Friday, July 20, 2007

Are we the Church?

A headline in the Harrisburg Patriot-News on Thursday July 12 caught my attention: “Pope criticizes other churches.” The first paragraph of this Associated Press article stunned me: “Pope Benedict XVI reasserted the primacy of the Roman Catholic Church, approving a document released yesterday that says other Christian communities are either defective or not true churches and Catholicism provides the only true path to salvation.”

From experience I have learned never to trust newspaper stories about the church. Newspaper articles, and even more TV news stories, need conflict, tension, and high emotional to attract attention and discussion. Stories about the church in such public media typically lose nuance, depth of meaning and serious theological reflection. So this newspaper article sent me scurrying to find what the Pope’s paper actually said.

In this internet age, it was not hard to find. The Vatican released a statement on July 10, 2007 titled “Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith Responses to Some Questions Regarding Certain Aspects of the Doctrine of the Church.” Indeed the “Fifth Question” in this document refers directly to us Presbyterians. That is, it responds to “those Christian communities born out of the Reformation of the sixteenth century.” From my perspective and worldview as a life-long Presbyterian, I find this “response” from the Vatican breathtaking in it arrogance:

“According to Catholic doctrine, these Communities (born out of the Reformation of the sixteenth century) do not enjoy apostolic succession in the sacrament of Orders, and are, therefore, deprived of a constitutive element of the Church. These ecclesial Communities which, specifically because of the absence of the sacramental priesthood, have not preserved the genuine and integral substance of the Eucharistic Mystery cannot, according to Catholic doctrine, be called “Churches” in the proper sense.”

I soon discovered that I am not the only Protestant stunned by the Pope’s recent declaration. The Rev. Dr. Setri Nyomi, the General Secretary of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, wrote a scathing letter in response, from which I quote in part:

“An exclusive claim that identifies the Roman Catholic Church as the one church of Jesus Christ, as we read in the statement released today, goes against the spirit of our Christian calling towards oneness in Christ. In makes us question the seriousness with which the Roman Catholic Church takes its dialogues with the Reformed family and other families of the church. It makes us question whether we are indeed praying together for Christian unity.”

Finally, I ponder a different question. Does it make any difference? For the pastors and congregations in our Presbytery carrying on with wonderful faithfulness and devotion to Jesus Christ does the Pope’s statement make any difference? When we have a friendly chat with the Roman Catholic neighbor who lives on our street, does the Pope’s statement make any difference?

Who is the Church? Where is the Church? What is the Church? These are vital questions. But is the Pope’s answer to these questions, or my answer to these questions some how more important than the answers which all the good folks express with their lives when they sit in our pews again this week?

When I think about the Church, with a capital “C”, the invisible Church as our Book of Confessions proclaims, I see in my mind something universal, beautiful and holy scattered all around the globe and through the ages. That vision causes my heart to rejoice. When I think of the Church, with a capital “C”, I also see in my mind our fragmented, divided, separated, sinful reality. That vision breaks my heart.