Years ago, Robert Schuller came out with his book on The New Reformation, in which he repudiated the Pauline doctrine of sin. Because of his prominence, this ignited a firestorm of controversy in the Evangelical world.
I remember watching an interview with him in which the questioner suggested that Schuller's views were heretical. Schuller bristled at the suggestion, and defended himself by saying that he was an ordained minister in a confessional denomination with an orthodox creedal tradition.
And, as a matter of fact, Schuller was ordained in the Reformed Church in America, which is, historically speaking, a Dutch-Reformed denomination formally committed to the Three Forms of Unity.
The problem, though, is that you have two Reformed Churches in America: there is the RCA on paper, and the RCA in practice. On paper, the RCA is very orthodox; in practice, the Three Forms of Unity are a dead letter.
This is what is wrong with a number of liberal denominations. Many liberal denominations come out of a confessional tradition. The Thirty-Nine Articles in an evangelical creed which codifies classic Reformational theology. On paper, that makes the Episcopal church an orthodox church. The Westminster Confession is an evangelical creed which codifies classic Reformational theology. On paper, that makes the Presbyterian Church-USA an orthodox church. The Formula of Concord is an evangelical creed which codifies classic Reformational theology. On paper, that makes the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America an orthodox church.
But it doesn't matter how conservative they are on paper if they are liberal in practice. In fact, what makes these churches apostate churches is precisely the gap between what they profess on paper, and what they do in practice.
Now, when, in talking with an observant Roman Catholic, you point to the liberal positions taken by Ray Brown or Joseph Fitzmyer or Cardinal Kasper or John-Paul II or Benedict XVI on this or that issue, he will defend his church by drawing a distinction between Catholic dogma and private opinion.
On this view, we should only judge the Catholic church by what is stands for on paper, and not what it stands for in practice. Any amount of practical deviation can be discounted. If the Pope and the Prefect and the whole College of Cardinals were heretics, preaching and teaching heresy, and appointing heretical bishops all over the world, the Catholic church would still be a true church--would be, indeed, the true church--as long as we could classify their heretical views as private opinion. Any degree of apostasy can be discounted as long as that can be catalogued and filed under private opinion.
Now, speaking for myself, although I'm not alone in this, a denomination is responsible, not only for its creed, but for its conformity to the creed. What is a confessional church that is not answerable to its own confession? If its members, and especially its leaders, are not held to account for their practical deviation from the creed, then the creed is an empty formality. It does nothing to direct or constrain the actual life of the church. The members pay lip-service to the creed, but then say and do whatever they please irrespective of the creed.
Is there no relation between orthodoxy and orthopraxy? Do these exist in airtight compartments?
What constitutes the true identity of a denomination: what it says on paper, or what it says in practice? If it doesn't actually adhere to its creed, then it isn't bound by its creed, and if it isn't bound by its creed, then the creed no longer defines its identity. The creed is hermetically sealed away from direct contact with the pollutants and contaminants the real world.
Obviously we cannot expect exact conformity from top to bottom. Sin will always lead to some measure of corruption.
The problem, though, is when this becomes a matter of policy. When, as a point of principle, any degree of deviation can be excused as long as it falls under the rubric of private opinion. To do this is to codify corruption, and immunize an institution from its own stated standards of orthodoxy.
What is a creed if not a credo? A statement of faith? A corporate statement of faith? Is there no relation between belief and dogma? As long as the creed says all the right things, we don’t have to say the right things? Is all that matters the abstract magisterium and not the concrete magisterium?
Where do you find the Catholic church? Do you find it in a book? Is Denzinger the Catholic church? If every Roman Catholic were wiped out by a plague, would there still be a Catholic church? Or is the Catholic church to be judged, at least in part, by the application of Catholic dogma? Which is the true Catholic church--the church in action or the church under glass?