Protestants (and no doubt the Orthodox) are, obviously, disappointed with Pope Benedict’s recent reaffirmation of longstanding Catholic doctrine that, apart from communion with the Bishop of Rome, their faith communities are defective or inferior. As I stated a while back in a different context:
I‚Äôm not sure either Catholicism or Orthodoxy can make room in its ecclesiology for an admission that they do not represent the fullness of God‚Äôs plan for the church on earth. As I understand it, neither group would necessarily doubt my devotion to Christ, although they would insist that the church to which I belong is in some sense (or many senses) spiritually inadequate if not illegitimate. I would love to be proven wrong on this point, but I‚Äôm not sure I can envision Catholics and Orthodox accepting that Protestantism as such is a valid expression of the church founded by Jesus Christ in the same sense that they make that claim for their own communion.
It seems that my understanding of Catholic theology was in fact accurate on this point.
Discussing the Pope’s statement, Scot McKnight comments (emphasis in the original),
If anyone got their hopes high after Mark Noll‚Äôs book, Is the Reformation Over?, the answer is now officially ‚ÄúNo!‚Äù
He then suggests that, given Rome’s sacramental theology, no one should really be surprised at this development. I am not, in fact, surprised that the Pope is Catholic. I even appreciate his forthrightness in saying what he believes rather than hiding behind niceties that whitewash the serious ecumenical issues facing the church. I don’t agree with him‚Äîin fact I’m offended by the statement‚Äîbut if anyone ought to get a pass on stating what the Roman Church has taught for centuries, it’s the pope!
The most interesting Protestant commentary on the issue comes from John Hobbins, who turns the tables in an interesting way:
A key graph is the following: “[T]hese separated churches and communities, though we believe they suffer from defects, are deprived neither of significance nor importance in the mystery of salvation, whose value derives from that fullness of grace and of truth which has been entrusted to the Catholic Church.” Unitatis redintegratio, 3.4 is footnoted.
As a catholic Christian with a small “c”¬ù (not in full communion with the See of Rome), I have no problem with that. I would respond as follows: no less than the Church that I serve, I believe that the Catholic Church suffers from defects, but is not thereby deprived of significance or importance in the mystery of salvation. The presence of the fullness of grace and truth, who is Jesus Christ the Lord, has been entrusted to the Catholic Church no less than to the Orthodox Churches, and those with roots in the Reformation.
It would be a stretch for many of the rock-ribbed Baptists of my acquaintance to concede that the Church of Rome was as much as “not deprived of significance or importance in the mystery of salvation.” There are plenty of Protestants who are convinced they need to share the gospel with Catholics or they’re going to hell‚Äîfor no other reason than that they are affiliated with the Roman Catholic Church!
At the same time, many Protestants who would never dream of questioning the salvation of Catholics still believe there is something deficient about the Catholic church, either in its theology, its patriarchalism, its system of governance, or whatever. And if we are honest, Hobbins suggests, we say the same thing about our own faith communities.
That, I think, is what is missing from the Pope’s statement. Can the Church of Rome tell us where, perhaps, it could stand to learn from what other Christians are doing?