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

  1. Tony Bartel says:

    My personal response would be very similar to what Metropolitan Kyrill said, “Thank you for being honest. It is only through being honest that we can truly dialogue with each other.”

    At the same time, I am concerned about how this plays into the anti-Roman bias of many outside the Roman Catholic Church.

    One of the things I said this week in my parish bulletin was:


    “What the Roman Catholic Church does not teach is that other Christians will miss out on salvation or are totally devoid of God’s mercy and grace, In fact, the current statement goes out of its way to re affirm the teaching of the Second Vatican Council :

    It follows that these separated churches and communities, though we believe they suffer from defects, are deprived neither of significance nor importance in the mystery of salvation. In fact the Spirit of Christ has not refrained from using them as instruments of salvation, whose value derives from that fullness of grace and of truth which has been entrusted to the Catholic Church.”


    One parishioner at the Saturday evening Eucharist said: “I am confused. I thought that Catholics did teach that.” In other words, he believed that the Roman Catholic Church does teach that other Christians will not be saved and are devoid of God’s grace and mercy.

    It is only in this sense that I regret the statement – that people will not read the whole statement and remember that other “ecclesial communities” have significance and importance and that the Spirit of Christ has used other churches as instruments of salvations.

    Even forty years after the Council that is still a remarkable statement. I am sorry that it is being lost in so much of the current discussion.

  2. Schütz says:

    Thanks for your reflection on this, Tony. Cardinal Kasper, in his comments after the statement was released, certainly emphasised the aspect you piont out–and that remains our position also.

    The recognition of the salvific instrumentality of other Christian communities could not have been possible without the alteration of the word “is” to “subsists in”.

    But at the same time, the adoption of the terminology of subsistence–in conjunction with the recognition that one could be saved outside the visible boundaries of the Church–led many Catholics (and non-Catholics) to think that the Catholic Church no longer regarded visible membership in the Catholic Church (ie. communion with the Bishop of Rome) as a thing necessary for salvation.

    Getting the ecclesiology of Vatican II right is necessary for a proper understanding of WHY communities outside the Catholic Church are still able to be salvific, even though the fullness of the Church subsists only in the Catholic Church and why all Christians are being called by reason of their baptism into full communion with the Catholic Church.

  3. Anonymous says:

    Does anyone except the Catholics actually care about what the Pope thinks what a church is? Lutherans certainly certainly don’t.

  4. Schütz says:

    No, probably not, Anon, but Catholics are often amused that Protestants such as yourself fail to be able to distinguish between “what the Pope thinks” and what the Catholic Church teaches.

    This clarification is not “what the Pope thinks”–it is the official theological ecclesiology of the Catholic Church.

    And yes, plenty of non-Catholic folk–Lutherans included–do care about that, because which ever way you look at it, if you seriously long and pray for the full visible unity of Christians, it is impossible to by-pass the single largest communion of Christians on the face of the earth: ie. the Catholic Church.

  5. Christine says:

    “Does anyone except the Catholics actually care about what the Pope thinks what a church is? Lutherans certainly certainly don’t.”

    Anonymous, you just can’t realistically speak for all Lutherans, who are divided among themselves on many issues.

    Many thoughtful Lutherans (of which I used to be one) even if they disagree on doctrinal issues realize that what affects the largest Christian communion on earth will ultimately affect all Christian churches.

  6. Anonymous says:

    I did’t mean anything against the Pope, I am glad that he cleared the air and spoke like a Pope. Too many Lutherans such as the ELCA think that issues that divide Catholics and Lutherans can be glossed over. I really wish that Rome would allow intercommunion with Lutherans especially the Missouri Synod.

  7. Schütz says:

    Again another thing that Protestants don’t understand. It isn’t a case of “allowing” or “not allowing” as if it was simply a matter of some rule or discipline that could be altered at whim. As my catechist (+ Anthony Fisher) used to tell me “We’ll have to cure you of this Lutheran postitivism” (I don’t know if he have quite succeeded in that). You can’t be “in communion” with someone and not “in communion” with them at the same time. We do not share communion with one another because we are not in communion. When that blessed day comes that we are, we will.

    Also many protestants do not realise that in fact it is allowable–under certain strict conditions–for Catholic priests to give the sacraments to protestants. But these are individual ad hoc situations, not permanent situations for whole communities.

  8. Anonymous says:

    From my Lutheran perspective, there are two problems with the statement — one practical, the other theological. As a practical matter, dialog requires agreement on the definition of terms. Virtually all Christian communities view themselves as part of Christ’s Church. For the Catholic Church to argue that other communities lack important gifts which God intends for the Church is fair and honest. To unilaterally define an emotionally-charged word used by all Christians seems likely to give unnecessary offense. (Yes, I am aware that truth claims unavoidably offend. But exactly the same theological points could have been made without presuming a monopoly on the ability to define a term as basic as “Church”.)

    The theological problem is that while hierarchical communion is obviously a critical element of the Catholic concept of Church, Catholic teaching also uses other imagery and phrases. The Church is described as the “People of God.” So, it is not such a great leap to complete the syllogism:

    Church = People of God
    Protestants are not Church

    => Protestants not People of God.

    I suspect you will argue that the Church teaches no such thing, but you will have to rely on resources other than the CDF “Clarification”. Which suggests that the “Clarification” requires clarification.

    Jon Edwards

  9. Schütz says:

    Thank you, John. You will have noticed that in recent days I have blogged on related problems–like the need to define what we mean when we say “Catholic”. I refer you to Cardinal Ratzinger’s 2001 essay (THE ECCLESIOLOGY OF THE CONSTITUTION ON THE CHURCH, VATICAN II, ‘LUMEN GENTIUM’ for more detail.

    There he speaks of the difficulty that can happen when false definitions of the word “Church” enter common parlance, such as the assumption that “universal Church” = “Church of Rome”. The result is “a growing inability to portray anything concrete under the name of the universal Church”.

    Your equation is not quite right. First, it is too simplistic simply to say “Church = People of God”. This is a little like saying “Church = Kingdom of God”. True, but only to a certain extent and it needs many different qualifications. But more seriously, even if we granted the first proposition, the second proposition is quite wrong. The Catholic Church does not teach “Protestants are not the Church”, but “Protestant ecclesial communities are not true, particular Churches”. The difference is between the local and the universal Church. Christians not in full communion with the Catholic Church nevertheless belong to the universal Church of Christ by virtue of their baptism. That is, Protestant Christians are members of the People of God. That does not mean that the communities they form are necessarily true particular Churches, given that the defintion of a true particular Church in Sacred Tradition is the People of God gathered in a particular location in eucharistic assembly together with their rightful apostolic bishop.

    Yes, the clarification does need Clarification, which is why a commentary was released to go with it (see: Commentary on the Document)

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