Monday, July 16, 2007

"Which God alone sees clearly"

The recent statement by the Vatican about the relationship of Roman Catholicism with Orthodoxy and Protestantism raises, once again, fundamental questions about the nature of the Church. Catholicism insists, as it always has, that the human institution headed by the Pope also wields divine authority and that its legitimacy is due to the place given by Our Lord to St. Peter, and through those men he ordained, and so on. And that because of that succession the sacraments are uniquely efficacious through the Roman church [in fact the statement's definition of "Church" is particularly related to the proper delivery of the sacraments]. A few Protestant denominations laid claim to that source of authority too, although the main current of Protestant thought, holding that Scripture is the supreme authority, argued that error, especially on justification, discredited the Catholic claim. The clarity of the Catholic reiteration of their position is beneficial because any true ecumenism must be based on honesty, not fudging. There is, though, another understanding of the meaning of "the Church" which is not based on institutions. S.M. Hutchens:
What makes me a Protestant is that there is a place to stand here where it is not required that I identify any particular communion as the one, true Church. I was not raised in that part of Protestantism, but in a part where...Catholics were not Christians...unless they...tended toward...belief in justification by faith alone and a personal conversion experience as its sacrament. ...[T]he Catholic might be a Christian, but could only be to the degree that he was a Protestant, and Catholicism could only be true to the extent (very dubious) that it was tributary to us.

But there were places to stand within Protestantism that did not require this, where the Church was perceived as C. S. Lewis perceived it (a perception, I must insist, not by any means peculiar to him), as a single thing that transcends the impossibility of church division—a creation of the Holy Spirit that was like him in both its reality and its invisibility—that one could perceive, “hearing the sound thereof,” but could not grasp fully in any ecclesial office or institution, no matter how excellent its constitution. It has seemed to me good to give up a kind of belonging that is offered by divided churches that are secure in their identities for an undivided church that I can (very imperfectly) perceive touching all of them—but which God and God alone sees clearly, just as I see Christ touching those who profess him, while only God can see our hearts and perfectly know our ends. This seems to me to do full justice to both the logic of identity—only this way can one reasonably perceive the Church as one, holy, catholic, and apostolic—and the reality that comes down to the judgment of Christ, to individuals as to whether he knows them or not, and to churches, with respect to their final end on his lampstand.
Mere Comments: Notes on "Questions on the Doctrine of the Church"

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