This Church [the Christian church founded by Jesus], constituted and organised in this world as a society, subsists in the Catholic Church, governed by the successor of Peter and the Bishops in communion with him.
...According to Catholic doctrine, these Communities [Protestant churches] do not enjoy apostolic succession in the sacrament of Orders, and are, therefore, deprived of a constitutive element of the Church. These ecclesial Communities which, specifically because of the absence of the sacramental priesthood, have not preserved the genuine and integral substance of the Eucharistic Mystery cannot, according to Catholic doctrine, be called "Churches" in the proper sense.
He is claiming that the Roman Catholic Church is the only true church -- or, in words the Vatican would prefer to use, the only institutional form in which the Church of Christ subsists. Al Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, has an interesting perspective on this:
It all comes down to this -- the claim of the Roman Catholic Church to the primacy of the Bishop of Rome and the Pope as the universal monarch of the church is the defining issue. Roman Catholics and Evangelicals should together recognize the importance of that claim. We should together realize and admit that this is an issue worthy of division. The Roman Catholic Church is willing to go so far as to assert that any church that denies the papacy is no true church. Evangelicals should be equally candid in asserting that any church defined by the claims of the papacy is no true church. This is not a theological game for children, it is the honest recognition of the importance of the question.
The Reformers and their heirs put their lives on the line in order to stake this claim. In this era of confusion and theological laxity we often forget that this was one of the defining issues of the Reformation itself. Both the Reformers and the Roman Catholic Church staked their claim to be the true church -- and both revealed their most essential convictions in making their argument. As Martin Luther and John Calvin both made clear, the first mark of the true Church is the ministry of the Word -- the preaching of the Gospel. The Reformers indicted the Roman Catholic Church for failing to exhibit this mark, and thus failing to be a true Church. The Catholic church returned the favor, defining the church in terms of the papacy and magisterial authority. Those claims have not changed.
I also appreciate the spiritual concern reflected in this document. The artificial and deadly dangerous game of ecumenical confusion has obscured issues of grave concern for our souls. I truly believe that Pope Benedict and the Congregation for the Defense of the Faith are concerned for our evangelical souls and our evangelical congregations. Pope Benedict is not playing a game. He is not asserting a claim to primacy on the playground. He, along with the Magisterium of his church, believes that Protestant churches are gravely defective and that our souls are in danger. His sacramental theology plays a large role in this concern, for he believes and teaches that a church without submission to the papacy has no guaranteed efficacy for its sacraments. (This point, by the way, explains why the Protestant churches that claim a sacramental theology are more concerned about this Vatican statement -- it denies the basic validity of their sacraments.)
I actually appreciate the Pope's concern. If he is right, we are endangering our souls and the souls of our church members. Of course, I am convinced that he is not right -- not right on the papacy, not right on the sacraments, not right on the priesthood, not right on the Gospel, not right on the church.
The Roman Catholic Church believes we are in spiritual danger for obstinately and disobediently excluding ourselves from submission to its universal claims and its papacy. Evangelicals should be concerned that Catholics are in spiritual danger for their submission to these very claims. We both understand what is at stake.
The Rev. Mark Hanson, presiding bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, responded to the press by saying that the Vatican's "exclusive claims" are "troubling." He also said, "what may have been meant to clarify has caused pain."
I will let Bishop Hanson explain his pain. I do not see this new Vatican statement as an innovation or an insult. I see it as a clarification and a helpful demarcation of the issues at stake.
I appreciate the Roman Catholic Church's candor on this issue, and I believe that Evangelical Christians, with equal respect and clarity, should respond in kind. This is a time to be respectfully candid -- not a time to be offended.
So what are the differences between Protestantism and Catholicism? Justin Taylor quoted a nice rundown from Scott Manetsch, who is associate professor of church history at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, on his blog:
In summary, this reviewer believes it impossible to reconcile the classic Protestant solas with the teaching of the Catholic Catechism.
For Roman Catholics, Scripture and Tradition are two distinct but equal modes of revealed authority which the magisterium of the Roman Church has sole responsibility to transmit and interpret. For the early Protestant reformers, the holy Scripture provides final normative authority for Christian doctrine and practice, standing as judge above all institutions and ecclesial traditions.
For Roman Catholics, sinners are justified because of inherent righteousness. For the mainstream Protestant reformers, sinners are accepted on the basis of the righteousness of another—namely, the alien righteousness of Christ imputed to them.
For Roman Catholics, sinners are both justified by unmerited grace at baptism and (subsequently) justified by those infused graces merited by cooperating with divine grace. For the magisterial reformers, sinners are justified before God by grace alone.
For Roman Catholics, sinners are justified by faith (in baptism), but not by faith alone. For the sixteenth-century Protestant reformers, sinners are justified by faith alone.
For Roman Catholics, justification is a process of renewal that affords no solid basis for Christian assurance in this life. For reformers such as Luther and Calvin, justification is God’s decisive verdict of forgiveness and righteousness that assures Christian believers of the acceptance and love of their heavenly Father.
And so there you go. As Mohler says, "This is a theological question." As with all theology, there is absolute truth at stake on this issue. Finding it becomes our task.