In September 2000 the Vatican issued its encyclical Dominus Iesus to, in its words, “to set forth again the doctrine of the Catholic faith in these areas (on the unicity and salvific universality of Jesus Christ and the Church), pointing out some fundamental questions that remain open to further development, and refuting specific positions that are erroneous or ambiguous.” (Click on the flag to the left or here to view this document.)
As is the case with most encyclicals, this one contains some good substance wrapped in complicated prose (these documents inspired the term “pontificate.”) There is a lot of good stuff here, especially on the unique and universal nature of the salvation done for us by Jesus Christ. Many people today have the idea that there are many ways to God but such a position is untenable.
Many Protestants, however, have taken offence at the following statement:
On the other hand, the ecclesial communities which have not preserved the valid Episcopate and the genuine and integral substance of the Eucharistic mystery, are not Churches in the proper sense; however, those who are baptised in these communities are, by Baptism, incorporated in Christ and thus are in a certain communion, albeit imperfect, with the Church.
It’s understandable why this statement should kindle anger in many of us who are in churches described herein. But anger doesn’t add to understanding of the position of the Catholic Church or of the rest of Christianity. We need a serious analysis to find out just what the problem is.
The term the New Testament uses for the church is ekklesia, the “called out ones.” Implicit in this is the idea that the church is made up of the people who have been called out, the “Body of Christ,” if you please. Such a concept is commonly expressed in Evangelical churches (it’s hard to figure out what the liberals are called out from) but is not unknown in Roman Catholicism. The Second Vatican Council spent some time on it and of course Liberation Theology has used it as well.
But Roman Catholicism has another concept of church: an organization, whose leadership is the direct successor of the Apostles (and the head of this organization being the direct successor of Peter,) and which was established and empowered by Christ to dispense grace through the sacraments and truth through its authoritative teaching. Such a church is in reality a mediator between man and God. To back this up Roman Catholicism teaches that the establishment of such an authoritative institution was high on Christ’s agenda while He was here. Roman Catholicism is not alone in this; the Orthodox churches have the same high view of themselves, the Anglican ones to a lesser extent.
The whole history of Protestantism has been an attempt to get past this concept of church and re-emphasise the unique meditative role of Christ Himself. One of the reason Reformed theologians are so adamant about their Augustinian theology of sovereign grace and absolute election is because it completely cuts out any apparent need for an institution to dispense grace. Fortunately 250 years of Wesleyan-Arminian theology at work in churches such as most Pentecostal ones have made it obvious that it’s unnecessary to take away man’s free will to save him from terminal institutionalism.
This dichotomy of the concept of church throws the encyclical’s statements on this subject into plain view. We may not like the Vatican telling us we’re not a church, but if we look at their definition of church, then we can’t avoid the conclusion that, using their definition, we probably aren’t! And shouldn’t be either; part of our providing a viable alternative to Roman Catholicism is to emphasise our direct relationship with Jesus Christ as people. Although the church’s mission is to communicate the Gospel, it is counter-productive for it to take the place of Christ in order to fulfil His mission.
This of course leaves an obvious question to be answered: did in fact Jesus Christ intend to establish a church such as the Roman Catholic one as a central part of His mission on earth? Looking at our Lord’s own relationship with the religious authorities of this day isn’t encouraging to the Catholic position. Judaism in Jesus’ day was developing into what we now know as “rabbinic Judaism,” where the rabbis were able to develop their interpretation of the law into authoritative teaching enforceable within Judaism. The Pharisees were the “leaders of the pack” in this regard, and Jesus’ opposition to the Pharisees at virtually all levels is well known.
Moreover the religious authorities within Judaism made the crucial decision to have Jesus put to death. They did so for two reasons: 1) Jesus posed a political threat to the Romans, who would have (and eventually did) destroy them in the event of an insurrection and 2) Jesus’ continual threat to their authority by his actions and words. (They continued the same campaign against the apostles, whose “successors” are supposed to be embodied in Roman Catholicism.)
Jesus’ primary mission, however, was not a political one; even Pilate (before he knuckled under to pressure) recognized that. His mission was to set men free through the rebirth that he offers. How such a mission is to be consistently accomplished when the main emphasis is obedience to a visible power structure is hard to see, especially considering the way the power structure in Jesus’ day reacted to him.
But such is the rub of ecumenical politics. Many people of good will bemoan the division of Christianity into the many organisations that exist today. If we want to fix the problem, a good place to start is to define a proper definition and role of the church more in line with the life and teachings of its Founder.