Next year the Democratic Party will publish its platform in which the Democrats will state their conviction that their principles and ideas are, well, better than those of Republicans, Libertarians, Socialists, Independent and Greens. If Democrats didn’t think this, it would be hard to see why they were Democrats. The Republicans will do the same for their platform and for the same reasons. Stories on this in the media will chronicle the various planks of the platforms, but I can guarantee that nobody in the media will emit cries of astonishment that Democrats believe Democratic ideas to be true and Republicans believe Republican ideas to be true. Writers who attempted this would get “Duh!” scrawled in red pencil on their copy and have it handed back to them by the editorial department.
But when the Catholic Church is discovered, yet again, to actually believe all this Catholic stuff that is enough to send countless journalists and pundits to countless word processors to hit the macro and spew out the Usual Stuff about the arrogant Catholic Church. This is exactly what happened when, on July 10, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith released “Responses to Some Questions Regarding Certain Aspects of the Doctrine on the Church”, a document stating the absolutely-not-new fact that, yes, the Church does believe it is the Church Christ founded and that other Christian bodies are right insofar as they agree and with and preserve Catholic teachings and practice and wrong insofar as they reject or add to them.
It was all so predictable, more like kabuki than journalism. “Reactionary” Benedict is overturning Vatican II. Church says Protestants aren’t Christian. Only Catholics are going to heaven. In the Seattle PI, David Horsey felt compelled to bash the Pope with a de rigeur “Kiss my ring” cartoon.
It mattered not one whit that the CDF was restating the language of the Council itself, not “overturning” it. It mattered not that the Church in fact affirms that Protestants are Christian, including the ones who call the Church the Whore of Babylon and are certain Mother Teresa is a damned Romish idolater burning in hell. One got the strong impression most of the coverage and reaction was written by people who hadn’t even bothered to read the document. The general reaction was pretty much, “How dare the Church deny that all religions are equal and are all saying the same thing?”
As somebody who was raised agnostic and who entered into full communion with the Catholic Church via a stint in non-denominational Protestantism, it always reminds me of the funny experience of a friend of mine—a university professor and a Catholic—who was having a rousing discussion with some of his Evangelical students in his History of Christianity class. The students’ hearts were in the right place. They wanted to affirm how much Catholics and Protestants have in common. We worship the same God. We both confess Jesus Christ as Lord, crucified for our sins and raised from the dead for our justification. We are on the same page in affirming the basic moral teachings of the Ten Commandments. We can affirm virtually every article of the Creed except for the meaning of “We believe in one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church”. We pray the same Lord’s Prayer. We read almost exactly the same Bible. “So why can’t we just ignore all that extra theological stuff, stick to the basics, and just be one big family?” they asked.
My friend replied, “You’re absolutely right! We are one big family! And our family is so big it extends to include even the dead in Christ! Hey! Let’s all hike over to Blessed Sacrament parish at lunchtime, worship and adore the Eucharist in the tabernacle there, and then pray to the Blessed Virgin Mary and all the saints for the Holy Souls in Purgatory!”
The students shifted uncomfortably in their chairs. They didn’t believe any of that Catholic stuff. Many of them thought it was sinful to do those things.
Precisely—because we’re not all saying the same thing.
The recent document from the CDF says to people who don’t believe all that Catholic stuff, “You don’t believe all that Catholic stuff.” Why on earth anybody should be offended by that is beyond me.
Here’s the key to getting the CDF document: It’s all about the Eucharist, baby. The Church believes that the sacrament of the Eucharist is what makes a Church a Church. That’s because the Church believes the Eucharist is, not merely symbolizes, the actual body, blood, spirit, soul and divinity of Jesus Christ. Some Christian bodies (like the Orthodox) believe this as well and have a valid Eucharist (because they have priests who stand in apostolic succession from the apostles just as the Catholic Church does). These are properly called “Churches” in the view of the Catholic Church, even if they are not in communion with Rome (so it’s rubbish to say that the Catholic Church says it’s the “only real Church”).
Other Christian bodies, though truly Christian, do not have, in the view of the Church, a priesthood that descends in apostolic succession from the apostles. Still other truly Christian bodies don’t believe in priests, don’t have a Eucharist, don’t pretend to, or don’t even want to. They are welcome to do as they please. They are often full of deeply loving, good, and profoundly Christian people who put Catholics to shame with their devotion to our Lord. There are many saints in such places whom Catholics can have good hope of seeing in heaven (assuming we Catholics make it). But since these bodies have no Eucharist they cannot be what the Catholic Church understands to be a “Church”, because what makes a Church a Church is, in Catholic understanding, a valid Eucharist.
If you are tempted to say, “Well, I don’t believe any of that!” I can only reply that one of the greatest mysteries of our time is why it is an act of bold independence and courage for a non-Catholic to say, “I don’t believe all that Catholic stuff” but an act of stifling authoritarianism and arrogance for the Church to say, “Right. You don’t believe all that. But we do.”