A Protestant pastor recently asked me a very delicate question: Do you think I’m a part of Christ’s Church? As I pondered how to answer, I realized how important it was to identify opportunities for miscommunication, and define terms clearly. Below is my response.
Sincerely sorry for the slow response, and I hope I didn’t offend. I want to be careful with my wording, because this is a key area where Protestants and Catholics can talk past each other. For me as a Protestant, being a Christian meant I was a part of Christ’s church. This was partially influenced by John Calvin’s idea of the “invisible church,” that all believers are who make up Christ’s church. If that’s what you mean, then you are certainly a part of Christ’s church. The Catholic Church affirms you as a Christian who is not condemned (see Lumen Gentium quote and reference below).
However, you are not fully a part of His Church as Catholics define it, and, given the definition, I think you would agree. There is one Mother Church according to the Catholic Church, because of Peter and because of apostolic succession, which very few Protestants would claim they have. Pope Benedict issued an encyclical about this in the year 2000 to say that only churches that maintained apostolic succession and the Eucharist (Eastern Orthodox) could be called a separated Church, whereas everyone else did not fit that criteria and so were an ecclesial community. He still, of course, said many positive things about the way the Holy Spirit has worked (see quotes below and reference)
I hope this helps! Feel free to contact me any time. (firstname.lastname@example.org) I was an aspiring pastor, my dad was a pastor, and I have great respect for all Christian ministers of the gospel.
Lumen Gentium: The Church recognizes that in many ways she is linked with those who, being baptized, are honored with the name of Christian, though they do not profess the faith in its entirety or do not preserve unity of communion with the successor of Peter. (14*) For there are many who honor Sacred Scripture, taking it as a norm of belief and a pattern of life, and who show a sincere zeal. They lovingly believe in God the Father Almighty and in Christ, the Son of God and Saviour. They are consecrated by baptism, in which they are united with Christ. They also recognize and accept other sacraments within their own Churches or ecclesiastical communities. Many of them rejoice in the episcopate, celebrate the Holy Eucharist and cultivate devotion toward the Virgin Mother of God.(16*) They also share with us in prayer and other spiritual benefits. Likewise we can say that in some real way they are joined with us in the Holy Spirit, for to them too He gives His gifts and graces whereby He is operative among them with His sanctifying power. Some indeed He has strengthened to the extent of the shedding of their blood. In all of Christ’s disciples the Spirit arouses the desire to be peacefully united, in the manner determined by Christ, as one flock under one shepherd, and He prompts them to pursue this end. (17*) Mother Church never ceases to pray, hope and work that this may come about. She exhorts her children to purification and renewal so that the sign of Christ may shine more brightly over the face of the earth. http://www.vatican.va/archive/hist_councils/ii_vatican_council/documents/vat-ii_const_19641121_lumen-gentium_en.html
Dominus Iesus: Therefore, there exists a single Church of Christ, which subsists in the Catholic Church, governed by the Successor of Peter and by the Bishops in communion with him.58 The Churches which, while not existing in perfect communion with the Catholic Church, remain united to her by means of the closest bonds, that is, by apostolic succession and a valid Eucharist, are true particular Churches.59 Therefore, the Church of Christ is present and operative also in these Churches, even though they lack full communion with the Catholic Church, since they do not accept the Catholic doctrine of the Primacy, which, according to the will of God, the Bishop of Rome objectively has and exercises over the entire Church.60
On the other hand, the ecclesial communities which have not preserved the valid Episcopate and the genuine and integral substance of the Eucharistic mystery,61 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.62 Baptism in fact tends per se toward the full development of life in Christ, through the integral profession of faith, the Eucharist, and full communion in the Church.63