Confused By Catholicism

Two days ago, Pope Benedict stirred things up a bit with Orthodox and especially Protestant Christians when he approved a paper that "restates key sections of a 2000 document the pope wrote when he was prefect of the congregation, 'Dominus Iesus,' which set off a firestorm of criticism among Protestant and other Christian denominations because it said they were not true churches but merely ecclesial communities and therefore did not have the 'means of salvation.'" I remarked on this in an on-line forum, and entered a discussion with a fellow Protestant who sent me the following quotes which he says are direct quotes from the current Roman Catholic Catechism, and which (to me at least) seem to contradict the story about Pope Benedict's "Dominus Iesus" position:

"...many elements of sanctification and of truth" are found outside the visible confines of the Catholic Church: "the written Word of God; the life of grace; faith, hope, and charity, with the other interior gifts of the Holy Spirit, as well as visible elements." Christ's Spirit uses these Churches and ecclesial communities as means of salvation, whose power derives from the fullness of grace and truth that Christ has entrusted to the Catholic Church. All these blessings come from Christ and lead to him, and are in themselves calls to "Catholic unity." (CCC 819)

Also from the Catechism:

"Baptism constitutes the foundation of communion among all Christians, including those who are not yet in full communion with the Catholic Church: "For men who believe in Christ and have been properly baptized are put in some, though imperfect, communion with the Catholic Church. Justified by faith, in Baptism, [they] are incorporated into Christ; they therefore have a right to be called Christians, and with good reason are accepted as brothers by the children of the Catholic Church." (CCC 1271)

But why might Catholics be of two minds about the salvation of Protestants?

Setting aside theological difficulties these quotes raise for Evangelicals about the nature of baptism and the concept of churches as a "means of salvation," these days I think the Roman Catholic Church might be particularly motivated to find new ways to interact with Protestants, especially Evangelicals, because we have managed to retain and even increase influence in the global socio-political arena in recent years, while Catholicism is in decline. The rise of Evangelical influence in U.S. politics is of course old news, and Evangelicals are making great spiritual inroads in Latin America and Africa. So if I was a Catholic bishop (or pope) I’d be looking for ways to connect with us, in order to understand why this is happening to them and to us, and in order to find ways to work with us toward a common good. In recent articles I have read, those are precisely the reasons they have given to nay-sayers within the RCC for Vatican II’s decidedly ecumenical focus. Vatican II was, after all, an “ecumenical council” attended by Orthodox and Protestant representatives. Yet Catholics who want to strengthen inter-Christian ties must deal with the fact that prior to Vatican II, the official RCC position was that Protestants were beyond salvation. “Excommunication” back then meant a death sentence for one’s soul (according to Roman Catholicism), and millions of “traditional Catholics” around the world still hold that belief. While the quotes above from the current catechism do seem to endorse a path to salvation for non-Catholic Christians, there have been other versions of the catechism through the years in the relatively short time since Vatican II, each of which interprets the Council slightly differently. (I have one on my shelf from 1976, and I believe there was another in the mid-1980's, while the current one was released in 1992.) Given the fact that a catechism is essentially an interpretation of the Church's dogma, an interpretation which may change, I think it’s best to go straight to the words of Vatican II:

“…it is through Christ’s Catholic Church alone, which is the all-embracing means of salvation, that all fullness of the means of salvation can be obtained.”

It is this teaching (among others) that Benedict sought to clarify when he approved the recent statement released to the press, yet for me at least, he clarified nothing. As a non-Catholic, I still have trouble understanding how it is possible to be “incorporated into Christ” with “the right to be called ‘Christians’” (according to the quotes from the current catechism) while still not having access to “all fullness of the means of salvation.” I find these statements theologically confusing and apparently contradictory, and I do wonder if they are not attempts to have one’s cake and eat it, too.

For me the sticking point is simple: one is either saved, or not. There is no state of being “semi-saved.” Therefore it follows that one either has access to “all fullness of the means of salvation” (emphasis mine) or one has no access to the means of salvation whatsoever. Apparently, based on the quotes above, some Catholics see a way around this. But although I have read several papers by priests who attempt to reconcile the teachings with theologically limited definitions of the words “catholic” and “church” and so forth, so far I’ve read nothing that builds a bridge between them I can logically cross, because in the end it seems “Christ’s Catholic Church” in the Vatican II statement clearly means the “Roman Catholic Church,” which leaves me out.

My concern here is for Catholics, not for Evangelicals and certainly not for myself. So long as any Catholic believes the “Church” plays a causal role in salvation through baptism or any other aspect, he suffers from a work-based theology, which stands in opposition to Ephesians 2:8-9. Fortunately, there are many Catholics who understand the difference between a symbol and a Cause. For example, I recently read an article, which was extremely encouraging, quite beautiful, and in my opinion, does a much better job of explaining how people are reconciled with God than anything in the quotes above.

Posted byAthol Dickson at 10:18 AM  


J. Brisbin said... July 13, 2007 at 7:31 AM  

For some reason, my father has glommed onto the idea that Catholics are not Christians. That the single greatest threat to Christianity (besides Dan Brown...oh, wait a minute, that was a fad, who's Dan Brown again?) is Catholicism. Oddly, they're also flaming Zionists and think we should treat Israel differently than we do any other country. Even though you point out here some discrepancies, it still seems to me that Catholics would be closer to real salvation (i.e. faith in Jesus as the Son and Saviour) than would Jews, no matter what your interpretation of them still being the "chosen" people is. It seems strange to me that they're willing to support people that are miles and eons away from real Christianity, but vilify as nigh on evil those that are, in fact, Christians themselves, though they differ from Protestants on many non-essential points.

He's not alone in feeling this animosity towards Catholics. They provided us a subscription to this newsletter called the "Berean Call" and I have mixed feelings on their attitudes. They call the Catholic church the "whore of Babylon" which doesn't sound like a very Christian attitude to me. To tell the truth, I'm getting a little worried because either I'm too open-minded in my views and wandering astray into a netherworld of theological limbo because I just don't understand things well enough, or their attitude toward Catholics is, in point of fact, as hateful as it sounds. I can't decide because my Dad is a very astute amateur theologian. But something just doesn't sound right to me in the heaviness of heart that his arguments create. The nihilism of a huge segment of Protestants is beginning to worry me.

The sky is falling! The sky is falling!

Am I worrying unnecessarily?

Athol Dickson said... July 13, 2007 at 4:38 PM  

Mr. Brisbin, I too am perplexed by your father's strange positions on Judaism and Catholicism. It seems he does not appreciate the ironic fact that both belief systems rely upon the assertion of spiritual inheritance, Jews claiming legitimacy from Abraham, and Catholics from Peter. His would be a much more consistent position if he either denied or endorsed them both equally for that reason.

Your comments inspired several other thoughts on my part, which would take too much space to enter into here, so I will instead post another blog on this subject.

Thanks for the inspiration!

lisa s. said... July 17, 2007 at 6:05 PM  

Great food for thought here and on your blog in general Athol. In April I made the decision to go back to the Catholic Church and will be starting up RCIA in September. Benedict's words do trouble me, but then I read his beautiful work, Jesus of Nazareth (if you haven't already bought I copy, I highly recommend it) and think, "This man is the greatest theologian living today."

Ah, well. I don't pretend to have the answer to this or much else, save Christ and Him crucified.

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