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THE POPE TALKS LIKE A CATHOLIC: Why That's Good News to Protestants

THE POPE TALKS LIKE A CATHOLIC: Why That's Good News to Protestants


By Canon Gary L'Hommedieu

Last week the Vatican rereleased a document entitled "Dominus Iesus" with the approval of Benedict XVI, the Roman Pontiff, who as Josef Ratzinger authored the original document released in 2000. In it the Roman Church refers to Protestant bodies not as "churches" but as "ecclesial communities", lacking a sacramental priesthood and therefore lacking true sacraments. This has upset many Protestants, and in particular those who have labored in the ecumenical movement that, until now, seemed to be a permanent part of the post-Vatican II landscape.

Ecumenists lament that the clock has been turned back and that the Roman Church must not be serious about its prior overtures toward mutual acceptance by Christian bodies. Some suggest darkly that the Pope cannot pray in unison with Jesus "that they all may be one." Apparently the ecumenicists forget who broke up the party to begin with.

One British columnist who has seen too many movies described the Pope as "climbing to the top of Michelangelo's dome and beating his chest like King Kong." It would be a terrible letdown to find that the Pope exerted no more energy than to scratch his initials on a printed manuscript on the breakfast table after morning mass. Sadly, it doesn't make much of a screenplay.

To me it just sounds like the Pope is talking and acting like a Roman Catholic. This seems to be the problem. What Protestants are criticizing him for is not talking and acting like a Protestant.

Protestants, including Anglicans, believe that theirs are true churches every bit as much as the Roman Church (some even more so). They believe that their sacraments, which they define differently from the way the Roman Church defines theirs, are nonetheless equally valid or real. They feel that their theological understanding of what transpires in worship or of what is effected on their altars has equal weight, even if it does not have equal meaning, to the explicit definitions of the Roman Catholic Church. It's as if all churches and all theological systems are entitled to an equal claim to truth.

There's a name for this sort of thinking that has blossomed within the ecumenical movement: it's called theological liberalism. The ultimate ground of truth is the individual conscience. When individuals get together forming denominations, each individual with an equal right to the claims of conscience, divine truth defaults to the will of the majority. Hence one of the great side issues of Protestant Christianity is the challenge of getting God to say what we want God to say by manipulating the political structures of the denomination. As a result separate traditions, each with its own democratic polity, can have God saying different things. The astonishing thing is that each of these groups believes God has spoken. It doesn't trouble them that the same God can be found to contradict, even denounce, Himself.

I write as an Episcopalian who in recent years has come to identify more securely as a Protestant than I have for most of my 27 years of ordination. Fifteen years ago I flirted with the perception that I was "becoming" Roman Catholic. In reality I was trying to wish myself into a conversion. In that moment of personal turmoil it would have been convenient to be translated to some other place and time or even to another body, but (alas) such a conversion eluded me.

During the same years many of my peers were genuinely converted to Rome. Some joined the Roman Church because they wished to submit to its authority rather than to the authority (or lack thereof) of their own tradition. If the Episcopal Church were to fold up its tent in the near future, I might still consider the Roman Church, but it would be like submitting to the local ecclesiastical authority in a war ravaged country. I expect that my understanding of conversion and of faith would remain pretty much what it is today.

So I have some personal appreciation for the fact that separate Christian traditions are indeed different from each other, some irreconcilably. Such an understanding is regrettable and sobering. We all pray with Jesus that separated Christian bodies would be reconciled -- that they would be truly catholic. At the same time none of us is holding his breath. There's a reason why this request takes the form of a prayer -- only God can ultimately make it happen.

What I found refreshing about the Pope's repackaging of the old ecclesiology is the fact that it was not the product of a church diplomatic corps. It is not a contrived doctrine that aims only at hitting the right buttons succeeding only in avoiding offense. Such is the daily fare of ecumenists. The Vatican statement has a purpose that goes beyond validating the members of a bureaucracy.

Perhaps the era of ecumenism is over. If it is, good riddance. The limited potential for religion by committee is by now very clear. Ecumenical groups can be very effective at doing public service projects. These do not require the lofty interventions of experts. Christians who understand themselves very differently can still do real good for their local communities. At the same time there is no need to pretend that the finer points of doctrine are unimportant -- or worse, that mutually exclusive doctrines are really the same.

Family systems theorists would observe that the Pope has merely reestablished the boundaries of the Roman Catholic Church. As a leader he is not reluctant to differentiate himself from his more anxious Protestant counterparts or from his own colleagues who have a stake in preserving the status quo. Establishing boundaries is not the same as throwing down a gauntlet. It is not striking a blow against the shallow togetherness of diplomatic religion. The bleating of the surrounding herd is the normal reaction of those whose own development, individually and organizationally, is on hold.

If we are entering into a new era of frank speech by religious officials, then a new dawn has arisen in Western Christendom. This is good news indeed. The old era may have served a worthy purpose in a variety of areas of witness and service, none of which has been repudiated by new and honest self-disclosure by the Vatican. If Protestant bodies could only clarify their own distinctive positions, without fear of criticism by non-constituents, then they too would be ready to compete honestly and convincingly in the marketplace of ideas.

The Roman Catholic Church is apparently ready to enter its own future with eyes open. Unfortunately the historic Protestant churches cannot say the same thing.

---The Rev. Canon J. Gary L'Hommedieu is Canon for Pastoral Care at the Cathedral Church of St. Luke, Orlando, Florida, and a regular columnist for VirtueOnline.

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