The pope (dramatic pause) is Catholic

450 ap pope2 061130Is the pope Catholic? Yes, it appears that he is and it appears that this is news.

I think it would be impossible for me to try to evaluate all of the coverage that is out there of Pope Benedict XVI’s statement on the unique claims of the Roman Catholic Church and, as a natural result of those beliefs, the Vatican’s highly logical point of view on the sacramental claims of other Christian flocks. (Rod “Friend of this blog” Dreher has links to the basics that you need.)

However, let me emphasize the word “sacramental” again. That is what this statement is all about, and you can judge the coverage based on whether the reporters seemed to realize that Rome considers other Christian groups to be “churches” based on the degree to which they claim ancient, apostolic, sacramental ties that bind.

For example, consider Ian Fisher’s report in the sacred and authoritative pages of The New York Times. It starts with thunder and lightning from offended parties, but then notes the following:

The Vatican document repeated many of the contentious claims of a document issued in 2000 by the Vatican office on orthodoxy, which Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger headed for more than two decades before being elected pope in 2005.

The document released Tuesday focused largely on the Vatican definition of what constitutes a church, which it defined as being traceable through its bishops to Christ’s original apostles. Thus, it said, the world’s Orthodox Christians make up a church because of shared history, if “separated” from the “proper” Catholic tradition, while Protestants split from Catholicism during the Reformation are considered only “Christian communities.”

In other words, the Eastern Churches and Rome are in a state of broken Communion, while the Protestant bodies do not share the same concept of Communion and apostolic succession. This is precisely, I would think, how most Eastern Orthodox leaders would view Rome. We are mourning an ancient and real schism.

There is some question as to why the pope elected to release this statement, since it repeated claims from the “Dominus Iesus” text in 2000. It appears, to me, that Benedict XVI may be underlining the unique bonds between Rome and the East and, this would be more controversial, putting new distance between Rome and the Anglican Communion that also insists it can claim true ties to the early apostles (through centuries of shared history with Rome before the Reformation).

Thus, it is interesting to read the British tea leaves in the Anglican reaction quotes in, logically enough, the Times of London. There is some bite here, so be warned:

The disappointment of the Anglicans was evident in the response of Canon Gregory Cameron, Dr Williams’s former chaplain in Wales and a leading canonical lawyer and scholar who is now ecumenical officer of the Anglican Communion.

Canon Cameron said: “In the commentary of this document we are told that ‘Catholic ecumenism’ appears ‘somewhat paradoxical.’ It is paradoxical for leaders of the Roman Catholic Church to indicate to its ecumenical partners that it no longer expects all other Christians merely to return to the true (Roman Catholic) Church, but then for Rome to say that it alone has ‘full identity’ with the Church of Christ, and that all others of us are lacking.”

And then there is this long and very direct response:

The Rev David Phillips, General Secretary of the Church Society, said: “Nothing new is said, but it does clarify the way in which the Vatican has torn apart Christianity because of its lust for power. They remind us that in their view that to be a true church one has to accept the ludicrous idea that the Pope is in some special way the successor of the apostle Peter and the supreme earthly leader of the Church.

“These claims cannot be justified, biblically, or historically, yet they have been used not only to divide Christians but to persecute them and put them to death.

“We are grateful that the Vatican has once again been honest in declaring their view that the Church of England is not a proper Church. Too much dialogue proceeds without such honesty. Therefore, we would wish to be equally open; unity will only be possible when the papacy renounces its errors and pretensions.”

BenedictXVIMassYikes. I am not sure that I have seen the word “ludicrous” attached to the papacy’s claims of a special and unique tie to St. Peter — as opposed to people debating the precise nature of the papal authority that can be drawn from those claims.

Let me note one other interesting set of quotations, drawn from a story by Liz F. Kay in the Baltimore Sun, my local newspaper and one that I tend to criticize quite a bit. This story included some very interesting perspectives on the new document, from an excellent set of experts and insiders. Conservative Catholics will be especially interested in the nuanced comments of a writer who knows a thing or two about the modern papacy:

George Weigel, who has written biographies of Pope Benedict and his predecessor, Pope John Paul II, said the document contains nothing new, and questioned why it had been issued now.

It “does not deny the presence of God’s grace in other Christian communions, but the Catholic Church is never going to say … that it is anything other than the most properly ordered expression of the will of Christ for his church,” he said.

“If people do not want to contend with that, then ecumenism has simply become another form of political correctness,” Weigel said.

Interesting, but rather predictable. But check this out, with one jab at Rome and then another at the mainstream media:

Weigel faulted the Vatican for failing to place documents on ecumenism in context, leading to the pope’s intentions being misinterpreted.

“The inability of the Vatican to communicate the meaning of these documents is a serious problem, but it’s a serious problem magnified by the inability of the Western press to admit that its cartoon picture of Joseph Ratzinger was mistaken,” he said.

So the Vatican needs to do a better job of helping journalists get religion? It’s worth a try.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Unfortunately, it is clear that many on the ecumenical circuit are only interested in a union of Christians based on pure relativism (and it is this template the secular media loves and promotes.) It is hard to see how Christian communities which bless gay marriages, endorse abortion, etc. can have the same grasp on Truth as the Catholic Church. Either the Catholic Church, Faith, and Tradition is True (and therefore the Catholic Church has “the fullness of Truth”) or the Catholic Church is wrong and is stumbling and fumbling in the dark as are so many non-Catholic denominations.
    I wish there were more coverage on how the Christian Orthodox view themselves.

  • Gary

    Why does it come as a shock that the Pope believes the Catholic Church to be the best expression of the religion handed to us by Jesus? If I thought some other religion was a more truthful version than mine, I would change religions.

    If you step back from trying to stir up controversy, why would you expect the Pope to believe any differently?

  • Brandon

    I find myself thoroughly perplexed by the media coverage of both this statement and the recent moto proprio concerning the Tridentine Mass. Why does everyone seem so surprised that the Pope thinks the Roman Catholic Church is the True Church? I would hope if he thought otherwise, he would find himself a new church to join. Most Christians I know, who give any thought to the matter, believe their denomination to be the one which professes the true interpretation of Christianity.

    “So the Vatican needs to do a better job of helping journalists get religion?”

    Or, perhaps, journalists should be more concerned about accuracy than creating controversy.

  • Matt

    I would definitely review Rod Dreher’s website (noted in the first paragraph) – it certainly gives a more complete review of the statement and puts it more into context. You can’t really give a legitimate opinion on this matter without an adequate understanding of was written.

  • tmatt

    So many comments to delete.

    Please take your fights elsewhere and, by all means, weigh in on the pluses and the minuses of the media coverage.

    Like I said, I have chosen to only highlight a few interesting points from the day’s coverage. I am sure that I have missed some excellent and some terrible work out there.

    Please pass along the best and worst of the URLs, folks.

    This is a journalism blog, after all.

  • Irenaeus

    Thanks so much for this. There’s been so much bad coverage out there it’s nice to know some folks somewhere are doing a decent job.

  • Mark

    “The pope (dramatic pause) is Catholic.”
    The title is hillarious, but also very appropriate.

    Honestly, it is good that the Church is drawing the line between orthodoxy and flavor-of-the-week theology that many churches are teaching today.

    Many people left the Catholic Church with the beginning of Vatican II because many of the new reforms were not made clearly. This caused a loss of identity in the Church. Catholics were becoming more like protestants.

    Here are some of the results of that loss of identity. Maybe some people will begin to understand why the identity with orthodoxy is becoming clear again.

  • Brandon

    Here’s a headline for you:

    Pope is Catholic, but is not the antichrist

    Thanks for clearing that up!

  • Thomas Simmons

    Deacon J. M. Bresnahan stated, “I wish there were more coverage on how the Christian Orthodox view themselves.” In this context I can see how it would help delineate the issue in a broader scope with deeper historical comparisons. My experience is that the Patriarchs and their Synods are not so much shy of the media limelight as just relatively unconcerned. The Ancient Patriarchates are in countries that are less than supportive (Turkey–Ecumenical Patriarchate, Georgia–only just out of the USSR orbit and Patriarch Illyia is preoccupied with more important issues, Antioch–ensconced in the Muslim world, Alexandria–also in the Muslim world, split off centuries ago establishing communion only recently, Armenia–split off centuries ago, Jerusalem–surrounded by militant Jews and Muslims, Serbia—very much unconcerned even though Patriarch Pavel is in communion with just about every Orthodox jurisdiction). The language barrier may also be a issue. Few of these people speak or read English so their opinions would possibly be filtered through several media layers leading to less than clear messages. And too, I suspect that all are suspicious of the modern media. The media would have to seek them out, win their confidence and then the Orthodox Catholic Church might be able to articulate their views. Meantime, I know of only few primary differences between the Roman Church and the Orthodox Catholic Church. The Roman Church claims supremacy in legal as well as spiritual matters (which the Ecumenical Patriarch has in accordance with the canons of the Seven Ecumenical Councils more than any other but nowhere as far reaching as that claimed by Rome), the Roman Church claims more than the original Seven Councils while the Orthodox accept the canons of only the Seven, and the Filioque which was placed in the Nicene Creed by the Roman Church over time and the Orthodox reject outright. In a very real sense, the Orthodox Churches comprise a Republic of states while the Roman Church insists on a Monarchy.

  • The young fogey
  • Dennis Colby

    “So the Vatican needs to do a better job of helping journalists get religion?”

    I think this depends in large part on what audience the Vatican is trying to reach with this statement. It’s hard to imagine they care much about the British press, which will be largely anti-Catholic no matter what, and the Vatican is famously dismissive of American public opinion. I’m not saying that as a criticism – it’s anything but clear that the Vatican should care about what the primarily non-Catholic American public thinks.

    Is it possible this is aimed at Africa and South America, where most of the world’s Catholics live, but where the church is facing stiff competition from Protestant groups? People in the West are used to the notion that the world revolves around us, but something as large and diverse as the Catholic Church probably has more pressing concerns than whether the Anglo-American press “gets” its message.

  • Sean Gallagher

    Yes, the press is showing how this document reaffirmed Dominus Iesus, which the CDF put out in 2000. But the press treated that document much like it is doing this document.

    What seems to have been given much less attention is the current document’s dependence on Lumen Gentium, Vatican II’s dogmatic constitution on the Church.

    But then if the press did make that connection, then they’d have a problem on their hands. How can the bad document released this week have any relation to the good Vatican II?

    Maybe because their understanding of Vatican II is distorted?

  • Brian Walden

    Given the way people have reacted to such a mundane document (which, BTW, was written by the Cardinal Levada and the CDF not the Pope), does anyone really need to ask why the Church issued it? Many people (Catholics included) don’t realize that the Catholic Church is still Catholic. Apparently this discovery is shocking news.

  • Shaun G

    One way for the Vatican to help the media get religion:

    When you issue a document like this that is obviously going to get some major press … for heaven’s sake, send out a press kit!

    Here’s what I would include:

    1) A copy of the document itself

    2) A detailed explanation of the document targeted toward the general public, as opposed to theologians with Ph.D.s

    3) A helpful list of things the document does NOT say. In the case of this most recent document, that could include stuff like, “This document does NOT say that non-Catholics aren’t really Christians,” as was proclaimed by headlines on and in amNewYork (and probably plenty of other news outlets).

    4) A list of required reading. In the case of this most recent document, that could include “Dominus Iesus.” More generally: the Catechism, and perhaps also a link to sites like GetReligion.

    5) A DVD of Archbishop Fulton Sheen’s “Life Is Worth Living.” Might not be directly relevant, but it’s always nice to get a DVD in your press kit.

  • Nomicus

    With regards to how the eastern orthodox views themselves – preservers of the truth the way Jesus himself revealed it – “neither adding nor taking away” – How they view Rome? – primacy of honour amongst EQUALS (the other ancient and newer patriarchates). Therefore no garbage added by broken men over the years (Papal infallibility, addition of filioque without collegial consultation, and issues relating to mis-interpreting translated-from-the-original-greek documents. ie original sin and immaculate conception).
    Above all, the most special gift of the trinity – FREE WILL; Something Catholicism appears to want to quash in all but stated doctrine.

    The power trip started properly after the schism of 1054 and, without any counterbalancing spiritual thinking progressed to unbearable control, culminating in protest(antism).

    Is it not time for christianity to breathe once again with two lungs? (Paraphrasis of Pope John Paul II )

  • Jeff


    I think it would be interesting to contrast the MSM coverage of this story with their coverage of, say, the UCC’s “God is Still Speaking” campaign. After all, the implication of that tag line is “And WE are the ones who understand what God is saying”. Not so different from what the Vatican is assumed to be saying.

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  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Matt’s advice to go to Rod Dreher is apt. I went there and found many good insights about the Orthodox situation and understandings–as in T.Simmons comments here– in both Dreher’s column and comments following.
    From what I have read Rome is very willing to bend on many situations in dispute, but a major problem is that the Orthodox Churches can’t get their act together so as to deliberate as a united body. In fact, over the years I have noticed this nationalistically driven deep lack of unity has driven away many potential converts to the Orthodox.
    So how should Rome handle it?? The Orthodox are angry about the Eastern Churches that came into union with Rome. Part of the reason for the “Uniate” situation is that individual national Orthodox groupings sometimes negotiate separately. If, for example, the Romanian Orthodox (usually very friendly toward Rome) come to an agreement with Rome, should Rome tell them to get lost until all the other Orthodox agree (which, as it looks today, will never happen.)
    To many people the inability of the Orthodox to come together–even though they all have the same basic Orthodox Catholic Faith–argues strongly that there should be some sort of Petrine office with at least a bit of strength to its position. I know the papacy is perjoratively referred to as a monarchy by many Orthodox, but it is a “monarchy” based on a voluntary recognition of the pope’s role as a “single leader,” based on biblical passages regarding Peter, the Rock.
    There is so much here for investigation and explanation by the media. But the impression I get is that the media doesn’t even know Orthodoxy exists for all practical purposes.

  • Margaret

    As an Orthodox, I would say, we agree with the Pope’s assessment of our status, but we are not discomfited by our status; we like it that way. I would also say, you will know them by their fruits. The Orthodox clergy of today have retained the teachings and humility of the apostles, the pastoral love of assisting each individual unto their salvation, and not splitting atoms over history, documents, or needing power. REAL holiness is evident in the lives of those in whom the Holy Spirit has been allowed to grow in concert with their free will to the glory of God, not their own glory — their closeness to God is evident to all who come near them. Thomas Simmons did a good job: all of this is nonsense to Orthodox who are focused on that which is important to salvation, and not really concerned with who said or did what, and when — or that Pope Benedict and the entire Roman Catholic Church thinks we all need his shepherding. The Orthodox are not seeking him — he and his flock are seeking us — they can’t imagine how off our dogmatic radar screen they are. Simmons is also right about how hamstrung the Orthodox in Moslem countries are, and the language difference between the East and West. The Pope (dramatic pause) is Universal? [the original understanding of the Greek word ‘catholicos’) Roman, certainly, but not Universal …not until he who would be first is last.

  • Margaret

    Response to Deacon John: A recent book, The Spider and the Starfish, talks about decentralized management as a strength rather than a weakness. Our decentralization is our strength, not our weakness. As each individual parish is the Body of Christ, the life of the Holy Spirit in each witnesses to the Truth. The Orthodox ‘nationalist’ divisions may be a stumbling block to you, and your goals, but to us it ensures that the entire flock will not be lead astray. WE are not concerned that WE do not deliberate as a body, YOU are. For us, it guarantees that our Faith will not be changed from the faith we have held for two thousand years. WE are not pursuing the Roman Catholic Church; Roman Catholics as individuals, clergy and the Pope are pursuing US. The Roman Church may perceive many things about Orthodox reasons or inability to meet the Roman goal of reunification, but that is because they are the only ones interested in it. WE love you as Christian brothers, like the Romanian Orthodox, but that ‘friendliness’ does not mean we want reunification. WE would appreciate respecting our two thousand year old Faith, and appreciating the differences between our two approaches to salvation — which are considerable. The Orthodox, in humility, do not seek to convert the Churched. If they come to us, we embrace them (unless they are Moslems in Hagia Sophia asking us to baptise them so we’ll be in violation of Islamic Law).

  • nomicus

    Reply to Deacon John

    Why would an organisation want to convert an already baptised apostolic orthodox christian in the name of Rome? (ie Ukrainian uniates) To quote the creed “…ONE baptism for the remission of sin”.

    Unfortuneately there is truth that the orthodox since especially 1453 (fall of Constantinople) have been hamstrung and consequently ghettoed in their approach to ecumenism.

    But it is also true that Rome without her traditional fraternal ties (since schism) has altered and drifted especially in their desire to control and appoint.

    I am Orthodox married to a Maronite whose ancient antiochene rite based service, until very recently, was not tolerated by Rome. There is a richness in all these apostolic traditions that I’m pleased to see Pope Benedict recognises. ( cf Tridentine Mass)

    The truth is the East need the West because of their precarious existence (although Eastern Europe and Russia are free), and the West needs the East…and the Reason of their lost reformed order to counter the emerging diversionary threat of this century which is apathy and militant atheism (eg Richard Dawkins).

  • Brian Walden

    Brandon from post #8,

    Thanks for posting that link, it’s actually one of the better articles about the document. If only everyone would realize that different religions and denominations within religions believe different things and have a right to express those beliefs, we might be able to understand each other better.

  • The young fogey

    Me on the Pope’s statement.

    One thing I’ve noticed in the news is the Orthodox, as a catholic church with a similar truth claim, understand and respect what the Pope is doing in this latest statement. The mainline Protestants are offended at not being affirmed.