The Catholic Church's View of Protestantism
It has been widely reported that the Roman Catholic Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) recently reasserted the primacy of the Roman Catholic Church in a Q&A-style document made available for the public. The Roman Catholic pope ratified and confirmed its contents.
In the document, Protestant churches are not considered authentic churches of Christ because:
According to Catholic doctrine, these Communities do not enjoy apostolic succession in the sacrament of Orders, and are, therefore, deprived of a constitutive element of the Church. These ecclesial Communities which, specifically because of the absence of the sacramental priesthood, have not preserved the genuine and integral substance of the Eucharistic Mystery cannot, according to Catholic doctrine, be called "Churches" in the proper sense. Response to Question 5
Predictably, a number of Protestant leaders, particularly those who are engaged in ecumenical dialogue with Rome, have voiced concern and disappointment about both the contents and timing of the document. It has been suggested that fruitful ecumenical dialogue will now be more difficult because of the viewpoints expressed in this document.
No small number of my Protestant brethren will no doubt take offense to Rome's assertion that churches born out of the Reformation are not true churches. But it needs to be pointed out that this has more or less been Rome's position from the get-go. I think this latest document is largely correct when it asserts that Vatican II itself did not water down this basic view, although the fallout from Vatican II, at least from the sedevacantist and traditionalist Catholic perspective, was to be too charitable toward Protestantism. At any rate, I think this document is reaffirming official Roman Catholic doctrine, rather than hardening the official line. In fact, this same document seems to allow some room that while the 'Church of Christ' "subsists" exclusively with the visible Roman Catholic Church, the 'Church of Christ' may still be somehow "present" in other churches that are not in full communion with Rome. This allows Rome to say the following:
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. Response to Question 3
As such, while I obviously disagree with Rome's assertions regarding the Church, I must confess that I am not particularly offended by what they are saying. Maybe I should be. But in the end, my standing before God, or the standing of my local church before God, is not determined by Roman Catholic theology. (How'z that for a Protestant-style answer!) While Rome believes that it alone has been entrusted by God with the 'fulness of grace and truth', Protestant theology proffers that the primacy of Rome was self-promoted rather than divinely decreed. This, of course, gets to the heart of the question of authority, and why Rome places the tradition of the church on a par with Scripture, since it believes that the church birthed Scripture rather than the other way around. In my mind, when one adopts Roman Catholic assumptions regarding authority and papal primacy, the viewpoints toward Protestantism expressed in this document are actually quite mainstream.
The semantics about who represents the true 'church' and who doesn't is not the central issue here. It is simply one manifestation of a much larger disagreement about authority that has not been resolved and will probably never be fully resolved no matter how many ecumenical discussions take place. The Roman Catholic Church is simply way too far downstream to retreat on the papal primacy issue. To retreat on this question is to undermine the whole of Roman Catholic ecclesiology that is the source of friction between it and both Protestantism and Eastern Orthodoxy. They simply won't backtrack on this question. Even if the day comes when they might want to backtrack (and clearly that day, if it exists, is a long way off), they can't afford to do so. The only question is whether Eastern Orthodoxy and Protestantism will truly 'come home' and resubmit to the authority of Rome. Make no mistake, this is what Rome believes must happen in order for folks like me to be in communion with the visible Body of Christ on earth. But those of us who are Protestants must understand that the Roman Catholic position is based greatly on a series of assumptions emanating from the church's own tradition about its own importance. We are entitled to question the validity of this tradition and the assumptions it promulgates, just as Rome is entitled to question the validity of our viewpoints. This is where ecumenical dialogue needs to focus if there is profit to be gained from such discussions. And to the extent that this latest document once again hints to the core issues that divide us, it has the potential to be helpful, even if I as a Protestant am grieved by how Rome's ecclesial assumptions have manifested themselves.