There is an interesting article in the Aug 27 – Sept 3 edition of America Magazine by Richard R. Gaillardetz about the CDF document “Responses to Some Questions Regarding Certain Aspects of the Church“.
Apart from being a concise summary of the history of the debate over the word “subsistit” (including reference to Francis Sullivan and Karl Joseph Becker), he points out an important distinction made by Walter Kasper in 2001 after Dominus Iesus came out. The judgement of the Catholic Church that churches without valid orders or Eucharist are not Churches in proper sense “does not refer to subjective holiness but to the sacramental and institutional means of salvation.” Or to put it another way (as Kasper did just a few days ago in Sibiu):
The differences have nothing to do with being a Christian or the question of salvation, the differences concern the question of concrete salvific mediation, as well as the visible form of the Church.
Gaillardetz also quotes Francis Sullivan, who in his book The Church We Believe In (pg. 26), wrote:
Of course it must be kept in mind that this is a question of institutional integrity: of fullness of the means of salvation. There is no question of denying that a non-Catholic’ community, perhaps lacking much in the order of means, can achieve a higher degree of communion in the life of Christ in faith, hope and love than many a Catholic community.
I would agree with Sullivan if he qualified the word “communion” with “baptismal communion” . The fullness of the objective “means” of communion–especially the Eucharistic communion between bishops and people–cannot be so easily bypassed. Nevertheless, baptism is a real and objective means of communion and the basis for a life of discipleship in Christ. That’s where Gaillardetz suggests the following “thought experiment” which I think you will find instructive:.
Imagine a neighborhood with two churches: Grace Lutheran and St. Bernadette Catholic parish. According to the council’s teaching, the Lutheran congregation would be lacking some specific “means of sanctification and truth” available, in principle, to St. Bernadette’s. Presumably, they do not have access to a universal ministry of unity (the papacy), the sacrament of reconciliation or the full reality of the Eucharist. Yet Grace Lutheran Church might be fostering a community that emphasizes Christian fellowship, hospitality and the dignity of one’s baptismal calling. Church leaders might stress the necessity of being biblically literate and living with fidelity and passion, a biblical vision of discipleship.
On the other hand, St. Bernadette’s might be a community where Christian hospitality is almost completely absent and genuine fellowship minimal, a community in which baptism is simply a christening ritual performed on infants, where the Scriptures are poorly proclaimed and the homilies are filled with arcane, pious references and silly jokes but say little about the concrete demands of discipleship in daily life. In this scenario we must grant the possibility that Grace Lutheran Church, although technically lacking ecclesial “fullness,” might in fact be fostering a form of Christian communal life that more effectively brings them into communion with Christ than does St. Bernadette’s.
He is right–so long as it is remembered that Grace Lutheran Church achieves this level of communal life through intentional use of the graces available through the only true objective means of communion they have (the Scriptures and Baptism), while St Bernadette’s has squandered the richness of their inheritance. It is as if Jesus’ parable was reversed: Those to whom little was given have invested it for the maximum return and those to whom much was given have gone out and buried it. We know how the parable ends.