to Islam and its history of violent conversion. Although Benedict was quoting a 14th-century Byzantine emperor when making his case, the Muslim “street” responded all too predictably – with violence.

Unfortunately, a week later, Benedict retracted his rhetorical critique of Islam, stating, “I would like today to stress my total and profound respect for all Muslims.” Benedict even made an appearance in Istanbul’s Blue Mosque, where he prayed with the Grand Mufti. (Perhaps he reconsidered the history of Catholic and Muslim conflicts, particularly several bloody crusades sanctioned by Popes between the 11th and 13 centuries, each waged in the name of “Christendom.”)

Giving him credit where due, however, Benedict is a man in pursuit of reconciliation among all people, and his retraction indicates that he is called to make peace with Muslims, not condemn them.

In 2005, Benedict proclaimed, “I place my ministry in the service of reconciliation and harmony among peoples, profoundly convinced that the great good of peace is above all a gift of God, a fragile and precious gift to be invoked, safeguarded and constructed, day after day and with everyone’s contribution.”

Admirably, the Pope has taken steps to heal the 1054 schism between Catholics in the Roman Church and those in the Eastern Orthodox Church, and the 1517 schism between Catholics and believers in the Protestant Reformation Church.

Arguably, the most significant doctrinal difference between the Catholic Church and the Protestant and Reformed churches is that the Catholic Church has proclaimed itself, as an institution, the intercessor between laity and God, while Protestant Reformation churches promote individual relationships with Jesus Christ.

However, “Friendship with Jesus Christ” has been thematic in many of Benedict’s homilies and sermons. “We are all called to open ourselves to this friendship with God … speaking to Him as to a friend, the only One who can make the world both good and happy…. That is all we have to do is put ourselves at His disposal.” In his book Jesus of Nazareth, Benedict’s underlying theme is “to help foster [in the reader] the growth of a living relationship [with Jesus Christ].”

On the subject of unity, Benedict noted in a recent sermon, “The divisions which exist among Christians are a scandal to the world.”

Indeed they are – which is why I take exception to the Pope’s recent reaffirmation of an edict proclaiming the primacy of the Catholic Church. In restating this doctrine, Benedict served no purpose other than to widen those divisions between Catholics and Protestants.

On 29 June 2007, the canonical Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued a 16-page decree titled “One Church,” on the approval of Benedict XVI “because some contemporary theological interpretations of Vatican II’s ecumenical intent had been ‘erroneous or ambiguous’ and had prompted confusion and doubt.”

Vatican II (1962-1965) was the 21st ecumenical council by the Roman Church, and though its Dogmatic Constitution on the Church states that “the sole Church of Christ … subsists in the Catholic Church,” it noted, “Nevertheless, many elements of sanctification and of truth are found outside its visible confines.”

Catholic institutional legalists protest that the Second Vatican Council, and subsequent interpretations of its decrees, undermined the certainty that the Catholic Church was and remains the one and only true Christian church as founded by Jesus Christ.

In response, the latest decree restates the key sections of a 2000 text the Pope wrote when he was prefect of the congregation, Dominus Iesus, and notes in part that “Christian Communities born out of the Reformation of the sixteenth century … 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,” or “how the title of ‘Church’ could possibly be attributed to them.”

In other words, “the full identity of the Church of Christ … established here on Earth” is the Roman Catholic Church. Thus, the Protestant and Reformed congregations do not constitute churches, because the Catholic Church alone has “the fullness of the means of salvation.” Notably, however, the decree does concede, “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.”

The Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, Cardinal William Kasper, said the decree in question, is an “invitation to dialogue.” We accept!

To comprehend this divisive decree, one must have some understanding of events leading up to the Protestant Reformation.

The word “catholic” is from the Greek meaning “universal,” and the earliest surviving reference to the “Catholic Church” appears in a letter from Saint Ignatius, Bishop of Antioch, to Christians in Smyrna (AD 107). In context, Ignatius used the term to reference the whole Christian Church.

The early church was very decentralized, and was lead by elders and bishops (synonymous with elders). But regional church bodies formed, the most dominant being that of Rome.

In AD 380, the term “Catholic” was defined under Roman Imperial law by Emperor Theodosius in an edict declaring Catholic Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire – what many theologians would argue was an unfortunate wedding of church and state.

Church power and authority was centralized institutionally, and in the sixth century, the first Roman Pope was elected. There is no record of apostolic succession in the early church, but the claim of apostolic succession is central to Catholic doctrine.

Two Scriptural verses are most often cited as grounds for the central authority of the Pope. Jesus called upon the Apostle, Simon Peter (as recorded in the Gospel of John 21:15-19), to “Feed my lambs. … Take care of my sheep.” More importantly Jesus says in Matthew 16:18, “And I say also unto thee, that thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.”

Catholic theologians suggest that in Matthew, Jesus conferred upon Simon Peter, authority for the church, and, thus, that he is the first “Pope.” In context, however, Jesus is referring to the Godly inspiration for Peter’s confession in the previous verse, that He (Jesus) is Lord. Clearly, Jesus is the “rock” upon which the church was to be built.

Arguably, Peter was never designated as the head of the New Testament church and never fulfilled that role, as made clear through his subsequent writings. (One could make the case that Jesus conferred more authority for the church on James and Paul, but He did not intended for them to be the “rock” upon which the church was to be built either.)

In the centuries that followed the election of the first Pope, doctrinal and papal authority disputes resulted in splits from the Roman Church, and the establishment of the Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox and the Assyrian Church of the East.

However, the most significant split was the Protestant Reformation, beginning with Martin Luther’s 1517 posting of his “Ninety-Five Theses On the Power of Indulgences” to the Wittenberg Castle Church door.

Luther was a Catholic monk and theologian. He challenged the authority of the papacy and insisted that the Bible the sole source of church authority and that Jesus declared the priesthood of all believers. Luther argued that salvation was attainable by faith alone (a personal relationship with Jesus), not faith as mediated by the institution of the Catholic Church.

Luther demonstrated humilitas throughout his dissention, writing amidst the controversy, “I am more afraid of my own heart than of the pope and all his cardinals.”

Luther’s objective was not to divide the church, but to call attention to its gross pontifical and institutional corruption, particularly malpractices and controversial doctrines like the teaching and selling or indulgences, the practice of buying and selling church positions and the Church’s doctrine on purgatory.

Other notable reformers like Ulrich Zwingli and John Calvin followed Luther’s lead.

The Roman Church did, eventually, reform many corrupt practices in the centuries that followed (though corrupt Church practices are being challenged once again – in the last year alone, two Catholic diocese in the United States, Boston and Los Angeles, have paid more than a billion dollars in settlement fees to the victims of pedophile priests, whom the Church hierarchy refused to defrock.)

But, the Church would not divest itself of questionable doctrines related to purgatory, particular judgment, devotion to Mary, the intercession of the saints, extra-Biblical sacramental rituals, and papal authority.

Thus, the Protestant Reformation was cemented in 1648 with the Peace of Westphalia, but the Roman Church declared that “apostolic succession” could not be claimed by the Protestant Church. Consequently, as Pope Benedict reasserted, the administration of the sacraments outside the Catholic Church is not authentic or legitimate, thus no proper church exists outside the Roman Church.

Protesting the reaffirmation of this doctrine, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches issued rebuttals calling into question “whether we are indeed praying together for Christian unity,” and concluding the “exclusive claim that identifies the Roman Catholic Church as the one church of Jesus Christ … goes against the spirit of our Christian calling toward oneness in Christ.”

Of course, there are now many Protestant and Reformed denominations which are largely defined by institutional doctrine and tradition – churches which have, themselves, overlooked the Scriptural mandate that “Christ is head of the church.”

In the current Protestant and Reformed theological vernacular, “catholic” with a lower-case “c” connotes oneness – the “full Body of Christ” – all believers united as one church – as it was used in the early church. “Catholic” with a capital “C” refers to the exclusive institution of the Roman Church.

The question remains, “Is the Pope, first and foremost, a Catholic or a catholic?” A more essential question for Catholics and Protestants alike: “Which would Jesus be?”

EDITOR’S NOTE: I am a fifth-generation Episcopalian, who broke with my beloved church in 1994 (after years of protesting institutional corruption) when it became clear that the Episcopal Church USA would not reform its heretical teachings. I mention this only to say that I understand how difficult it is to question historic institutional teachings indoctrinated for generations. Today, ECUSA is considered “out of communion” with the World Anglican Communion. Currently, I am a “permanent visitor” with a Presbyterian congregation, however, this essay was not written as a Presbyterian, Episcopalian or even Protestant. It was written as a Christian and a catholic! It should be noted here that of many friends in the Catholic Church, (including those on our National Advisory Committee), none predicate their relationship with Protestant brothers and sisters upon the doctrinal exclusion of their church. And, they, as all believers, are welcome at our sacramental table!