In my conversations with Protestants it is not uncommon for me to hear or read a statement like this, "I'd come back to the Catholic Church if the Pope did x, y, and z", where x, y, and z are actions that in some respect would 'Protestantize' the Catholic Church, either in doctrine, in sacraments and liturgy, or in Church government. (For a similar way of thinking, see, for example, the Touchstone article titled "Plausible Ecumenicism", and my reply to Craig Higgin's comments therein.) Last week I was in a conversation in which a Protestant said, "True ecumenicism means everybody has to compromise."
Statements such as that reveal a Protestant conception of the Catholic Church, a viewing of the Catholic Church while wearing Protestant 'glasses'. Of course I do not expect Protestants to wear Catholic 'glasses' while looking at the Catholic Church, but successful ecumenical dialogue does require that all participants, insofar as possible be aware of the 'glasses' they are wearing. Protestants are in some way aware of this shared Protestant paradigm. When I went from Pentecostal to Presbyterian, nobody said anything to me. When I went from Presbyterian to Anglican, again, nobody said anything to me. But when I made known that I was becoming Catholic, suddenly, I was getting many letters and phone calls urging me to reconsider, even on the very morning that I was to be received into the Catholic Church. Why?
These well meaning persons (who genuinely love me, and whom I genuinely love) recognized that I was leaving "the Protestant paradigm". I have discussed this before, in my post titled "Two Paradigms", but I want to expand on it here. Just as a fish cannot know that it is wet until it experiences dryness, so it is very difficult to know a paradigm that one has always been in, until one steps out of it (in some respect). When I stepped out of the Protestant paradigm, I came to see it more clearly. It had been with me all along, through my Pentecostalism, through my Presbyterianism, and through my Anglicanism.
What had been with me all along, through this process, was a certain way of thinking about the Church and myself in relation to ecclesial authority. In this paradigm, I would pick the denomination that seemed to me most true to Scripture and most conducive to meeting my spiritual needs. That right there almost defines the paradigm. (See my post titled "Ecclesial Consumerism vs. Ecclesial Unity".) According to this paradigm, if or when that particular community or denomination no longer seemed most true to Scripture or no longer met my spiritual needs, then I could and should go elsewhere.
Once, for example, when I was discussing my list of 'exceptions' to the Westminster Confession of Faith, a fellow seminary student said to me, "Well, if you're going to take that many exceptions, why do you even want to be one of us?" The obvious background assumption was that one joins this denomination because one agrees with it for the most part. Notice what he didn't say: "You should agree with and submit to our denomination because of the authority of our denomination." The recent FV controversy in the Presbyterian Church in America shows the very same way of thinking, as FV advocates are sometimes urged to leave and find a denomination that is more friendly to their FV way of thinking. J.I. Packer's recent decision to leave the Anglican Church of Canada, and align himself with a South American Anglican bishop shows a similar way of thinking. You place yourself under those who teach your way of interpreting Scripture (cf. 2 Timothy 4:3). Those Protestants who reply to the Catholic, "But you do the same thing" show that they are still perspectivally restricted to the Protestant paradigm. (See "The Alternative to painting a magisterial target around our interpretive arrow".)
Loaded into this paradigm is a conception of the Church as defined by form, not matter, as I shall explain. According to this paradigm the Church is an invisible body with many 'branches' more or less true to Scripture but whose essence is some kind of "mere Christianity". Conceiving of the essence of the Church as some kind of "mere Christianity" is the way in which this paradigm defines the Church by "form". According to this paradigm, no 'branch' is "the Church" or is "the institution that Christ founded". According to this paradigm, no existing ecclesial institution was founded by Christ. Hence in this paradigm, no 'branch' of the Church has ultimate ecclesial authority. Each 'branch' has an equal say at the ecumenical dialogue table, though in practice the greater number of members had by a denomination gives it more say. (This is, roughly, the ecumenical paradigm one finds in the World Council of Churches.) In this paradigm, the Christian's ecclesial task is to find the branch that best suits him at that time in his life. Hence the phenomenon of "church shopping". If you are disciplined or 'excommmunicated' in one branch, you just move to another branch, or start your own branch.
The Catholic conception of the Church, on the other hand, is that the Church is a visible body founded by Christ upon the Apostles. Essential to the Church is the authority of Christ passed down through sacramental succession from the Apostles by the laying on of hands. This sacramental understanding of Apostolic succession is what makes the Catholic conception of the Church not merely formal, because the laying on of hands intrinsically involves matter. Form (i.e. doctrine) and matter (i.e. sacramental succession from the Apostles) are retained as integrated and mutually essential to the Church. This precisely is why the Catholic Church recognizes Orthodox Churches as actual [particular] Churches, but regards Protestant bodies as "ecclesial communities", for they lack Apostolic succession. See Responsa ad quaestiones, which was released last July. And see here for the response by the World Council of Churches. Hopefully it is clear, given the differences between the two paradigms I am describing, why the Catholic Church is not a member of the World Council of Churches.
In the Catholic paradigm, if a person is excommunicated, there is simply nowhere else to go (cf. John 6:68); that person has been excommunicated from "the Church". In the Catholic paradigm, if the Church establishes a dogma, and a person rejects it, that person is ipso facto a heretic. (See Aquinas' statement on that here.) The person who accepts it by faith on the authority of the Church, even while not understanding it or its basis, exemplifies that supernatural virtue of faith described by the phrase fides quaerens intellectum (faith seeking understanding). Faith involves believing on the basis of the authority of the successors of the Apostles, for that is the way in which the hearers of the Apostles believed the Gospel, i.e. on the authority of the Apostles. ("For my part, I should not believe the Gospel except as moved by the authority of the Catholic Church." - St. Augustine) The individualism and egalitarianism of the Protestant ecclesial paradigm limit faith to belief in the divine inspiration and authority of the Scriptures, excluding faith from the interpretive act per se.
As you can see from the diagram above, there are twenty-two Churches within the Catholic Church. There are even four Rites with the Latin Church. So in this sense, from the Catholic point of view, there is diversity, and there are branches, *within* the Catholic Church. But these are all still within one institution, in full communion with the bishop of Rome.
As I have argued here, conceiving of the Church as defined by form, not matter, has individualism and anti-hierarchical egalitarianism as a necessary implication. And the only form of government that conforms to individualism and egalitarianism is democracy. Statements like "I'd come back to the Catholic Church if the Pope did x, y, and z" are intrinsically anti-Catholic, because they carry with them democratic and egalitarian theological assumptions rooted in the paradigm that conceives of the Church as identified essentially by *form*. And the same is true of statements like "True ecumenicism means everybody has to compromise." The democratic conception of the Church is one of individual autonomy. Since governing authority is derived from the governed, it can therefore be taken away by (and/or is ultimately subject to the wishes of) the governed. But imagine if the Pope had to conform to the particular wishes and positions of all Christians, and achieve unity by common ground or common consensus. Not only would there would be no doctrine left (see here) , there would be no unity left. And without unity, there would be no being, i.e. the Church would no longer exist. (See here.) Ecumenicism grounded in this democratic paradigm is, as I wrote here:
"the kind of ecumenicism that seeks unity by finding the lowest common denominator between all the divided parties. Such an ecumenicism is doomed to failure, like the fragile unity with which the feet and toes made of iron and clay were unified (Daniel 2). The peace it pursues is the world's peace."
The Catholic conception of the Church is not democratic, and never has been. If we look at the way David treated Saul, we see a very different way of thinking, one that does not make the authority of the ruler depend on the opinion of the ruled concerning the character or beliefs of the ruler. Jesus shows us the same way of thinking in Matthew 23:2-3 when He tells the people that because the Pharisees sit in the "chair of Moses", "therefore all that they tell you, do and observe, but do not do according to their deeds; for they say things and do not do them." According to Jesus, their hypocrisy did not nullify their authority. (This is what made Montanism, Novatianism, and Donatism schisms from the Catholic Church – see page four and following, here.) That is because in the Catholic paradigm, the ecclesial authority of Church leaders does not have its origin in the choice of those leaders by the laymen. In the Catholic conception, as I pointed out recently , authority is not bottom-up, but rather from the top-down. That is not to say that laypersons had no role or responsibility in contributing to the decisions and actions of the Church. But the locus of hierarchical authority has always been believed to come from the top-down, from Christ, to the Apostles, through the Apostles to the bishops whom they appointed, and then to the bishops they appointed, and so on. The locus of authority was never conceived of as coming from the bottom-up, that is, from the laypersons to the clergy.
The irony in statements like "I'd come back to the Catholic Church if the Pope did x, y, and z" is that persons who think this way would still be Protestant in their conception of Church authority, even if the Pope happened to do x, y, and z, because such persons think that the Church should conform to themselves. We do not become Catholic to make the Church conform to what we think it should be; we become Catholic so that Christ through the Church may make us into what He wants us to be. To submit to Christ is to submit to His Church. Similarly, the notion that "True ecumenicism means everybody has to compromise" carries with it the implicit assumption that no present institution is the one Christ founded and to which all Christians should conform. Implicit in the very statement is the assumption that the speaker has the authoritative determination of what is "true ecumenicism". The authority issue simply cannot be avoided; one either finds authority and submits to it, or one arrogates it to oneself. I frequently see a bumper sticker that reads, "If you want peace, work for justice". In the context of the Church I think an appropriate one would be: "If you want ecumenical unity, seek out authentic sacramental authority."
As we prepare for Pentecost, may the Holy Spirit work in us to make us truly one.
In nomine Patris, et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti. Amen.