The Fallible Media

I wasn’t going to write about this but people are asking me. Apparently, for some I am now the go-to guy when thorny theological squabbles break out in the media.

It is indeed a good bet that anytime the mainstream news reports on religion they will be make serious errors. Such is the case with a document issued by the Vatican this week regarding the nature of “The Church.” Here are some headlines I found:

Here is the actual document that is the source of all these stories. It is not very long. I dare you to actually read it and find the type of attacks on non-Catholic Christians the news stories talk about. It is really quite respectful of other Christians, without downplaying the real differences between them.

Furthermore, it is not a “proclamation” or a “decree.” It doesn’t even come from the Pope, though he did approve it – as he does most everything the Vatican issues. The words are not his, however.

Anyway, the document states nothing new. It is a clarification of what the Catholic Church has always said, and is directed mainly at renegade Catholic theologians who argue that Vatican II changed some key doctrines.

The word “church” is used in an extremely precise way. I will try to summarize: Catholic belief is that the “Church” is defined by its ability to dispense valid sacraments, primarily the Eucharist. Sacraments are valid only to the extent they come from the Apostles and their successors.

The Catholic Church can do this because its bishops can trace their ordination, in an unbroken line, all the way back to St. Peter. This is called “Apostolic Succession.” The Orthodox churches can do the same thing, to different Apostles. Hence they are also considered Church with a capital “C” even though they do not recognize the Pope's authority.

Protestants and other Christian churches don’t have Apostolic Succession. Some lost it in the Reformation, while newer denominations never had it. Hence they cannot have valid sacraments and are not considered “Church” in the same sense as Catholic and Orthodox are.

This does not mean that these other groups aren’t Christians and aren’t saved. Quite the opposite, as the document in question explicitly says:

It follows that these separated churches and Communities, though we believe they suffer from defects, are deprived neither of significance nor importance in the mystery of salvation. In fact the Spirit of Christ has not refrained from using them as instruments of salvation, whose value derives from that fullness of grace and of truth which has been entrusted to the Catholic Church.

In other words, the Catholic Church acknowledges that other Christian denominations have significance and importance and are instruments of salvation, even “though we believe they suffer from defects.” I don’t get why this should surprise or insult anyone. All religions believe that other religions suffer from defects. That’s what makes them religions in the first place. Catholic doctrine is that truth is truth, no matter who is saying it. The fact that other churches disagree on some subjects does not diminish the value of the things that they do get right. In other words,

…the Church of Christ is present and operative in the churches and ecclesial Communities not yet fully in communion with the Catholic Church, on account of the elements of sanctification and truth that are present in them.

So how do you get from this rather benign statement to the kind of ecclesial insult that the news stories reported? All I can say is that the reporters and/or their editors either didn’t want to get the story right, or didn’t care. The document is short; an educated person can read it in 15 minutes or less. The Vatican has plenty of people who are available to answer questions from reporters. Any reporter who covers this beat should be at least generally familiar with Catholic beliefs. Yet they still got it wrong. Makes you wonder how hard they are trying, does it not?

In any case, many non-Catholics who have read the stories obviously feel hurt, insulted and angry. That was clearly not the intent, and I’m sure people at the Vatican regret the misunderstanding. Unfortunately, no matter what they say it will get twisted around by people who have other agendas. The Pope knows this very well. Fortunately, he does not let it dissuade him from speaking the truth that he believes the world needs to hear.

I'm reminded of John, chapter 6, when Christ said He is the Bread of Life. We are told that many of the disciples turned away and left because of His words. He had already patiently explained himself at great length. Some people still didn't get it. We don’t see Christ chasing after them, saying "Guys, wait! Let me clarify! My PR consultant is right here!" He simply taught His lesson with love and charity - and then allowed people to choose. That is, I think, what Pope Benedict tries to do. We would all do well to follow his example.

UPDATE 7/15/07: Here is an interesting article about this controversy by Albert Mohler, who is president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Dr. Mohler says he is not offended at all and concurs that there is really nothing new here. He appreciates that these important differences are being clarified, for it is a necessary step toward having a conversation about them.

He also makes another important point. The Catholic view of "Church" is built on whether the sacraments are valid. Baptists - and most other evangelicals - do not accept the entire concept of "sacraments." In the Baptist view, baptism and the Lord's Supper are purely symbolic acts. This is why Protestant churches that do have sacraments, such as Episcopalians, are the most offended by the Vatican document. It calls the validity of their sacraments into question. Because Baptists don't care about sacraments, they are not as concerned about this point.

UPDATE 7/20/07: Here is an illustrated ecumenical conversation about this issue that explains it better than anything else I've seen.

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