Thoughts on differentiating the ‘Church’ from ‘churches’
07/20/2007 Bishop Robert Vasa
Prior to his being elected to the Office of Saint Peter, Pope Benedict XVI made it clear that one of the great dangers facing the Church was what he termed “the dictatorship of relativism.” He used this phrase in contradistinction to the other types of worldly dictatorships which have attempted to destroy the Church over the centuries. Perhaps before I continue, a brief statement about the meaning of relativism would be in order. Relativism comes in many shapes and sizes. At its core it is a mindset which judges the truth or reality of a thought or event or thing on the basis of subjective feelings, attitudes or personal values. Those afflicted with the disease of relativism attempt to ignore the fact that there is such a thing as objective truth. In fact, they often despise and disparage the very concept of truth. Perhaps you have heard the refrain from relativistic friends, “Well, that may be true for you but it certainly is not true for me!” Obviously there is great confusion about the meaning of the very word truth itself. There are ways in which the phrase used above would make perfect sense. For example, I can recall as a child being informed that liver tasted good. That claim was not consistent with my personal experience. Looking at the claim that liver tasted good I later realized that the claim should have been phrased by the liver lover, “I like liver.” This is a clear subjective, personal statement. It is not a universal claim of objective truth. I am, at the same time, perfectly free, while preserving the philosophical reality of truth, to make the contrary statement, “I do not like liver.” It is, however, important to note that there are certain objective things which can be said about liver. It provides a certain, quantifiable level of nutrients, vitamins, minerals and the like, and so one could make the statement, if liver does in fact provide some of these things, that liver is good for you. This is something which is true or not true regardless of whether I happen to like liver or not.
In our seriously misspoken and relativistic age we have otherwise good and faithful Catholics making subjective statements, that is statements which they hold personally to be true, but they make them in absolute ways. Thus we hear, “The Church is wrong in her teaching about the sinfulness of contraception.” The speaker is making a definitive declaration but doing so does not establish a fact. In truth, what the person means is that they do not accept, understand or intend to follow this clear teaching of the Church. A rejection of the teaching authority of the Church or a rejection of the truth of the teaching is a lot different than an acknowledgement of both the authority and the teaching and a subsequent recognition that one is not personally disposed to give assent to that teaching.
I bring this up at this time in order to try to understand the vehement outrage at one of Pope Benedict’s recent clarifications issued through the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. According to news reports the document states: “Christ established here on earth only one church.” The necessary conclusion drawn in the document is that the other Christian communities “cannot be called ‘churches’ in the proper sense” because they do not have apostolic succession - the ability to trace their bishops back to Christ’s original apostles. This clarification of the theology of the Catholic Church is described as having a “harsh tone” which is another ploy of relativists. When something is said that is difficult for them to accept, rather than engage in substantive discussion about the truths at stake the whole matter can be dismissed because it might make some people feel bad.
The Holy Father notes that dialogue between the Catholic Church and other Christian denominations, in order to be constructive, “must involve not just the mutual openness of the participants but also fidelity to the identity of the Catholic faith.” In other words, there are truths which cannot be ignored in the name of simply wanting to get along. As I understand the statement, its internal logic goes something like this. Jesus came to save us from sin and to establish a Church which would continue His saving work. “Church” is the word used to identify this very specific Christ-established reality. This “Church” has an objective God-given reality. While we often use the word church in a very generic, non-specific fashion, the truth remains that the formal and proper use of the word “Church” has a meaning given to it by Christ Himself. Giving formal recognition to other churches, as “Churches” implies that they do, in fact, completely fulfill the definition of Church intended by Christ. Since we believe that Christ established only one Church, then either all of the churches equally fulfill the intention of Christ and are really “one Church” or there is one true Church and those which are not substantially identified with that one Church are really something else altogether.
In our relativistic age in which feelings take precedence over objective reality, it is judged that such a claim is “harsh,” lacking in sensitivity and unnecessarily divisive. In this view it is better to bury a truth, allow people to continue to coexist in a beautiful relativistic complacency and avoid the tough questions. The common tendency is to create a new definition of church, meet that definition and then make the claim that we are all one big happy church. If church is a coming together of various people to give praise to God, then this is certainly a very good thing but such a church has little need for Jesus. If church is a coming together of like-minded people to provide charitable service to the poor, then this is again a very good thing but this does not require the passion, death or resurrection of Jesus. If church is a gathering of people whom God’s word has convoked and who are themselves, by virtue of being nourished with the real Body and Blood of Christ, constituted as the Body of Christ, then we have something more closely identifiable with the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church about which the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has spoken.