Is the pope Catholic? Well, yeah. But considering the reaction that the recent reaffirmation of the Catholic Church's self-understanding (issued under the pope's signature by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith) received, you might think that many were surprised to learn that the pope is, well, still Catholic.
Of course, many non-Catholics, expressed hurt, incomprehension, even anger. However, the statement, "Responses to Some Questions Regarding Certain Aspects of the Doctrine of the Church," in reality said nothing new. Dominus Jesus, issued in 2000 by then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, said the same thing. And this was nothing more than another reaffirmation of Catholic teachings found in Vatican II and in the constant tradition of the Roman Catholic Church: Namely, that the Church, willed by Christ as a visible and spiritual community, actually continues to exist in the Catholic Church as a continual concrete, historical reality.
Much of the overwrought reaction, I believe, was caused not so much by what was said but by how it was reported in the secular media. Did the media deliberately give it a negative spin?
Not necessarily. We can and should presume their good faith. However, they often get it wrong because in reality we often do not speak the same language: The pope speaks in the languages of philosophy and theology; most modern reporters, untrained in these disciplines, speak more comfortably in the idioms of sociology and psychology.
Most Catholics, including the pope, would not deny that myriad denominations that have emerged in the almost 500 years since the Protestant Reformation are indeed "churches" according to the popular -- i.e., sociological -- idiom in which people speak today. But we do say, as did the Second Vatican Council, they are not churches -- as Catholic theology understands "church."
In fact, most Protestants, especially those who hold that Jesus did not found a visible hierarchical structure with apostolic succession and a Petrine office as Catholics do, would readily agree. They believe themselves to be churches, but they do not believe themselves to be churches in the Catholic sense. Our understandings of "church" simply differ. In any case, we Catholics do believe that, "separated churches and communities . . . are neither deprived of significance or importance in the mystery of Salvation."
Does this reaffirmation of Catholic teaching impede the ecumenical movement and the dialogue with those whom we have called our "separated brethren" since Vatican II?
Not according to Metropolitan Kiril of the Russian Orthodox Church. He called the statement "honest" and preferable to a diplomatic approach that dodges the tough issues. Dialogue in the ecumenical and interfaith context should not mean "splitting the differences" or soft pedaling the real differences that exist. Many religious communities -- most Baptists, for example -- shun such dialogues because they believe that this is precisely what is implied.
To dialogue -- and to forge from dialogue, relationships, based on mutual trust and understanding -- cannot mean setting aside or bracketing how one's own tradition understands the truth. Ecumenical dialogue is aimed at restoring unity to the Body of Christ, but such unity is built on truth, not at the expense of truth. Dialogue is not about undermining one another's truth claims but understanding them. The Catholic-Lutheran dialogue in recent years on "justification by faith" is one very good example of such honest and, therefore, fruitful dialogue.
A few weeks ago, the Sunday magazine of The New York Times profiled Robert Novak, the noted journalist and news pundit -- and recent convert to the Catholic faith. Asked why he converted from Judaism, he answered the same way that the pope would. It is the same answer the every well-catechized Catholic would give: "I believe that the Catholic Church is the one true Church."
Such a statement is never meant to be a conversation stopper; it is, however, an invitation to further dialogue.
Thomas G. Wenski is the bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Orlando.