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When Is a Not-Church a Church? When It's an "Ecclesial Community"

Pope Benedict XVI continues to make things as clear as he can for his own church and for everyone else. So now we have another document from his pen, following on the “Dominus Iesus” document of 2000, that makes sure we all know that there is only One True Church. And a predictable uproar has followed.

But I think we kinda already knew Rome thought that, no?

I remember being formally invited to ceremonies celebrating graduates at the provincial university at which I used to teach, ceremonies held by a constituent college of that university run by Jesuits. We were welcome, as members of the Department of Religion, to robe up and take full public part in these events–except for taking communion. Only Roman Catholics could do that. We Protestants didn’t much care for that policy and didn’t attend. But we knew where the Roman church stood: over there, in the communion line, without us.

Most of us already knew that the Roman church was insistent on everyone recognizing the primacy of the Pope. Anyone paying attention to the resistance of Catholic priests to millions of Latin American conversions to Protestantism knows that those priests seem powerfully convinced that the Roman church is the North Pole, and any step in any direction is a step South. So what’s new?

Furthermore, what’s so upsetting? Many leaders of Protestant churches have been quoted in the media saying how dismayed they are with this statement, claiming that it somehow hurts their ecumenical conversations with Rome. But how? Benedict & Co. (and it’s a pretty big “Co.”) are only saying what the Vatican said at its most reformist council, the Second Vatican Council of 1962-65. Even in the documents issued by that breath of fresh air, as Pope John XXIII put it, we non-Catholics are but “separated brethren.”

Yet isn’t that an interesting phrase! Protestants and Orthodox are not members of true churches, but we are acknowledged to be truly Christian and used by God in the mystery of his salvific plan for the world. In line with this view, this new document uses the phrase “ecclesial community” to describe our non-churches.

But what is an “ecclesial community”? Remembering that ekklesia in Greek is the root of our word “church,” we find that Rome has pronounced Protestant and Orthodox communions to be, well, “churchy communities.” And that’s entirely consistent with Rome’s outlook: without a Pope, without a proper apostolic succession of bishops, without right (Catholic) doctrine, without a correct understanding and administration of the sacraments–well, how much can Protestants and Orthodox expect? It’s actually quite generous of the Pope to call us “churchy.”

So I’ll settle for that, as an ecumenical evangelical Protestant. Rome has come a long way since it simply pronounced anathemas on Luther and my other Protestant forebears.

Indeed, I’d be glad if the Latin American bishops would ease up on the evangelicals and grant that they are, at least, “churchy.”

And I recall that in the Protestant sects among which I grew up, many of whom congratulated themselves (with mutual exclusivity) on being the One True Church, the Roman Catholic Church was not called “churchy”–except in this sense: the Church of the Devil.

So, Brother Benedict, in the spirit of what many are failing to see as your generous acknowledgment of the genuine Christian elements in other denominations, I’m glad to extend the right hand of fellowship and say that you and your kind strike me as “churchy,” too.


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