Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Ah, the Pope

I'm a little late in getting to this because I was busy dealing with heavy issues like Harry Potter and Vacation.

But in case you missed it, there was a little tempest stirred up by the Bishop of Rome (what we Anglicans call the pope) less than a month ago.

Benedict XVI authorized a statement which reemphasized the Roman Catholic Church's assertion that only the Roman Catholic Church is the true church, that the Orthodox Church is a church but flawed, and that all other denominations aren't even church's. Yawn.

In 2000 this same man authored a similar statement when he was a mere Cardinal, so who can be surprised? In fact, it has been official Roman Catholic doctrine for a very long time. Upon what is this claim made? And more importantly, does it matter?

I read hundreds of blog posts on this (it's addicting – you start reading and before you know it, you've missed breakfast and gone straight through to lunch). They are a heated bunch of comments for the most part, and they divide pretty neatly into three types. First, there are the Roman Catholics, many of whom say, "Yes, there is only one church and we're it." They quote the Nicene Creed as evidence. To be fair, several Roman Catholics also wrote to express their dismay at what they consider another blow to building relationships with other Christians. Second, there are the Protestants of various denominations who express their outrage at the Bishop of Rome's audacity, hypocrisy, arrogance and lack of biblical authority. Their line, in general, was that the Roman Catholic Church broke ranks with the true church long ago and therefore has no authority. The third group consists of everyone else – people of other religions gloating over our idiocy and people of no religion proclaiming all religion to be the root of all evil.

As I said, the Roman Catholic Church has claimed superiority for a long time. Peter, the rock upon whom the Church will be built, is the primary focus of this claim. Apostolic succession – that mechanism by which the apostles handed down leadership of the church to new leaders in an unbroken succession to this day – has become one of the standards by which church bodies are judged in Roman Catholic tradition. Perhaps not surprisingly, it was one of the first institutions done away with by most Protestant traditions – because it was corrupted by those who saw it as a way to make money and wield influence (selling bishoprics, for example, or giving them to relatives).

You could go on and on and on ad nauseam with arguments about whether the Roman Catholic Church is good or bad, the One True Church or the child of Satan. Does it matter?

It does only inasmuch as when people who are at odds with each other say, "We can be friends as long as you do it my way," Or "I like you, but you're really not up to snuff," they tend to decrease mutual appreciation rather than enhance it. I grew up in a part of the country where fundamentalist Christians made much the same claims, and I ignored those, too. We live in a time when many (but by no means all) Muslim clerics claim that Islam (and their brand of it) is the only way to salvation. Jews made those claims at one point, too, so nobody's exempt.

But as a Christian, I don't really care what Benedict XVI says about me. It's not for him to say whether I'm part of the church or not. In our church, we recite the Nicene Creed every Sunday. We understand those words, "The one holy catholic and apostolic Church" very differently from our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters – because we understand them to mean all who claim Christ as their lord and savior. And Christ, far more than looking at affiliation or pedigree, looks at our hearts. If your heart is filled with God's love, you're part of the church.

I have known Roman Catholics and Episcopalians and Methodists and Reformed Christians and Baptists and so on who have embodied Christ beautifully and inspiringly. I have known members of those same churches who have willfully walked away from Christ while still proclaiming faith. I'd talk about people of other faiths, but that's a totally different post.

So I'll close with this thought: It's not really for the Bishop of Rome to say whether or not my church is a true church or not. He needs to spend his time looking at the beam in his own eye rather than the mote in anyone else's. On the other hand, don't we all?