You talk about shock! This past July 10, many Protestants were baffled by a statement made earlier that day by Pope Benedict XVI.
We live in an age of ecumenism. Catholics are talking about unity with Orthodox Christians. Protestants of many denominations are talking about getting together with Protestants of other denominations. And, of course, Catholics and Protestants are talking about collaborating on a variety of issues. Anglicans are even toying with the idea of uniting with Catholics.
Then Pope Benedict XVI threw a bucket of cold water on the whole enterprise. Or so many thought.
On July 10, 2007, Benedict issued a statement clarifying the Catholic Church’s position on “the church.” In Benedict’s view, the Catholic Church is the only true church. Protestant communities, the pope said, “cannot, according to Catholic doctrine, be called ‘Churches’ in the proper sense,”1 because they lack apostolic succession, that is, the ability to trace their leadership back to Christ’s original disciples.
The reaction from non-Catholics was immediate. “It makes us question whether we are indeed praying together for Christian unity,” said the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, a fellowship of 75 million Protestants in more than one hundred countries. “It makes us question the seriousness with which the Roman Catholic Church takes its dialogues with the reformed family and other families of the church.”2 According to the alliance, Benedict’s document took ecumenical dialogue back to the era before the Second Vatican Council, when many Protestants believed that Rome had changed its positions and was more accepting of Protestant denominations and beliefs.
I suggest, however, that Benedict’s statement should come as no surprise. He was expressing what has been standard Catholic theology for the past one thousand years. The surprise was that in a time of theological obfuscation, all in an attempt to downplay the theological and ecclesiological differences between Protestants and Catholics, the pope would be so frank and open in declaring papal supremacy.
“No one familiar with the statements of the Roman Catholic Magisterium should be surprised by this development,” wrote Dr. Albert Mohler Jr., president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. “This is not news in any genuine sense. It is news only in the current context of Vatican statements and ecumenical relations. . . . Evangelicals should appreciate the candor reflected in this document. There is no effort here to confuse the issues. To the contrary, the document is an obvious attempt to set the record straight.”3
Setting the Record Straight
What, exactly, did the pope say? The statement in question came out of a Vatican institution called “The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith” (CDF). A theological watchdog for the Roman Curia, the CDF was once known as the “Inquisition.” In the document, the pope responded to various questions “regarding certain aspects of the doctrine of the church.”4
In this specific context, he was dealing with what Rome taught about itself in relationship to other denominations, an issue that must have come under some question among Catholics in recent years, given the ecumenical talks of unity between Rome and other denominations. It was a clarification of Rome’s stance on the question of whether the church had changed its position since the Second Vatican Council.
Quoting John XXIII—the pope who presided over Vatican II—Benedict XVI wrote: “What the Church has taught down through the centuries, we also teach. In simple terms that which was assumed, is now explicit; that which was uncertain, is now clarified; that which was meditated upon, discussed and sometimes argued over, is now put together in one clear formulation.”5
So what has the church taught “down through the centuries”? Simply this, in the pope’s own words: “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. ‘This one Church of Christ, which we confess in the Creed as one, holy, catholic and apostolic . . . . 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.’ ”6
What the pope means is that there is only one true church, founded by Christ Himself, and that happens to be the Roman Catholic Church. This is standard Roman teaching, which is why the president of the Southern Baptist Seminary commented that “no one familiar with the statements of the Roman Catholic Magisterium should be surprised by this development.”7
Benedict did state 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 [i.e., Protestants].” However, he went on to say that these churches “suffer from defects” and therefore “these venerable Christian communities lack something in their condition as particular churches.”8
What do they lack? The pope was unambiguous here too: “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.”9
The Fullness of Salvation
While Anglicans, Baptists, Lutherans, Episcopalians, and other churches might be surprised to realize that they aren’t really “churches” in the “proper sense,” these statements from Benedict were, really, the only logical conclusion that he could come to, given his premises regarding the role of the Roman Church. Basically, the pope was saying that though God could work in and operate through these other churches (a long way from the position it once held, which was that “outside the church [Roman Catholic] there was no salvation”), because these other churches didn’t have the “sacramental priesthood” they weren’t living in the full light of God’s truth.
And here lies the key distinction between Protestants and Catholics. The following statements, all from the new Catechism of the Catholic Church, help explain the radically different view of the church between most Protestants and Rome.
“The power to ‘bind and loose’ connotes the authority to absolve sins . . . Jesus entrusted this authority to the Church through the ministry of the apostles.”10
“As sacrament, the Church is Christ’s instrument. ‘She is taken up by him also as the instrument for the salvation of all,’ ‘the universal sacrament of salvation.’ ”11
“It is in the Church that ‘the fullness of the means of salvation’ has been deposited.”12
“Basing itself on Scripture and Tradition, the Council teaches that the Church, a pilgrim now on earth, is necessary for salvation.”13
“The Church is catholic: she proclaims the fullness of the faith. She bears in herself and administers the totality of the means of salvation.”14
“There is no offense, however serious, that the Church cannot forgive.”15
In all these statements (and many others), Rome claims for itself, as a church, the power and prerogatives that belong only to Christ. For Protestants, in Christ, and not in the church, is “the fullness of the means of salvation.” For Protestants, in Christ, not the church, we find forgiveness. For Protestants, Christ, not the church, “is necessary for salvation.” Though Rome claims that all these come to the faithful by Christ, as Protestants teach, the difference is that for Rome, these are mediated to the faithful through and only through the church, a teaching that is anathema to Protestants.
The Biblical View
Protestants have a theology of the church. They believe it is founded on Jesus Himself, the Rock (Matthew 16:18), and which He invested with authority and power (Matthew 18:17, 18), which was called to be “the pillar and ground of the truth” (1 Timothy 3:15, KJV). The biblical view is that the church is a group of those called out by Christ, who fellowship and worship together, who minister to each other together, and who witness to the world together of Jesus and His sacrifice. Indeed, it’s through the church that God’s reality is manifested “to the intent that now unto the principalities and powers in heavenly places might be known by the church the manifold wisdom of God” (Ephesians 3:10, KJV).
Yet according to Rome, it is Catholic theology, not biblical or Protestant theology, that gives the church, any church, as an institution, the power of salvation or forgiveness of sins. However, the church, any church, is not the mediator of such things; only Jesus is: “For there is one God and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus” (1 Timothy 2:5). In the Protestant view, Rome has taken the things that belong only to Jesus and has appropriated them to itself.
Hence, if it is through the “sacramental priesthood,” and not directly between Jesus and the sinner, that the means of grace and salvation are mediated, then it’s no wonder Benedict said what he did. He had no choice. If in the Roman Catholic Church alone this “sacramental priesthood” exists, and if “the fullness of the means of salvation” were invested in it, as an institution, and in no other church—then what else could he say?
Benedict XVI simply reiterated a position that Rome has held for more than a thousand years and, if time should last, it will hold for a thousand more. That’s not surprising. In an era of dialogue about unity and the reconciliation between the faiths, the surprise is that he would come out and say it so openly and unabashedly.