An excellent article on the Declaration Dominus Iesus was published recently in the journal Ecumenical Trends, by Mons. Paul McPartlan, the Ordinary Professor of Historical and Systematic Theology and Carl J. Peter Professor of Systematic Theology and Ecumenism at the Catholic University of America. Since the journal is not online, I requested and received permission to publish it on the Ecumenical and Interfaith Commission’s website. You can download it and read it by clicking here. I highly recommend it.
In this essay, Fr Paul writes that it is “illuminating, especially amid all the complexity and controversy surrounding that little phrase “subsists in,” to hold together the council’s use of it in L[umen] G[entium] 8 and its use of it in U[nitatis] R[edintegratio, the Decree on Ecumenism] 4.” He then compares that to the use of the phrase in Dominus Iesus. He has four conclusions:
First, from a Catholic point of view, that structure of unity, namely the college of bishops headed by the pope, is part of the Lord’s will for his Church. It follows, then, that the Church does not exist fully without it, and that is what is meant by saying; as DI does, that the Church “continues to exist fully only in the Catholic Church” (DI 16, emphasis mine), where that structure of unity, and especially the universal primacy of the pope, is recognized and operative.
Second, part of what is meant when it is said that the Church subsists is that that structure of unity itself subsists, and it is in that sense that it might even be said that the Church subsists only in the Catholic Church (cf DI, footnote 56), since clearly that is the only place where that structure of unity actually functions today.
Third, and very importantly, none of this detracts at all from the recognition that many elements of the Church exist outside the visible bounds of the Catholic Church, and, in particular, that the fundamental elements of apostolic succession, holy orders and Eucharist exist among the Orthodox Churches, such that they are indeed “true particular Churches” in which the Church is Christ is “present and operative” (DI 17), as Vatican II emphasized (cf UR 15).
Fourth, contrary to what might easily be presumed to be the meaning of the phrase, “subsists in” is not therefore synonymous with “is present and operative in.” “Subsists,” it would seem, alludes to that additional factor of unity and stability that is, provided for the Church on earth by the personal ministry of the pope as universal primate.
Interesting stuff. I take his final conclusion to mean that, while “subsistit in” does mean “is present and operative in”, it must be taken to include “the additional factor of unity and stability” that comes with communion with the Successor of Peter, and thus it is in this sense that one must “believe, teach and confess” (as Lutherans are wont to say) that the Church Christ established fully subsists only in the Catholic Church in communion with the Pope.