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Not True Churches?

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’m not sure either Catholicism or Orthodoxy can make room in its ecclesiology for an admission that they do not represent the fullness of God’s 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’m 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’s book, Is the Reformation Over?, the answer is now officially “No!”

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?

technorati tags: ecumenism, pope benedict, protestantism, roman catholic church


  1. D. P.,

    I am doubtful that the Pope or the Catholic church is willing to learn from what other Christians are doing. They are willing to have dialogue with other Christian groups provided they recognize the primacy of the Catholic Church.

    In my post on the Pope’s statement, Vynette left an interesting comments on Papal primacy. It is worth reading.

    Nice post.

    Claude Mariottini


  2. D. P. says:

    Thanks, Claude. I read Vynette’s comments this morning. Quite interesting! (And I believe you are quite right to be doubtful the Catholic Church will express any willingness to learn from other Christians any time soon.)


  3. I, too, was offended by the statement that my church is defective and is not a true church. Where’s the humility that the Pope traditionally shows on Holy Thursday as he washes the feet of prisoners? Statements such as this are unhelpful, to say the least.

    I used to be of the camp that sought reunion with Rome – you know, looking admirably toward Rome, higher liturgics in an effort to look more Romish, and otherwise showing oodles of respect to Rome as a type of ideal church, a destination, or a wise parent.

    It’s not simply a response to this statement, but I no longer hold Rome to be any sort of ideal. It’s just another expression of the church, arrogant and defective in its own way.

    Thanks for your post.


  4. PS says:

    I also was dismayed, to put it mildly, at the pope’s statements. I’ve also heard the putdowns of Catholics and Lutherans by some other protestants. And I grew up with an understated assumption that Lutherans were somehow better than other groups. In fact, some Lutheran groups won’t allow other believers (even Lutherans) to partake of communion, without even finding out what their beliefs are. My own denomination’s website makes a very definite statement about the true church or belief system, but it does allow that there are true believers in other churches.

    One would think we could see what we can learn from others and take what works for us, as long as it is Biblical.


  5. D. P. says:

    PS: I grew up in an environment where it was assumed that Baptists had the “purest” form of doctrine and practice (from a New Testament standpoint)‚Äîso much so that other groups might not quite deserve to be called “churches” at all. In other words, very similar to what Catholic doctrine has been for centuries, just flipped 180 degrees!

    I think that’s why I’m reacting the way I am. Sure, we all have convictions about the rightness of our particular faith traditions. If you didn’t agree that, in some sense, Lutheranism was “purer” (or whatever adjective you’d prefer to use) than the rest, you’d switch. That doesn’t keep you from holding your opinion in humility and seeking to learn from/interact with others.

    As I said, I’m glad the Pope is being honest about what his church teaches. There is certainly nothing new here. I just wish we all could proceed with a bit more humility.


  6. PS says:

    The 90 year old widow of a Presbyterian pastor and her daughter joined our church (no Presb. church close by.) Last summer we had a discussion group about the Da Vinci Code, led by the pastor. The older woman said, “I’m glad I’m Lutheran. We can discuss these things rather than just be told that they are off limits.”

    The one thing that Lutherans do well is to be comfortable with living in the tension of the paradoxes of life and faith.


  7. Kyle says:

    Darrell, I think you hit the nail on the head in terms of how Protestants have been talking about RCs all along. I read the CDF’s statement and have two thoughts:

    1) This is a re-iteration of Vatican II, and it should be remembered that this was an ecumenical milestone.

    2) “Me, too.” If I believe apostolic succession to be part of the esse of the Church, any ecclesial community without it is lacking in some form or channel of grace. I also happen to believe that claims for papal infallibility and Petrine supremacy to be anti-catholic doctrines: all theology done in schism is by default heretical. Sorry, B16.

    But at the same time, do we prefer a completely whitewashed ecumenism, in which we all claim to believe our churches are faulty and incomplete, but nobody’s allowed to suggest specifics? We don’t really care about truth when that’s the case.


  8. D. P. says:

    Kyle: As I said above, “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 mean it, therefore I don’t object to Benedict’s honesty about what he believes. We’re going to have to get to specifics if we’re going to have any kind of real ecumenism. And the more honest we’re going to be, the more humility will be required in expressing our convictions.


  9. JohnG says:

    I think it is great that the Pope came out and made a direct statement about this. I bet it came as a surprise to most Catholics that this was what they believe. They should come out with a pamphlet on a lot more things like this, since most Catholics never learn about this stuff when they are in the church (ex Catholic speaking here). Something like this could be included. We believe that Mary never ever had sex with her husband and never had any kids, but we don’t know why.


  10. […] Scot McKnight (”The Pope on Protestant ‘churches’“) and yours truly (”Not True Churches?“), writing at Dr. […]


  11. […] gave rise to a series of blogs on this issue. The Pope’s comments were discussed by me here, by Darrell Pursiful, and by J. P. van de Giessen. Airton da Silva provided a list of Vatican documents that have been […]


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