Monday, July 16, 2007

On being a "proper" Church (II)

A recent statement from the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith (“Responses To Some Questions Regarding Certain Aspects Of The Doctrine On The Church”), and especially an accompanying commentary reported in L’Osservatore Romano, contain some disturbing reminders about divisions among Christians.

Aggrieved reports on these statements often focussed on how they addressed what it means to be “Church”, at least “in a proper sense”. This seems not to have been well-understood. British coverage about the offence to Anglicans or others seemed rather twee, along the lines of a “proper” cup of tea or a “proper” game of cricket not being recognized.

The issue of being “Churches in the proper [strict] sense” has, according to the documents, largely to do with the presence or absence (and recognition) of the historic ministry of bishops. Only Orthodox Churches are credited with this characteristic outside Roman Catholicism – even then, the more florid L'Osservatore commentary suggests there is still a "wound" of sorts.

Other groups, “ecclesial communities” of various kinds emanating from the Reformation, are still more "wounded". The commentary is here rather more lucid (and more offensive) than the formal “Responses” document, wondering “how one could attribute the title ‘Church’ to such a community”.

It is easy to forget that this position is (still) the most generous in a millennium. The official CDF "Responses" document, its spiritual parent the papal encyclical Dominus Iesus, and their predecessor, the Vatican II Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium), all acknowledge that there is more to the Gospel and the Church than Roman Catholicism. They all claim, however, that the Church of Christ “subsists” in the Roman Catholic Church, which is uniquely adequate or legitimate, but that other elements of what Church “is” can potentially be found elsewhere.

While this Roman Catholic teaching may nonetheless seem ungenerous, it is worth remembering that Anglican and Orthodox Churches do also maintain that Church order and sacramental practice are important to being “Church”. Without some such emphasis on real practice and on the actual characteristics of the Church as historically-formed community, the Church is either an invisible company of the like-minded (which is an equally exclusive view, depending on whose mind you like), or a sort of catch-all, along the rather glib lines of the World Council of Churches statement from its 2006 Porto Alegre Assembly, that “Each church is the Church catholic and not simply a part of it”.

In fact each Church is just a part of it. And the same goes for the Roman Catholic Church too. The character of the one holy, catholic and apostolic Church is deeply compromised by disunity, by indifference to the characteristic practices of that one Church, but above all by failure to manifest love, which no claim to “subsistence” can mitigate.

For the real pathos of the statement from the CDF is how it ironically manifests the wounded character of the Roman Catholic magisterium. We are all wounded by our division, and more. As the Congregation strains at gnats of illegitimacy and swallows camels of uncharity, it unwittingly shows us all how much we need each other, and how badly we do when we claim not to.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

On being a "proper" Church (I)

Last week there was considerable fuss about a document, “Responses To Some Questions Regarding Certain Aspects Of The Doctrine On The Church”, released by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, theological watchdog of the Vatican.

According to the article signed by Richard Owen and Ruth Gledhill that appeared in many news sources, this “Responses” document stated that Protestant groups were “not proper Churches”, and the “wound” present in them meant that it was “difficult to see how the title of ‘Church’ could possibly be attributed to them”.

These phrases do not, however, appear in the document. The most tendentious of these comments all appear in a quite separate commentary published in l’Osservatore Romano – the Vatican newspaper (which, by the way is very hard to find - but see now the link above for the Italian text). While its appearance in what is certainly the party organ means that the commentary has some weight, the confusion between this commentary article and the official document is remarkable and unfortunate. While more interesting – precisely because it is ruder – the commentary is much less definitive.

The actual “Response” is something of a non-event – it is a re-statement of elements of the encyclical Dominus Iesus. The closest equivalent to the more inflammatory statements quoted in the wider press is the line that Churches lacking the apostolic succession of bishops “cannot, according to Catholic doctrine, be called “Churches” in the proper sense”. The Latin text is “…secundum doctrinam catholicam Ecclesiae sensu proprio nominari non possunt”. This means something like “cannot, according to Catholic doctrine, be called Churches in the strict sense of the word”.

There is no more to like or dislike in the “Response” than in other recent Vatican documents about the Church. It is something of a shame that subsequent journalistic commentary has not been more accurate or fair – since the necessarily frank response required to the “Responses” document and especially of the L’Osservatore commentary needs to be well-grounded. On that, more soon…