Local view: People of faith should not let church doctrine lead to division

There are very certain social downsides to being counted among the clergy. Many folks think we can discuss nothing but religion or religious practice. I am not the only clergy person who has been greeted at a wedding reception by someone's uncle ...

There are very certain social downsides to being counted among the clergy. Many folks think we can discuss nothing but religion or religious practice. I am not the only clergy person who has been greeted at a wedding reception by someone's uncle who reports, "I used to be an altar boy." I usually do not respond that, by startling coincidence, I, too, used to be an altar boy.

This past summer, that conversational gambit has been replaced by either a question or a judgment: "So, the pope says Protestants cannot go to heaven."

"Really? I didn't know that. Tell me more," I reply. And so they do.

Actually, what I thought Pope Benedict XVI said was: "The missionary role is common to all baptized, who are called everywhere to be bearers of the message of peace." In fact, that is what he did say to the thousands who gathered in St. Peter's Square on July 8. He also commented on the meaning of the missionary mandate for each believer, affirming the Evangelist Luke's emphasis that "the mission is not reserved to the Twelve Apostles, but is extended to other disciples," and that in "God's field there is work for everyone."

In his message Benedict XVI also expressed his desire that the "Gospel reawaken in all the baptized the awareness of being missionaries of Christ, called to prepare the way for him with words and with the testimony of their lives." That should get you to heaven, even if you are a Lutheran.


What about Jews, Muslims, Buddhists and Hindus? John Paul II noted in his book, Crossing the Threshold of Hope, that God can work outside the church and outside the sacraments. This insight is not late-breaking news. No one is outside God's saving power. The Church routinely prays to God for "all your people / and all who seek you with a sincere heart" (Fourth Eucharistic prayer).

Do not all seekers look in sincerity for truth? For all of these, the church prays day by day. And if someone could not be saved, what would be the point of praying for her or him?

Speaking of other religious traditions, the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) taught that "The Catholic Church rejects nothing that is true and holy in these religions. The Church has a high regard for their conduct and way of life, for those precepts and doctrines which, although differing on many points from that which the Church believes and propounds, often reflect a ray of that truth which enlightens all men" (Nostra Aetate 2). This does not sound like the road to limbo, purgatory or hell.

Pope John XXIII, who summoned the council, said, "What separates us as believers in Christ is much less than what unites us." In the document that provoked the recent heated discussion, Benedict did reassert a teaching that also is not late-

breaking news -- that the Catholic Church is a visible and spiritual community in which from its beginning and throughout the centuries are found both apostolic succession and seven sacraments. He notes that there are ecclesial communities that have not preserved the apostolic succession or a celebration of the Eucharist presided over by men ordained in this succession by a laying on of hands. He calls these communions "ecclesial Communities." Benedict sees the divided church as a wounded church. Jesus prayed that the church be one; divisions in the Christian family seem opposed to what he had in mind.

Historically, the reformers protested various abuses and questioned certain teachings, thus the name Protestant. They moved from the Roman communion, which took

400 years to hear and respond to the cries for reform from Luther and others, to something new that viewed apostolic succession and ministry through the laying on of hands differently. For Benedict to observe this as a distinguishing feature between Catholicism and other Christian communities or churches is not to denigrate them. Only when we understand our real and chosen differences can we truly appreciate diversity and hope to come to a new, better and full communion.

I explained all of this to a questioner who responded, "Well, you give a very charitable interpretation of the pope's dictum." Her annoyance with Benedict XVI was based on having read a couple paragraphs in the Cleveland Plain Dealer. I thought mine was not so much an interpretation but an explanation of the actual sources and the church's intent and teaching.


We believers trust that our seeking will eventually bring us to see God face-to-face. It is justice rather than charity that prompts us to understand that other seekers, too, hope to see God. God alone will judge both them and us.

Christians are called to follow the lead of St. Paul, trusting that "the one who began this good work in us will bring it to completion" (Philippians). Until then, we can claim St. Thomas More's plea: "Pray for me, as I will for thee, that we may merrily meet in heaven." Lutherans, too.

The Rev. William C. Graham is a professor of theology and director of Catholic Studies at the College of St. Scholastica in Duluth.

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