Column: Changing churches more than a matter of changing buildings

by Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann

Recently, I received a letter from a teenager who said that her grandmother, who is a Baptist, believes that she and other Catholic members of her family are going to hell. She asked me how to convince her grandmother that the Catholic Church is the true church.

This summer I received an invitation to attend the wedding of a relative, who was baptized and raised a Catholic, but in recent years had joined the Protestant church of her fiancé. I sent a gift and a note to my relative explaining why I would not be attending her wedding.

I promised to pray for her and her husband to be, but I also wrote that I was saddened that she had decided to abandon her Catholic faith. I was pleased that, through the Protestant community with whom she now worshiped, she had grown in her understanding of the Bible, but I was distressed that she was no longer able to receive the Eucharist. I told her that it made me aware of my own failure, as a bishop, to teach effectively the importance and the meaning of the Eucharist. I expressed my prayerful hope that God would lead her back to the Catholic Church.

A few weeks after the wedding, I received a thank-you note for my gift. My relative told me what a beautiful wedding it was. She remarked that it was too bad that I did not attend “just because of a building.”

These events reminded me of the controversy this summer over the brief document issued by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) responding to some questions that had arisen over certain aspects of Catholic doctrine regarding the theological meaning of the term “church.” The CDF document was aimed at Catholic theologians and those engaged in ecumenical dialogue to explain with greater precision some of the terms used by the Second Vatican Council in its discussion of the church.

There was a great deal of misinformation in the media about the document. The secular reporting on the is- sue gave many people the impression that the statement by the CDF was a triumphal assertion that there was no salvation outside the Catholic Church. In other words, the CDF was claiming the converse of my young letter writer’s grandmother: Namely, if you are not Catholic, you are headed for hell.

The CDF’s document stated: “It is possible according to Catholic doctrine, to affirm correctly that the Church of Christ is present and operative in the churches and ecclesial communities not yet fully in communion with the Catholic Church, on account of the elements of sanctification and truth that are present in them.”

One of the questions directly addressed by the CDF was why the Second Vatican Council stated that “the Church of Christ subsists in the Catholic Church” instead of saying the Church of Christ is the Catholic Church.

The CDF explains that this is an acknowledgment “that there are numerous elements of sanctification and of truth which are found outside her [the Catholic Church’s] structure.”

Despite what you may have read in the media, the CDF was both sensitive and accurate in acknowledging that the Holy Spirit has used the orthodox churches and Protestant communities as “instruments of salvation” for many. The CDF affirmed that these Christian communities, separated from the Catholic Church, have been used by God to communicate to many others God’s love revealed in Jesus and to assist many along the path of holiness.

Was my relative correct then? Is it really no big deal what church we belong to? Is it just a matter of what building or, more probably, what community we prefer? Stay tuned next week for the answer to these questions!

Leave a Reply