In July, the Pope endorsed a statement that ruffled some feathers in the Protestant aviary, and it turns out that the statement actually revealed that a number of Protestants aren’t all that Protestant anymore.  They demonstrated this slide away from Reformation confidence by being upset by the revelation that Pope Benedict XVI still believes that his version of the Faith is true.  He still actually thinks those things.

True.  What a strange word these days.  What the Pope said, in effect, was that the Roman Catholic Church is the one and only true Church, and that the others, um, aren’t.  Aren’t, that is, “‘Churches’ in the proper sense.”  (The Orthodox qualify as “separated” and “particular” Churches.)  Protestant “ecclesial Communities,” the document said, “suffer from defects,” because they “do not enjoy apostolic succession in the sacrament of Orders,” and this means that they cannot be considered to be Churches “in the proper sense.”

The reaction was immediate, sad, and kind of funny.  For example, Clifton Kirkpatrick, the General Assembly stated clerk of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), issued a letter that said that Benedict’s endorsement of the statement “mischaracterizes our faith,” and “reopens questions of Christian unity.”

The reaction to the statement reveals at least a couple things about the current state of affairs in the broader Church.  The first is that it shows the vast difference between true catholicity and ecumenical goo.  If fierce Protestants and dedicated Catholics sought to love each other while standing for the Faith once delivered, quite a bit of good could come out of something like that.  But the vanguard of the ecumenical movement has actually been made up of a truth-rot liberalism that believes nothing in particular.  The ticket into the ecumenical movement has been to downgrade dogmatic conviction, and it seemed in the halcyon days following Vatican II that even the Catholics were keeping their end of the deal.  But now comes Pope Benedict XVI, believing stuff.  In public.  The Reformed preacher Martyn Lloyd-Jones once said this about the ecumenical movement—and it seems pertinent somehow—“You cannot bring about a resurrection by putting all the corpses into one graveyard.”

The second problem concerns apostolic succession.  Some Protestants have a doctrine of it, and many others don’t.  Those who don’t (a hardshell Baptist, say), when asked where their church was before the Reformation, would say something like, “Tied to stakes and hiding in caves from you guys, mostly.”  This kind of Protestant, when told that the Pope said that his church is a mere “ecclesial Community,” would say, “Doesn’t matter anyway.  Like I tell the people every Sunday, no church can save you.  Gotta have Jesus.”  This kind of Protestant should be upset by the Pope’s pronouncement . . . not at all.

Then there are the conservative heirs of the magisterial Reformation who have (in variegated degrees) a Protestant appreciation for a doctrine of apostolic succession.  It may be a doctrine of succession in ordinations (as with the Anglicans) or a doctrine of baptismal succession from the apostles, as Presbyterian theologian Peter Leithart has recently argued, but it is there.  These Protestants will not be upset either, because they wake up in the morning knowing what they believe, and they don’t have to get permission from Rome to believe it.  They have a doctrine of the historical Church (which is not to be confused with a view of contemporary denominations), and they know where they stand.  They should be upset . . . not at all.

So who is upset?  The forces of relativism and postmodernism have gutted a large wing of the Protestant world.  They don’t believe the articles of the Creed anymore, they want to ordain all kinds of interesting sexual experiments, and they think Jesus was the original hippie.  This is the same wing of the Christian religion that has poured itself into ecumenical dialogue with Rome.  About the only thing they have left anymore is a sort of scratch-and-sniff churchiness.  And now the Pope wants to take that away.