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July 25, 2007
Column #1,352
Catholicism - The "One True Church"?
By Mike McManus

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. - Pope Benedict XVI ignited worldwide controversy by re-issuing his earlier writings stating that non-Catholic Christian communities are either defective or not true churches, and that the Roman Catholic Church is the only true path to salvation.

"Christ `established here on earth' only one church," the document asserts. Protestants "cannot be called `churches' in the proper sense" since they do not have "apostolic succession," or the ability to trace their bishops back to the original 12 apostles of Jesus. Orthodox churches  have that direct connection, but suffer from a "wound" because they do not recognize the primacy of the Pope, a wound that is "still more profound" among Protestants.

It is "difficult to see how the title of `Church' could be possibly attributed to them," claimed the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which declared Roman Catholicism is "the one true Church of Christ."

Thus, in a few words the pope undid four decades of ecumenical outreach to Protestant and Orthodox Christians.

The proclamation did have a few kind words, however: "These separated churches and communities, though we believe they suffer from defects, are deprived neither of significance nor importance in the mystery of salvation. In fact, the Spirit of Christ has not refrained from using them as instruments of salvation, whose value derives from the fullness of grace and of truth which has been entrusted to the Catholic Church."

Nevertheless, one wonders what could have provoked the leader of a billion Catholics to have brushed off hundreds of millions of Protestants like irritating flies.

One factor may be the remarkable growth of Catholicism in unexpected areas, such as "the Global South." For example, there were more Roman Catholic Baptisms last year in the Philippines than in France, Italy, Spain and Poland combined. About 30 percent of the world's Roman Catholics live in Brazil, Mexico and the Philippines.

On the other hand, the Global South is where Protestantism is growing most rapidly. The Anglican Church in Nigeria had five million members in 1975, but 19 million today, compared to less than a million Anglicans who attend church weekly in England or as Episcopalians in the U.S. Nigerians recently ordained 20 "missionary bishops," who do not have dioceses but are to create them, such as Bishop Martyn Minns of the "Convocation of Anglicans in North America" who has already attracted 39 former Episcopal churches.

Dr. Philip Jenkins, author of "The Next Christendom: The Rise of Global Christianity," told the Institute on Religion & Democracy recently that the largest Christian church in Europe is in Kiev, Ukraine with 30,000 members led by a Nigerian.

"Of the largest megachurches in Britain, I believe the four largest are all pastored by Africans. On a typical Sunday, approximately 50 percent of the believers attending churches in London are African or Afro-Caribbean, and that does not account for another probably eight percent or so Asian," he said.

When African Anglicans are successful missionaries to Europe, that worries the pope, who may have felt it necessary to encourage his followers as being in "the one true Church."

The pope's words came to my mind last Sunday as I worshiped in the Church of the Highlands in Birmingham, Ala.  Launched only six years ago with 34 members, it now has 3,500 attending three services at a brand new megachurch, two satellite locations with a third opening in Tuscaloosa in seven weeks.  (The satellites have their own praise bands, but hear Senior Pastor Chris Hodges preach by satellite link.)

Hodges confessed Sunday that "There was a large part of my Christian life when I did not look forward to Sundays.  I believed God was alive but went to church out of obligation. I did not like Christians either. The nicest people I met were the ones who were sinning.

"I thought Christians were so mean because they wanted to sin and couldn't and were mad about it. I'm convinced a lot of people are trying to approach God through religion" which he defined as "man's external effort to do something or not do something wrong to gain His approval."

Hodges noted that in Matthew 15  Jesus denounced the religious establishment of his day who accused him of breaking "the tradition of the elders."  Instead he rebuked them, quoting Isaiah: "These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me."

He argued that Jesus' message had nothing to do with the formalities of religion, "but everything to do with your love relationship with God." If you love Him, you will serve him with joy.

If not, today's religious establishment won't be of much help.

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