"You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd." ~Flannery O'Connor

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

The new CDF document on ecclesiology

The CDF has just issued a helpful set of RESPONSES TO SOME QUESTIONS REGARDING CERTAIN ASPECTS OF THE DOCTRINE ON THE CHURCH. Just as when Dominus Iesus was issued seven years ago, most of the responses in turn protest against its clear implication that other ecclesial bodies lack, in varying degrees, the fullness of the Church of Christ. Such reactions are only to be expected from non-Catholic Christians; after all, if they agreed with the doctrine in question, they'd either be or swiftly become Catholics. But I've also noticed that the hermeneuts of discontinuity take it as confirmation of their position too. That I find mighty puzzling, as I always have concerning this nest of issues.

Since the new document is brief, I shall quote its main content in full. Next I shall offer an explanation of the key phrase 'subsists in' from Vatican II that, while explained in the present document, will no doubt continue to be widely misunderstood. Third, I shall append a representative discontinuant critique of the document that's been forwarded to me by e-mail. Finally, I shall offer a defense of Catholic ecclesiological doctrine against that critique and, by extension, to similar critiques from some traditionalist Catholics.

First, here are the questions and answers:

First Question: Did the Second Vatican Council change the Catholic doctrine on the Church?

Response: The Second Vatican Council neither changed nor intended to change this doctrine, rather it developed, deepened and more fully explained it.

This was exactly what John XXIII said at the beginning of the Council[1]. Paul VI affirmed it[2] and commented in the act of promulgating the Constitution Lumen gentium: "There is no better comment to make than to say that this promulgation really changes nothing of the traditional doctrine. What Christ willed, we also will. What was, still is. What the Church has taught down through the centuries, we also teach. In simple terms that which was assumed, is now explicit; that which was uncertain, is now clarified; that which was meditated upon, discussed and sometimes argued over, is now put together in one clear formulation"[3]. The Bishops repeatedly expressed and fulfilled this intention[4].

Second Question: What is the meaning of the affirmation that the Church of Christ subsists in the Catholic Church?

Response: Christ "established here on earth" only one Church and instituted it as a "visible and spiritual community"[5], that from its beginning and throughout the centuries has always existed and will always exist, and in which alone are found all the elements that Christ himself instituted.[6] "This one Church of Christ, which we confess in the Creed as one, holy, catholic and apostolic […]. This Church, constituted and organised in this world as a society, subsists in the Catholic Church, governed by the successor of Peter and the Bishops in communion with him"[7].

In number 8 of the Dogmatic Constitution Lumen gentium ‘subsistence’ means this perduring, historical continuity and the permanence of all the elements instituted by Christ in the Catholic Church[8], in which the Church of Christ is concretely found on this earth.

It is possible, according to Catholic doctrine, to affirm correctly that the Church of Christ is present and operative in the churches and ecclesial Communities not yet fully in communion with the Catholic Church, on account of the elements of sanctification and truth that are present in them.[9] Nevertheless, the word "subsists" can only be attributed to the Catholic Church alone precisely because it refers to the mark of unity that we profess in the symbols of the faith (I believe... in the "one" Church); and this "one" Church subsists in the Catholic Church.[10]

Third Question: Why was the expression "subsists in" adopted instead of the simple word "is"?

Response: The use of this expression, which indicates the full identity of the Church of Christ with the Catholic Church, does not change the doctrine on the Church. Rather, it comes from and brings out more clearly the fact that there are "numerous elements of sanctification and of truth" which are found outside her structure, but which "as gifts properly belonging to the Church of Christ, impel towards Catholic Unity"[11].

"It follows that these separated churches and Communities, though we believe they suffer from defects, are deprived neither of significance nor importance in the mystery of salvation. In fact the Spirit of Christ has not refrained from using them as instruments of salvation, whose value derives from that fullness of grace and of truth which has been entrusted to the Catholic Church"[12].

Fourth Question: Why does the Second Vatican Council use the term "Church" in reference to the oriental Churches separated from full communion with the Catholic Church?

Response: The Council wanted to adopt the traditional use of the term. "Because these Churches, although separated, have true sacraments and above all – because of the apostolic succession – the priesthood and the Eucharist, by means of which they remain linked to us by very close bonds"[13], they merit the title of "particular or local Churches"[14], and are called sister Churches of the particular Catholic Churches[15].

"It is through the celebration of the Eucharist of the Lord in each of these Churches that the Church of God is built up and grows in stature"[16]. However, since communion with the Catholic Church, the visible head of which is the Bishop of Rome and the Successor of Peter, is not some external complement to a particular Church but rather one of its internal constitutive principles, these venerable Christian communities lack something in their condition as particular churches[17].

On the other hand, because of the division between Christians, the fullness of universality, which is proper to the Church governed by the Successor of Peter and the Bishops in communion with him, is not fully realised in history[18].

Fifth Question: Why do the texts of the Council and those of the Magisterium since the Council not use the title of "Church" with regard to those Christian Communities born out of the Reformation of the sixteenth century?

Response: According to Catholic doctrine, these Communities do not enjoy apostolic succession in the sacrament of Orders, and are, therefore, deprived of a constitutive element of the Church. These ecclesial Communities which, specifically because of the absence of the sacramental priesthood, have not preserved the genuine and integral substance of the Eucharistic Mystery[19] cannot, according to Catholic doctrine, be called "Churches" in the proper sense[20]

The questions answered above are no ad hoc inventions of the CDF but are ones that many people have. The answers say nothing new; yet the first three go some way toward clarifying points on which many people have remained confused.

When the Magisterium ceased to say that the Catholic Church simply "is" the one true Church of Jesus Christ, and began saying that the one true Church of Christ "subsists in" the Catholic Church, the aim was not, as many trads charged, to negate the older teaching but to clarify the the status of non-Catholic ecclesial bodies. For the fact is that there are countless millions of people who belong to Christ by a form of baptism always recognized as valid by the Catholic Church, but who are not Catholics; thus as individuals, they enjoy an "imperfect" communion with Christ and the Catholic Church; but until Vatican II, there wasn't any clear and widely disseminated answer to the question how the ecclesial bodies to which they belong relate severally to the Catholic Church. Hence Vatican II's and the CDF's use of term 'subsists'.

That term comes from the same Latin root as the noun "substance." In Catholic theology, a substance is ordinarily understood to be a unitary whole of a certain kind that perdures, and thus "subsists," through various activities and changes, which can include the sort of damage that consists in the loss of certain parts. Every human person, e.g., is a substance in that sense; one's bodily organs and cells are only parts that can remain alive (at least for a time, by nature or by artifice) while detached from the whole, but which have their full and proper reality only as parts of the living substance that is the person. Now the one true Church of Christ, as is clear from both Scripture and Tradition, is the universal "body of Christ" and thus, by analogy, a substance in the above-defined sense. Her high-level constituents are like organs or limbs: local churches, as the term 'church' is defined in the CDF document. Her base-level constituents are like cells: those individuals who belong to Christ and the Church by valid baptism but who might or might not belong either to some true, particular church or to an "ecclesial community" that doesn't quite qualify as a church. To say, therefore, that the one true Church of Christ "subsists" in the Catholic Church is to say that the Catholic Church is where the one true Church of Christ exists as a perduring whole, containing all the parts necessary thereto. To refuse to speak thus of other true but particular churches, such as the Orthodox, is logically equivalent to saying that they are properly parts of that subsistent whole which is the Catholic Church but exist to some extent apart from that whole, which is detrimental to both the whole and the parts themselves. It is detrimental to the whole inasmuch the whole, while still functioning as that integral whole which is "the" Church, does not fully embrace some of her proper parts. The whole remains what she is, but wounded. It is detrimental to the parts inasmuch as, while still being true churches and means of sanctification, they are not fully integrated into that subsistent whole of which they are proper parts, and thus can no longer manifest Catholic unity.

That seems clear enough to me and to many other educated Catholics. It indicates how the newer teaching is compatible with the older while refining and clarifying the older. But we hermeneuts of continuity are a minority both within and outside the Catholic Church. The following reaction from a non-Catholic heremeneut of discontinuity, which I received by e-mail forwarding is not at all uncommon among Catholic traditionalists too. (I have added the emphasis.)
It would seem that these Responses are directed primarily at "traditionalist" Catholics whether within the canonical boundaries of the RC Church or without (e.g. the SSPX). While these Responses will be reassuring to the more traditionally-minded within the Catholic communion, I shall be surprised if they prove to be very satisfactory to the SSPX types.

I am convinced that there is in fact no continuity between the pre-Vatican-II ecclesiology of the RC Church and the ecclesiology of Vatican II -- in particular the assertion of the Council that the Orthodox Churches are (in RC terms) "true particular Churches" (and note that this is a positive teaching of the Council, not a figment of the post-conciliar "hermeneutic of discontinuity"). If the term "true particular Church" means anything, it means a local Church in the Ignatian sense, where the faithful gathered about their bishop in the Eucharistic assembly are a manifestation of the fulness of the Catholic Church. And if such a community can exist even though in schism from that visible body wherein the Church of Christ is said to "subsist", that is an admission that the body of Christ can be divided while remaining (on both sides of the divide) truly the Catholic Church. That flies in the face of the creedal insistence on the unity of the Church, and if that is not a change in RC ecclesiology, I cannot imagine what would constitute such a change.

The teaching of the Council that the Orthodox Churches are, in fact, true particular Churches rather than simply schismatic conventicles fundamentally compromises Papal supremacy and universal ordinary jurisdiction. If a Church may be an authentic manifestation of the Catholic Church without in fact being in communion with Rome or subject to the Pope's universal ordinary jurisdiction (or, indeed, having repudiated any sort of Papal jurisdiction at all), then such a Church has not forfeited its ecclesial status nor paid any price whatever for disunion with the Pope. Nor does submission to the Pope buy it anything it does not already have (since it already has Catholic fulness). And note that, with respect to the Orthodox Churches (unlike the Protestants), the Council does not take a stance of Khomikovian agnosticism and declare that God *MAY* be at work among the Orthodox. The Council makes the positive statement that "In fact the Spirit of Christ has not refrained from using them as instruments of salvation ...". A far cry from Unam Sanctam.

I cannot see this (together with the re-emphasis on Ignatian ecclesiology generally, and the renewed emphasis on collegiality) as anything but an act of repentance by the Council for the RC Church's previous attitude towards Orthodoxy, and the introduction of a deep contradiction in the ecclesiology of the Roman Catholic Church. And there is certainly nothing in today's Responses document that makes me re-think my view on this. As a non-Catholic, I see that repentance as good and necessary; but I can certainly understand it if traditional Catholics (again, whether in communion with Rome or not) see such repentance as not only ill-advised but ecclesiologically impossible.
In my experience, that is not at all an uncommon attitude, even though it's not the one you'll typically hear about in the media. Two things about it are very striking to me.

The first is its clear implication that those responsible for the responsum, who explicitly include the Pope himself, do not understand or appreciate the logical status of their own position. The ecclesiology evinced in the responsum is no different from that of Vatican II as presented in Lumen Gentium, which document is itself quoted in the responsum. How can it be that all the orthodox Catholic theologians and bishops who did approve and do approve the ecclesiology of LG, such as Joseph Ratzinger, fail to grasp that they are contradicting the older, definitive teaching they claim to profess, by believing that their ecclesiology is in full harmony with that older teaching? Either they aren't terribly bright, or they're doing quite a spectacular job of kidding themselves.

In fact neither is the case, because they are not contradicting themselves. Neither Vatican II nor the present responsum claimed or implied that those "true, particular churches" which are not in full communion with the Catholic Church manifest what the critique's author calls "the fullness of the Catholic Church." It is made abundantly clear that they fail to manifest said fullness precisely insofar as they are not in full communion with the Catholic Church, which alone is where "the" Church of Christ "subsists" as an integral whole. So, why interpret LG and the responsum as though there were some contradiction here?

The other thing I find so striking about the critique is its key argument, which explains why
the aforementioned sources are taken to be contradicting themselves. I quote again:

If the term "true particular Church" means anything, it means a local Church in the Ignatian sense, where the faithful gathered about their bishop in the Eucharistic assembly are a manifestation of the fulness of the Catholic Church. And if such a community can exist even though in schism from that visible body wherein the Church of Christ is said to "subsist", that is an admission that the body of Christ can be divided while remaining (on both sides of the divide) truly the Catholic Church. That flies in the face of the creedal insistence on the unity of the Church, and if that is not a change in RC ecclesiology, I cannot imagine what would constitute such a change.

The adjective 'Ignatian' used by the author alludes to the teaching of Ignatius of Antioch, a bishop and martyr who wrote at or shortly after AD 100. St. Ignatius was quite keen on helping Christians distinguish the true faith from the two prominent heresies of his day: that of the Judaizers, and Docetism. The content of those heresies is irrelevant for present purposes; what's relevant is St. Ignatius' emphasis on loyalty to one's local bishop as essential for the unity of faith and of the Church. For the bishops in communion with each other across the Christian world at the time just were the successors of the apostles and the vicars of Christ, who together and as such held and taught the true doctrine. So, St. Ignatius was writing at a time when a Christian could be reasonably certain that her loyalty to such holders of office meant that she was orthodox and belonged to the "Catholic" Church—a term which St. Ignatius was the first writer we know of to have actually used. But does it follow that belonging to a church presided over by a validly consecrated bishop would always ensure that one was in full communion with "the" Catholic Church? Of course not. There were later times in Church history, such as the mid-fourth century, when the majority of duly consecrated bishops were actually heretics, whom it was the duty of true Christians to reject as such, if and when they knew better. Hence, according to Catholic theology, belonging to a true, particular church is only a necessary, not a sufficient, condition for full communion with "the" Catholic Church. A given church may remain a "true, particular church" in the sense described above in the CDF's answer to the "Fourth Question," without thereby manifesting the "fullness" of the Catholic Church. It can be a living part of that Church, belonging properly to her, while being detached from the subsistent whole and thus deficient, with many consequences. And so the critique's argument is fallacious.

I have been amazed over the last few years how much misunderstanding of Catholic theology there is out there. Ecclesiology has been a particular victim of such misunderstanding. As I've said before, the work of the hermeneut of continuity never seems to be done. I don't think that's because the continuity isn't manifest for those disposed to see it. It's because so many seem to have reasons of their own not to see it.

blog comments powered by Disqus