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.