In his recent statement, Pope Benedict XVI said that churches that had apostolic succession (such as the Eastern Orthodox churches) were still “deficient” because they did not recognize the primacy of Rome. That is, any church that does not recognize the Roman Catholic church as supreme and does not recognize the Pope of Rome as head of the universal church is deficient.
I am glad that the Pope made this claim so clearly. Unfortunately, most people will respond emotionally to this statement, because it is not “politically correct,” it may “hurt ecumenical relations”, and it may be”hurtful.” What we really need to do is examine the truth or falsity of his statement, and respond accordingly. That is what I am trying to very briefly do here.
The Roman Catholic Church started in Rome, and it just so happens that Saint Paul wrote a letter to the Romans. If Roman claims are true, the Pope at the time would have read this letter and recognized it as being the Word of God. Let’s look at what Paul says about this church.
In Chapter 11 of his letter, Paul uses the image of God’s people (the entire Church, throughout the ages) as an olive tree. The Gentiles, including the Roman church (in its infancy), are considered as being “a wild olive tree”, that was grafted in. The Jews, because of their rejection of Christ, were (temporarily it seems) pruned out.
Paul’s warning to the Gentiles, including the church in Rome, is not to boast in their status. After all, they were nothing before God grafted them in. In fact, they were grafted “contrary to nature.” If they are faithless, they will again be pruned out, and suitable only for the compost heap. If they are faithful, other branches will be grafted into the tree, and the tree will become more fruitful and glorious. The Romans should trust in God, and not boast against the other branches.
The primary application of this passage is to Israel and the Gentiles, but it is a warning to the church in Rome also. There is no guarantee that the church in Rome will be perpetually in God’s favor. There is also no indication that they will be the One True Church, to which all others must yield.
The Roman Catholic error, which was proclaimed by Pope Benedict, is the belief that the Roman Catholic Church is the only true church (i.e., the entire tree). In reality, it can, at it’s best, be only one branch on the tree.