On Catholics and Pundits

On Catholics and Pundits, by Kelly Baker

On Tuesday, July 10th, the Vatican issued a sixteen-page document from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which described Orthodox and Protestant denominations as “wounded” for not recognizing the primacy of the pope. While this might not seem particularly surprising, Benedict XVI, then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, had issued a similar document in 2000. What has been interesting to this American religious historian is how pundits have reacted to this statement.

In my own New Mexico, the Albuquerque Journal found this story riveting and interviewed several Protestant leaders in the community. Here’s a blurb from the article:

The Rev. James M. Collie, executive presbyter of the Presbytery of Santa Fe, said Pope Benedict's return to traditional language that denies the unity of the church and embraces artificial barriers is "regrettable."

"But, let me tell you, Roman Catholics are not going to get away from the Presbyterians that easily," Collie said. "We've worked too hard and too long with our Catholic colleagues in New Mexico. We know that we always do better when we bring our strengths together— rather than remain weak and divided."

Suddenly, it seems (to some) that Catholics are drawing lines where none previously existed, and that this somehow jeopardizes interreligious dialogue at the local scene as well as the larger global community. Yet, I would probably differ with this assessment. I think most will probably react like the Rev. James Collie and not allow this statement to damage ecumenical relationships.

What is more interesting to me is the reaction of CNN correspondent, who declared the pope “irrelevant” to non-Catholics. A previous Catholic and now devout Protestant, the correspondent takes up historical American Protestant critiques of the Catholic Church from lack of knowledge of scripture to lack of autonomy for laity to Catholic Church’s ownership of Jesus. This begs the questions: What is at stake in Benedict’s pronouncement? And will it really affect the relations between American Catholics and American Protestants? How much is the everyday practice of religion by both impacted by a statement from the Vatican?

More interestingly, I wonder if there could ever be a “Christian” history of America that wiped away denominational differences. Yet, I think this would erase valuable differences that make the story rich and, well, complicated.


jfahler said…
Great blog... this is the first time I've left a comment here, but I've subscribed to it through Google Reader for a while now... as somebody who is interested in going to grad. school for American religious history, it's a great resource.

As for Baker's questions, I think I would react by mentioning that after talking to many (American) Catholics I know about the current pope, they seem to agree that he is somehow "transitional," and not in the spirit of ecumenical outreach which has pervaded the papacy in recent memory.

While I'm doubtful of the assessments of these Catholics (well� perhaps just uncertain), I think it gives great testament to the divide scholars have already noted between European and American Catholicism. Just as the said Presbyterian noted in the article, I doubt there will be a sudden divide for American Protestants and American Catholics. What the pope has to deal with is a systemized church (...Church as he would put it) which should be unified - but historically has been anything but, even through pre-Reformation history.

Perhaps whatever reactions we see to his pronouncements will be tests of his (supposed) belief that the Church is somehow unified in the first place. My personal question is if it still can be� especially in a global economy and society.
Kelly said…
This is a wonderful assessment, and I agree that the globalization poses an interesting puzzle to the supposed unity of the Catholic Church. This might prove challenging, especially because of the diversity present within the Catholic Church today.

I look forward to further commentary on this issue from Catholics as well as Catholic historians.

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