A couple weeks ago the Vatican raised eyebrows when Pope Benedict XVI issued a statement that the Roman Catholic Church is the only true church of Jesus Christ. Obviously, given that this blog is a conversation between Evangelicals and Mormons, many of us would disagree with that claim. But I think it’s a fascinating bit of news that is relevant to both the Mormon claim to legitimacy and our previous conversation of how to define Christianity.
The Vatican’s announcement basically said that the Roman Catholic Church is the only true church of Jesus Christ because only the Catholic Church can claim the requisite authority from Christ through apostolic succession. Echoing a similar 2000 statement, the Pope said that other orthodox churches were flawed churches, and that other Christian denominations weren’t even churches at all, but instead, ecclesiastical communities. Presumably, this would include all Evangelical denominations and perhaps the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as well.
This isn’t actually anything new — the Roman Catholic Church has claimed its place as the true church of Christ all along, not just in 2000 and 2007. The Mormon Church makes a similar claim to authority, through through revelation and modern prophets rather than apostolic authority. Coming from an LDS background, I was very surprised when I first discovered that many (if not most) Christian denominations don’t make similar claims. In a simplistic view, why would you subscribe to a faith that doesn’t even think it’s the right one?
Of course, the simplistic view is woefully incomplete. As Tim described in an earlier post, many Protestant Christian denominations accept baptism and communion from other denominations. They see themselves as part of a world-wide family of Christian worshipers, and the idea of claiming sole authority is alien to them. Tim described that view when he wrote:
When the LDS church defines “the one true church” it leaves everyone else out. It says that all baptisms are invalid outside of the LDS church. It says that taking the sacrament is invalid everywhere outside the LDS church. It says that there is no priesthood authority outside the LDS church. In effect, the LDS church’s position that it is the one and only true church is saying that there is no true Christian worship outside of Mormonism.
While most Mormons would describe their claim to authority in less exclusive terms, that is essentially what they assert — that they and only they have the full truth and gospel of Jesus Christ, with the requisite power and authority to perform saving ordinances and conduct His church. That is also exactly the claim the Vatican has reaffirmed in its recent statement. Like the 2000 announcement, the statement is somewhat controversial because many see it as an implicit rejection or indictment of other faiths. But I don’t think claiming to have the truth is inherently exclusionary. Mormon Church spokesman Michael Otterson observed on his On Faith blog:
Obviously, many other Christians disagree with [the LDS Church’s claim to divine authority] as much as I believe in it, and there ought to be vigorous and constructive debate. Yet I can also acknowledge fundamental differences between Christian churches (many of them clearly irreconcilable) without being offended. It matters not one whit to me that the Catholic and some other churches don’t accept “Mormon” baptisms. We don’t accept theirs either. But I can look for a deeper mutual understanding of those differences, strive for good will and hope to embrace others as fellow Christians.
Like Otterson, I’m not particularly offended by the claims of the Catholic Church. I certainly hope they think they’re right. Even without agreeing with them, I can respect their right to claim authority, just as I hope they respect the claim of my own faith. I don’t see such claims as condemning other followers of Christ. The position of my own church is that other churches are full of faithful, good people who believe many of the true principles of the Gospel of Christ. From what I understand of the Vatican statement and the Second Vatican Council, the Catholic Church also recognizes the good works of other churches or “ecclesiastical communities.” Rather than interpreting the Catholic or Mormon claims as an indictment of the rest of Christianity, I see it as their sincere attempts to draw closer to Christ and the truth He taught. And that is something I can always respect.