Getting Catholic Ecclesiology and Ecumenism Right

Peregrinus has been having a long conversation with me in the comments section to my blog about the Universally Inclusive Club.

I had penned a long reply to his last comment, and then thought it was too long for a comment and should be a blog all on its own. We are continuing the question of whether the “house” metaphor is faithful to Catholic ecclesiology and ecumenism.

Here are some of Peregrinus’ comments:

Lumen Gentium tell us that Christ establshed, and continually sustains, his Church. But pointedly (and I think to the dismay of some) it does not equate the “Church of Christ”, professed in the Creed, and the “Catholic Church”, governed by the Bishop of Rome and the bishops in communion with him. It says that the Church of Christ “subsists in” the Catholic church, but it does not say that it subsists only in the Catholic church. In fact it points to “elements of sanctification and truth” which are found outside the Catholic church, which it describes as “gifts belonging to the Church of Christ”.

People with better qualifications than me have written reams on exacly what “subsists in” means, but in my simplistic way I understand it this way:

– The Church of Christ and the Catholic Chruch are both realiites – or, better, they are both expressions of the same complex (and mystical) reality.

– The Church of Christ is called to unity in the Catholic Church, but that unity has not yet been achieved.

– The call to unity is addressed to the entire Church of Christ, not just to those parts of it which are outside the Catholic Church.

– Such barriers to unity as may exist are not made and maintained exclusively by non-Catholic Christians (or, of course, exclusively by Catholic Christians).

– The call to unity requires us to identify barriers to unity, and to work for their removal.

Yes, the house metaphor has it’s limits, yes. No metaphor can really do full justice to the mystery which is the Church. But the bulk of biblical metaphors for the Church – household, vine, body etc. – are metaphors with a clear delineation of who belongs and who doesn’t.

The confusing thing about our current state is that:

1) there are many who, because of baptism and faith in Christ are in a real but imperfect communion with the Catholic Church
2) there are local Churches which are Churches in the true sense because they have retained the sacraments and the apostolic succession, and yet are not in communion with the Catholic Church

Both these situations indicate that such individuals and Churches cannot be covered by a clear “in or out” category. In both these situations, true elements of the One Church exist in outside the boundaries of that visible society which is the Catholic Church. But in both cases there is a “fullness” lacking—that fullness of communion in the One Christ which comes through full communion with one another and with the Petrine See. This lack of “fullness” is a serious wound to their existence as individual Christians and as local Churches.

There has been a basic error of interpretation common since Unitatis Redintegratio was promulgated in 1965. The authentic interpretation of the Council by the magisterium since (in particular, a study of JPII’s Ut Unum Sint, the Directory on Ecumenism and the Declaration Dominus Iesus) should have cleared this misinterpretation up, but people have not been paying attention. In addition this false interpretation has been muddied by a certain irenic approach in ecumenical dialogue.

It was Garuti’s book that alerted me to the fact that although the Council used the term “subsists in” rather than “is”, it never affirms that the one Church of Christ “subsists in” any where else, ie. in any other ecclesial communion or communion of local Churches. Thus, although at first I reacted negatively to this, he is right when he insists that

1) the one Church of Christ does not “subsist in” the communion of Orthodox Churches
2) there are not “two” Churches, one East/Orthodox and one West/Catholic
3) there is not one Church “split in half”, into East/Orthodox and West/Catholic
4) There is no such thing as the “Orthodox Church”, only the Orthodox Churches
5) The Catholic Church is not a “Sister Church” to the Orthodox Churches, because the Catholic Church is the Universal Church whereas the Orthodox Churches are local Churches
6) The Catholic Church is not to be thought of as a “part” of the One Church of Christ
7) The Catholic Church is not to be identified with the Western Church (as it includes many Eastern Churches) and the office of the Pope as supreme pontiff of the Catholic Church does not equal his office as the Patriarch of the West (a title still in use when Garuti was writing)

But above all, we must always keep in mind that the goal of Catholic ecumenism is not “the full visible unity of the Church“—something which already exists–but the full visible unity of all Christians. There is no other way to make sense of the opening line of Unitatis Redintegratio:

“The restoration of unity among all Christians is one of the principal concerns of the Second Vatican Council. Christ the Lord founded one Church and one Church only.”

Thus the unity of the Church, the Church of the Creed, is not something to be sought as if it does not currently exist. Moreover, if the Church is indeed One (and the Creed tells us that it is, not that it will be), then we have only two choices:

1) It is already One, made up of all those who have been baptised and truly believe in their hearts—who they are is known only to God and therefore the Church is an invisible reality (the Protestant option)
2) It is already One, made up of the baptised faithful who are in communion with the bishops who are in communion with the See of Peter—thus a visible society (the Catholic option)

(Note, as far as I can gather, the Orthodox option is a variation of the Catholic option: It is already One, made up of all those in communion with the bishops who hold the true Orthodox faith and are not in communion with the See of Peter).

As for the fact that Lumen Gentium tell us that the church “coalesces from a divine and a human element”, it is important to read this in the context of the whole paragraph (LG 8). When you do this, you find that it cannot mean, as you make it to mean, that there “the human element” is “therefore fallible.” On the contrary, the paragraph makes clear that the human and divine realities are not two, but one reality, as closely connected as the divine and human realities in the Incarnate Word. It specifically says that:

“the society structured with hierarchical organs and the Mystical Body of Christ, are not to be considered as two realities, nor are the visible assembly and the spiritual community, nor the earthly Church and the Church enriched with heavenly things; rather they form one complex reality which coalesces from a divine and a human element.”
Therefore we cannot say of any part of the visible institution that “this is of human origin” and therefore does not belong to the spiritual reality.

Of course, I say all this without pride. I was once “on the outside”—a true member of the Church of Christ by baptism and faith, but lacking the fullness of that communion to be a fully initiated member of the Church let alone a valid minister of its sacraments. I myself have had to eat the humble pie to say “I was wrong”, that God’s will for me and for all others was and always will be to accept the invitation and to enter through the door, to sit at the table and by the fire, and enjoy the hospitality which the Father gives through our Lord Christ and the Spirit. It is because I have tasted of this
hospitality that it pains me to see so many who are attempting to live full Christian lives without it, and that it gives me great joy every time one of my separated brothers or sisters in Christ gives up wandering in the desert or the forest and comes in to share the good things that God has prepared for them since the foundation of the world.

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