It is nice to have a teaching pope in the see of Peter. A thoughtful, well-read intellectual who is not afraid to engage the issues. If people would take the time to read the actual statements that come out of the Vatican, rather than the slanted summaries journalistic hacks provide, a ton of misunderstandings would be avoided. The misunderstandings already abound, in the biblioblogosphere no less. Out of charity, I will refrain from citing examples.
It is always necessary to put teaching statements of the Catholic Church in historical perspective. The Vatican is, after all, the institution in the world with the longest continuous history. It is a place, a way of being in the world, that lives and breathes history. In a world afflicted by amnesia and attention deficit disorder, the Vatican stands out like a sore thumb.
The letter of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith published today is a nuanced document in the tradition of Lumen gentium. If you wish to interact with its contents, at least read it carefully before you do, and situate it in the stream of tradition to which it belongs. Go here.
A key graph is the following: "[T]hese separated churches and communities, though we believe they suffer from defects, are deprived neither of significance nor importance in the mystery of salvation, whose value derives from that fullness of grace and of truth which has been entrusted to the Catholic Church." Unitatis redintegratio, 3.4 is footnoted.
As a catholic Christian with a small "c" (not in full communion with the See of Rome), I have no problem with that. I would respond as follows: no less than the Church that I serve, I believe that the Catholic Church suffers from defects, but is not thereby deprived of significance or importance in the mystery of salvation. The presence of the fullness of grace and truth, who is Jesus Christ the Lord, has been entrusted to the Catholic Church no less than to the Orthodox Churches, and those with roots in the Reformation.
The unique gift and the unique failing of the Catholic Church are one and the same: the Petrine office. The Orthodox and the Protestant communions claim that the office is fulfilled in a diffuse way in their structures of authority, or suggest that the Petrine office ceased to be with the passing of Peter. In the New Testament, Peter stands, through a commission from Christ, at the intersection of nurture and authority. It does not take a great deal of discernment to see that none of the churches are getting this intersection right today, particularly in their relations with each other.
How and in what sense the promises to Peter found in the New Testament might be faithfully realized in the Church Universal here and now is not yet clear. What is clear is that the way those promises are claimed or considered irrelevant by the historic Churches today is dysfunctional in fact, and flawed, most probably, in theory.
The statement applies to the Catholic Church no less than to the other Churches, but in different ways.
We will all know when the bishop of Rome truly fulfills the Petrine office. When that day arrives, nurture and authority will be united, and the torn vessel of Christ will begin to be restored to more visible wholeness. A Pontifex in the true and best sense of the word, will have been given to us.