The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (which the current Pope used to head) released a document called "Responses to Some Questions Regarding Certain Aspects of the Doctrine of the Church." A fairly woeful title, it must be said. It's a short document; you can slog through it yourself with very little trouble. But the short version is that the Congregation (with, of course, the approval of the Pope) claims a unique legitimacy for the Catholic Church and its eastern brethren who share in apostolic succession. The churches born of the Reformation aren't, so the claim goes, churches in the proper sense but merely ecclesial communities.
According to Catholic doctrine, these Communities 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.
This news, of course, has been received with varying emotions -none of them good- from the so-called ecclesial communities. I've seen offense, pain, disdain, a smidge of outrage -and I understand all of them. As important as it is to remind the Pope that his word is not Holy Writ on this subject, there are two more important points, it seems to me.
The first is, though the document of course does not deny that Christ is working redemptively in Protestant churches, it is claiming that the primacy of the Bishop of Rome is the defining issue of the church. That is an issue worthy of division, it seems to me - one of the essential claims of the Reformation itself. Martin Luther and John Calvin both claimed that the first mark of the true Church is, rather, the preaching of the Gospel. The Reformers indicted the Roman Catholic Church for, in part, failing in this task 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.
So, this could turn into a theological bit of playground hair-pulling. "You're not a true church! Well, neither are you!!!" Or, if Protestants behave better than the Vatican has, it could serve to convince the Protestant churches that their mission is, in fact, fundamentally different from that of the Catholic Church. The Vatican might inadvertantly have re-energized Protestants in their mission in the world.
Secondly, even if we Catholics take a deep breath and agree, arguendo, with the document, it doesn't follow that the primacy of the Pope is the only important thing for "churchiness". In fact, the claim of the document is somewhat broader. Its claim is that the sacramental priesthood is the essential. (It's just that the sacramental priesthood requires apostolic succession, which in turn requires bishops who can trace their authority, through the pope, back to the apostles. Hence papal primacy.)
OK, now I'm not just chagrined at the papal judgements of other religions. Now I'm worried about my own. I am very much not inclined to put priests at the center of any definition of church. According to Lumen Gentium all Catholic lay people share in the ministry of Christ. Catholic lay men and women, by their baptismal and confirmational character, are empowered to be priests, prophets and kings and so to share in the Church’s ministry of sanctification, teaching and governing. Lumen Gentium states that, in collaboration with their bishops and clergy, “the faithful who by Baptism are incorporated into Christ, are placed in the People of God, and in their own way share the priestly, prophetic and kingly office of Christ, and to the best of their ability carry on the mission of the whole Christian people in the Church and in the world”. (31)
The aftermath of the sexual abuse scandal has been a return to clericalism, and I would suggest that this trend turns its back on an important part of our tradition. Sadly, it seems to me that this new document is a step towards formalizing that trend. It's hard for me to believe that it's going to take us anywhere good. It puts the institution (the institution of the priesthood and the trappings of the church, I mean) above the importance of the message it exists to serve. I'm thinking that we should spend a little more time worrying about whether or not we are a church in the proper sense, and less about other institutions' merits.