The pope has spoken and people have gotten upset. As is so often the case, most of them are upset about nothing. Perhaps there is little point in my decrying a hoary tradition, but one does get tired of its incessant repetition. Popes seldom say anything really new (which is why John XXIII was such a remarkable exception). They specialize in nuanced and essentially trivial restatements of old dogmas. People who haven't been paying much attention suddenly notice that they disagree with the pope (as if that weren't an old story in itself) and they shriek in dismay.
Get a life, people.
I am a cradle Catholic who does not believe Church dogma. Any of it. You can't get much more lapsed than that. I am, however, steeped in Catholicism due to my upbringing and it may well be that I won't ever fully recover from it. That's okay. Despite the childhood trauma attendant on membership in such a system, there is still a rosy nostalgic glow about memories of the time when I belonged to the One True Church. While more modern Christian sects might rail against the excesses of the Roman Catholic behemoth, all of the arriviste churches keep beating their heads against the primacy and historicity of Christianity's oldest and biggest operation. There's a whole lot of seniority-envy out there.
Martin Luther did us all a favor, of course, by hammering his theses into the fault lines in the Catholic monolith. Christianity has less oppressive power when broken into fragments, a process that is robust and ongoing on the Protestant side (now up to tens of thousands of denominations). Luther's revolt opened the way to establish today's secular societies, which were untenable under unitary Catholic rule. Competing religions are weaker religions, and we are all beneficiaries of the Protestant Reformation.
Nevertheless, whenever the leader of Christianity's 800-pound gorilla deigns to speak, people listen. And, frequently, misunderstand. Let's get down to cases.
Salvation comes from the Church
Since Cardinal Ratzinger was a well-known conservative in the Vatican ranks, his papacy was expected to hew to a traditionalist line. A Daily Kos diarist using the handle Devilstower posted an article titled The Conservative's Pope in which he or she sought to document that Benedict XVI has turned out exactly as anticipated. I agree that Benedict is indeed an extremely conservative pope, but part of that conservatism has manifested itself in the pontiff's glacial pace in response to Church issues.
For example, it took him over two years to give bishops the authority to authorize local use of the old-fashioned Latin mass (the Tridentine), frustrating those who expected instant action after his election in April 2005. Since the demand for the old Latin rite is relatively small, the pope's new policy may be a difference without a great distinction.
The apparent big news, though, is that Benedict got around to restating the conclusions of Dominus Iesus, a 2000 document written during the pope's time as cardinal in charge of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (the successor agency to the notorious Inquisition). The supposedly exciting news is that the pope declared the Roman Catholic Church to be the “one true church” through which salvation was accorded to humanity. This is, in fact, ancient Church doctrine and is embodied in the Nicene Creed. As promulgated by the 381 A.D. Council of Constantinople, the creed concludes with a statement declaring belief “[i]n one holy catholic and apostolic Church; we acknowledge one baptism for the remission of sins; we look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come.” A number of Protestant sects mouth those words during their services, no doubt causing any number of their members to wince at the self-evident falsity of the “one” church claim.
Benedict was merely restating Catholic doctrine when he averred that Catholicism is the “one holy catholic and apostolic Church.” Did he claim thereby that all non-Catholics are doomed to hell? No. By virtue of Christ's sacrifice and establishment on his Church on earth (naturally identified by the Vatican as meaning the Roman Catholic Church), salvation was ostensibly made available to all truth-seekers who try faithfully to follow God's will—whether or not they are Roman Catholics (or, for that matter, even Christians). Paragraph 1260 of the Catechism makes this point explicit:
1260 “Since Christ died for all, and since all men are in fact called to one and the same destiny, which is divine, we must hold that the Holy Spirit offers to all the possibility of being made partakers, in a way known to God, of the Paschal mystery.” Every man who is ignorant of the Gospel of Christ and of his Church, but seeks the truth and does the will of God in accordance with his understanding of it, can be saved. It may be supposed that such persons would have desired Baptism explicitly if they had known its necessity.Since I don't believe in salvation or an afterlife, this is an argument akin to reserving space for an angel jamboree on the head of pin. I do, however, think it would be nice if people knew the actual contents of the fictions over which they argue and tear their hair.
In the Daily Kos posting, Devilstower speculated that Benedict's “new” proclamation will shatter the alliance between Catholics and conservative Protestants: “Being told they're going to Hell is... well, it's going to piss them off, that's what it's going to do.” Maybe it will, and that would be a lovely outcome. It would, however, be an outcome based on ignorance. Fortunately, that is not an item in short supply.
The quasi-truth, however, is otherwise. You, too, can go to imaginary heaven. Benedict did not believe or say otherwise.
*Latin scholars are welcome to correct me at their leisure.