If you came here looking for a souflée, you’ll only find a pound cake. Sitting next to me in preparation are the Catechism of the Catholic Church and the Oxford Canadian Dictionary, two literary heavyweights. If I wanted light and fluffy I would have pulled out the Timmins Daily Press.The headlines shouted “Other churches ‘wounded’. Only true Church is Catholic.” The official uproar in the media was that Pope Benedict XVI and the wing of the Vatican he used to head, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, had set ecumenism back at least half a century to before the Second Vatican Council. Protestants took it up as proof that Catholics are pompous elitists with no real love for God and His teachings. Some Protestant ministers even went so far as to falsely claim to their parishioners that the document stated that because Protestants were not part of the “true Church” they were not capable of salvation.
After being asked what I thought about this numerous times, I decided I should do what any responsible intellectual would do: go to the source. If I have learned anything in my short time here on Earth, it is that the media do a very poor job of reporting the news. It is all about snippets, quotations, and quick fixes. You cannot capture the subtle nuances of this document by reading the lay press. Do yourself a favor and, if you care about his issue at all, go read the English translation and form your own opinion.
Let us start by stating the obvious: nowhere in this document, unless it is contained in some hidden cipher box, does it state that members of churches outside of the Catholic church are incapable of salvation. That is an utterly false statement and I am perturbed that a minister of a church would make such a statement to his trusting parishioners. Talk about Ecumenical damage. Since it should be obvious to most Christians what it says about salvation in the Holy Bible (which, besides small differences in which books are included, is the same in Catholic and Protestant churches), I will quote from the Catechism of the Catholic Church to clear this up, as this church’s teachings are what are being questioned. It states in the CCC that “Salvation comes from God alone.” The document does not state that God only exists in the Catholic church. As you will read later, it states quite the opposite.
Let’s see…what else did the media misrepresent? Oh, that the Pope said that all other churches besides the Catholic Church are not true churches and that they are wounded due to their shortcomings and failures. If you give due diligence to the subject, you will find this is also a false assertion. The Associated Press reported that the Vatican stated that “Christian denominations outside Roman Catholicism were either defective or not true churches”. It stated nothing of the sort. It is all about semantics and if we are so quick to fracture over semantics, than we have bigger problems.
The document states that “Christ ‘established here on earth’ only one Church and instituted it as a ‘visible and spiritual community’”, a Church that only exists in unbroken lineage from Christ’s chosen “rock”, Peter, to the current Pope in the Catholic church. The full complement of traditions and sacraments set into motion by Christ himself only exists in the Catholic church. The semantic disagreement comes in the form of the word “subsistence” which means the full “historical continuity and…permanence of all the elements instituted by Christ”. I do not think anyone would argue that notion. The Orthodox churches split from the original church first, followed by the Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth century. The Protestant church than went on to separate into over 1000 separate denominations. But the document still states that 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.” (Emphases mine.)
It goes on to state that although churches and Communities outside of the Catholic Church are suffering “from defects, [they] 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”
Maybe the biggest thorn in the side of Protestants everywhere is the response to the question as to why the Vatican refuses to use the word Church when referring to the Christian communities arising from the Protestant Reformation. The answer is very academic and quite devoid of insult. Basically, the Vatican just has a different interpretation of the meaning of the word church. The Oxford Canadian Dictionary says church can mean a building for public, usually Christian, worship, the body of all Christians, an organized Christian group, or an institutionalized religion as a political or social force. But it is just semantics people! The document nowhere states that this inability to call other Christian communities “churches” in any way takes away from the sanctity of their worship, the truth of their message, their worship of God, or their belief in and practice of the main tenets of the Christian faith.
Finally, the biggest problem I have with all of this is that much of the nuances of the original document have been lost in translation. As far as I know, most, if not all, official Vatican documents are published in Latin. So the official message from the church should be interpreted from the official text. When translating a dead language like Latin into a living language like English, you are going to distort meaning somewhere.
C.S. Morrissey, a Latin professor at Trinity Western University in Langley, BC, wrote a wonderful article in the Globe and Mail. It draws attention to the use of the words “wound” and “defect” in the lay press with regards to this document. (Don’t think I didn’t realize that I quoted “defect” above.) Morrissey goes so far as to say that this document ADVANCES ecumenism. Here’s how.
With regards to shortcomings of some Protestant Christian communities, the original Latin document uses the word defectus. It does not directly translate as wound. It is kind of like sacre bleu. It has no proper translation in English. It comes from deficio which connotes either a lack of something or a revolt. It officially means “to do less than one might”. Morrissey purports that its usage in this text is to denote the Protestant community’s rebellion from a healthy unity. The reason he believes this is a step forward from the Communionis notio released in 1992 under Pope John Paul II is that that text (apparently the Vatican essentially self-plagiarized themselves with this latest text) used the Latin word vulnus which literally means “wound”. Sounds a little more harsh than “to do less than one might”.
So there you have it. It was a bunch of nuanced theology oversimplified by the lay press. How many journalists that reported on this do you think actually read the document? What about the ministers making inflammatory statements about Catholics? How many of them considered any of which I have just put forth?
I came into Christianity from the outside; as a born-and-raised Atheist. I found Christ as a young man, and my parents, God bless them, were open-minded enough to allow me to believe whatever felt right to me. The Catholic church appealed to me for the very reason of subsistence; that unbroken line from Christ and the traditions and symbols carried on in every Mass that bring you back to the Last Supper; sit you at the Lord’s table and offer you a chance to share in Holy Communion with Him. Antonia’s World has a great list of the successors of Peter (the Popes) all the way from Peter to Benedict. Really cool. But I did not enter into it blindly. One summer I read the entirety of the Catechism of the Catholic Church to make sure I was not going to be part of a church that taught lessons with which I would fundamentally disagree.
But I will admit there are things about Protestantism that I feel capture a more intimate, personal relationship with Christ. Before Luther, only the educated elite and the clergy had access to the Holy Bible. But when Gutenberg made his printing press, it democratized literature, for the betterment of humanity. Suddenly every Joe Schmo and Martin Luther could get their hands on a Bible. And why not? The truest expression of God’s grace and love is in his Word. So I do daily devotionals, time to sit with the Holy Bible and study scripture. This is a decidedly un-Catholic thing to do, but I think it is something Protestants have right.
But why argue the finer points of religious practice? When it comes down to it, as Christians we all worship the same God, and we all believe in the same fundamental tenets of our faith (the Apostles’ Creed). What do you think God cares about more? That you belong to a certain church, or that you love Him with all your heart and speak his Word to the world every day through your thoughts, actions, and attitude?
PS-To anyone who is interested in learning more about Catholicism, check out a cool site called The Catholic Bridge that aims to clear up some misconceptions about the Catholic Church. It is aimed at evangelical Christians.
PPS-You think your doctor has a lot of letters at the end of his name? Check out the Pope’s official title:
Bishop of Rome, Vicar of Christ, Successor of the Prince of the Apostles, Supreme Pontiff of the Universal Church, Primate of Italy, Archbishop and Metropolitan of the Roman Province, Sovereign of the State of Vatican City, Servant of the Servants of God