Sounds like something from Mark Twain, but here it is, as reported by John L. Allen, Jnr. Apparently Lutheran theologican Michael Root, addressing the Catholic Theological Society of America, found “internal tension, incoherence or contradiction” in Catholic ecclesiology and ecumenism.
Michael Root of the Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary in Columbia, South Carolina, observed that post-Vatican II Catholicism teaches that the one church of Christ is “present and at work” in other Christian bodies such as the Anglican Communion and Lutheranism, that these “ecclesial communities” are instruments of salvation for their members, and that they have preserved the “basic truths” of the gospel. At the same time, Root observed, Catholicism also holds that these bodies lack valid ordained ministries, meaning, in effect, that they don’t have bishops.
Root said that logically speaking, the conclusion would follow that bishops are therefore not essential to ecclesial communion, to the presence of the church, to the means of grace that lead to salvation, or to the teaching office. Otherwise, he suggested, it would be impossible to explain the presence of those qualities in communities that don’t have bishops.
Ironically, Root argued, if one takes Catholic teaching at face value, it “would imply that ordained ministry and episcopacy are less significant for Catholics than they even are for Lutherans.”
If there is one thing I have discovered in the Catholic faith, it is a passion for inner coherance at every turn. Tension is okay, but if, in your reading, you find the articles of the Catholic faith “contradictory”, you can be assured that you don’t understand it rightly.
It is true that the Church acknowledges that it has a “real but imperfect” communion with all who are baptised and believe in Christ. But note two things:
1) This communion is based on faith in Christ and the sacrament of baptism. It is not based on the Eucharist, or on the validity of Holy Orders.
2) This communion is primarily with separated brothers and sisters, and therefore only secondarily with the ecclesial communions as such.
To put it another way, baptism and faith establish a relationship with individuals outside the visible boundaries of the Catholic Church, not with “churches” (eg. “the Anglican communion and Lutheranism”). There is a sense in which the Church has a deeper communion with those true local churches which have preserved valid orders (eg. the Orthodox churches), but baptism and faith always remain the basis for this communion.
The Church does not actually teach that the ecclesial communities are “instruments of salvation for their members” in themselves, as Root claims, but rather that in and among them are preserved some of those means of grace “which derive their efficacy from the very fullness of grace and truth entrusted to the Catholic Church” (UR 3), and therefore which make salvation possible, most notably (according to Vatican II):
the written word of God; the life of grace; faith, hope and charity, with the other interior gifts of the Holy Spirit, and visible elements too. All of these, which come from Christ and lead back to Christ, belong by right to the one Church of Christ [NOT, if I might add a word of clarification, to the ecclesial communions in which separated brothers and sisters encounter them].
However the real communion established by these means of grace are not sufficient for FULL communion, and it is this which Root seems to have failed to understand. FULL communion, according to the will of Christ, requires a shared Eucharist, and a shared Eucharist is impossible without a shared ministerial priesthood. Baptism and faith are the basis, but the Eucharist is the goal, of that communion to which Christ calls his church.
It is quite possible “to explain the presence of those qualities in communities that don’t have bishops”. The word of God can be proclaimed, baptism can be administered, prayers can be offered, the life of grace can be practiced, and the Holy Spirit can certainly be present without the sacramental charism of holy orders. But wherever this is the case, as the Council said, the impetus is toward full communion with the Catholic Church. For apart from valid ministerial orders, it is not possible to absolve sins, confirm, or consecrate the Eucharist.
The Catholic Church has, of course, a civil and even religious respect for the ordained ministers of the ecclesial communities, even though it does not recognise their validity. That is why we expect such clergy, when attending Catholic prayers and liturgies of the Word (eg. Vespers), to be vested according to their custom. We also show respect toward their Eucharistic celebrations, even though we do not recognise their validity. There have been occasions when this respect has been shown in very significant ways, for instance, when Paul VI gave his episcopal ring to the Archbishop of Canterbury and when John Paul II sent gifts of pectoral crosses to all English Anglican bishops. But in effect this was a way of saying: “You are so close to union with us: please come closer!” There are, however few indications that this invitation has been heeded (see the reaction of the English bishops to Cardinal Kasper’s plea for them not to go down the road of ordaining women bishops).
[As an aside here, I was with Lutheran clergy friends camping on the Queen’s Birthday weekend far out of reach of a Catholic mass. I encouraged them to celebrate their Eucharist since all the others present were Lutherans. Afterwards, I assisted in the cleansing of the glass and plate used for communion (the pastor had already consumed the remaining elements). I did so with the same respect that I would have done had it been the Catholic Eucharist–although without the adoration which which I would normally accompany such an action.]
I think if pushed, even Michael Root would agree that the ministry of Word and Sacrament does not establish communion. But equally, he must agree, that a shared ministry is necessary for full communion. Unfortunately there are many examples in the modern world where a level of shared communion is formally established between protestant bodies (eg. Episcopalians and ELCA Lutherans or between the English Anglican Church and the Scandinavian Lutheran Churches) including a shared Eucharist, but where this partial communion has completely defused any further action of seeking full visible unity between these bodies. The Catholic Church is aware of this, and therefore insists that true unity must be visible unity: visible in the whole community, including in its ministers and in its celebration of one Eucharist around one altar.