In a recent string, Terra made a comment about paragraph 168 in the Compendium of the Cathechism of the Catholic Church in reference to ecumenism. That paragraph reads:
168. Who belongs to the Catholic Church?
All human beings in various ways belong to or are ordered to the Catholic unity of the people of God. Fully incorporated into the Catholic Church are those who, possessing the Spirit of Christ, are joined to the Church by the bonds of the profession of faith, the sacraments, ecclesiastical government and communion. The baptized who do not enjoy full Catholic unity are in a certain, although imperfect, communion with the Catholic Church.
Terra’s comment was:
But here is the problem – what does 168’s (who belongs to the Church) description of ‘imperfect communion’ really mean? It’s this kind of fudging (and I do think that is the right word) that has led to multiple interpretations of what the purpose of ecumenism is for example, and finally led the Holy Father to his recent attempts to clarify this and state clearly that full membership of the Church must be the real goal (as it always has been traditionally).
I don’t think it is “fudging” at all, if we give attention to the meaning of the word “imperfect”. There is no Latin version of the Compendium available on the Vatican Website, so we will use the original source of this phrase, which is the declaration Unitatis Redintegratio from the Second Vatican Council. In Chapter three of this document, the Council said: « Hi enim qui in Christum credunt et Baptismum rite receperunt, in quadam cum Ecclesia catholica communione, etsi non perfecta constituuntur ». The word “imperfect” actually translates the phrase “non perfecta”. “Perfectus” in Latin actually has precisely the sense of “complete, finished, done”. Something is “perfect” when it has reached its goal. If we consider that baptism is the the first sacrament of initiation, it is “completed” by the other two sacraments of initiation, confirmation and reception of the Eucharist. Baptism alone therefore is a sacrament which is pressing toward a goal of completion in communion with the Church (confirmation) at the table of the Lord (Eucharist).
Far from “fudging”, I think the use of the phrase “imperfect communion” to describe faithful baptised believers not in full communion with the Universal Church as “in quadam communione, etsi non perfecta” to be absolutely right on the money. The alternative would be to posit that baptism outside the visible boundaries of the Church’s communion is either ineffective or invalid – and this assertion would need to be explained somehow in terms of ecclesiology. The Orthodox do just this. I read in an article just the other day the following quotation from Orthodox theologian Georges Florovsky:
The basic principle underlying its use is that the Church has been endowed by God with authority to manage the affairs of her household. She is therefore in a full sense the steward (oikonomous) and sovereign administrator of the sacraments; and it falls within the scope of her stewardship and ecomony to make valid – as she thinks fit – sacraments administerd by non-Orthodox, although such sacraments are no sacraments if considered in themselves and apart from the Orthodox Church. Becaue a person’s Baptism is accepted as valid – or rather made valid by economy – when he becomes Orthodox, it does not therefore follow that his Baptism was valid before he became Orthodox.
While there are some similarities here with our ecclesiology, the notion that the sacrament of baptism only becomes valid when the baptised person enters communion with the Church (we would say, “when he becomes Catholic” where Florovsky above says “when he becomes Orthodox”), is foreign to us. We follow the belief that if a sacrament is performed by the right minister, with the right intent, the right matter, and the right form, then by God’s promise it is a valid sacrament. In the case of baptism, we believe than anyone – even one who is not himself baptised – can, with the right intent, form and matter, validly baptise. For this reason baptism must be a valid sacrament wherever and by whomever it is performed. It is, as Florovsky states, the Church which gives it this validity, but we would not say that the sacrament only becomes valid when the baptised person has his initiation completed by the sacraments of confirmation and Eucharist.
What I am getting at is this: the words “perfect” or “imperfect” actually apply to a goal, that goal being “full communion” and membership in the Church, ie. “joined to the Church by the bonds of the profession of faith, the sacraments, ecclesiastical government and communion”. However, Baptism, wherever it is validly celebrated, is a beginning of this initiation. The goal of ecumenism is “full, visible unity of all the baptised”. It is a goal which is in fact determined by the inner reality of baptism itself. We cannot therefore regard separated Christians as anything other than our brothers and sisters in Christ, destined with us to enter the fullness of divine life and communion – destined by their baptism, that is. [I recently was in conversation with a Russian Orthodox SCE reader who very politely informed me that as an Orthodox Christian he could only regard us Catholics in the same category as Jews and Muslims. We had a polite discussion about that, and agreed to disagree! :-) ]
Obviously this destiny is not fulfilled in each and every baptised person during this life, so we leave that in the hands of God. But the goal is perfection, and I trust that, while God may yet bring about the “ecumenical goal” either here in this world in his own way and time by his Spirit, he will certainly do so in the world to come.