I am a defective Christian. This is according to a report released last week by the Catholic Church’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. This makes me far from unique. You’ve probably already heard the news that you are defective too. That is if you are not a member in good standing of the Catholic Church. All other Christian denominations and their members “suffer from defects.”
I will attempt to give a reasoned response to the Vatican’s statement. But first, we need to be clear on exactly what the statement said. The nearly 1,200-word statement is put in a question and answer format to five questions of faith. All of the questions concern what theologians call ecclesiology, which means “the doctrine of the church.”
The main thrust of the short document is that the Vatican wanted to make it crystal clear that its teaching on the church did not change with the reforms of the Second Vatican Council held in the 1960s. In particular, the document says that work on ecumenism (various denominations coming together in the ways possible) has led to some interpretations that could cause “confusion and doubt.”
In that context, the new document says that the Catholic Church believes and teaches now what it has always believed and taught, namely that they are the one true church. In fact, the text says that to be part of the one Church established by Christ one must be “governed by the successor of Peter and the Bishops in communion with him.” They also state that other Christian denominations can not “be called ‘Churches’ in the proper sense.”
The Vatican statement then affirms that the only true church is the Catholic Church, by virtue of the fact that it is in historic succession to the Apostle Peter and therefore to Christ. Further, this church keeps the fullness of the doctrine as the document says in it “alone are found all the elements that Christ himself instituted.”
Everything I have written so far probably confirms everything you have read elsewhere. But the report did say more and I think this part is underreported and misunderstood. The Vatican did affirm that all other denominations may “suffer from defects “they contain “elements of sanctification and truth.” The Vatican statement also said, “In fact the Spirit of Christ has not refrained from using them as instruments of salvation.”
The Vatican statement did not say that one can not find salvation in Christ through other churches. In fact, the statement said that other denominations are used by the spirit of Christ as means for lost people to find salvation. What they wanted to do was to affirm that other denominations can be a means to connect people to Jesus and that they hope that connection to Christ will “impel towards Catholic Unity.” The goal being a united church, with the Pope as its head, expressing “the fullness of universality” they see as “not fully realised in history.”
The essence of the whole thing is a bit “ho hum” to me. I mean “So what?” “Who cares?” The Pentecostal churches of my youth said essentially the same thing about Catholics. They taught that the Catholic Church was defective at best and evil at worst. Perhaps someone could come to know Jesus in their churches, but if you did then you would get out of the Catholic Church and join a good Pentecostal one.
Let’s just be honest for a moment. Protestant Churches stopped caring that Popes thought they had the corner on the God market about 500 years ago. Most denominations now feel just like the Pope. They contend that they have the fullness of the doctrine. Most denominations think that other Christians are right in the ways they are similar to them and wrong in the ways they differ. In that sense, the Vatican only stated from its perspective what most every other church has already stated from their viewpoint.
It is not news that the Pope thinks the Catholic Church was the best thing before and after sliced bread. If he didn’t think so, he probably wouldn’t have been elected to the top job in the world’s largest Christian denomination. What should be news is that he also signed a document affirming once again that there is salvation outside the Catholic Church.
His goal was to reaffirm that the Catholic Church is the most right and the rest of us are being impelled by the Spirit of Christ toward unity with the Catholic Church. But, he couldn’t do so without admitting that the Spirit of Christ is at work beyond the confines of his denomination.
I think part of what clouds the issue for me is the use of the word “Catholic.” Properly understood, and as the Vatican uses it in this statement, “catholic” does refer to a given Christian denomination, but it means much more. Catholic means “universal.” Tertullian coined the term in the second century (who also coined the word Trinity) which meant “the church throughout the world.” In naming itself The Catholic Church, it already makes the claim in name, that the new statement spells out in detail that it is the one true church.
But I know the word catholic with a little “c” to be broader than any denomination. I consider myself a catholic Christian in that I am part of the “universal” church that has Jesus’ as its head. In that sense, all Christians are catholic. We worship one Lord and so we must be one, even though we can’t see it and we have trouble believing it.
I think that the Vatican has it exactly right in the statement in saying, “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.” I also agree that all branches of the Christian church, the little “c” catholic church can be “instruments of salvation.”
Where I part company with the Vatican is in its statement that other denominations “suffer from defects.” I don’t think some denominations suffer from defects. I think that all denominations, including my own, do. I think churches are made of humans and so we are not perfect and will never be perfect.
To the degree that we conform to Jesus’ life and teachings as found in scripture, we are coming closer to the truth. To the degree that we conform to whatever we already want to do and call that Christian, we are off track. But the Spirit of Christ is in it all impelling us toward a Kingdom where the defects will be wiped away by His perfection.
Until that coming kingdom, I think Christians will remain both catholic, in worshipping our one Lord, and defective, in not doing a very good job of living out that faith day to day. And between now and that coming Kingdom, I know that no denomination has a corner on what the Holy Spirit is working to accomplish in and through us.