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The Uniqueness of the Catholic Church

It seems many Catholics have been unsettled recently by ecumenical developments such as the highly nuanced accord with the World Lutheran Federation and are wondering if the Catholic Church is watering down its once exclusive claims. In a recent address to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Pope John Paul II laid to rest such fears and reaffirmed the uniqueness of Christianity and Catholicism. This translation is from the Zenit news agency. 

Papal Message for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith
On Occasion of Plenary Assembly,
January 28, 2000

Your Eminences, Venerable Brothers in the Episcopate and Priesthood, Dearest Faithful Collaborators:

1. It is a great joy for me to meet with you at the end of your plenary assembly. I want to express my recognition and appreciation for the daily work your dicastery carries out at the service of the Church for the good of souls, working together with Peter’s successor, first custodian and defender of the sacred deposit of the faith.

I thank his Eminence Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger for the sentiments he expressed in his address on behalf of all, and for his exposition of the topics that were the object of your careful reflection during the assembly, which was dedicated in particular to going deeper into the problem of the uniqueness of Christ and to the revision of the norms of the so-called ” delicta graviora.”

2. I would now like to address briefly the principal arguments discussed during your meeting. Your dicastery thought it opportune and even necessary to study the theme of the salvific uniqueness and universality of Christ and the Church. The reaffirmation of the doctrine of the Magisterium in regard to these themes is proposed for the purpose of making the world see “the splendor of the glorious gospel of Christ” (2 Cor. 4:4) and for refuting the errors and serious ambiguities that have emerged and are spreading in different ambits.

In fact, in recent years a mentality has emerged in theological and ecclesial realms that tends to relativize the revelation of Christ and his unique and universal mediation in the order of salvation and also to reappraise the need for Christ’s Church as universal sacrament of salvation.

In order to be able to remedy this relativistic mentality, we must first confirm the definitive and complete character of the revelation of Christ. Faithful to the Word of God, Vatican Council II teaches: “Both the profound truth on God and on human salvation shines on us through this revelation in Christ, who is both mediator and fullness of the whole revelation” (Dei Verbum 2).

Because of this, in the encyclical letter Redemptoris Missio I again proposed to the Church the task of proclaiming the gospel as the fullness of truth: “God has made himself known in the fullest way in the definitive Word of his salvation: He has told humanity who he is. And this definitive self-revelation is the fundamental reason why the Church is missionary by nature. She cannot fail to proclaim the gospel—that is, the fullness of truth, which God has made known to us about himself” (n. 5).

3. Therefore, the theory of the limited character of the revelation of Christ, which would find its complement in other religions, is contrary to the faith of the Church. The underlying reason for this false assertion attempts to base itself on the fact that the truth about God cannot be g.asped and manifested globally and completely by any historical religion, not even, therefore, by Christianity or Jesus Christ. However, this position contradicts the affirmations of faith according to which there is full and complete revelation of the salvific mystery of God in Jesus Christ, even though understanding that the infinite mystery can always be examined and studied more profoundly in light of the Spirit of truth that guides us “into all truth” (John 16:13).

Although limited insofar as human reality, nevertheless the words, works, and whole historical event of Christ have as their source the divine Person of the incarnate Word and because of this carry in themselves the definitive and complete revelation of his salvific ways and of the divine mystery itself. The truth about God is not abolished or reduced because it is told in human language. Instead, it remains unique, full, and complete because the one who speaks and acts is the Son of God made flesh.

4. The uniqueness of the Church he founded is found in connection with the salvific mediation of Christ. In fact, the Lord Jesus constituted his Church as a salvific reality: as his Body, through which he himself operates in the history of salvation. Therefore, just as there is only one Christ, he has only one Body: “only one Catholic and Apostolic Church” (Cf. Creed, DS 48). In this regard, Vatican Council II states: “Based on sacred Scripture and Tradition, the Holy Council. . . teaches that this pilgrim Church is necessary for salvation” (Lumen Gentium 14).

Hence, it is erroneous to consider the Church as a way of salvation equal to those of other religions, which would be complementary to the Church although converging with her toward the eschatological Kingdom of God. Therefore, a certain indifferent mentality must be excluded, which is “marked by a religious relativism that leads to maintaining that one religion is the same as another” (cf. Redemptoris Missio 36).

It is true that non-Christians—and this was recalled by Vatican Council II—can “gain” eternal life “under the influence of grace,” if “they seek God with a sincere heart” (Lumen Gentium 16). But in their sincere search for the truth of God they are, in fact, “ordered” to Christ and his Body, the Church (cf. ibid.). Nevertheless, they find themselves in a deficient situation, compared to those who have the fullness of salvific means in the Church. Hence, following the command of the Lord (cf. Matt. 28:19–20) and as a duty of love toward all men, it is understandable that the Church “constantly proclaims, and is obliged to proclaim, Christ who is ‘the Way, the Truth, and the Life’ (John 14:6), and in whom men find the fullness of religious life in which God has reconciled all things with himself” (Nostra Aetate 2).

5. In the encyclical letter Ut Unum Sint, I solemnly confirmed the Catholic Church’s commitment to the “restoration of unity,” in line with the great cause of ecumenism that Vatican Council II had so much at heart. You contributed, together with the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of Christian Unity, to achieving the agreement on the fundamental doctrine on justification, signed on October 31 of last year in Augsburg [Germany]. With confidence in the help of divine grace, let us go forward on this road, in spite of the difficulties. However, our ardent desire to arrive one day at full communion with the other churches and ecclesial communities must not darken the truth that the Church of Christ is not a utopia to be reassembled from present existing fragments with our human forces. The decree Unitatis Redintegratio speaks explicitly of unity “that we believe subsists, without the possibility of being lost, in the Catholic Church, and we hope that it will grow more every day until the end of time” (n. 14).

Dearest brothers, in the service your congregation renders to the successor of Peter and to the Magisterium of the Church, you thus contribute to make the revelation of Christ continue to be in history “the true star of orientation” of the whole of humanity (cf. Fides et Ratio 15).

In congratulating you for this important and precious ministry, I express my encouragement to continue with new energy in the service of salvific truth: ” Christus heri, hodie, et semper!”—Christ yesterday, today, and forever!

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