Thursday, July 12, 2007

Pope Maledict Strikes Again: Rome Is the Only Church of Christ!

Evidently we got it wrong. We thought Joseph Ratzinger chose Benedict as his papal name. Benedict as in the Latin Benedictus—literally, well spoken, but usually meaning well spoken of, praised, or blessed. So far with his papacy, we get none of the above. Instead we get Maledict, as in to curse or call evil upon.

The man with the shoes of Prada has not been a very good fit for the shoes of the Fisherman. And now we have a new episode of Prada-in-mouth disease.

Press reports are abuzz with the news that Pope Benedict XVI has approved a Vatican document returning to the pre-Vatican II position that the Roman Catholic Church is the only true church of Christ.

The five-point document, in a condescending catechetical question-and-answer format, is really an extended tautology. It starts with the arbitrary assumption that the defining characteristics of “church” include apostolic succession, validly ordained priests to celebrate the eucharist, and communion with the bishop of Rome. Then it concludes that a Christian group lacking any of these characteristics is not a church. That leaves Roman Catholicism as the only church there is.

Thus the document’s punch line is that the churches which emerged from the Protestant Reformation of the 16th Century are really not churches.

That’s bad enough. But on the way, and even more alarming from an ecumenical perspective, the document suggests that the Orthodox Churches (Greek and Slavic in origin) are not churches either, because they are not in communion with the bishop of Rome.

These positions are significant departures from the Second Vatican Council’s Decree on Ecumenism, promulgated by Pope Paul VI on November 21, 1964.

As an effort among non-Catholic Christians to promote greater Christian unity, the ecumenical movement was roughly 50 years old at the time. The decree was intended to remove any question that the Catholic Church would join the ecumenical movement decisively, enthusiastically and productively. It was approved by 97% of the nearly 2,120 bishops in attendance.

The pope needs to explain where he gets the competence or authority to override the Council on these matters.

The document published yesterday is replete with oddities ripe for plucking:

It was not issued by the pope, but by Cardinal William Levada, Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (headed by Joseph Ratzinger before he became Pope Benedict XVI, and formerly known as the Holy Office and the Inquisition). However, the document says that Benedict ratified and confirmed the statements and ordered their publication.

According to press reports, the new document restates key sections of a 2000 text Ratzinger wrote when he was prefect of the congregation, which riled the other Christian churches at the time. Why the pope chose the start of his 2007 summer vacation to reissue his decree from 2000 is anybody’s guess.

The only theologian specifically referenced in the document—in a very convoluted discussion of what it means to say the church of Christ “subsists” in the Catholic Church—is Leonardo Boff, a proponent of Liberation Theology whom Ratzinger targeted in 1985. Boff subsequently left the priesthood, and no one has championed his position on this subject for years.

But the greatest curiosity is why Benedict XVI thinks he can arrogate to himself the power to contradict the clear ecumenical emphasis and positions of the bishops of the church at Vatican II.

The Decree on Ecumenism was initially drafted by the Secretariat for Christian Unity, established by Pope John XXIII in 1959 to be at the service of observers he asked the Orthodox and Protestant churches to send to the Council, and to coordinate the Council’s statement on ecumenism.

The bishops of the Council debated the document in three separate sessions from 1962 through 1964. They proposed over a thousand changes, which the secretariat reviewed. After feedback from the secretariat and voting on final changes, the bishops approved the resulting individual chapters of the decree.

The day before the vote on the decree as a whole, Pope Paul VI made 19 last-minute changes to the text, too late for the bishops to discuss or vote on individually. The bishops approved the entire decree with all of the 19 changes.

While the changes did not radically alter what the final draft said, as it turns out Benedict hangs a major component of his current stance on one of them. Yet even there Benedict is distorting what the Council said, as his current document does on each questions it addresses.

The document claims that Vatican II did not change the Catholic teaching on the church. On the face of it, this claim is preposterous. According to the English translators, the 16 promulgated documents of Vatican II include 103,014 words. The English translation (including introductions, footnotes and brief responses from observers who were invited to the Council), takes up nearly 750 pages. It is simply inconceivable that the bishops prepared for the council for four years, deliberated for three, and had nothing new to say about the church. In his Models of the Church, Cardinal Avery Dulles catalogues the competing descriptions of the church that have been held in tension since the Council.

The general editor of the English translation of the Vatican II documents noted that up to the Council, the Catholic Church prayed eight days each January for the Orthodox and Protestant churches to return to Rome. With the Decree on Ecumenism, the emphasis was on the pilgrim church moving toward Christ, rather than toward Rome.

Indeed, Benedict’s document even cites Pope John Paul II’s version of a point the Council stressed repeatedly: “…the Church of Christ is present and operative in the churches and ecclesial communities not yet fully in communion with the Catholic Church, on account of the elements of sanctification and truth that are present in them.” The Council’s version was that “…some, even very many, of the most significant elements or endowments which together go to build up and give life to the Church herself can exist outside the visible boundaries of the Catholic Church.”

Benedict also quotes another Council text favorably: “It follows that these separated churches and communities, though we believe they suffer from defects, are deprived neither of significance nor importance in the mystery of salvation. In fact the Spirit of Christ has not refrained from using them as instruments of salvation, whose value derives from that fullness of grace and truth which has been entrusted to the Catholic Church.”

Despite acknowledging these obvious changes in the Catholic attitude toward the other Christian churches, Benedict then reverts to pre-Vatican II positions which only an extreme minority at the Council ever supported and which the Council overruled in its final decrees.

Nowhere does Benedict’s document mention the Council’s acknowledgment that differences between Christians go all the way back to Peter and Paul—even though he ordered publication of his document on their ecumenically significant annual feast day.

Nowhere does Benedict’s document mention the Council’s judgment that blame for subsequent separations in the history of Christianity often belonged on both sides (which, ironically, he did note in his recent discussion about controversies related to the old Latin Mass).

Nowhere does Benedict’s document stress that the Council purposefully referred to the Orthodox bodies as churches, and never hinted that their lack of communion with Rome should prevent them from being designated as churches.

On the contrary, the Council noted that “from their very origins the Churches of the East have had a treasury from which the Church of the West has amply drawn for its liturgy, spiritual tradition and jurisprudence. Nor must we underestimate the fact that the basic dogmas of the Christian faith concerning the Trinity and God’s Word made flesh of the Virgin Mary were defined in Ecumenical Councils held in the East. To preserve this faith, these Churches have suffered much, and still do so.” The bishops concluded, “…this sacred Synod declares that this entire heritage of spirituality and liturgy, of discipline and theology, in their various traditions, belongs to the full catholic and apostolic character of the Church.”

Nowhere does Benedict’s document mention that in speaking of the Protestant Reformation the Council said, “…many Communions, national or denominational, were separated from the Roman See. Among those in which some Catholic traditions and institutions continue to exist, the Anglican Communion occupies a special place.” This should have led Benedict to at least assess the Anglican Communion in conjunction with his discussion of the Orthodox churches. But it did not.

It is true that the Council did make a distinction between churches and ecclesial communities. A footnote says the bishops’ thinking was that the more an institution has of the essential structures of the Catholicism, the more it is entitled to be called a church. The usage was also intended to be respectful and inclusive of some Christian bodies which do not wish to be called churches.

Yet the Decree on Ecumenism explicitly prescinded from categorizing specific Christian bodies as churches or ecclesial communities: “Since in origin, teaching and spiritual practice, these churches and ecclesial communities differ not only from us but also among themselves to a considerable degree, the task of describing them adequately is very difficult; we do not propose to do it here.”

One would never know this from Benedict’s analysis, which lumps together all of the Reformation churches without distinction, because they “do not enjoy apostolic succession in the sacrament of Orders, and are, therefore, deprived of a constitutive element of the Church.”

This is the most complicated point to address, because it is impacted by one of Pope Paul VI’s last-minute additions. What the bishops said in the individual chapter they approved was that churches without a sacrament of orders lacked “the full reality of the Eucharistic mystery.” Their wording implied that the Reformed churches retained some of that reality. And while lack of fullness was their main criterion for calling them ecclesial communities rather than churches, their point was not to dwell on how exactly they were Christian bodies, but to call for more dialogue on “the true meaning of the Lord’s Supper, the other sacraments, and the Church’s worship and ministry.”

Pope Paul changed “the full reality of the Eucharistic mystery” to “genuinam atque integram substantiam Mysterii eucharistici.” To stay as close as possible to the bishops’ intent, the 1960s English translators rendered this to say that the Reformed churches lacked “the genuine and total reality of the Eucharistic mystery.”

Today’s Vatican translation is much harsher. Benedict now says they lack “the genuine and integral substance of the Eucharistic mystery.” Although the text still leaves it as a situation calling for more dialogue about the eucharist and the sacraments, the implication is that the Reformed churches do not have a valid eucharist.

This tends to contradict the next sentence of the bishop’s language, which Paul VI did not remove: “Nevertheless, when they commemorate the Lord’s death and resurrection in the Holy Supper, they profess that it signifies life in communion with Christ, and they await his coming in glory.” Whatever Pope Paul VI intended to say, Benedict’s version is clearly a far cry from the final draft of the chapter which the Council approved.

Thus Benedict’s position rests on this complicated, shaky interpretation of a single sentence, coupled with ignoring other important statements which remained in the decree or twisting some beyond recognition. Given this, it is difficult to find any positive value in using the position to publicly assault the integrity and sincerity of Orthodox and Protestant followers of Jesus.

The Catholic Church officially abandoned malediction toward other Christians in 1964. The Catholic Church expects the pope to follow that official position. It would certainly be a better way for Benedict to live up to his name.

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