Will the Pope's Pronouncement Set Ecumenism Back a Hundred Years?

Wednesday, 11 July 2007

Yesterday's Reuters headline: "The Vatican on Tuesday said Christian denominations outside the Roman Catholic Church were not full churches of Jesus Christ." The actual proclamation, posted on the official Vatican Web site, says that Protestant Churches are really "ecclesial communities" rather than Churches, because they lack apostolic succession, and therefore they "have not preserved the genuine and integral substance of the Eucharistic Mystery." Furthermore, not even the Eastern Orthodox Churches are real Churches, even though they were explicitly referred to as such in the Vatican document Unitatis Redintegratio (Decree on Ecumenism). The new document explains that they were only called Churches because "the Council wanted to adopt the traditional use of the term." This new clarification, issued officially by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, but in fact strongly supported by Pope Benedict XVI, manages to insult both Protestants and the Orthodox, and it may set ecumenism back a hundred years.

The new document, officially entitled "Responses to Some Questions Regarding Certain Aspects of the Doctrine on the Church," claims that the positions it takes do not reverse the intent of various Vatican II documents, especially Unitatis Redintegratio, but merely clarify them. In support of this contention, it cites other documents, all issued by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith: Mysterium Ecclesiae (1973), Communionis notio (1992), and Dominus Iesus (2000). The last two of these documents were issued while the current pope, as Cardinal Ratzinger, was prefect of the Congregation. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith was born in 1542 with the name Sacred Congregation of the Universal Inquisition, and for centuries it has operated as an extremely conservative force with the Roman Catholic Church, opposing innovation and modernizing tendencies, suppressing dissent, and sometimes, in its first few centuries, persecuting those who believed differently. More recently, the congregation has engaged in the suppression of some of Catholicism's most innovative and committed thinkers, such as Yves Congar, Hans Küng, Charles Curran, Matthew Fox, and Jon Sobrino and other liberation theologians. In light of the history of the Congregation of the Faith, such conservative statements as those released this week are hardly surprising, though they are quite unwelcome.

It is natural for members of various Christian Churches to believe that the institutions to which they belong are the best representatives of Christ's body on earth--otherwise, why wouldn't they join a different Church? It is disingenuous, however, for the leader of a Church that has committed itself "irrevocably" (to use Pope John Paul II's word in Ut Unum Sint [That They May Be One] 3, emphasis original) to ecumenism to claim to be interested in unity while at the same time declaring that all other Christians belong to Churches that are in some way deficient. How different was the attitude of Benedict's predecessors, who wrote, "In subsequent centuries much more serious dissensions appeared and large communities became separated from full communion with the [Roman] Catholic Church--for which, often enough, men of both sides were to blame" (Unitatis Redintegratio 3). In Benedict's view, at various times in history groups of Christians wandered from the original, pure Roman Catholic Church, and any notion of Christian unity today is predicated on the idea of those groups abandoning their errors and returning to the Roman Catholic fold. The pope's problem seems to be that he is a theologian rather than a historian. Otherwise he could not possibly make such outrageous statements and think that they were compatible with the spirit of ecumenism that his immediate predecessors promoted.

One of the pope's most strident arguments against the validity of other Churches is that they can't trace their bishops' lineages back to the original apostles, as the bishops in the Roman Catholic Church can. There are three problems with this idea. First, many Protestants deny the importance of apostolic succession as a guarantor of legitimacy. They would argue that faithfulness to the Bible and/or the teachings of Christ is a better measure of authentic Christian faith than the ability to trace one's spiritual ancestry through an ecclesiastical bureaucracy. A peripheral knowledge of the lives of some of the medieval and early modern popes (e.g., Stephen VI, Sergius III, Innocent VIII, Alexander VI) is enough to call the insistence on apostolic succession into serious question. Moreover, the Avignon Papacy and the divided lines of papal claimants in subsequent decades calls into serious question the legitimacy of the whole approach. Perhaps the strongest argument against the necessity of apostolic succession comes from the Apostle Paul, who was an acknowledged apostle despite not having been ordained by one of Jesus' original twelve disciples. In fact, Paul makes much of the fact that his authority came directly from Jesus Christ rather than from one of the apostles (Gal 1:11-12). Apostolic succession was a useful tool for combating incipient heresy and establishing the antiquity of the churches in particular locales, but merely stating that apostolic succession is a necessary prerequisite for being a true church does not make it so.

The second problem with the new document's insistence upon apostolic succession is the fact that at least three other Christian communions have apostolic succession claims that are as valid as that of the Roman Catholic Church. The Eastern Orthodox Churches, which split from the Roman Catholic Church in 1054, can trace their lineages back to the same apostles that the Roman Catholic Church can, a fact acknowledged by Unitatis Redintegratio 14. The Oriental Orthodox Churches, such as the Coptic and Ethiopic Orthodox Churches, split from the Roman Catholic Church several centuries earlier, but they too can trace their episcopal lineages back to the same apostles claimed by the Roman Catholic Church as its founders. Finally, the Anglican Church, which broke away from the Roman Catholic Church during the reign of King Henry VIII, can likewise trace the lineage of every bishop back through the first archbishop of Canterbury, Augustine. In addition to these three collections of Christian Churches, the Old Catholics and some Methodists also see value in the idea of apostolic succession, and they can trace their episcopal lineages just as far back as Catholic bishops can.

The third problem with the idea of apostolic succession is that the earliest bishops in certain places are simply unknown, and the lists produced in the third and fourth centuries that purported to identify every bishop back to the founding of the church in a particular area were often historically unreliable. Who was the founding bishop of Byzantium? Who brought the gospel to Alexandria? To Edessa? To Antioch? There are lists that give names (e.g., http://www.friesian.com/popes.htm), such as the Apostles Mark (Alexandria), Andrew (Byzantium), and Thaddeus (Armenia), but the association of the apostles with the founding of these churches is legendary, not historical. The most obvious breakdown of historicity in the realm of apostolic succession involves none other than the see occupied by the pope, the bishop of Rome. It is certain that Peter did make his way to Rome before the time of Nero, where he perished, apparently in the Neronian persecution following the Great Fire of Rome, but it is equally certain that the church in Rome predates Peter, as it also predates Paul's arrival there (Paul also apparently died during the Neronian persecution). The Roman Catholic Church may legitimately claim a close association with both Peter and Paul, but it may not legitimately claim that either was the founder of the church there. The fact of the matter is that the gospel reached Rome, Alexandria, Antioch, Edessa, and other early centers of Christianity in the hands of unknown, faithful Christians, not apostles, and the legitimacy of the churches established there did not suffer in the least because of it.

All the talk in the new document about apostolic succession is merely a smokescreen, however, for the main point that the Congregation of the Faith and the pope wanted to drive home: recognition of the absolute primacy of the pope. After playing with the words "subsists in" (Lumen Gentium [Dogmatic Constitution on the Church] 8) and "church" (Unitatis Redintegratio 14) in an effort to make them mean something other than what they originally meant, the document gets down to the nitty-gritty. "Since communion with the Catholic Church, the visible head of which is the Bishop of Rome and the Successor of Peter, is not some external complement to a particular Church but rather one of its internal constitutive principles, these venerable Christian communities lack something in their condition as particular churches." From an ecumenical standpoint, this position is a non-starter. Communion with Rome and acknowledging the authority of the pope as bishop of Rome is a far different matter from recognizing the pope as the "visible head" of the entire church, without peer. The pope is an intelligent man, and he knows that discussions with other Churches will make no progress on the basis of this prerequisite, so the only conclusion that can be drawn is that the pope, despite his protestations, has no interest in pursuing ecumenism. Trying to persuade other Christians to become Roman Catholics, which is evidently the pope's approach to other Churches, is not ecumenism, it's proselytism.

Fortunately, this document does not represent the viewpoint of all Catholics, either laypeople or scholars. Many ordinary Catholics would scoff at the idea that other denominations were not legitimate Churches, which just happen to have different ideas about certain topics and different ways of expressing a common Christianity. Similarly, many Catholic scholars are doing impressive work in areas such as theology, history, biblical study, and ethics, work that interacts with ideas produced by non-Catholic scholars. In the classroom and in publications, Catholics and non-Catholics learn from each other, challenge one another, and, perhaps most importantly, respect one another.

How does one define the Church? Christians have many different understandings of the term, and Catholics are divided among themselves, as are non-Catholics. The ecumenical movement is engaged in addressing this issue in thoughtful, meaningful, and respectful ways. Will the narrow-minded view expressed in "Responses" be the death-knell of the ecumenical movement? Hardly. Unity among Christians is too important an idea to be set aside. Will the document set back ecumenical efforts? Perhaps, but Christians committed to Christian unity--Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant alike--will get beyond it. The ecumenical movement is alive and well, and no intemperate pronouncement from the Congregation of the Faith, or the current pope, can restrain it for long. Even if ecumenism, at least as it involves the Roman Catholic Church's connection with other Churches, is temporarily set back a hundred years, that distance can be closed either by changes of heart or changes of leadership.

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