Salvation Apart from Catholicism
In 2007, Pope Benedict XVI released a document that had the entire Protestant community up in arms. As part of the revamp of my articles page, I thought I’d revisit the issue. This used to be an article, and since I still substantially agree with its contents, I’m moving it down to a blog post. This is an object lesson in actually reading things for yourself instead of just jumping to conclusions.
Examples of Protestant outrage over this controversial document include:
- A spokesman for Egypt’s Coptic Church, the largest Christian community in the Middle East, warned today that comments such as those expressed in the Vatican document “fan tensions and arouse negative emotions”. 
- The World Alliance of Reformed Churches, which represents over 200 Protestant churches, said the document “goes against the spirit of our Christian calling towards oneness in Christ”. 
- The liberal Catholic movement Wir Sind Kirche in Germany said the document was a “fresh and unnecessary slap in the face of the ecumenical community” and questioned whether the Vatican was serious about interfaith dialogue. 
- The Evangelical Church in Germany also termed it “a snub” for the interfaith community and “a major set-back” for the dialogue between Churches. 
Catholics dismiss these statements, telling the people involved to read the document for themselves. So I did, and it is exactly what I expected it to be. It is not, however, what the majority of the Protestant community thinks it is.
First, let’s look at the way most detractors seem to understand it:
[N]on-Catholic Christian communities are either defective or not true churches, and the Roman Catholic Church provides the only true path to salvation. “Christ ‘established here on earth’ only one church,” said the document, reasserting the primacy of Catholicism. It said other Christian communities such as Protestants “cannot be called ‘churches’ in the proper sense” since they don’t have what’s known as apostolic succession – that is, the ability to trace their bishops back to the original 12 apostles of Jesus. The document said the Orthodox church suffered from a “wound” because it did not recognize the primacy of the pope, adding the wound was “still more profound” among Protestant denominations. It was “difficult to see how the title of ‘Church’ could possibly be attributed to them,” said the statement from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, purporting Roman Catholicism was “the one true Church of Christ.” 
In other words, a church out of communion with Rome is not a church at all. That is an excellent summary, but John Murney, self-described as a Libertarian who defends the rights of the oppressed of the Western world, sums up a much angrier view:
This document from the Inquisition is medieval in mindset, and unravels the progress that was being made in the last 100 years in promoting tolerance among people of different faiths. The document is potentially destructive, and reduces the credibility of the Vatican when it wants to be taken seriously by non-Catholics. the Inquisition is free to print whatever it wants. However, I think this document is counterproductive. 
I should point out that Murney’s opinion of God is such that anyone who contends strongly for his faith will get just that sort of reaction:
There is no one true faith. I think God is whatever we conceive her or him to be, not some superimposed deity from a bloated and corrupt religious bureaucracy. 
Secular humanism and relativistic truth are different issues altogether. What is really at issue here is one simple question: What does this document actually say?
First, for anyone who knows anything about Roman Catholic ecclesiology, there are no surprises in this document at all. This document is, in fact, very consistent with what Rome has always taught. Rome has always taught that it is the only true Church. That has never changed. And the first part of this “inflammatory” document says exactly that:
The Second Vatican Council neither changed nor intended to change this doctrine, rather it developed, deepened and more fully explained it. 
As Catholic commentators rightly point out, most of the misunderstandings occur from a failure to define terms . The Catholic Church believes that unity existed in the Church established by Christ from the beginning, and that this unity now subsists only in the Catholic Church . Total unity is not realized due to all of the division among those who profess to be Christians, and so it should be the prayer of the faithful to move into the Catholic Church, since that is where the unity of Christ subsists .
The document itself confirms both Haller’s commentary and the Catechism:
In number 8 of the Dogmatic Constitution Lumen gentium ‘subsistence’ means this perduring, historical continuity and the permanence of all the elements instituted by Christ in the Catholic Church, in which the Church of Christ is concretely found on this earth. 
The document further clarifies why subsistence can only be attributed to the Catholic Church:
[T]he word “subsists” can only be attributed to the Catholic Church alone precisely because it refers to the mark of unity that we profess in the symbols of the faith (I believe… in the “one” Church); and this “one” Church subsists in the Catholic Church. 
Non-Roman Catholics, and some Roman Catholic ecumenists, have forgotten the underlying definition of the “one Church subsisting” and that whenever the Conciliar documents use the phrase “the Church” — as the present document reminds us — they are not talking, as we, for example, do, simply of the body of all the baptized, but of those among the baptized who are corporately united with the Roman Catholic Church. Thus all Conciliar language about “division among Christians” is not about division “in” the Church, but division “from” the Church. 
Now that we have established that Rome believes the fullness of unity dwells in it, we can move to the essential question: Does this mean that, as many contend, this document says that no salvation exists outside of the Catholic Church? The answer is “no.” From the document itself:
It is possible, according to Catholic doctrine, to affirm correctly that 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. 
Perhaps the most inflammatory statement contained within this document is the one that says other faiths are flawed. The news media, as they often do, are taking a portion of the document out of context in order to report that. While the document does make that statement, it does so in a way that affirms salvation outside of the Catholic Church is possible:
“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 of truth which has been entrusted to the Catholic Church” 
This certainly stays consistent with the official position of the Roman Catholic Church, as it does with the interpretations of that position that I’ve personally heard from defenders of the Catholic faith.
The remainder of the document seeks to define the term “Church,” and why it is used in conjunction with Orthodox Churches but not Protestant Churches. The defining factor here is apostolic succession. It is the position of the Catholic Church that Orthodox Churches have the ability to trace their roots back to the original apostles, however, Protestant Churches do not . Therefore, the Orthodox Churches are “Churches” as defined by Rome, while Protestants are “ecclesial Communities” since they lack apostolic succession and by extension proper sacraments.
In conclusion, there is nothing new nor inflammatory about this document. The introduction to the document clarifies, “the Congregation [for the Doctrine of Faith] wishes to respond to these questions by clarifying the authentic meaning of some ecclesiological expressions used by the magisterium which are open to misunderstanding in the theological debate” . This is a clarification of existing beliefs, nothing more.
- AFP, via News.com.au, France. “Roman Catholic Church Stresses Unity Amid Row.” Religion News Blog. <http://www.religionnewsblog.com/18711/roman-catholicism>. Accessed July 16, 2007.
- “Pope Approves Document–Roman Catholic Church Provides the Only True Path to Salvation, Other Churches Defective.” Carolina News Watch. <http://debbisnews.blogspot.com/2007/07/pope-approves-document-roman-catholic.html>. Accessed July 16, 2007.
- Murney, John. “Roman Catholic Church Issues an Outrageous Document.” John Murney’s Blog. <http://johnmurneysblog.blogspot.com/2007/07/roman-catholic-church-issues-outrageous.html>. Accessed July 16, 2007.
- Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith. “Responses to Some Questions Regarding Certain Aspects of the Doctrine on the Church.” Roman Curia. <http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/congregations/cfaith/documents/rc_con_cfaith_doc_20070629_responsa-quaestiones_en.html>. Accessed July 16, 2007.
- Haller, Tobias Stanislas. “Corrective Lenses.” In a Godward Direction. July 11, 2007. <http://jintoku.blogspot.com/2007/07/corrective-lenses.html>. Accessed July 16, 2007.
- Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraph 820.
- Synthesis of CCC paragraph 820 and note #9.
- See note #8.
- See note #9.
- See note #8. Emphasis added.
Posted on July 28, 2011, in Roman Catholicism and tagged coptic church, ecumenism, pope benedict xvi, roman catholic church, Salvation, soteriology, world alliance of reformed churches. Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.