Pope Benedict XVI in Assisi
Photo: Franco Origlia/Getty Images
In principle, every Christian church has a right to insist that only they are fully Christian, but from an atheistic perspective all are equally Christian. Atheists consistently have to deal with Christians telling us that this or that group aren't "really" Christian (because they are violent, because they accept gays, etc.). Cases like this, though, where the Vatican is officially denying the validity of all other claims to being equally Christian help reveal why we outsiders just can't accept such claims at face value.
A 16-page document by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which Pope Benedict once headed, described Christian Orthodox churches as true churches, but suffering from a "wound" since they do not recognize the primacy of Pope.
But the document said the "wound is still more profound" in Protestant denominations. "Despite the fact that this teaching has created no little distress ... it is nevertheless difficult to see how the title of 'Church' could possibly be attributed to them," it said. ...
The document said the Council's opening to other faiths recognized there were "many elements of sanctification and truth" in other Christian denominations, but stressed only Catholicism had all the elements to be Christ's Church fully. The text refers to "ecclesial communities originating from the Reformation", a term used to refer to Protestants and Anglicans.
Father Augustine Di Noia, Under-Secretary for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, insists that "The Church is not backtracking on ecumenical commitment," but this document should make clear to everyone involved that "ecumenical" here simply means "getting others to eventually recognize the supremacy of the pope and the Church of Rome." That's always been the position of the Vatican and it would be wrong to expect them to change it now. They are not interested in compromise, except when it's others doing the compromising.
Everyone is making a big deal about this, even though there technically isn't anything new in the recent statement. All in all, it's mainly a restatement or confirmation of what was already stated in the document Dominus Iesus issued in 2000 under the supervision of Pope John Paul II. At the time, it was made unambiguous that churches outside Catholicism were not "true churches" but merely "ecclesial communities" because they lack the "means of salvation."
Since Jesus is the "means of salvation" in Christianity, this means that churches outside of Catholicism lack Jesus — only the Catholic Church, under the direction of Pope Benedict XVI, "has" Jesus. Since Christianity itself is conceived of as being the only true religion, the only true ideology, and the only valid means of living, claiming to be the sole Christian church is necessarily a claim to being the only legitimate source of the only legitimate way for human beings to live.
This means that the Vatican document may appear to be solely the concern of Catholics or perhaps of Christians generally, but it's relevant to us all. Catholics aren't typically a source of Christian Supremacist ideology, but this insistence on defining one's own organization as the only genuinely Christian one is an integral part of Christian Supremacy. The Catholic Church is thus feeding the underlying ideology behind extremist and even violent Christian behavior. Is it any wonder that some atheists argue that moderate and liberal Christians inadvertently provide cover to fundamentalists, extremists, and even terrorists.