Is the pope Catholic?

I ask because the recent foofarah over Benedict XVI’s statement that the Roman Catholic Church is the only Christian ecclesial body that possesses the fullness of truth scandalized quite a few folks, even some Catholics.

Well, what did they expect? It’s the pope’s job to explain and defend Catholic teaching, which makes unique and exclusive truth claims. It would be logically inconsistent for the pope to affirm Catholic teaching while asserting that churches proclaiming contradictory things are equally correct.

Benedict said nothing new. He reaffirmed the Catholic position that Christ’s saving work can occur among non-Catholic Christians, despite rejecting Roman orthodoxy. What caused the most consternation was the pontiff’s point that Protestant churches aren’t proper churches at all.

Undiplomatic? Sure. But Benedict was clarifying an important point of Catholic theology: that you cannot have a real church without a valid Eucharist. You can’t have a valid Eucharist without a sacramentally legitimate priesthood. And you can’t have that in ecclesial bodies that have severed the line of apostolic succession, as Protestant communions have.

You don’t have to agree, but this is what Catholicism teaches. And this is why Metropolitan Kirill, leader of the ecumenical office of the Russian Orthodox Church – which Catholicism theologically qualifies as a church, though “defective” inasmuch as it is not in full communion with Rome – welcomed Benedict’s directive as an “honest statement.” Better to know where we really stand with one another, Kirill rightly said, than to gloss over fundamental theological differences for the sake of making nicey-nice.

The angry reaction, especially from some Catholics, shows why Benedict’s statement was necessary. When I endeavored to convert to Catholicism as a young man, the priest and the nun leading our class spent week after week encouraging us to talk about our feelings, and nothing but.

Sick of this cotton-candy catechism, I went to a crusty old Irish priest in an inner-city parish. “When I get t’roo wit’ ye, lad, ye might not want to be a Catlick,” Father Moloney said. “But ye’ll know what a Catlick is!”

That good priest respected me and the Catholic faith enough to give me the straight dope. Later, when I was received into the Roman church, I knew what was expected of me and why it mattered.

Years later, after a prolonged spiritual crisis, I lost my Catholic faith and am now a communicant of the Orthodox Church. Rather than be offended that Benedict considers my church to be theologically defective – as Orthodoxy in turn regards Catholicism – I rejoice that the Bishop of Rome is far too serious a man to sugarcoat important truths.

Good relations among believers must be built, but only on a foundation of honesty. It does not follow that acknowledging theological differences – particularly the exclusive correctness of one church or religion – therefore requires a program enacting political or social superiority. In fact, the Second Vatican Council proclaimed that religious freedom is a fundamental human right. Acknowledging that people have a right to be wrong about God is a moral breakthrough for humanity, an idea that should be spread.

It’s wrong and dangerous, though, to expect a religious believer to affirm that all beliefs about God could be equally true – which is what Benedict’s critics really demand. To do so would be to empty religion of its deepest meaning – to turn it into something that’s merely socially or personally useful.

That’s where American religion is headed, however. Several years ago, researchers with the University of North Carolina’s National Study of Youth and Religion polled American teenagers and found faith was important to them.

But it’s faith not in established religion but rather in what NYSR’s social scientists termed “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.” Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, as researchers explain, teaches that a vaguely defined God exists, cares about us and wants us to be good, nice and fair. You don’t need to get too involved with God, absent a problem or crisis.

The point of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself. Good people go to heaven.

Whatever that relativist mush is, it has little to do with the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, or any traditional religion. Researchers concluded that either American youths don’t know their traditions’ teaching, or don’t much care.

Strikingly, they found that many teenagers interviewed had never discussed theology with an adult. The theological content of our faiths is fast eroding because of the lazy indifference of older generations to whom the traditions were delivered.

Benedict knows how critical this is. Count me on the side of Christians, Jews, Muslims and others who aren’t afraid to say – respectfully – that I’m wrong about God.

At least they understand what’s at stake.

Rod Dreher is a Dallas Morning News editorial columnist. E-mail him at [email protected]
Rather than be offended that Benedict considers my church to be theologically defective – as Orthodoxy in turn regards Catholicism – I rejoice that the Bishop of Rome is far too serious a man to sugarcoat important truths.

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