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Religion Library: Roman Catholicism

Historical Perspectives

Written by: Christopher Bellitto

Openness toward fellow Christians has also marked the most recent generation of Roman Catholicism, although the record here has been more mixed because of recent Vatican statements that only the Roman Catholic Church contains the fullness of truth related to Jesus. While Catholics and various Protestant groups have made remarkable progress on issues such as scripture study, social justice, and a shared moral vision, the reticence of the papacy under John Paul II and Benedict XVI (2005-present) to recognize Protestant churches as sister churches even worthy of the word "church" has led non-Catholics to wonder whether ecumenical steps forward since the 1960s have stalled in the last decade. Moreover, some were mystified by Benedict XVI's decision in 2006 to drop the title "Patriarch of the West" (alternately used as "Patriarch of Rome" in the first millennium especially).  He did so because, he said, the phrase was no longer accurate; the world had changed from ancient categories of east and west.

Perhaps the most important historical development in recent Church history is the recovery of the very idea of development as a paradigm for understanding Catholicism. As noted earlier, the  19th-century British theologian and cardinal, John Henry Newman (1801-1890), was an early champion of the idea of development as a norm in Church history. He said that truth does not develop, but the categories and formulas we use to describe dogma do and must as we move from one language to another and as our understanding increases. Jesus was fully human and fully divine before the early Church found the words to say so, for example, and the Church has always believed that the Eucharist truly contains the Real Presence of Jesus' body and blood even though it took the medieval scholastic word transubstantiation to best describe this mysterious, eternal truth 1,300 years after the Last Supper. Growth, said Newman, implies change and a recognition that reform can only occur when one is honest enough to accept that things are deformed. The Church's work in the century before and half-century since Vatican II have been merely the latest examples of trying to update fundamental truths and practices, to reconcile faith and reason, to balance tradition with progress, and to marry continuity with discontinuity. A kind of dynamic orthodoxy emerges as the Church transmits an ancient faith in a fast-changing world.

Study Questions:
     1.    What was the agenda of Vatican II?
     2.    Who were John XXIII and John Paul II? What did they contribute to the Judaism-Catholicism divide?
     3.    Why did Benedict XVI drop the title “Patriarch of the West”? What implications does this have for ecumenism?


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