The Pope on Protestantism

This column was published on UPI’s Religion and Spirituality Forum on July 16, 2007.
So what is the correct response when the Pope comes out and says your church is not a church?

It’s a question I’ve been pondering since I first read about the Vatican’s release of an official document, stating, among other things, that without the proper credentials of apostolic succession, a church is not a church.

The idea is that Christ established only one Church on earth, the one lead by his twelve closest earthly friends (minus Judas, plus Paul), and that a church is only a church if its bishops are able to trace their spiritual lineage back to one of the original apostles, which means that most Protestants, including Presbyterians like me, are not properly members of a church, because we fired all our bishops nearly five hundred years ago.

The document, released by the Vatican on June 29th, is intended to clarify “certain aspects of the doctrines of the church”. It is not entirely condemning of Protestantism as it allows, somewhat grudgingly (or so it seems to me), that Protestant “ecclesiastical communities,” though defective, “are deprived neither of significance nor importance in the mystery of grace. In fact, Christ has not refrained from using [non-Catholic non-churches] as instruments of salvation, whose value derives from that fullness of grace and truth which has been entrusted to the Catholic Church.”

Protestants, in other words, are good people, but not really part of the Church family.

The Pope’s proclamation has me imagining heaven as a place where most people will have to whisper and tiptoe when in close proximity to  Benedict XVI’s celestial home, less he be bereft of the comfortable illusion that heaven is only for the properly bishoped.

While something may be lost in the translation from Latin to English, the Vatican’s document is lacking in tact and ecumenical diplomacy. It has a theologically condescending feel, but the opinions expressed are not remarkable or unique. This is the kind of thing religious folk—particularly at the institutional level—say about one another all of the time. The Pope has said that my church is not a church because, in his mind, our clergy are not properly ordained, but he’s not the only one who thinks this. Many is the church where the validity of my ordination, the soundness of my theology, and the sincerity of my faith is questioned. Even among some of my fellow Presbyterians I’m a heretic. And let’s be honest. Protestants don’t exactly have a history of saying nice things about the Catholic Church either.

The good news is that despite institutional theology and Church polity, most of us who are faithful recognize the reality of our common love for God and we find ways to express this commonality all of the time.

Twelve years ago, I did a personal retreat with a community of Franciscans living at one of the old California missions, way up in the hills between the Salinas Valley and Big Sur. I was the only guest, and among the friars and fathers, those “little brothers of Jesus,” I was very conspicuously Protestant as I stumbled and mumbled my way through the daily offices of prayer.

And when it came time to celebrate the mass, the presiding priest offered me the host, a symbol of my full inclusion in the Church. “But I’m a Presbyterian minister” I protested, reminding the good father of what he already knew.

His eyes twinkled. “Don’t tell the bishop,” he said, pressing a communion wafer into my hand.

I won’t be telling the Pope, either.

10 thoughts on “The Pope on Protestantism

  1. For 70 years I have been a catholic and went through 16 years of catholic education. In my opinion and many other catholics, the pope is not the church! We are the church and I would venture that such egotistical pronouncements are not accepted by the church. But I won’t tell the pope either!

  2. Let’s see: It is estimated that, worldwide, about one half of the Catholic Church’s parishes do not have a resident priest. Similarly, the ongoing revelations about and settlements on behalf of pedophile behavior by Catholic priests have now cost the church about $2 billion in the US alone. Fr. Donald Cozzens, in his book “Sacred Silence” estimates that the scandal has directly touched about 100,000 victims — about one million people, with family members factored in. Myriad other problems affect the church worldwide. And now this papal opinion, which torpedoes about 40 years’ worth of ecumenical effort by Christians of good will everywhere.

    Ah, well. What should we have expected from the guy they used to call God’s Rottweiler before he was elected pope? Do not be surprised if, in fairly short order, this reactionary pope will have generated another schism to rival the Reformation in importance.

  3. Ben, now I know what it takes to bring out into
    full light your great sense of humor! It’s a
    good lesson for all of us.

  4. Ben:

    Thanks for your words. I must confess that it has been some time since I have claimed any form of biblical scholarship,. However, I do remember a new testament passage which acknowledged debate among the disciples as to who was first among them (Jesus’ favorite, right hand…). From my recollection, the disciples didn’t get it then, they didn’t get it just after Jesus’ death, and (in my less than Catholic opinion) the Pope is failing to get it now.

    Who shall be first, and who shall be last? I find that I better enjoy those who are not striving to be the first, the favorite, or vying to be at the right hand of power.

    I don’t think Jesus exemplified a strong embracing of the institutional powers that governed the church of his time. I tend to feel strongly that he would NOT strongly embrace the instituional powers that govern today’s church either.

    Thanks for your willingness to witness from within the structure of the modern day institution of church. You have much more patience than I have in this regard. I beleive that those who live within the structure of today’s church can really use the voice of compassion, love, and truth that you bring.

    Your brother in faith,


  5. Michael, I love your Biblical insight. I think that story of Jesus’ disciples asking who will be first in the Kingdom may be the key biblical passage for ecumenical work and understanding! I will chew on it, and I will probably quote you often in the near future.

    Harry, I have been deeply blessed by the way Roman Catholics like you have touched my life.

    Judy, I’m glad I got a laugh!

    Bill, you forgot to mention the pope’s shoes!  Seriously.  Check this out.



  6. After a lifetime of ecclesiastical endeavors, I can testify to the fact that the Inerrant Church Denomination is not to be found. The arrogance of the Roman Catholic Church and the German Pope to make such pronouncements of pedigree, this late into Church History, is laughable and lamentable. He confuses what is man-made with what God’s Spirit is doing around the globe….through all manner of cracked jars, indigenous forms, and glossilalia.

    It doesn’t surprise me that the Pope still wears his Victorian gown while making this out-dated proclamation of ecclesiastical inerrancy. Where is Armani when we need him!

  7. Ben–

    So many things to say, and so little time . . .

    Maybe it’s the nature of clarifications that they often require much more clarification.

    So, a few comments on your column.

    Most of us Catholics are wondering why such a document needed to be issued now. Most people don’t seem to be confused about the status of the relationships among (and between) the various Christian bodies. Well, maybe a little confused about the exact status of who is in what degree of cooperation, communication, or communion with whom, but not about the basic call for all to be one.

    So, we have to try to uncover the mindset of those who perceive confusion and see it as their job to clarify matters. There are several factors here: this is intended as an internal document, so that Catholic authorities (bishops, priests, etc.) know how to talk to and how to correct those for whom they have responsibility; it is written (as you obliquely acknowledge) in a kind of in-group dialect or “tech talk,” in which words such as “defect” don’t necessarily have the same meaning as they do in ordinary speech (the functionaries who write these documents don’t seem to posess the capacity for “ordinary speech”); and it proceeds from an ecclesiology that is entirely self-defined and self-referencing. So its tactlessness and lack of sensitivity to non-Catholic sensibilities is perhaps more a mark of a certain naivety than it is a deliberate slur. Despite the almost-instantaneous transmission of the document around the world via the Internet (from the Vatican Information Service, no less), it was written to instruct Catholics how to interpret Catholic doctrine and not to tell Protestants the official Catholic position about their churches.

    As you know, I think that that kind of authoritarian ecclesiastical attitude owes its origins to the historic relationship of the Church with and within the Roman Empire. Once Christianity became the official religion of the Empire, the repression of errors, defects, and heresies became as much a matter of political strategy as of doctrinal purity. When the civil power of the Empire declined and the Church assumed many of its civil functions, unity or uniformity of belief became even more important for keeping society peaceful and predictable–and for keeping the people in line. Certain elements of the Roman Catholic hierarchy and bureaucracy have never lost that idea of the function of the Church.

    And because there always have been and always will be faithful Christians of all ecclesial bodies who believe that the sharing of the Holy Mystery of Christ’s Body and Blood–the Sacrament of the Eucharist–is the way back to unity rather than the consummation of doctrinal agreements, those bureaucrats are compelled to issue documents that “clarify” the only truth that they can conceive.

    Thus, I don’t think this document is so much “the Pope on Protestantism” as it is one of a series that could be called “the Pope on the right way to think.” While that way of thinking is definitely attractive to folks who want binary, black-white answers, ultimately it seems completely inadequate for theology. After all, it’s not only inappropriate but also futile to ask for special seating in the Kingdom. We have to remember that there are many mansions there and that we cannot specify who lives in them or who the neighbors will be.

    The clarification we really need is a reminder to accept the Mystery of God at work in the universe. We strive to understand and to articulate our understanding for the benefit of all, but in this life we will never understand fully or articulate completely, so we must not erect our incomplete (“defective,” shall we say?) formulations as barriers to unity.

    Finally, why not tell the Pope? His job is to preside in charity, not to rule in tyranny. And his office must have some relevance, if even those who “fired” him 500 years ago still pay so much attention to the pronouncements of his bureaucracy. Like it or not, in some way the Pope is still the “visible head” of the whole Western Church, so let all of his sisters and brothers call him in charity to responsibility.

    Sorry for going on at such length. Thank you for sparking this conversation.

    Your brother in Christ,

  8. Thank you James for your commentary and I agree with it all; however, I no longer feel the need to share my opinions with the pope. There are many more learned and ranking church officials to go that. In my belief the saving action of Christ was for all humankind…not just catholics. As a catholic christian my role is to live “the life of Christ” and spread the good new. The pope makes this more difficult…but still I plod along.


  9. James,

    Your comment is wonderful. I really liked how you set up the difference between those who see the sacrament of Eucharist as a means to achieve unity and those who see it as a sign of unity achieved. That is a very helpful way of expressing the issue.

    With Harry, I thank you.


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