Thursday, April 04, 2002

Exclusivism and Catholicism

On a post from today Louder Fenn seeks to assure his readers that his is not Triumphalistic because he is a Catholic (perhaps in response to a post from today at Sunny Days in Heaven), and he's right -- while the Catholic Church does claim to possess the fullness of the truth of Christianity, it emphasizes that this is not something to find pride in. I always remind myself of Our Lord's words in Luke 12:48: "to whom much is given, of him will much be required".

I, too, can understand why some might be put off by the truth claims of Catholicism. I suspect that the source (or one of them) of the uneasiness which many other Christians have about the Catholic Church's claims is our differences in ecclesiology (theology of the church).

Beginning with Luther most of the Reformers and their communities understood and understand the Church as an invisible reality. This is so because in their ecclesiology the true Church is composed of all those who are true believers, regardless of what particular Christian church or community they belong to. While the visible structures of the church like teaching and governing bodies and offices are important, they are by no means essential to the reality of the Church.

On the other hand, the Catholic Church (and the Orthodox as well, by the way) believes that the true Church of Christ is -- like Jesus --- composed of both the visible and invisible, and that both are part of the Lord's intention.

What this then means is that to be fully within the Church means to belong to a visible institution, i.e. the Catholic Church. Article 8 of Vatican II's Dogmatic Constitution on the Church is essential here:

Christ, the one Mediator, established and continually sustains here on earth His holy Church, the community of faith, hope and charity, as an entity with visible delineation through which He communicated truth and grace to all. But, the society structured with hierarchical organs and the Mystical Body of Christ, are not to be considered as two realities, nor are the visible assembly and the spiritual community, nor the earthly Church and the Church enriched with heavenly things; rather they form one complex reality which coalesces from a divine and a human element. For this reason, by no weak analogy, it is compared to the mystery of the incarnate Word. As the assumed nature inseparably united to Him, serves the divine Word as a living organ of salvation, so, in a similar way, does the visible social structure of the Church serve the Spirit of Christ, who vivifies it, in the building up of the body.

This is the one Church of Christ which in the Creed is professed as one, holy, catholic and apostolic, which our Saviour, after His Resurrection, commissioned Peter to shepherd, and him and the other apostles to extend and direct with authority, which He erected for all ages as "the pillar and mainstay of the truth". This Church constituted and organized in the world as a society, subsists in the Catholic Church, which is governed by the successor of Peter and by the Bishops in communion with him, although many elements of sanctification and of truth are found outside of its visible structure. These elements, as gifts belonging to the Church of Christ, are forces impelling toward catholic unity.

For Catholics, the Church established by Jesus Christ is a visible reality with a definitive teaching body (the Magisterium -- the bishops and the pope together). Therefore, these visible teaching offices are essentially a part of the Church, and being of the essence of the Church created by Jesus means that they are themselves part of His intention: He gave His Church a visible teaching body, and as such, this body (and by extension the Church as a whole) cannot err: it is infallible.

This is an important point: in the Protestant understanding of the Church, all that is visible is accidental to the Church, i.e. is not strictly necessary to it; therefore, teaching bodies and offices -- not being necessary -- are not protected by God from error. Again, the only source of error-free teaching for the Protestant is the Bible.

For the Catholic, though, the visible teaching & governing structures of the Church were intended by Christ to be an essential element of the Church, and as such they (and the Church) are infallible. This is all summarized in paragraphs 889-890 of the Catechism:

889. In order to preserve the Church in the purity of the faith handed on by the apostles, Christ who is the Truth willed to confer on her a share in his own infallibility. By a "supernatural sense of faith" the People of God, under the guidance of the Church's living Magisterium, "unfailingly adheres to this faith."

890. The mission of the Magisterium is linked to the definitive nature of the covenant established by God with his people in Christ. It is this Magisterium's task to preserve God's people from deviations and defections and to guarantee them the objective possibility of professing the true faith without error. Thus, the pastoral duty of the Magisterium is aimed at seeing to it that the People of God abides in the truth that liberates. To fulfill this service, Christ endowed the Church's shepherds with the charism of infallibility in matters of faith and morals.

So it comes down to this: Catholics believe that Jesus formed a Church specifically with a visible teaching body which would (by His Spirit) be free from error in its teaching. Protestants do not believe that the visible teaching body of the Church is an essential element of the Church formed by Jesus, and hence this body is not free from error for them.

I think that this difference explains the uneasiness many Christians have in response to the Catholic's truth claims. The Church says that its teaching body (the Magisterium) is the guarantor of purity in teaching, so if you want to believe the truths taught by Jesus, you assent to the Catholic Church. No Protestant church or community says anything similar. However....

Having said that, I in fact believe that many Protestants whose communities have "confessing" documents treat those documents in almost the same way that Catholics treat the documents of the infallible magisterium.

For instance, one person I know (who reads this blog on occasion) is a member of the Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod, which prides itself on remaining true to the Lutheran confessional documents as found in the Book of Concord. Having discussed the role and status of these documents for the Missouri Synod Lutheran with my friend, I am convinced that confessing Lutherans give nearly the same degree of assent to the Book of Concord that a Catholic gives to the decrees of Ecumenical Councils.

To sum up: I believe the reason Protestants are uneasy about the truth claims of the Catholic Church is found in our different ecclesiologies. At the same time, I believe that a large number of Protestants de facto make the same kinds of truth claims about the teachings of their churches that the Catholic does about his.


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