On July 10, the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith released a document entitled “Responses to some Questions Regarding Certain Aspects of the Doctrine on the Church.” You may have heard about it already even if you have not read the document itself. Recalling and reaffirming the Roman Catholic Church’s teaching since, at least, Vatican II, the document reminds us all that not everyone who hears a sermon and/or takes communion on a Sunday is actually doing so at a church. You see, the document reiterates Roman Catholic teaching that only the “oriental Churches,” that is, the Orthodox Church, along with the Roman Catholic Church are “churches” in the true sense of the world. How so? Well, the oriental churches, “although separated, have true sacraments and above all — because of the apostolic succession — the priesthood and the Eucharist,” these churches “merit the title of ‘particular or local Churches,’ and are called sister Churches of the particular Catholic Churches.” So if only the oriental churches and the Roman Catholic Church are “churches” then where does that leave us — the Baptists, Methodists, Anglicans, Pentecostals, etc? So glad you asked. According to the Vatican, “these Communities do not enjoy apostolic succession in the sacrament of Orders, and are, therefore, deprived of a constitutive element of the Church.” Therefore, we get to be “ecclesial Communities.”
Now, before we all run out and order new church signs that say First Baptist Ecclesial Community of Shelbyville, let’s pause a moment to thank Pope Benedict XVI and Cardinal William Joseph Levada, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Finally, someone has been ecumenically honest. Finally, someone has quit talking and “theologizing” long enough to acknowledge the elephant in the room — there are serious differences between Protestant and Roman Catholic ecclesiology (and, by extension, Orthodox ecclesiology)! Is it just me or did you sense that a fresh breeze finally blew through the room? This kind of unequivocal reminder from the Vatican has been too long in coming. I personally have had to sit through too many discussions during my graduate school days with some up-and-coming Roman Catholic theologian telling me that “if we could only get to the point where we could sit at the Lord’s Supper together then we would have true unity in the body of Christ.” Of course, my response has always been the same, “Yea, right.” Any Protestant worth their weight should know that there are deep rifts between his/her ecclesiology and that of the Roman Catholic Church. Sharing communion together would not be the Lord’s Supper; it would be a snack of bread and wine (or grape juice for the Baptists). A Roman Catholic getting dunked under water by a Methodist minister is not baptism, it’s swimming. This reminder is long overdue and I, for one, appreciate it very much.
Nevertheless, this leaves me with some questions of my own so I have decided to go straight to the top, that is, to Cardinal William Joseph Levada himself, prefect of said congregation. Of course, lacking a direct phone number for Cardinal Levada and given that fact that I am really a no one, I have been unable to reach him for comment. So instead, I have envisioned what a conversation about this topic with him would look like.
Peters: I have just recently read the latest document regarding your doctrine on the church and must admit that I am a bit stumped. If I am not part of the true church, then where am I going each Sunday morning?
Levada: You are going to an “ecclesial Community.”
Peters: A what?
Levada: An “ecclesial Community.”
Peters: What is that exactly?
Levada: It’s a term that we, the Roman Catholic Church, came up with to talk about people like you.
Peters: People like me?
Levada: Yes, people like you who do not have apostolic succession or, if you’re an Anglican, do not have valid apostolic succession.
Peters: Oh, that’s interesting. So where in the New Testament do you get the phrase “ecclesial Community”?
Levada: What do you mean?
Peters: Well, you know. The word for church in Greek is ekklesia and is found in the New Testament many times. You know, the whole “I will build my church” passage that you guys in Rome make such a big deal about.
Levada: Well, I guess “ecclesial Community” is not in the New Testament.
Peters: Hmm. So you’ve given the non-Roman Catholic, non-Oriental Orthodox “church” a new title so that you can, what, co-opt the term “church” for yourself?
Levada: Well, we’re not trying to cause further division. In fact, we really, really want, in the spirit of Vatican II, to be ecumenical by making such statements. But, in all honesty, the only way for there to be unity in the true Church again is for all Protestants to become Roman Catholic.
Peters: Why is that?
Levada: Well, there’s no way you can now “get” apostolic succession, and since we already have it, and since it is a sine qua non of being a church, you must join us. Or you will have to remain an “ecclesial Community.”
Peters: Wow, this seems to bring us fully around to your recent Q & A document which basically implies that if I want to be in the church of Jesus Christ and, by extension, by saved, then I need to a Roman Catholic.
Levada: That’s correct. Short of that, there’s no hope for you.
Peters: Does that mean that I’m going to hell?
Levada: Sure, if there is a “hell”?
Levada: Oh, never mind. There will be more about that in the near future!
Peters: Cardinal Levada, let me say “thanks” for your honesty. Well, I gotta run. I have a Bible study at my church “ecclesial Community” tonight. Bye!
So, thank you again Cardinal Levada. In addition, a big “THANK YOU” to the Vatican for being ecumenically honest. You’re a breath of fresh air in a very stagnant conversation.