Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Clerics downplay papal controversy

Every summer before popes go on vacation, they traditionally clear their desks of all pressing issues.

Before Pope Benedict XVI left for three weeks in the Italian Alps, he dropped a bombshell of a document that has theologians, scholars, clerics, and laypersons wringing their hands and wrestling with his words.

All Christian traditions except Roman Catholicism have “defects,” “wounds,” or are not true churches, according to the controversial document from the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith that was personally approved by the Pope before its July 10 release.

Some Protestant clerics and Catholic theologians have described the statement as unnecessarily negative, but also one whose terminology has been widely misunderstood outside of academia.

“To understand Pope Benedict, you must remember that in his heart he is a German academic,” said the Rev. ThomasReese, a Jesuit priest at Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University in Washington.

“Benedict is a very smart scholar, but he does not have a politically sensitive bone in his body.”

Indeed, the Pontiff’s lack of political savvy was apparent in September when he set off an international firestorm by quoting, during an academic lecture, a 14th century Byzantine emperor as saying that Islam was “spread by the sword.”

He later apologized, saying he was “deeply sorry” that Muslims were offended and the quote did not “in any way express my personal thought.”

The Rev. Thomas Reese, left, says Benedict is no politician. Richard Gaillardetz says the Pope has done a poor job of summarizing ‘a complex aspect of Catholic teaching.’

A complex subjectRichard Gaillardetz, professor of Catholic studies at the University of Toledo, called the latest Vatican document “unfortunate inasmuch as it tries to summarize a very complex aspect of Catholic teaching and does a poor job of it.”

For example, he said, the use of the word “defect” in the Vatican document is a reference to “some objective aspects of the church that Catholics think are very important, things like Scripture, apostolic succession, the papacy, the seven sacraments, etc.”

Although the Pope said other Christian traditions “suffer from defects” because they lack these objective elements, he acknowledged that “they still belong to the body of Christ and God is active within their communities,” Mr. Gaillardetz noted.

Father Reese said in a newsletter that he thinks Pope Benedict felt it necessary to address these issues because he is concerned that Catholics “are beginning to think that all churches are the same.”

Upholding Vatican II

The Vatican document, titled “Responses to Some Questions Regarding Certain Aspects of the Doctrine of the Church,” was written in the form of responses to five questions, starting with “Did the Second Vatican Council change the Catholic doctrine on the church?”

The answer given is that Vatican II “neither changed nor intended to change this doctrine, rather it developed, deepened, and more fully explained it.”

“It is important to note that the recent document repeats and upholds what the Second Vatican Council taught theologically about the nature of the church,” said Bishop Leonard Blair of the Toledo Catholic Diocese, which has 325,000 members in 19 counties.

“Far from undermining ecumenism, this theology continues to be the fruitful basis of ecumenical dialogue.”

Mr. Gaillardetz said the Second Vatican Council, which met from 1962 to 1965, “tried to focus on the positive, stressing the beliefs and practices that Catholics shared with other Christians.”

The latest document does not change Vatican II’s assertion that “non-Catholic Christians can experience God’s saving action through the faithful practice of their own Christian faith,” Mr. Gaillardetz said by e-mail from St. Louis, where he is teaching this summer.

“Indeed, Vatican II also taught that non-Christians, whether they belong to some other great religious tradition, e.g. Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, or Hinduism, or whether they simply be men and women of good will, may also be saved ‘in ways made known only to God.’”

‘A distraction’

Bishop Bruce Ough of the West Ohio Conference of the United Methodist Church called it “unfortunate” that information intended for Catholic audiences has made headlines in the mainstream media.

“It has been a distraction,” Bish-op Ough said. “It was a technical statement made in part to try to correct some misunderstandings within the Roman Catholic faith about their understanding of the church.”

He and others pointed out that the document restated long-held Catholic doctrine and contained nothing new.

“Pope Benedict has said nothing that has not been said before. These are all well-established viewpoints of the Roman Catholic Church for centuries,” Bishop Ough said.

Feeling slighted

Some Protestant leaders, how-ever, expressed disappointment that the Pope chose to issue such a harsh statement, saying they feel slighted that the leader of the world’s 1.1 billion Catholics believes their tradition does not qualify to be a church, regardless of the statement’s academic nature.

“I think it’s unhelpful and tragic in terms of how Jesus looks at his people,” said the Rev. Adam Hamilton, a United Methodist pastor from Kansas City, Mo., and author of Confronting the Controversies: Biblical Perspectives on Tough Issues.

“I think the statement does reflect a bit of a step backward from Vatican II and a more conservative approach to the Roman Catholic Church’s relationship with other churches. But my hope is that the flap will blow over fairly quickly. I think there are a large number of Catholics who feel differently than the Pope does on this issue.”

‘Not just semantics’

The Rev. Marc Miller, assistant to Bishop Marcus Lohrmann of the Northwest Ohio Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, said, “In reading the document, the first thing that strikes me is the word ‘defective.’ The truth is, every church is defective. Where there’s sin, there’s defect.”

Although the terminology is technical and academic, Mr. Miller said the Pope’s statements highlight “substantive disagreements. It’s not just semantics.”

He said, however, that he does not think the document will hurt ecumenical relationships among Catholics and Protestants.

Mr. Miller pointed out that Bishop Lohrmann and Bishop Blair are joining together to lead a 10-day public tour of religious sites in Europe in October.

“That whole trip, I think, is going to do wonders in terms of developing the relationship between the churches even further,” Mr. Miller said.

He also pointed out the 1999 “Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification” between the Catholic and Lutheran churches “that resolved a bitter 500-year dispute.”

Bishop Blair said while “mutual respect and understanding are essential first steps” toward unity among all Christians, “we are also obliged to dialogue about divisive theological issues in a common search for the truth as to what Christ willed for his church.”

Different interpretations

Although the Vatican said Protestant denominations “cannot be called ‘churches’ in the proper sense,” it recognized the Orthodox communities as true churches because they have apostolic succession and “many elements of sanctification and of truth.”

But it also said the Orthodox Church is harmed by the “defect” or “wound” of not recognizing the primacy of the Pope.

The Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches separated nearly 1,000 years ago in the Great Schism of 1054.

The Rev. Paul Albert, pastor of St. Elias Antiochian Orthodox Church in Sylvania, said that from the Orthodox perspective, “We are a councilor body and no one patriarch speaks with infallibility. The authority is Christ, and he is in the midst of his church.”

He said the Orthodox Church has a different interpretation than do Catholics of Jesus’ statement in Matthew 16:18, “Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church.”

“Peter was not in any way above the other apostles and that misinterpretation by Rome has been the source of a lot of problems,” Father Paul said.

Some church leaders see the latest controversy as a chance to promote their own beliefs.Just as Catholics don’t consider the Southern Baptist Convention to be a church, “evangelicals should be equally candid in asserting that any church defined by the claims of the papacy is no true church,” said the Rev. R. Albert Mohler, Jr., in an online blog.

He is president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville.

‘Bearing the wounds’

At least one Protestant leader said the Pope’s choice of words was commendable.

Bishop Mark Hollingsworth of the Episcopal Diocese of Ohio said it is “encouraging” to hear Protestantism described as having a “wound.”

“It was by his wound that the risen Jesus was identified by his disciples in the upper room and later, again, by Thomas,” Bishop Hollingsworth said, "it is in bearing the wounds of the suffering world that we are all identified as the body of Christ.”


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