#3 Concrete Act for the Unity of the Church: The CDF Clarification of the Doctrine on the Church

“Now with the mind of Christ set us on fire,
that unity may be our great desire…”
(John Raphael Peacey)

I was as surprised as the next bloke to read in the morning edition of The Age last Thursday that the Holy See had issued yet another “clarification” of the Church’s doctrine on the Church. I say “yet another”, even though it has been seven years since the matter was spelled out fairly clearly in Dominus Iesus (a document which smoothed–or rather “oiled”–my path into the Catholic Church)–fairly recently by Vatican standards. And we all remember what a hullabaloo went up then about the Catholic Church’s difficulty in recognising the ecclesial reality and status of some communities of our separated Brethren and Sistern.

But it seems like even DI didn’t put it bluntly enough, so the Prefect of the Holy Inquisition (as we Crunchy Trads like to call it), the supposedly “non-radically-conservative” Cardinal William Levada, has seen fit to issue a simple catechism in question and answer form that even the most spongy/flakey ecumenist should be able to comprehend.


1. Did the Second Vatican Council change the Catholic doctrine on the Church?

Answer: No. What the Catholic Church taught before the Council regarding the Church is exactly the same as what it taught afterward. If you read it in any other way, you’ve got it wrong. (Go and learn what “hermeneutic of continuity” means; cf. Papa Benny’s speech to the Curia in Dec 2005).

2. What is the meaning of the affirmation that the Church of Christ subsists in the Catholic Church?

Answer: There is only one Church of Christ, and the Catholic Church in communion with the Bishop of Rome and governed by him is it. The Church of Christ “subsists in” AND ONLY IN the Catholic Church.

3. Why was the expression “subsists in” adopted instead of the simple word “is”?

Answer: Because we didn’t want to suggest that there wasn’t stuff that belongs to the one Church of Christ (like baptism and the word of God) that can be found outside the Catholic Church, or that there are not churches which are real particular churches even thought they are not in communion with the Catholic Church.

4. Why does the Second Vatican Council use the term “Church” in reference to the oriental Churches separated from full communion with the Catholic Church?

Answer: Because they have real bishops, and therefore real priests and therefore real eucharists and therefore are real particular churches. But there is a problem in that they lack one essential factor necessary to each true particular church: ie. communion with the primatial see of Rome (see what the Pope said to the Catholics in China on this).

5. 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?

Answer: For exactly the same reason that we call Orthodox Churches real particular churches. They have the bishops, priests, eucharist, etc. Protestants don’t.

I don’t think that this little summary is putting it too bluntly. The full version perhaps gives a little more explanation, but there it is. It is not a polite document. I wonder whether the next thing that the CDF doesn’t come out with is a statement on exactly what the Catholic Church judges to be the reality (or otherwise) of the Eucharists in non-catholic Churches. That’s something that dialogue groups the world over have been politely tip-toeing around for four decades now, but have yet to come out and say as clearly as the ecclesiastical doctrine of the Church has been spelled out in this document.

But why issue such a document at all? Does the Vatican simply want to throw a wet blanket on the already smouldering fires of the ecumenical movement?

Certainly that is how some commentators have seen it. The head of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches has called it “an exclusivist claim that identifies the Roman Catholic Church as the one church of Jesus Christ” which “goes against the spirit of our Christian calling toward oneness in Christ” (Rev. Setri Nyomi).

Thomas Wipf, president of the Community of Protestant Churches in Europe, sadi that the original characteristics of the church of Christ are preaching the Gospel and administering the Sacraments:

That–and no more–is need to be able to be seen as an authentic expression of the one church of Christ. The Gospel, and not apostolic succession in the sacrament of ordination, constitutes the church. We recognise the Roman Catholic Church as a church. It is and remains regrettable that this is not made possible the other way around.

I agree that it is regrettable. I also agree that that the church is constituted by the Gospel and the Sacraments–but precisely one of our disagreements is on whether the sacrament of Holy Orders is one of those indispensible constituting sacraments…

I do sympathise with our protestant brethren and sistern who feel this way. After all, Catholics are used to being regarded as non- or sub-Christian by protestants. But we are not calling the Christianity of our separated brothers and sisters into question–only the striclty theological ecclesial reality of their communities.

So the World Council of Churches, in its reaction, has it much better when they quote from their recent document “Called to be one Church”:

Each church is the Church catholic and not simply a part of it. Each church is the Church catholic, but not the whole of it. Each church fulfils its catholicity when it is in communion with other churches.

That statement is spot on, so long as “church” is not used to mean “denomination” or “parish”, but “particular church”–the legitimate bishop in each place with his people gathered around the eucharist. The Catholic Church would especially like to emphasise the final line of that quotation. The WCC statement went on to recognise the need for honesty in ecumenical dialogue–and that seems to be the point which most reasonable commentators on this clarification recognise as valuable.

A case in point is the comment of the Russian Orthodox prelate, Metropolitan Kirill of Smolensk and Kaliningrad:

It is an honest statement. It is much better than the so-called ‘church diplomacy’. It shows how close, or, on the contrary, how divided we are.

My personal favourite reaction is from the aforementioned article in The Age. Anglican bishop Robert Forsyth of Sydney is reported as saying:

It means the Pope is a Catholic, actually. Of course, they would think that — we think they’re a bit dodgy, too, but we’ve come a long way from saying the Pope is the antichrist. In Sydney, we get on well (with the Catholics) because we both accept there are irreconcilable differences. But that doesn’t stop us loving each other.

The Clarification carries this note on the end of it:

The Supreme Pontiff Benedict X
VI, at the Audience granted to the undersigned Cardinal Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, ratified and confirmed these Responses, adopted in the Plenary Session of the Congregation, and ordered their publication.

Rome, from the Offices of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, June 29, 2007, the Solemnity of the Holy Apostles Peter and Paul.

So is this the one act of the Holy Father in the last week or two that goes against the grain of seeking unity? Using a hermeneutic of continuity, I beg to disagree. It is by such honest and clear statements of belief that true ecumenical progress is enabled. Muddying the waters with what Metropolitan Kirill calls “church diplomacy” only hinders the true progress of ecumenical rapproachment.

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