Exactly 700 years ago this week, on November 18, 1302, Pope Boniface VIII made an extraordinarily bold statement: "Now, therefore, we declare, say, determine and pronounce that for every human creature it is necessary for salvation to be subject to the authority of the Roman pontiff." Even non-human creatures outside the pope's jurisdiction might be in trouble, for the bull in which Boniface's statement appears, Unam Sanctam, also calls up the image of the universal flood:
"Urged by faith, we are obliged to believe and to maintain that the Church is one, holy, catholic, and also apostolic. We believe in her firmly and we confess with simplicity that outside of her there is neither salvation nor the remission of sins….There had been at the time of the deluge only one ark of Noah, prefiguring the one Church, which ark, having been finished to a single cubit, had only one pilot and guide, i.e., Noah, and we read that, outside of this ark, all that subsisted on the earth was destroyed."
The bull almost sounds like a threat, which would not have been out of character for Boniface. He ascended to the papal throne when his predecessor, Celestine V, abdicated—probably at Boniface's not-so-subtle suggestion. He sentenced the poet Dante to death for alleged financial misdeeds, though Dante escaped by going into exile (and got his revenge by consigning Boniface to the Inferno). When France's King Philip tried to assert autonomy from Rome, Boniface replied, "Our predecessors have deposed these kings of France. Know—we can depose you like a stable boy if it prove necessary."
Despite its tone of finality, though, Unam Sanctam was hardly the papacy's last word on the relationship between Roman Catholicism and other forms of Christianity. In 1962 a decidedly more genial pontiff, John XXIII, convened the Second Vatican Council, which produced a landmark Decree on Ecumenism. With a tenor of compassionate lament, this document, approved November 21, 1964, introduces the concept of "separated brethren":
"Christ the Lord founded one Church and one Church only. However, many Christian communions present themselves to men as the true inheritors of Jesus Christ; all indeed profess to be followers of the Lord but differ in mind and go their different ways, as if Christ Himself were divided (Cf. 1 Cor. 1, 13). Such division openly contradicts the will of Christ, scandalizes the world, and damages the holy cause of preaching the Gospel to every creature.
"But the Lord of Ages wisely and patiently follows out the plan of grace on our behalf, sinners that we are. In recent times more than ever before, He has been rousing divided Christians to remorse over their divisions and to a longing for unity….This movement toward unity is called 'ecumenical.' Those belong to it who invoke the Triune God and confess Jesus as Lord and Savior, doing this not merely as individuals but also as corporate bodies. For almost everyone regards the body in which he has heard the Gospel as his Church and indeed, God's Church. All however, though in different ways, long for the one visible Church of God, a Church truly universal and set forth into the world that the world may be converted to the Gospel and so be saved, to the glory of God."
Questions about the finality of this statement on ecumenism arose in September 2000 with the release of Dominus Iesus: On the Unicity and Salvific Universality of Jesus Christ and the Church. Some observers interpreted this document as a great leap backward to the Boniface era. One passage particularly raised hackles: "the ecclesial communities which have not preserved the valid Episcopate and the genuine and integral substance of the Eucharistic mystery, are not Churches in the proper sense; however, those who are baptized in these communities are, by Baptism, incorporated in Christ and thus are in a certain communion, albeit imperfect, with the Church."
Representatives of church bodies that had been working especially hard on relations with Rome since Vatican II—including the Anglican Communion, Lutheran World Federation, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, and the World Council of Churches—bristled at the thought that Rome no longer considered their constituencies "Churches in the proper sense." One of the many quotes from the Vatican II Decree on Ecumenism in Dominus Iesus only partially softens the blow: "Therefore, these separated Churches and communities as such, though we believe they suffer from defects, have by no means been deprived of significance and importance in the mystery of salvation. For the spirit of Christ has not refrained from using them as means of salvation which derive their efficacy from the very fullness of grace and truth entrusted to the Catholic Church."
After the initial firestorm, most commentators concluded that Rome hadn't leapt anywhere with Dominus Iesus but merely restated its belief in the uniqueness of Christ and his Church before an increasingly pluralistic global audience. Of course, traditional Catholics don't believe their doctrine has the capacity for leaping. As the old joke goes, if the papacy ever drops its opposition to contraception, its official statement will begin, "As the church in every age has taught…" Still, it is difficult to argue that Rome hasn't budged since 1302.
Elesha Coffman is the former managing editor of Christian History magazine and is currently pursuing a graduate degree in history at Duke University.
By Elesha Coffman