Continuing my take-away from our Monday reading group going through the Roman Catholic Catechism to compare it with Wesleyan theology:
Week 1: Introduction and Revelation
Week 2: God the Father
Week 3: Jesus' Birth, Life, Death
Week 4: Resurrection, Spirit, Church
This week's reading of the catechism was over Section 2, chapter 3, articles 9.3 through 11. This is over the beginning of the third section of the Apostle's creed. "I believe in the holy catholic church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body..."
Interestingly, as we get to the section of the creed on the church, the number of points where Wesleyans (and pretty much all non-Roman Catholics) disagree really spiked. Up to this point, there really has been very little Wesleyans would disagree with. We agree on who God is and who Christ is. There is even much in common on Scripture.
There is still much we agree on in this section, but all the points where there have been disagreements so far pretty much show up again in the reading this week.
1. Obviously, RC beliefs on the Pope are going to show up in a section of the catechism on the Church. They believe the Pope is in a direct line going back to Peter as the first bishop of Rome and as the one to whom Jesus gave the keys to the kingdom. Then there are the bishops.
This identity-giving story not only has historical problems but all non-RCatholics would reject its implications as well. Peter probably was the chief apostle, but from James to Paul this was not seen as giving him any kind of ultimate authority. The churches (plural early on) at Rome were not at all likely founded initially by Peter. The church (singular later) of Rome was not pre-eminent among the early churches until the years after Constantine. It was then "first among equals" until 1024, when the Eastern church left its fellowship.
The long and short of it is that Wesleyans, along with other Protestants, do not believe the Pope and the bishops of the RCC possess any special authority within Christendom, certainly not infallibility. They are Christians like any other Christian, and they may have wisdom/insight like any other Christian. Having said that, the RC catechism is generous in the sense that it admits "both sides" were to blame in the many schisms of Christian history, which must refer chiefly to the split between East and West and the Protestant Reformation.
2. At the same time, we find articulated in this section of the catechism what we might call its sense of what we might call "separated brethren." Those who have been baptized in other churches can be called Christians. This was a major improvement in RC understanding that came through at Vatican II. Under the current Pope I fear there may be some pulling back from what has been an excellent trajectory for the RCC.
We do find in this section a possibility with which many Wesleyans are sympathetic, namely, that God may receive some humanity that has either not heard of Christ or that has heard of him inadequately.
3. Following the old dictum, "there is no salvation outside the Church," this section has a strong sense of the Church as the channel of God's grace. The RCC obviously also has a strongly visible sense of the Church. The Church is certainly visible in the sense of it consisting of visible people who gather together each week, but its membership for us is invisible for Wesleyans and doesn't correspond to any visible group.
Yes, God certainly dispenses grace through visible churches in community with each other, but we would much more point to the Spirit as the ultimate mechanism of grace. And we believe the Spirit can meet you individually apart from the Church.
4. The RCC certainly makes a stronger distinction between ordination and laity than the WC would. Having said that, this section of the catechism has a very strong view of the laity as co-participants in the mission of God and the Church. The RCC even has "orders" for the laity.
But, for example, Wesleyans would not insist that the elements of communion must be consecrated by a minister. We strongly prefer it, but it is not an absolute for us. We don't believe in apostolic succession in a historic sense, but we do within our church require that a minister be ordained by the church. We don't see pastors as rulers of churches, as the RCs do. In fact, we require an equal representation of lay and minister at our legislative conferences.
In my opinion, there have always been in church history, including the early church, two channels of authority and spiritual insight. There is the normal, the institutional. There is a line of conferred authority. But there have also always been the prophets, those whom God raises from anywhere. Apostolic succession is fine for the normal, but God is not constrained.
5. The RC catechism does not envision the possibility that a human might live without sinning in this world. Wesleyans may have a different definition of sin, but historically have believed that a person might live without intentionally sinning "with a high hand," with clear intention to sin. Having said that, there was a section on love as the goal that easily could have been written by John Wesley.
6. Following the New Testament, Wesleyans believe all Christians are saints. We don't believe that saints are Christians with more merit than sin nor do we believe one believer can share his or her merit with others. We do not tend to look at the dead as intercessors for us. We do not put Mary in a special spiritual category or tend to believe she intercedes for us.