COLUMBIA — At times, being Catholic is a peculiar reality. We can be surprised by the teachings of the church and interested in how things are explained. Doctrinal statements can seem disconnected from every day life, and we want some continuity between our lives and beliefs.
By seeking explanations of our beliefs from the church, we can begin to bridge the gap and help make those beliefs more tangible and understandable. This task can be difficult in a society which tends towards religious pluralism, where truth is often relativized and conviction of belief can be dismissed as arrogance.
The church offers its assistance, however, and has the assurance that it can help every person find the answers to their questions. The Catholic Church has this assurance because of its enduring claim that it is the church founded by Jesus Christ, and in full possession of his teachings and the means of salvation.
The Vatican recently released five questions-and-answers which seek to clarify and explain this very claim of the Catholic Church. The questions and their responses have caused a stir among theologians, non-Catholic Christians and many people of good will.
Why has the Vatican written these responses, and why would it release them now?
The answers were written in response to five questions raised and presented by theologians to the Vatican in reaction to the document “Dominus Iesus” in 2000. Such questions are always taken very seriously. They are reviewed and discussed by panels of theologians, and debated and argued by different schools of thought. After such deliberation, the Vatican gives its answers and clarifications. For these five questions, the process took seven years and have now been publicized.
The questions and their answers are given in order to provide assistance to academic and general theological work. They are meant to “clarify confusion on certain questions and to correct false understanding” within Catholic theology. No tone is intended by the responses. They are not a formal document themselves, and should only be read within the context of more doctrinally expansive and pastorally applicable documents of the Church — some of which are listed in the introduction.
Beyond this explanation of the purpose and timing of the questions-and-answers, most people want to know what the Catholic Church is claiming overall and what it is trying to say. Is the Catholic Church claiming that it is better than other Christian bodies? Is it trying to say that non-Catholic Christians are not real disciples of Christ? Is it arguing that non-Catholics are all going to hell?
The Catholic Church is claiming none of the above. The church is clarifying an age-old claim that it is the visible church founded by Jesus Christ 2,000 years ago, and that it has the fullness of his teaching and the means of salvation. It explains that other Christian bodies certainly have elements of truth and sanctification, and that there are many committed disciples of Jesus Christ outside of the Catholic Church. The Catholic Church makes no claims of eternal judgment of heaven or hell on anyone, non-Catholic or Catholic.
What then is the Catholic Church saying? Does it really believe that it is the one church founded by Jesus Christ, and that it has everything that Jesus wanted to give his disciples?
The Catholic Church acknowledges that truth is one. Something cannot both be and not be, in the same way and at the same time. For example, bread cannot both be and not be the Body of Christ.
Reflecting reality, only one view is true. Recognizing that the New Testament repeatedly speaks of one church, the Catholic Church asserts that Jesus Christ desired to found only one church, to hold and preserve the unity of his truth and the means of salvation. The Catholic Church believes that the one church of Christ was founded on St. Peter and the apostles, and that it subsists in the Roman Catholic Church, guided by the pope and bishops, who are the successors of Peter and the apostles.
For this reason, in theological terminology, the Catholic Church reserves the word “church” only to bodies with an historical succession from the apostles. This is not to say that the word “church” cannot be used in popular jargon or conversation.
In a society as open as we are, the point comes across as a strong claim. For secular people, it might appear as arrogantly outlandish. To some non-Catholic Christians, it might appear as an exclusivist assertion of self-importance.
Of course, non-Catholic Christians will not agree with the claim. The Vatican knows that reality, but it also understands that authentic dialogue is about being honest with one’s beliefs and claims. The Catholic Church sees this claim as essential to its inheritance and identity as a body.
As seen in the five questions-and-answers, it wants to present its teachings with respectful precision and charitable clarity. Anything else would be offensive and unhelpful to true theological discussion and spiritual sharing.
The claim is all the more significant to us because it is an assurance that our beliefs now are the same as those given by Jesus Christ to the apostles. This reminds us that the church is endowed, and credibly competent, to help us in our search for answers and explanations of the things of God.