Wednesday, July 11, 2007

The Other Letter From the Vatican

Mitchell here.

George Weigel on yesterday's CDF document:

"There is ABSOLUTELY NOTHING NEW in this document. Anyone who thinks otherwise is a theological illiterate who equates ecumenism with political correctness. Period."

And from (non-Catholic) Rod Dreher, this:

The pope is not saying that Protestants aren't Christians, or that people can't be saved unless they're Catholic. What he is saying is that the fullness of truth exists only in the Catholic Church -- that the rest of us have only part of the whole truth. I disagree, of course, but the Pope is right to say that. Secondly, he explains how for Catholics, the word "church" has a precise theological meaning. You can't have a church, in a historical and theological sense, without a valid Eucharist, and you can't have a valid Eucharist without a valid sacramental priesthood ... which you can't have without unbroken apostolic succession.

The pope is not denying the existence of the ecclesial communities of Protestantism, and he's not even denying that Christ's salvific work can be done through those communities. He's only clarifying what Catholicism teaches that a church, and the Church, is. As a former Catholic, I welcome this teaching, even as I disagree with parts of it. There is nothing to fear from clarifying our terms, and in fact a lot to fear from wanting to elide over what divides us, or even deny it, for the sake of ecumenism.

This is not meant to be a primer on the letter, which you can read here - nor is it a commentary, which I'm sure you'll be able to get from better sources than I. This is merely to make sure you're not stampeded by the undoubtedly misleading stories coming from the media, or that you aren't put on the defensive by friends or acquaintances. The best thing to do is read it for yourself, but do so with a confidence to be gained from knowing that this is nothing new or earthshattering, merely a (necessary) restatement of conventional Church teaching.


The Ironic Catholic said...

Rod Dreher is right--nothing new here.

I wonder why Pope Benedict is revisiting this *now*, though.

Unknown said...


I’ve wondered the same thing.

First of all, and this is quibbling, the document originated with the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith, not the Pope. Although, of course, had he been against it, it would not have been issued.

This short article from Zenit sort of explains the reasons.

Cardinal Kasper: Document Invites Dialogue Defines Position of Catholic Church

VATICAN CITY, JULY 12, 2007 ( The president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity calls the document on the nature of the Church, published by the doctrinal congregation, an "invitation to dialogue."

The June 29 document "Responses to some Questions Regarding Certain Aspects of the Doctrine on the Church" from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith caused an initial "heated reaction among Protestant Christians," Cardinal William Kasper said.

But he hopes "a second, more peaceful reading could show that the document is not saying anything new, but explains, in a synthetic way, the position of the Catholic Church."

In a statement released to ZENIT, Cardinal Kasper stated: "This is not a new development and therefore there is no reason for resentment or to feel as if they have been treated offhandedly. Dialogue presupposes clarity on differing positions."

After the document's publication, Pastor Thomas Wipf, president of the Community of Protestant Churches in Europe -- with 105 Lutheran, Reformed, United, Methodist member churches on the continent -- declared that "this kind of document sends the wrong signals."

"The challenges of this world call out for churches to work together. Communion is not an ideal, it is our task," he added, according to the NEV evangelical news agency.

ICN-News reported a reaction from the secretary-general of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, Setri Nyomi, who wrote to Cardinal Kasper, "Let us pray so that the Catholic Church gets beyond exclusivist pretexts, so that the cause for Christian unity may go forward."

Defined positions

However, Cardinal Kasper affirmed that "ecumenism from 'defined positions,'" has been requested from Protestants as well.

"Now, the present declaration puts forth the Catholic position, that is to say, that which from the Catholic point of view still divides us," the president of the pontifical council said. "This does not limit dialogue, but rather favors it.

"An attentive reading of the text shows that the document does not say that Protestant churches are not churches, but that they are not churches in the proper sense, that is, they are not churches in the sense in which the Catholic Church defines Church."

Cardinal Kasper affirmed that "according to Catholic doctrine," as the document explains, "these communities do not have apostolic succession in the sacrament of holy orders, and therefore lack an essential element of being a Church."

He added: "The so-called ecclesial communities, that, because of the lack of ministerial priesthood, have not conserved the genuine and integral substance of the Eucharistic ministry, cannot, according to Catholic doctrine, be called 'Churches' in the true sense."

The declaration from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith "shows that we use the word Church, giving it a meaning that is not fully equal," the 74-year old cardinal said.

"The declaration serves to give clarity to the dialogue process," Cardinal Kasper continued. "Without a doubt, at the heart of dialogue there is not that which divides us, but that which unites us, which is greater than what divides us.

"Therefore, the declaration is not a step backward with respect to ecumenical progress already achieved. […] It is an urgent invitation to continue peaceful dialogue."