I Still Must Protest (2)

Recently, Pope Benedict XVI approved the release of a statement that has caused a minor stir among watchful Protestants and even some Catholics. The statement declares that the Roman Catholic Church is the only true church. To be precise the Vatican’s wording asserts that the Church of Rome is the only form in which the Church of Christ subsists, which is simply a more cautious way of saying that the only true church is the one whose leadership resides in the Vatican.

I am not calling attention to this because I am angry. Actually, it bothers me not one whit because it comes as no surprise. This is the position that Rome has always held. I and all my Protestant brethren were officially consigned to hell long ago by Popes and Councils of the Catholic Church. Now, in recent years the Church of Rome has moderated its language in an effort to be ecumenical. It even seems to hold forth that non-Catholics can actually be Christians. Unfortunately, they believe that sincere believers in all religions will be welcomed into heaven. The problem is that Rome has never officially repudiated all the anathemas declared in years past against Protestants. For instance, according to official Catholic teaching I am bound for hell because I deny such doctrines as transubstantiation and papal authority. What is more, I am also hell bound because I administer the Lord’s Supper and am not an ordained priest in the Catholic Church. I could go on and on.

Rome is in a bit of a Catch 22, however. It cannot repudiate the declarations and anathemas from the Council of Trent, for instance, because of its doctrine of revelation. Revelation is the theological word for how God makes himself and his truth known. In the Roman system, Popes and Councils hold equal authority as Scripture. And, as a practical matter, when Popes and Councils have differed from Scripture (and they often have) guess which source of authority is subordinated? (That was a rhetorical question. I assume you know that it is the Scriptures which get the shaft in such situations.) Anyway, if Rome were to say that Trent was wrong or is no longer relevant then what would that do to their entire doctrine of revelation? It would fall like the proverbial house of cards. “If Trent was wrong then what else was wrong? Perhaps our position on Mary is wrong. Perhaps our doctrine of purgatory is wrong.” You can imagine how confusing that could be. I will deal further with Rome’s opposition to Sola Scriptura in a future article.

The Vatican document on the church is quite brief. Its title is “Responses to Some Questions Regarding Certain Aspects of the Doctrine on the Church.” It was released on June 29th by the Vatican’s Congregation for the Defense of the Faith. According to the statement the Roman Catholic Church is the only legitimate church because of apostolic succession. It reads in part, “This Church, constituted and organized in this world as a society, subsists in the Catholic Church, governed by the successor of Peter and the Bishops in communion with him.” If you don’t already know, the Catholic Church believes that Peter was the very first Pope and so there has been an unbroken chain linking the Catholic Church directly to Jesus. Never mind those pesky historical inconveniences like the times when there were multiple popes leading a divided church or when there were decadent and unconverted popes.

Interestingly, the Catholic Church refers to the churches of Eastern Orthodoxy as “Churches” because they too claim apostolic succession. However, Protestant churches, or those churches born out of the years of reformation are the “red headed stepchildren” of the body of Christ and are referred to in the Vatican’s document as merely “ecclesial communities.”
“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.”

Again, this does not bother me in the slightest. Benedict XVI is a true theologian. He is a stalwart against liberalizing forces within the Catholic Church. Recently he has made controversial comments about Muslims and has advocated evangelizing Jews. These are not popular positions in our world. This recent statement on the church merely reminds Catholics and Protestants how important the issue is of Papal authority. I appreciate the fact that Rome is willing to reassert its historic position that any church which denies the authority of the Pope is no true church. It seems that Benedict understands what is at stake in this issue. I would be equally appreciative if my fellow Protestants understood the importance of this issue and were willing to assert that any church which bows to papal authority and infallibility is no true church.

I was watching EWTN, the global Catholic network, on Monday evening. (Incidentally, Catholic TV is much better than “evangelical” TV which is populated mostly by goofballs. Most of Catholic TV is filled with pretty stout teaching programs. They actually believe that doctrine is important). Anyway, Father William Stetson, Director of the Catholic Information Center in Washington D.C. was on to explain the Vatican’s document on the church. He was coy to say the least. His basic message was, “This statement on the church is a precise theological statement and the average person need not worry about it. Many Protestants will be saved because God will have pity on them for not being enlightened about such issues as the Mass and confession.” If you think I am exaggerating then go to EWTN’s website and check out the July 23rd “The World Over” program. Anyway, something tells me that Benedict XVI would not agree with Fr. Stetson that this it is not that big of a deal; that the average Catholic shouldn’t worry about it.

Many of our Protestant ancestors were mercilessly burned on wooden stakes until their fingertips and abdomens burst into the flames because they opposed papal authority and infallibility. We both dishonor their sacrifice and trivialize Scripture if we do not see this issue as one worth dividing over. Rome certainly sees it in those terms.

Dr. Albert Mohler of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky wrote recently, “I actually appreciate the Pope’s concern. If he is right, we are endangering our souls and the souls of our church members. Of course, I am convinced that he is not right – not right on the papacy, not right on the sacraments, not right on the priesthood, not right on the Gospel, not right on the church.”