The Heart of the Misunderstanding

A Response to Reverend Storm

There has been considerable dismay, especially among Protestants, regarding the document issued on July 10th by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF). Rev. Astrid Joy Storm’s comments are very much in this vein. In one sense they are quite hopeful, reflecting the conviction that the movement towards unity will continue in spite of what she views as a setback represented by the CDF text. I think she is right about the continuation of the growth towards unity, but wrong about the meaning of the document.

Most of the hurt that Protestants have expressed about the document centers on its insistence that Protestant communities are not churches “in the proper sense.” Rev. Storm writes about how hard it is to come to the table to dialogue when, according to the CDF text, “one group isn’t even a church,” a situation that she calls “absurd and discouraging.”

I think this represents the heart of the misunderstanding, and that it stems directly from two different theological traditions about what the Church is. Just about everybody agrees that there can be only one Church in the theological sense, since there can be only one Body of Christ. The Catholic tradition (and the Orthodox as well) has always insisted that this single Church of Christ must be visible, and that outside it there may be local churches or elements of the Church, but not the fullness of the Church.

Spiritual Reality

A classical Protestant tradition, on the other hand, rejects the very idea of the visibility of the one Church of Christ. According to this point of view, the Church is essentially a spiritual reality, without any unique expression in the real world. On the contrary, the one Church can appear spontaneously anywhere and in any denomination, wherever the Word is preached and the faith is alive. This way of thinking seem to underlie Rev. Storm’s view that what denomination you belong to doesn’t matter much anymore.

“Just about everybody agrees that there can be only one Church in the theological sense, since there can be only one Body of Christ.”

As Cardinal Kasper explained in his statement about the CDF document, one of the reasons it was issued was to be clear about the Catholic position, explaining our self-understanding as Church within the context of our own theological tradition. According to that tradition, there are certain elements that must be present in order to be Church, including the ministry of bishops in apostolic succession, and a valid priesthood and Eucharist. So, since they lack some of these essential elements, Protestants are not church “in the proper sense.” All the same, the CDF document hastens to add that grace and truth are present in these communities, and that they can be “instruments of salvation.”

So all the CDF is saying is that Protestants communities are not churches according to the criteria of the Catholic tradition. But it must be kept in mind that most Protestants themselves do not accept those criteria in the first place; many do not want to be “church” in the way Catholics understand it. I’m convinced that if the CDF were to be asked the question, “Are the Protestant communities churches according to their own theological criteria?” the response would be, “of course they are.”

Reason for Hope

In spite of the hurt that this document has caused, I think there is reason to be hopeful that it will also spur new discussions and dialogue on these issues. They have been around for a very long time and, I maintain, still matter to many more people than the “old men in robes” that Rev. Storm refers to. While she sets up an opposition between disagreement and engagement, I maintain that a clearer understanding of our differences should compel us to more vigorous exchange and more intense dialogue. This includes not only the practical ecumenism that she mentions in her article, but also a determined continuation of the substantial work that has already been done to eliminate the theological differences that still divide us.

Since Catholics believe so strongly in the need for a visible expression of the unity of Christ’s Church in the world, we cannot be less than totally committed to overcoming whatever divides Christians from one another. The path before us is still long. But we must always keep before us the prayerful hope that Jesus expressed for his followers on the night before he died, that there would be for them not many sheepfolds but one, not many divided shepherds, but one.