I asked a Catholic grad student colleague of mine to respond to a series of (somewhat boneheaded) questions that Mormons might ask of Catholics. Here is part one of our exchange:
Ronan: How would you respond to Mormons who say that the Catholic Church is the Great and Abominable Church of Satan?
Andrew: I would respond by telling them they are wrong–the Mormon Church is the Great and Abominable Church of Satan…!
Ronan: Mormons believe that the RC Church bases itself on the question of authority, that the Pope is the successor of Peter (and thus derived his authority from Christ), and that the Church is the One True Church. Mormons (and many/most Protestants) find this claim incredulous. Why? Because the horrors of the Catholic Church’s medieval reign make clear that the Popes were not servants of Christ and that the Church was not the pure church of Christ. Discuss.
Andrew: I would like to answer this question in three parts: first, I will respond to the question of ecclessial continuity and authority; second, the issue of salvation outside the Catholic Church and ecumenism; and finally, I will offer some personal reflections on sin and the Catholic Church.
The first issue of succession and authority is, in my opinion, not at all unique to the Catholic Church. You are right that we Catholics believe that we are the heirs of a church mandated by Jesus Christ and founded by Peter and that its authority derives from that mandate. Isn’t this what every Christian church is claiming in one way or another? How else is a Christian church to derive its authority (or reason for existence), except by in some way identifying itself as a (or the) mediator/interpreter/instrument of Christ’s mission for the present world?
The second aspect of this question, I think, is the real heart of the matter: the idea of the “One True Church.” It is one thing to say your church is the inheritor/steward/instrument of Christ’s mission on earth, but it is much more objectionable to say your church is the ONLY inheritor/steward. And indeed the Catholic Church has a long history of making this exclusivistic claim. However, since the Second Vatican Council (Vatican II) during the 1960s there has been, even in the official church teaching, a growing appreciation for non-Catholic faith traditions. I think the Catholic Church still claims its own doctrine as the fullest expression of Christ’s mission on earth but acknowledges that the truth of His Gospel can be found in non-Catholic faiths also. This may seem not seem so earth-shattering a gesture, but in the snail-paced development of Catholic doctrine, it is a big step towards coming to terms with human epistemology and the (non?) viability of absolute truth claims.
I would add that most Catholics would confirm this openness to other faith traditions. Also, another important aspect of Vatican II is its emphasis on gesture in addition to doctrine. That is to say, Vatican II taught that doctrinal differences should not prevent a generous spirit of ecumenism from taking place, and this is indeed what you see on all levels of the Catholic Church: Pope John Paul II at the Western Wall, recent conciliatory gestures with the Eastern Orthodox and Lutheran churches, ecumenical liturgies in local faith communities. You may also remember that during the election for a new pope last year, Muslim-Christian relations was one of the recurring issues used to evaluate the strengths of some candidates.
In this way, I would say every such claim by a church is incredulous in that it requires faith to accept that church’s teaching as authoritative. (I found it interesting Joseph Smith said of his revelation, “If I had not experienced what I have, I could not have believed it myself”). A particular church’s claim may be incredulous, but its members accept it as a matter of faith. Catholics believe the pope is Peter’s successor, Mormons believe Joseph Smith is an instrument of revelation, Lutherans believe Luther’s reform represents an authoritative interpretation of the Gospel, etc. None of these, in my opinion, are immanently “credulous.”
A professor once told me to notice the gestures because doctrine will be the last thing to change; if a change does come, it will be preceded by ecumenical gestures. If that is the case, then I think we have reason to hope for improved relations and openness between the Catholic Church and its sisters in faith. Finally, your question draws attention to the sinful history of the Catholic Church. You mentioned medieval atrocities, and we could go on to name countless other abominations right up to the current sexual abuse crisis. Are these atrocities the extreme opposite of Christ’s message? Undoubtedly. Does such human sinfulness preclude Christ from working His mercy and justice in the present world? I sure hope not. If the sins of some clergy, no matter how egregious, shut out Christ’s saving work, then what hope is there for me, who am nothing, if not a sinner?
Coming to terms with the depths of Christ’s loving self-sacrifice means coming to terms with the depths of one’s own sinfulness that left God no other choice but to sacrifice his own son to repair the rift human sinfulness has caused. The difference between the sins of those popes (or anyone else for that matter) and my own is one of degree and not kind, and if their sins cut off Christ for good, then so do mine. My own redemption depends on Christ’s constantly being able to work amid my petty sinfulness and to transform my heart, and in my faith I cling to the belief that He does the same for the entire Catholic Church, no matter how sinfully it acts.
Incidentally, the logic of your argument on the effect of human sin and the church could cast a dark shadow on the first infant stages of the church. As I read the NT, Peter committed the ultimate sin by rejecting Christ three times when the going got tough…and he is supposed to be the rock. So much for the “pure church of Christ,” if you meant that the beginnings of the church were more pristine that the present-day (Paul might also have something to say about the “purity” of the first churches). If human sin shuts Christ out, then Peter’s rejection must have doomed us from the start! So we are left hoping that Christ could and did mitigate Peter’s sins and can and will mitigate our own.