Tarry for the Nonce

July 17, 2007

Hurt Feelings or Rampant Dunderheadness? You Decide.

Filed under: Religion — lmwalker @ 2:35 pm

Y’know . . . the writers for the Associated Press — and particularly Nicole Winfield — are among the most <a href=”pathetically ignorant, blatantly biased and patently irresponsible “journalists” in the history of the profession.

The Chicago Tribune published an article headlined “Document reasserts other denominations can’t bring salvation,” a title meant to inflame.

Fortunately, voices like Father Ryan Larson have a small chance to be heard, but he is practically drowned out by the ignorant, ill-informed, and reactionary.

Referencing, of course, the Responses to Some Questions Regarding Certain Aspects of the Doctrine of the Church, the media has successfully managed to rile up some otherwise respectable men to make utter fools out of themselves with defensive reactions based on anything but the source material.

I have received several inquiries about the “Pope’s remarks,” so I am taking the time to post about it, although I am really not the proper authority here. I can only tell you what I know of Catholic dogma and its application, although I don’t know how effective any discussion can be, considering that the nature of the discussion appears to be beyond the ken of anyone who doesn’t understand the rudiments of Catholic theology, which is (apparently) most of society and (annoyingly) many Catholics.

That said . . .

First, I think it’s important to note that the document in question is not the “Pope’s document.” It is a document prepared by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and was released with the Pope’s approval. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith is the part of the Vatican concerned with theological clarity and this document was released in response to some Catholic theologians who were teaching doctrinal inaccuracies. As always, the Vatican wanted to clarify Church teaching . . . and I’m glad they did.

Understandably, this media spin has resulted in a fair amount of wounded dignity, but before everyone goes off on a tear, I wanted to clarify what the document does not say:

  • It does not say that Protestant communities are “invalid.”
  • It does not say that Protestant Christians are outside the (real) Church.
  • It does not question the salvific role of the Protestant communities in bringing people to Christ.

On the contrary.

The document is actually organized as a five point Q&A to clarify the doctrine of the Church in regards to itself and its relationship to other Christian Churches. (To reiterate: This document says nothing about Jews, Muslims or any other non-Christian faith. Apparently, some members of the media confused this document with another document that was released a couple weeks ago about the return of the Latin Mass, which is an entirely different document and one that caused very little controversy, although it’s now being tacked on to this one, since that makes it all the more sensational.)

The actual five points of the Q&A are as follows:

Number 1: Vatican II did not change the doctrine of the Church in regards to itself.

Number 2: Christ established one Church, which remains both a spiritual and a visible community. That Church is the Catholic Church. Bearing this in mind, it is correct to affirm that this one Church of Christ is present and operative in the Orthodox churches and Protestant communities inasmuch as the elements of sanctification and truth are present in them. (Laura’s Note: Funny how this point was entirely ignored by the media.)

Number 3: All Christians are impelled to the unity within the Catholic Church. Nonetheless, the numerous Orthodox churches and Protestant communities are important instruments in Christ’s mystery of salvation. (Laura’s Note: Funny how this point was blatantly misrepresented by the media.)

Number 4: The Catholic Church uses the term “Church” to refer to Orthodox communities because they retain the two elements that are considered essential to the visible Church: (1) true sacraments — especially the Eucharist — and (2) apostolic succession. The Catholic Church does consider them to be in error as regards the authority of the Pope. (Laura’s Note: Duh.)

Number 5: Since the Protestant reformation redefined the nature of the sacraments and chucked the importance of apostolic succession, they have not retained the two elements of the visible Church. They do not, therefore, fall within the Catholic definition of “Church.”

That is what the document says, which is a far cry from what it is reported to have said.

The definition of “Church” is the issue at hand. If you aren’t interested, skip the next section:


According to we Catholics, Jesus Christ had a visible ministry here on earth. Before He gave His life on the cross, he established a single Church. This Church is “one” (Jn 10:11, Jn 17:11, Jn 17:21, Eph 4:4-5, 1 Cor 10:17), “holy” (Eph 5:25-27), “catholic” (Mark 16:15, Col 1:5-6) and “apostolic” (Jn 6:70).

For Catholics (and Orthodox and some of the earliest Protestant denominations), the “apostolic” nature of the Church has a very specific meaning. Catholics see in Scripture the clear evidence that Christ’s authority was entrusted to His apostles. He commanded them to “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age.” (Mt 10:40, Mt 28:18-20, Mk 3:14, Mk 16:15, Lk 10:16, Lk 22:29, Jn 14:16-17, Jn 17:6-7, Jn 17:18, Jn 20:21-23, 1 Cor 11:24)

At that time, these apostles were the visible authority of the Church. They proceeded to institute an authority structure (Acts 14:23, 1 Tim 3:1-2, 1 Tim 3:8-9, 1 Tim 4:6,13,16, 1 Tim 5:17, 2 Tim 2:2, Titus 1:5-9) to spread the Gospel message. This structure was instituted by the “laying on of hands” to officially transfer authority (Acts 6:6, Acts 8:17, Acts 13:2-3, 1 Tim 4:14, 1 Tim 5:22, 2 Tim 1:6). And per Christ’s promise, this authority structure was guided by the Holy Spirit (see above). Questions of doctrine or practice (such as the necessity of circumcision) were taken to Apostles and a conclusion was reached and transmitted as the authoritative teaching of the Church of Christ. This official Church teaching — whatever it concerned — was always in accord with the will of God, since it was guided by the Holy Spirit.

We Catholics believe that this Holy-Spirit-guided visible structure has been maintained for twenty-one centuries. Each and every priest of the Catholic Church (and the Orthodox churches too and even an occasional Protestant bishop) is able to trace their “lineage of authority” all the way back to an Apostle. This structured transmission of authority is given to us as a gift by Christ so that we need have no question that Christ’s authority — as entrusted to the Apostles who entrusted it to others who entrusted it to others — still subsists in the Church.

Tied to this apostolic succession is Christ’s authority to forgive sin and especially His miraculous authority to offer the Eucharist. As Catholics, we believe that Christ spoke quite literally in the gospel. When we are forgiven our sins by someone who has been entrusted (via apostolic succession) with the authority of Christ, our sins are truly forgiven by Christ. When we celebrate the Eucharist with someone who was given the authority to do so by Christ (via apostolic succession), we truly receive His Body and Blood. Since this apostolic succession is visceral, we can see precisely how Christ’s authority was passed down through the ages. And since the power to forgive sin and the power to offer the sacrifice of the Lamb are powers that are only Christ’s, it is absolutely necessary for Catholics (and Orthodox) that the apostolic line of Christ’s authority remain intact.

This is our faith. We submit to the authority of the Church because in faith we believe that the Church, though populated by sinners, is the Christ-chosen instrument of His authority and is protected by Christ from teaching doctrine that will lead us astray. Other Christians are welcome to disagree with us Catholics about the nature of the Catholic Church, but they can not fault us for holding fast to what we believe. We hold our beliefs in firm and true faith. It would be hypocritically ridiculous of us to say that while we believe that the Catholic Church is the one true Church established by Christ, we don’t think it’s important for Christians to be in unity with the Church. How un-Christian would that make us!?!

So, in summary (with gratitude and apologies to Father Kish):

We Catholics refer to the ‘universal’ Church (one holy catholic apostolic as its essential constitutive elements) and ‘particular’ churches (e. g. dioceses). The one Church of Christ exists first, but it is made present in the particular churches. So, for example, a Catholic is a member of territorial parish (church) of St. Joseph, which is part of the Church (particular) of the Diocese of Joliet, whose head is Bishop Sartain, successor to the apostles, and in full communion with Benedict XVI, successor of St. Peter. The Church of the Diocese of Joliet has all the constitutive elements, and is a visible and efficacious manifestion of the Catholic Church. An Orthodox particular church would be called a sister particular church, because it shares apostolic succession and full sacraments; it lacks recognition of St. Peter’s primacy. Other ‘churches’ (Lutheran, etc.) are called by us ‘ecclesial communities’ because they lack those essential elements.

As a means of explanation, Father Kish also put together this hypothetical dialogue between papist and relativist:
R: I’m hurt. Are you saying I’m defective?
P: Would you say we are the one true church?
R: No.
P: Then you’re saying I’m defective. Are you the one true church?
R: If I say yes?
P: Then you’re saying I’m defective. Why are you hurt, when you call me defective?
R: If I say no?
P: Then you’re defective. Why would you remain if you’re missing something?


I find it unfortunate that the media tried so explicitly to fix in the public consciousness that conviction that the “Pope says Protestants aren’t part of a true church.” That is most emphatically inaccurate. According to Catholic doctrine, every validly baptized Christian is a member of the Church. (“Validly baptized” means with water in the name of the name of Father, Son and Holy Spirit).

The Catholic view is that Protestants are members of the Church who are not in full agreement with the Church. We Catholics know that, practically speaking, we can confidently say that there are many Protestants who are in greater agreement with the Church than the embarrassing number of what we would term “bad Catholics.”

Catholics choose fealty to the Catholic Church because they believe it to sustain the fullness of Truth and therefore conduct themselves accordingly. This is (and always has been) our faith. Why the rest of the non-Catholic world should care that the Catholics believe they have chosen the best path is something that I have not quite figured out. I would presume that non-Catholics believe that they too have chosen the best path. We certainly don’t condemn people for following their most sincere conscience (see the Declaration on Religious Freedom), and I don’t understand why a firm declaration of belief must necessarily be accompanied by a perceived insult to others.

In my opinion, this entire situation is yet another example of the secular media trying to create controversy where there should be none. Some of the more mature heads in the fracas have responded appropriately with a shoulder shrug and an “Ah, well. That’s what the Catholics have always taught.” and moved on their merry way. But for the happily unschooled, they will gladly rely on the interpretation of the Associated Press, the same Associated Press that casts strong Christians as the “radical right,” and fundamentalists as “back-woods Bible thumpers.” It’s obscene how rarely sober heads prevail.



  1. This new learning amazes me.

    Comment by Howard R — July 19, 2007 @ 9:12 am

  2. I also don’t understand why people can’t just sit down and have a nice, rational talk about religion.

    Comment by Howard R — July 19, 2007 @ 9:13 am

  3. FYI, I went to high school with Father Larson. Scary!

    Comment by Matt — July 20, 2007 @ 5:27 am

  4. very interesting. and good to know

    Comment by Alistair A. — July 21, 2007 @ 10:35 pm

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