Dialogue w Protestant: “One True Church” vs. Ecumenism?

Dialogue w Protestant: “One True Church” vs. Ecumenism? January 15, 2018


Catholics believe their Church is the one true one (i.e., contains the “fullness”).

The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has released a document (on 6-29-07) called Responses to Some Questions Regarding Certain Aspects of the Doctrine on the Church. It has caused some consternation among some Protestants. I have tried to clarify some things, in reply to Reformed Protestant apologist Michael Patton, in a thread on his blog. His words will be in blue. My older cited words will be in green, and his in purple.


Hi Michael and all,

While I do find some egg on our face with regards to the Pope’s recent declaration (or redeclaration) of the illegitimacy of the Protestant churches,

No one should have any “egg” on their faces. Nothing has changed! I should note a few things, for clarification’s sake, too:

1) This is not a declaration from the pope. It was from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith: the same group that the pope used to be the head of himself. The pope agreed with it. Dominus Iesus (2000) was put out by the same group, and stated basically the same stuff. So this is nothing new.

2) I don’t think “illegitimacy” is helpful or adequate. Why is it surprising that Catholics reiterate that Protestants lack apostolic succession and ordination? That has always been our position. We can only call the Catholic Church “the Church” by the very nature of our ecclesiology; otherwise, our ecclesiology would be Protestant. So this is simply the reality of how the two camps approach the issue differently.

3) The many positive things we think about Protestants (as in Vatican II) are also included in the statement. For example:

It is possible, according to Catholic doctrine, to affirm correctly that the Church of Christ is present and operative in the churches and ecclesial Communities not yet fully in communion with the Catholic Church, on account of the elements of sanctification and truth that are present in them.

. . . there are “numerous elements of sanctification and of truth” which are found outside her structure,

It follows that these separated churches and Communities, though we believe they suffer from defects, are deprived neither of significance nor importance in the mystery of salvation. In fact the Spirit of Christ has not refrained from using them as instruments of salvation, whose value derives from that fullness of grace and of truth which has been entrusted to the Catholic Church.

I would encourage everyone to read the document itself:

I still contend that Catholicism can be interpreted differently and the situation can progress.

To be interpreted differently on this matter of ecclesiology, we would have to cease to be Catholic.

I have had much personal contact with Catholics who do interpret their documents differently than the hard liners.

I would suspect that they were liberals or inadvertently influenced by liberal Catholic thought, and insufficiently acquainted with Catholic teaching. The pope is not a “hard liner”. He is simply an orthodox Catholic who correctly understands Vatican II and ecumenism in a proper Catholic sense. Pope John Paul II was neither a “hard liner” nor more ecumenical than Pope Benedict XVI. They are both equally committed to Catholic doctrine and dogma, Vatican II, and ecumenism (as I am myself).

We do not have to cement our polemics in the context of the 16th century, especially if things are changing.

I agree wholeheartedly with that. What is changing is a more tolerant and ecumenical attitude, but not doctrines, because they cannot change.

I felt “ho hum” about the new statement since all it is, is a reiteration of Vatican II teaching (and correction of misapplications of same). No one who is familiar with Vatican II should be alarmed in the slightest degree. Of course, not everyone does have that familiarity, so they may think Catholic teaching is a certain thing and then when one of these clarifications come down, they think it is a radical change or a reactionary hardening, etc. (when it is not at all). The secular media is full of ridiculous characterizations of Catholic teachings (I’m not saying this feeling some may have, of disappointment in the statement, or confusion, is ridiculous; just making a related point).

Ecumenism is not affected at all by this. I don’t understand why it would surprise or disturb any Protestant with a working knowledge of Catholic teaching, that we reiterate our belief that the Catholic Church is the one true Church and has the fullness of Christian teaching. That has always been our belief. All the progress in ecumenical relations over the last fifty years has taken place with that premise assumed on our part. We could no longer change in that respect than Protestants could suddenly discard their two pillars: sola Scriptura and sola fide. Ecumenism is the effort to learn about each other and to find common ground.

Nothing has changed! I think some Protestants see various things in the Catholic Church that they like and they have this notion that Catholics are becoming more “Protestant” (when in fact, we are simply what we are and have always been, and some Protestants discover to their surprise that we weren’t as bad as they thought, and so they assume we are “changing” in that particular respect; I see quite a bit of humor in some of this, but it is within an affectionate feeling for my Protestant brothers and sisters — having been in their camp myself).

Then they see something like this statement and they get disenchanted and think (I am being a bit tongue in cheek here) “Catholics are Catholics after all; drats! Just when I thought they were becoming more like us . . . “.

What the Catholic Church has emphasized since Vatican II is quite significant, I think: other Christians have many graces and wonderful attributes, and even sacraments (baptism; marriage in many cases). We rejoice in them. We acknowledge that God is working in and through and with our Protestant brethren.

But we cannot change our ecclesiology or we would cease to be who we are. Our doctrine of the Church is not the “invisible church” notion. Protestants cannot expect us to adopt Protestant ecclesiology wholesale (in fact, Protestants have huge disagreements amongst themselves on ecclesiology and Church government, as most here would well know).

That’s not going to happen! And it is unreasonable to expect this to happen, just as it would be if I were to expect Protestants to drop sola Scriptura tomorrow, so we could “do ecumenism,” and if you didn’t, and reiterated your belief in it, for me to feel that I had egg or mud on my face. It was an unrealistic expectation in the first place.

The document reiterates Catholic teaching on ecclesiology and other Christians. There is nothing new here that wasn’t already in Vatican II but some people get upset if we repeat certain teachings. As Catholics, we will always believe that the Catholic Church is the same (institutional) Church that we believe was established by Jesus Christ and has been historically continuous since that time. That doesn’t mean that non-Catholics are excluded completely by this categorization. But we believe that the full apostolic teaching “subsists” in the Catholic Church.

The Pope’s declaration yesterday, ironically, did demonstrate that what I had said about the progress and attitude of modern Catholic scholarship was true. This perceived disagreement and change in the Catholic church is the exact reason why the Pope felt it necessary to sign this document yesterday.

Yes, because liberals who think ecumenism is about unprincipled compromise and “watering down” and doctrinal indifferentism rather than principled attempts at mutual understanding, have distorted things somewhat.

He is more hard-line than John Paul II was and demonstrated this yesterday.

Not in the slightest. Pope John Paul II accepted Dominus Iesus, which stated the same things. They are both ecumenical and orthodox. There is no need to dichotomize the two, as if to be authentically ecumenical is to somehow be less orthodox or less “hard line.”

I am not sure what this will do to the ethos of the situation or the tone of the conversation between irenic Catholics and Protestants,

It should do nothing whatsoever, for anyone who is familiar with Vatican II statements on ecumenism and recent encyclicals along the same line. They are all of a piece.

but it certainly has reiterated that the supreme bishop of Rome does not want progression in the way it was seeming to head.

Pope Benedict XVI is exceptionally ecumenical, just as his predecessor was. Nothing has changed in this regard at all.

This lack of recognition from the Pope does not reflect the spirit of either Evangelical or Catholic scholarship. It is a move backward into the darker ages.

If it is that, then so was Vatican II. So I think this is simply an instance of category confusion. You need to study a bit more the relationship between Catholic orthodoxy and Catholic ecumenism.

And most of all, it lacks humility that is necessary for any further reformation.

I don’t see how it is a lack of humility for a Christian to state what it is he believes. This is our ecclesiology. It is no more lacking humility for us to state this than it would be for a Protestant to reiterate his belief in sola Scriptura and sola fide.

God shines in our boxes, but he certainly shines outside these boxes as well. The Pope essentially said, “No, He really only shines in our box.”

I strongly disagree. If you look at the citations above from the document, it grants all sorts of graces and a place in salvation in Protestantism: far more than many Protestants grant Catholicism, where (for anti-Catholics like James White), for a Catholic to be saved, it must be in spite of Catholic teaching, never because of it. This criticism should be directed towards Protestant anti-Catholics, not orthodox Catholics like this pope and the last one.

My proposal has been that within the ranks of Catholic and Evangelical scholarship, attitudes have begun to change over the last 15 years. Doors were beginning to be opened. This proclamation is a strong attempt to shut these doors.

Again, not in the slightest. I don’t know what the magic number of “15 years” has to do with anything. Catholic ecumenism has been rapidly developing since World War II, and especially after Vatican II. There has been no reversal or change of policy.

As to Catholic scholarship, I think you may be defining it differently than me.

A great deal of it is liberal. I’ve written papers about some of these liberals, like Fr. Raymond Brown. If you saw the sort of things that the man denies, you wouldn’t cite him as “orthodox” at all.

As well, the Catholics sometimes have a different understanding on what it means to be liberal than traditional Evangelicals. To a Trinitine Catholic, to be liberal, my mean that your are too evangelical.

Big discussion. I have a whole web page about radical Catholic reactionaries: a sub-group that gets many things wrong. The correct differential ought to be “orthodoxy.”

I put forth Peter Kreeft as a good example of one who had laid many planks of wood on this bridge that the Pope just set fire to again.

This is a false dichotomy. Peter Kreeft is an orthodox Catholic and he is an ecumenical Catholic, just like Benedict, John Paul II, and apologists, like myself.

If anyone claims that they are the only true Church, this is just silly. It has no historical or biblical basis, only that of prideful traditionalism.

To the contrary, it is an explicitly biblical doctrine. The NT assumes throughout that there is only one Church (almost without argument). If you look at the Jerusalem Council, this is evident. Denominations are unheard of. It isn’t the notion of “one true Church” that is unbiblical and novel, but rather, the idea of denominationalism and de facto doctrinal relativism and ecclesiological chaos.

In fact, present-day Protestantism tends to take a relativistic view towards ecclesiology itself. But Luther and Calvin and Zwingli did not do this at all. They anathematized each other and claimed to be the fullness of truth or the best manifestation of “Church.” I’ve read some of my Lutheran friends who are still making the claim today. They think Lutheranism (Missouri Synod) best represents what they mean by “Church.”

I look forward to some discussion on these matters. No one seemed to want to discuss my last two posts. They are just sitting there, without comment. I hope this one will be different.

Thanks for allowing me to speak freely!

* * * * *
Thanks for taking the time to do this. I am sure that it is very helpful for many as we think through these difficult issues.You’re welcome.

I agree that nothing has changed in the dogmatics, but the direction and perception get altered and discouraged with hard-line statements are reiterated rather than softening in their articulation. VII softened many things from previous declarations. Of since I am not committed to papal or magisterial infallibility, I see this progress as change. But either way, this does seem to be a road block, detour, or a red light.

James White was exactly right in this respect: absolutely nothing has changed (not even in questions of tone and approach), and whoever thinks otherwise is simply unacquainted with the relevant Catholic documents. It’s much ado about nothing. The so-called “spirit of Vatican II” is pure Catholic liberalism. One must read the document itself. Go to the sources; just as I do when I critique Protestantism.

Yes, but again, I think the language and rhetoric is very harsh are seem dismissive of progress that has been made.

It’s amazing to me that the positive aspects in the statement are passed right over, as are infinitely worse “potshots” in Protestant documents that are literally lying about Catholic beliefs and practices. For example, in the Lutheran confessions the Catholic mass is directly equated with worship of Baal:

Apology of the Augsburg Confession [1531], Article XXIV: The Mass

Carnal men cannot stand it when only the sacrifice of Christ is honored as a propitiation. For they do not understand the righteousness of faith but give equal honor to other sacrifices and services. A false idea clung to the wicked priests in Judah, and in Israel the worship of Baal continued; yet the church of God was there, condemning wicked services. So in the papal realm the worship of Baal clings — namely, the abuse of the Mass . . . And it seems that this worship of Baal will endure together with the papal realm until Christ comes to judge and by the glory of his coming destroys the kingdom of Antichrist. Meanwhile all those who truly believe the Gospel should reject those wicked services invented against God’s command to obscure the glory of Christ and the righteousness of faith.

We all know how often various Protestant confessions use antichrist to describe the pope or the Catholic system of theology. And you’re concerned about our tone in simply asserting our ecclesiology as it has always been and always will be?

“To be interpreted differently on this matter of ecclesiology, we would have to cease to be Catholic.”

Again, this comes down to a difference in your terming it progression while I have no problem saying it is “interpreted differently.” Either way, the documents themselves need interpretation and clarification. I would be comfortable with Catholics saying, “You did not understand us? This is what we meant.” But this is not what is said here.

If indeed it is nothing new at all (as I contend and as James White does from an opposed theological perspective), then it follows that for you to require us to drop this sort of language in order to come to the table and do ecumenism with Protestants and to be loved and respected and regarded with great affection as good tolerant postmodernists, we would have to (quite simply) adopt some variant of Protestant ecclesiology and ditch our historic understanding of same.

This is, of course, extremely intolerant and unreasonable on your part to — in effect — demand such a thing. We’re not allowed to hold our view, in other words, without being subjected to Protestant accusations of our supposed triumphalism, arrogance, intolerance and something akin to “anti-Protestantism.”

But if that is so, of what purpose is ecumenism at all? If one party requires the other to adopt certain of its beliefs in order to sit down and talk and try to mutually understand from the get-go, then this is the very furthest thing from ecumenism: it is coercion and the essence of religious intolerance.

“I would suspect that they were liberals or inadvertently influenced by liberal Catholic thought, and insufficiently acquainted with Catholic teaching. The pope is not a “hard liner”. He is simply an orthodox Catholic who correctly understand Vatican II and ecumenism in a proper Catholic sense. Pope John Paul II was neither a “hard liner” nor more ecumenical than Pope Benedict XVI. They are both equally committed to Catholic doctrine and dogma, Vatican II, and ecumenism (as I am myself).”

Please don’t take this disrespectfully, but this is the conclusion that your system necessitates.

Exactly! Then why don’t you accept it as such, instead of futilely trying to redefine Catholic teaching according to Protestant (and to some extent, postmodernist) presuppositions?

In other words, you have to say that he is interpreting VII correctly because of his presupposed authority. You don’t really have a choice to do otherwise.

I wasn’t arguing about the papacy and its prerogatives here; rather, I was strongly disagreeing with your characterizations of the two popes, as if they are different. They are not at all.

It is not so much that I am hoping that Catholics are becoming more Protestant per se, 

I think it is the logical conclusion of some of your statements, as I believe I have demonstrated. I think if you ponder what I am saying and think more about some stuff you have said, you might see my point and even agree with it.

but that we have simply, to some degree, been talking past each other. I think that battle lines cause people to defend issues in a sincere yet imbalanced way. See my Advice to Christian Apologists.

Absolutely. It happens all the time.

Well, I do think the smoke from the reformation is clearing and we are redefining or better articulating sola Scriptura to mean more than the popular notion that the Scripture is our only source of authority, which is not true. Sola Scriptura means that the Scripture is our only infallible and final authority. Therefore, while we may not change, I think that our defining of the issues, on both sides, makes us closer than the early polemics suggest.

Yep; I agree 100% Many many Catholics do not properly understand what sola Scriptura means (i.e., as explicated by its most able defenders). Likewise, many Protestants don’t have a clue as to how Catholics relate Bible, Tradition, and Church.

Yes, but there also seems to be disagreement among committed Catholics concerning the particulars of VII. Isn’t this true?

Not all that much among orthodox Catholics, that I have seen. Most significant disagreement would be between orthodox and liberal, dissenting Catholics (just as Protestants have their never-ending internal struggles with liberals in their ranks: we’re both infected with this problem — as was the early Church).

“I am not sure what this will do to the ethos of the situation or the tone of the conversation between irenic Catholics and Protestants,

“It should do nothing whatsoever, for anyone who is familiar with Vatican II statements on ecumenism and recent encyclicals along the same line. They are all of a piece.”

Come on . . . you have to say that Dave :) 

It is irrelevant what I “have” to say. This is simply an assertion of fact: so obvious that even James White and myself agree about it: he utterly opposing the teachings and I fully accepting them, but both understanding what exactly the teachings under consideration are.

Again, your system does not allow otherwise.

In this case, the facts of the matter, as plainly seen in the documents, do not allow otherwise.

You do not have the option to critically question whether or not this is the case because of the presumptions of authority. 

That’s absolutely irrelevant to the point at hand. One can state facts of a particular matter even if he completely disagrees with theology that is tied in with the facts (hence, James White states the Catholic ecclesiological teaching under scrutiny here accurately, while not believing it). I have done the same, and I happen to believe it. But my belief in the theology has nothing to do whether the fact of the teaching (as opposed to the truth of the teaching) is the case or not.

But, fair enough . . . I hope that the next Pope softens the language as VII did.

Vatican II states exactly the same. Where do you think the description “ecclesial communities” was famously used? If this is what is ticking so many Protestants off, then, like I said, they need to be angry at Vatican II as well. For example, Decree on Ecumenism, 3:

For it is through Christ’s Catholic Church alone, which is the universal help towards salvation, that the fullness of the means of salvation can be obtained.

This doesn’t mean that no Protestant can be saved, however, because in the immediately preceding paragraph, it was stated that Protestants “have been by no means deprived of significance and importance in the mystery of salvation.”

That’s our view. But even you yourself, in contrast, on James White’s Dividing Line webcast tonight, said that Catholics can only be saved despite the teaching of their own communion (which is classic anti-Catholic rhetoric).

but it certainly has reiterated that the supreme bishop of Rome does not want progression in the way it was seeming to head.

Nope; I couldn’t disagree more, and have already explained why, at length.

Well, of course, this comes down to some fundamental disagreements about the nature of the Body of Christ.

Of course it does; that is the whole point, and is why it is absurd for you to be disappointed simply because we disagree with you. You already knew that we did that!

I do think that Peter Kreeft, in his recent MP3 on ecumenism displayed something much different. But, he is not the Pope :)

That’s right, and since he is not the pope, he doesn’t have the concern of guiding and leading a Church and being extremely careful with language. He is an apologist (like myself) who tries his best to speak in terms that Protestants can relate to. Vatican II urged all Catholics to do this. It’s one reason I am a Catholic myself, because a friend of mine took that approach to me when I was a Protestant and it bore fruit.

Well, I would disagree as well. At least from our perspective, you must understand how offensive what he said was.

Are you saying that you were previously unacquainted with the Catholic doctrine of “one true Church” as applied to itself (In find that hard to believe)? If you knew about it, there would be no grounds whatsoever for “offense.” I am truly baffled why this would offend anyone who already knew the teaching. I’m not offended by a Protestant asserting sola fide or sola Scriptura. I expect that just as I expect a dog to bark or a hen to lay eggs. Being “offended” is irrelevant. It’s simply the reality of what is.

Truly try to think about it.

I don’t need to because I’ve dealt with these issues for 26 years as an apologist and 17 as a Catholic apologist. It doesn’t make any sense to me. If you as a Protestant are so concerned about tolerance and unity as much as possible, then you should attack mentalities of anti-Catholics like James White, who divide and polemicize and do little good at all when dealing with Catholicism (whereas he does a lot of good and helpful work in other areas) rather than object to us saying what we have always said.

Again, I realize that it is nothing new, but the language was softening which was about as close “I’m sorry” as we were going to get.

Huh? You expected us to say we were sorry for believing that the Catholic Church is the Church? Nuh-uh. That is not going to happen, I can assure you. And there was not the slightest indication that it would happen in any Catholic official document. If you disagree, then you can easily produce an example of what you are saying.

I, myself, am willing to take a softening of the language. But to say once again, we are not true churches backs us up quite a bit.

Join the crowd. I get sick and tired of James White and his anti-Catholic cronies telling me I’ll go to hell if I accept Catholic teachings, that I am a Pelagian and idolater and apostate, who is in an evil system and an antichrist church: the whore of Babylon; that my own ministry is deliberately leading people to hell and the devil, and all the worthless rotgut that Calvin and Luther and lots of other folks have said about my Church for 500 years. If you are offended by this statement of Catholic ecclesiology, you wouldn’t last a day — not one — listening to all the crap I hear on literally a daily basis.

It has to do with an ethos that is set in with many. Not so much when documents were signed or when people said I am sorry. But again, look at it from our perspective. The Pope seemed to close the door more publicly yesterday.

I’m sorry; such an appraisal cannot possibly be familiar with the trajectory of authentic Catholic ecumenism over the time period you refer to.

I appreciate your spirit of compromise and willingness to change your view to better reflect those of the Evangelical church and concede to all that I believe :)

Not sure what all this means, but thanks, I guess! (scratching my head). :-)

Really, I do thank you for your time Dave. I pray that God blesses you and your ministry to the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Thank you; and I hope and pray the same for your own ministry, especially in those broad areas where we would completely agree as Christians.

I hope you have not been offended by my frankness and directness. It’s just me. I can’t hem and haw and tiptoe around issues. I must face them head-on. Some people don’t care for my style for that very reason. But I can only be me, and we all have our personalities and styles and can hardly avoid them. Not all will like any given style, as you well know, I’m sure, in your own apologetic endeavors.


(originally 7-11-07)

Photo credit: Photograph by “Free-Photos” (uploaded 1-8-16) [Pixabay / CC0 Creative Commons license]


Browse Our Archives