August 3, 2007


One true Church

(Listen to this editorial being read)

We commented very briefly, in the July 20 issue of The Criterion, on the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s document that said that only the Catholic Church possesses the fullness of the means for salvation.

But that editorial also discussed Pope Benedict XVI’s letter to the Catholics of China and the one allowing greater use of the Tridentine Mass. We ended by saying that we’d be hearing more about reaction to the letter from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

Boy, were we right!

One of the first reactions was from syndicated columnist Roland Martin, who obviously never read the statement itself, but got his news from a story by the Associated Press.

The AP story’s lead sentence stated that the document “says other Christian communities are either defective or not true Churches and Catholicism provides the only true path to salvation.”

In his column, Martin told non-Catholics not to get excited because the statement was just from “an old man trying to get a little attention.”

Martin said that he was a Catholic for the first 25 years of his life, during which he learned nothing about the Scriptures. (Unfortunately, that’s probably true. He is part of a generation that was inadequately instructed.)

Of his Catholic years, he said, “It pretty much was a wasted experience, as there was more identification with the Church, and not with Christ.”

Martin ended his column: “Protestant leaders: Don’t buy into the foolishness. Let Pope Benedict XVI keep running off at the mouth and making pointless declarations.”

After that column appeared in The Indianapolis Star, numerous good Catholics responded with protesting letters to the editor, some of which were published.

Unfortunately, too many Catholics get their news about the Church from the secular media. That’s particularly too bad in places like the Archdiocese of Indianapolis where Catholics make up only about 10 percent of the population. In this case, that AP story agitated many Catholics, especially in families where one of the spouses wasn’t Catholic.

The article didn’t quote this statement from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s document: “It follows that these separated Churches and communities … 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.”

Yes, it is definitely true that Catholics believe that Christ founded one Church and, as the Second Vatican Council stated, that Church “subsists” in the Catholic Church. When the bishops at the council were trying to find a better way of saying that the Catholic Church is the one founded by Christ, but that there are also elements of goodness and truth elsewhere, they decided to use that word “subsists” rather than “is.”

Catholics believe that the fullness of the means of salvation is found only in the Catholic Church, but that sanctifying elements also exist in other faith communities, deriving their value, in some mysterious way, from the “fullness of grace and truth which has been entrusted to the Catholic Church,” as the Second Vatican Council’s “Decree on Ecumenism” said.

Catholics do not believe that one ecclesial community is as good as another.

We think it is regrettable that the document had to get into a technical discussion of what a “Church” is. It declared that ecclesial communities are not real Churches in the sense that the Catholic Church uses the term. It said that a Church must preserve apostolic succession, the ordained priesthood and the Eucharist. It said that Orthodox Churches do have those elements but lack something because they are not in union with the pope.

That’s not the way most people usually think of a Church. We tend to define it as a body or organization of religious believers. We frequently are told that we are the Church. Vatican II liked to call the Church “the people of God.”

Apparently, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith thought it necessary to define “Church” in this narrow way, but it seems confusing to the average person and an unintentional insult to other faith communities that do not define the word the same way.

— John F. Fink

Local site Links: