Is the pope Catholic? Yes, it appears that he is and it appears that this is news. I think it would be impossible for me to try to evaluate all of the coverage that is out there of Pope Benedict XVI's statement on the unique claims of the Roman Catholic Church and, as a natural result of those beliefs, the Vatican's highly logical point of view on the sacramental claims of other Christian flocks. (Rod "Friend of this blog" Dreher has links to the basics that you need.)
However, let me emphasize the word "sacramental" again. That is what this statement is all about, and you can judge the coverage based on whether the reporters seemed to realize that Rome considers other Christian groups to be "churches" based on the degree to which they claim ancient, apostolic, sacramental ties that bind.
For example, consider Ian Fisher's report in the sacred and authoritative pages of The New York Times. It starts with thunder and lightning from offended parties, but then notes the following:
The Vatican document repeated many of the contentious claims of a document issued in 2000 by the Vatican office on orthodoxy, which Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger headed for more than two decades before being elected pope in 2005.
The document released Tuesday focused largely on the Vatican definition of what constitutes a church, which it defined as being traceable through its bishops to Christ's original apostles. Thus, it said, the world's Orthodox Christians make up a church because of shared history, if "separated" from the "proper" Catholic tradition, while Protestants split from Catholicism during the Reformation are considered only "Christian communities."
In other words, the Eastern Churches and Rome are in a state of broken Communion, while the Protestant bodies do not share the same concept of Communion and apostolic succession. This is precisely, I would think, how most Eastern Orthodox leaders would view Rome. We are mourning an ancient and real schism.
There is some question as to why the pope elected to release this statement, since it repeated claims from the "Dominus Iesus" text in 2000. It appears, to me, that Benedict XVI may be underlining the unique bonds between Rome and the East and, this would be more controversial, putting new distance between Rome and the Anglican Communion that also insists it can claim true ties to the early apostles (through centuries of shared history with Rome before the Reformation).
Thus, it is interesting to read the British tea leaves in the Anglican reaction quotes in, logically enough, the Times of London. There is some bite here, so be warned:
The disappointment of the Anglicans was evident in the response of Canon Gregory Cameron, Dr Williams's former chaplain in Wales and a leading canonical lawyer and scholar who is now ecumenical officer of the Anglican Communion.
Canon Cameron said: "In the commentary of this document we are told that 'Catholic ecumenism' appears 'somewhat paradoxical.' It is paradoxical for leaders of the Roman Catholic Church to indicate to its ecumenical partners that it no longer expects all other Christians merely to return to the true (Roman Catholic) Church, but then for Rome to say that it alone has 'full identity' with the Church of Christ, and that all others of us are lacking."
And then there is this long and very direct response:
The Rev David Phillips, General Secretary of the Church Society, said: "Nothing new is said, but it does clarify the way in which the Vatican has torn apart Christianity because of its lust for power. They remind us that in their view that to be a true church one has to accept the ludicrous idea that the Pope is in some special way the successor of the apostle Peter and the supreme earthly leader of the Church.
"These claims cannot be justified, biblically, or historically, yet they have been used not only to divide Christians but to persecute them and put them to death.
"We are grateful that the Vatican has once again been honest in declaring their view that the Church of England is not a proper Church. Too much dialogue proceeds without such honesty. Therefore, we would wish to be equally open; unity will only be possible when the papacy renounces its errors and pretensions."
Yikes. I am not sure that I have seen the word "ludicrous" attached to the papacy's claims of a special and unique tie to St. Peter -- as opposed to people debating the precise nature of the papal authority that can be drawn from those claims.
Let me note one other interesting set of quotations, drawn from a story by Liz F. Kay in the Baltimore Sun, my local newspaper and one that I tend to criticize quite a bit. This story included some very interesting perspectives on the new document, from an excellent set of experts and insiders. Conservative Catholics will be especially interested in the nuanced comments of a writer who knows a thing or two about the modern papacy:
George Weigel, who has written biographies of Pope Benedict and his predecessor, Pope John Paul II, said the document contains nothing new, and questioned why it had been issued now.
It "does not deny the presence of God's grace in other Christian communions, but the Catholic Church is never going to say ... that it is anything other than the most properly ordered expression of the will of Christ for his church," he said.
"If people do not want to contend with that, then ecumenism has simply become another form of political correctness," Weigel said.
Interesting, but rather predictable. But check this out, with one jab at Rome and then another at the mainstream media:
Weigel faulted the Vatican for failing to place documents on ecumenism in context, leading to the pope's intentions being misinterpreted.
"The inability of the Vatican to communicate the meaning of these documents is a serious problem, but it's a serious problem magnified by the inability of the Western press to admit that its cartoon picture of Joseph Ratzinger was mistaken," he said.
So the Vatican needs to do a better job of helping journalists get religion? It's worth a try.