The Pope and ecumenism


Just a few days after the Pope approved the use of a Tridentine mass that includes language offensive to Jews, he now has reaffirmed that other Christians don't belong to "true" churches. According to the Associated Press article on this subject,

Pope Benedict XVI reasserted the primacy of the Roman Catholic Church, approving a document released Tuesday that says other Christian communities are either defective or not true churches and Catholicism provides the only true path to salvation.

The statement brought swift criticism from Protestant leaders. "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 100 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," the group said in a letter charging that the document took ecumenical dialogue back to the era before the Second Vatican Council.

Specifically, the document stated that Orthodox churches are "defective", and that Protestant churches are not churches but merely "ecclesiastical communities", whatever the hell that means.

Admittedly, there is probably nothing new in any of this. Official Catholic doctrine has traditionally looked its nose down on other Christians, which is to say that the church has not seen itself as merely one denomination among many, but rather as the only true church.

Catholic doctrine at one time went even farther than denying that Protestant denominations were "churches". It traditionally went so far as to say that there was "no salvation outside that church", which would have pretty much doomed Protestants to hell. This doctrine, known by its Latin designation as extra ecclesiam nulla salus, has an entire Wikipedia article on the subject, complete with the texts from various papal proclamations throughout history which declare that anyone who wasn't a Catholic was doomed to eternal damnation. For example, Pope Eugene IV said in 1441:
The most Holy Roman Church firmly believes, professes and preaches that none of those existing outside the Catholic Church, not only pagans, but also Jews and heretics and schismatics, can have a share in life eternal; but that they will go into the eternal fire which was prepared for the devil and his angels, unless before death they are joined with Her...
Hans Kung has pointed out that the Catholic Church, despite its pretensions of never reversing itself on any doctrinal matters, in fact reversed itself on this point as a result of Vatican II. No longer are Jews, heretics and schismatics automatically consigned to hell--well maybe heretics are, but at least Jews and schismatics are now spared. Even Muslims now get a break. Specifically, Lumen Gentium 16 from Vatican II says:
Finally, those who have not yet received the Gospel are related to the People of God in various ways. There is, first, that people to which the covenants and promises were made, and from which Christ was born according to the flesh (cf. Rom. 9:4-5): in view of the divine choice, they are a people most dear for the sake of the fathers, for the gifts of God are without repentance (cf. Rom. 11:29-29). But the plan of salvation also includes those who acknowledge the Creator, in the first place amongst whom are the Moslems: these profess to hold the faith of Abraham, and together with us they adore the one, merciful God, mankind's judge on the last day. Nor is God remote from those who in shadows and images seek the unknown God, since he gives to all men life and breath and all things (cf. Acts 17:25-28), and since the Savior wills all men to be saved (cf. 1 Tim. 2:4). Those who, through no fault of their own, do not know the Gospel of Christ or his Church, but who nevertheless seek God with a sincere heart, and, moved by grace, try in their actions to do his will as they know it through the dictates of their conscience--those too many achieve eternal salvation.
However, this spirit of moving towards greater respect and tolerance and ecumenism only went so far, and in the last 40 years the church seems to have retreated from its reformist impulse. Benedict is now trying to promote his own take on Vatican II: according to the AP article, "
Benedict, who attended Vatican II as a young theologian, has long complained about what he considers its erroneous interpretation by liberals, saying it was not a break from the past but rather a renewal of church tradition." When he denies that reforms lay at the basis of Vatican II, he can easily justify stifling any further reforms and still claim to be consistent with its spirit.

This self-aggrandizing view that other Christian denominations are "defective" or otherwise inferior, has, of course, made any serious effort at ecumenism ultimately impossible, since bona fide ecumenism requires mutual respect, which is clearly lacking in this case. According to the news report, "the
document stressed that Benedict remains committed to ecumenical dialogue," but of course what this really means is ecumenism only on the Pope's own terms. In other words--It's my way or the highway, baby!

This attitude towards other Christians is a manifestation of a deeper problem on Benedict's part, in my view. The Pope, in his recent actions and statements, continues to demonstrate his insensitivity and lack of respect for non-Catholics, whether they be Jews, Muslims, Protestants, or indigenous peoples in the Western Hemisphere--all of whom he has managed to insult since becoming Pope. He also suffers from an unfortunate hubris that prevents him from apologizing after he has insulted non-Catholics. Combine this with his role in the persecution of progressive theologians within his church before he became pope--people I respect, like Matthew Fox, and Leonardo Boff--and it seems clear that he has no tolerance for divergence from the Pope's hierarchically imposed authority, whether that be found in freedom of theological inquiry with his church, or in religious bodies outside his domain.

This is all a shame, and I say this even though I am not a Catholic, and I admit that there are probably aspects to Roman Catholicism that I don't fully understand or appreciate. But the Roman Catholic Church is such an important and large body within Christianity as a whole, that what its leader does and says really does matter. And it matters to religious progressives when fellow progressives who are members of the the Catholic Church, and who remain loyal to it, suffer the consequences of what the current leadership does. A lot of Protestants were understandably unhappy with this latest pronouncement by the Pope. Yet the Pope need not be bound to this kind of intolerance and disrespect for non-Catholics. The church has changed its views on non-Catholics during the course of its history, and it can change again. Unfortunately, the current Pope appears not to be the one to lead his church out of the wilderness.


Jan said...

Good words. I've been attending a Roman Catholic seminary for the past six years, and I have often thought that if the RC Church could be like the professors and people there, I would convert. I am saddened to think how this school will be adversely affected by the Pope's edicts and hope they can continue on their liberal interpretation of Vatican II and openness to the Holy.

Gannet Girl said...

Excellent piece. Like Jan, the Catholics I know put this pope and his declaration to shame.

Andrew said...

I think the core issue lies in the fact that Pope Benedict loves the church, whereas, Pope John Paul loved people. It is this critical shift away from what Christ considered ultimate that will take the RCC down a road many of its members do not want.

Peter Albert said...

It looks like the recent declaration of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith has stirred some interest in the traditional dogma of the Church. I decided to link your post to my blog, dedicated to EENS: