And yet another moaner and groaner about the CDF Clarifications on the Doctrine on the Church

In the same edition of The Tablet (subscription only) to which I refer in the blog below, there is an article by Nicholas Lash (Norris-Hulse Professor Emeritus of Divinity, University of Cambridge) entitled “Churches, proper and otherwise”. Again, I reproduce part of here, with my comments in [bold].

The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has issued a document aimed at clarifying the distinction between the concepts of ‘Church’ and ‘ecclesial community’. But it is difficult to see how this latest document harmonizes with the key texts of the Second Vatican Council. [Only if the Council is read with an “hermeneutic of rupture”.]

On 10 July, L’Osservatore Romano published a statement from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) entitled “Responses to some questions regarding certain aspects of the doctrine on the Church”. I have no idea why the document has been produced, nor where these “questions” come from. [In fact, no-one does to this day, although Sandro Magister offers a clue.] It is, in fact, dated 29 June. Perhaps publication was delayed so that it could come out under ‘the smokescreen created by the long-awaited appearance of the motu proprio by which the Pope, overriding the authority of the episcopate (although he denies that he is doing this) [Ah… This tells you where he is coming from. You know what to expect now. “Hermeneutic of rupture” meets “hermeneutic of suspicion”] has given widespread permission for the use of the unreformed Missal of 1962.

The fifth and last of the questions addressed in the document runs as follows: “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?”

The answer given is that, “according to Catholic doctrine, these communities do not enjoy apostolic succession in the sacrament of orders, and are, therefore, deprived of a constitutive element of the Church”, Accordingly, these ecclesial communities “cannot, according to Catholic doctrine, be called ‘Churches’ in the proper sense”. The authority for that final clause is given, correctly, as the highly contentious [or, more accurately, highly contended, especially by the “Loyal Opposition”, aka the Dissenters] declaration Dominus Iesus which the CDF issued, over the signature of Cardinal Ratzinger, in June 2000.

The expression does not, however, occur in the documents of the Second Vatican Council. It should make any theologically trained nose twitch suspiciously, because if a community is “properly” called “ecclesial” churchly, then that community must surely be in some sense properly called “church” [this argument should make any grammatically trained nose twitch suspiciously: “churchly” is an adjective; it differs from “church” which is a noun. In addition to this, there is a distinction to be made between saying whether a given Christian community is “Church”, “a Church”, or “The Church”]. As I shall indicate in more detail later on, it is at the very heart of traditional Catholic doctrine, as expressed in the documents of Vatican II, that concepts central to our attempts to give expression to the mystery of God, and of God’s relationships with humankind, are not reducible to the kind of tight and tidy definition with which the officials of the CDF seem most at ease.

The distinction between “Churches” and “ecclesial communities” occurs in the title of the third chapter of the Council’s Decree on Ecumenism, Unitatis Redintegratio “Churches and Ecclesial Communities Separated from the Roman Apostolic See’ The distinction is intended, as a note in Abbott’s edition of the conciliar documents puts it, to convey “the idea that the more a Church has of the essential structures of the Catholic Church, the more it approaches the ideal of the Church”. [Lash is very mistaken to think that Abbott’s footnotes have any magisterial or hermeneutical authority whatsoever. In particular, Abbott errs in this case by thinking that the essence of the matter is “structures” rather than “communion”. This sends Lash off up the wrong garden path in what follows.]

The key conciliar text on Catholic doctrine on Church structures is, of course the third chapter of the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church “Lumen Gentium”. I have long insisted that the central doctrinal achievements of Vatican II are to be found in the sequence of chapters of its two Dogmatic Constitutions, on Revelation and on the Church.

Where the latter is concerned, the subject of the first chapter is “The Mystery of the Church”. It is a marvellously biblical and patristically rich meditation on the irreducibility of the mystery of the Church, the mystery of God’s gathering of sinful scattered humankind into communion with him, to any single model, image or description. [Ecclesiology is not about making up “models” of the Church, any more than theology is about making up “image” for God. It is about recognising the revealed reality.] The second chapter does, nevertheless, relatively privilege one such image or description in treating of “the People of God”.

The selection of this theme ensures that the Council’s teaching on the Church is both historical and eschatological. We are a people on the way, a people whose finishing began at Calvary and at the empty tomb, but which still lies ahead of us in the consummation of the kingdom. Of central importance is the Council’s treatment, in articles 13 to 16, of the theme that all of humankind is called by God to be this people, to be this gathering, ecclesia, of which that which we usually call the Church is the already symbolically realised expression or (as Chapter One had put it, “sacrament”). [And the sacramental analogy is behind the meaning of the term “subsistit in” too.]

The account of the ways in which different kinds and conditions or people already live within this “People’s” scope runs all the way from those, “fully incorporated into the society of the Church who, possessing the Spirit of Christ, accept her entire system and all the in means of salvation given to her, and through union with her visible structure are joined to Christ”, through other Christians, “consecrated by baptism, through which they are united with Christ”, and who “recognise and receive other sacraments within their own Churches or ecclesial communities” and so on to the Jews, the Muslims [here Lash is importing ideas from Nostra Aetate into Lumen Gentium–LG does not actually mention Jews or Muslims, and certainly does not suggest that the Church exists beyond the communities of the baptised], and those, who “have not yet arrived at an explicit knowledge of God, bit who strive to live a good life thanks to His grace.”

Notice especially the expression, “possessing the Spirit of Christ” and “thanks to his grace”. This is a description of humankind’s relationship with God’s gathering according to which the holy atheist is closer to being part of God’s People than a wicked pope [this really is stating far more than the Council ever said–the wicked pope may not be a true Christian, but what exactly is a “holy atheist”?]. This point should be obvious, but may still be worth making.

Against the sweep of these articles, it is easy to see why the late Bishop Christopher Butler was never tired of insisting that the heart of the Council’s teaching on the Church was well captured in an expressio
n of the Russian theologian Paul Evdokimov: “We can say where the Church is, but not where she is not.” [And in fact the CDF clarification doesn’t attempt to say “where the Church is not”, but rather to clarify what is meant when we say that the Catholic Church is “THE Church” and when we call a particular Christian community “A Church”] (Incidentally, in his contribution in a learned collection of essays on “Lumen Gentium”,·L’Eglise & Vatican II. Etudes autour de la Constitution conciliaire sur l’Eglise, edited by Y.M.J. Congar and published in 1966, Bishop Butler suggested that “ecclesial communities” should be thought of as not merely “Churches by desire”, but true extensions of the Church, although seriously defective.) [There is no indication at all that the CDF Clarifications consider the “ecclesial communities” as “Churches by desire”–whatever that might mean.]

Only in the third place, after these two doctrinally rich chapters, did the Council treat, in Chapter Three, of “The hierarchical structure of the Church, with special reference to the episcopate.”

Structures matter. Structures, in an incarnational and sacramental dispensation, are indispensable. From the standpoint of Catholic doctrine, other Christians traditions are, in widely varying degrees, structurally defective. [Here Lash makes a big mistake. Just as Fr Lawrence mistakenly thought the CDF Clarifications considered the Eastern Churches to be wounded because they failed to recognise the primacy of the bishop of Rome, so here Lash mistakenly thinks that the CDF Clarifications deny the ecclesial communities the status of “true, particular or local Churches” because they have the wrong “structure”. As I said before, I will say again: what is wanting is neither structure nor recognition of primacy (although both are involved) but COMMUNION.] But, according to Catholic doctrine, as represented by the Dogmatic Constitution “Lumen Gentium’ structures do not come first, or even second, but third. The CDF claims that it is “clarifying the authentic meaning of some ecclesiological expressions” such as what it is to be, or not be, “Church”. [Neither the Clarifications nor the Commentary ever talk about what it “means to be Church”. They are concerned solely with what it means to speak of “THE Church” and “A Church”.] But to treat, for example, the distinction between “Churches” and “ecclesial communities” in complete abstraction from the context in which that distinction is shaped and figured by the rich teaching of the first two chapters of the Constitution is not to “clarify” Catholic doctrine but grossly to distort and misrepresent it. [is the CDF guilty of this?]

By way of conclusion, a word on Anglican orders. What is the Catholic Church’s view of their status? [A good question] Here we confront a paradox. On the one hand, Leo XIII’s encyclical Apostolicae Curae, of 1896, which denounced Anglican orders as “absolutely null and utterly void”, has never been repealed. [More to the point, it remains the judgement of the Church–even more so now that the Anglicans have proceeded to ordain women as bishops.] It would seem to follow that there must be some sense — for all I know a “proper” sense – in which the Archbishop of Canterbury is, as one Roman Catholic bishop put it in a letter to The Times, I think, 1951, a letter exhibiting a tact and generosity worthy of the CDF, a ‘doubtfully baptised layman”. [Oh very nice, very nice touch. But this is dishonest. Lash knows that we recognise the validity of Rowan Williams’ baptism, even if we do not recognise the validity of his Ordination.]

On the other hand, it is also the case that for over 40 years, successive popes have received bishops and other dignitaries of the Church of England with richly symbolic gestures (and facts have their own logic) such as Paul VI’s exchange of episcopal rings with Archbishop Michael Ramsey John Paul II’s gift of a priest’s stole to Professor Henry Chadwick and, last November, the invitation to Archbishop Rowan Williams to celebrate the Eucharist at the high altar of the ancient basilica of Santa Satins, a celebration at which the Gospel was read by a senior official of the Roman Curia. [All this is quite true. It means that the bishops of the Anglican Church–and the sacraments they celebrate–are “not nothing”. But the Pope also regularly receives women pastors and bishops of the German and Scandanavian Churches with all civility–and that doesn’t mean that the Catholic Church recognises them as valid priests. My take on the matter is that the Archbishop of Canterbury and every other protestant minister is to be honoured because (by human arrangement rather than divine ordination) they have been entrusted with the pastoral care of communities of validly baptised Christians, and they exercise effective ministries of the Word of God.]

Some day a pope, assisted by the other bishops of the Catholic Church, will have to sort things out, bang heads together. It seems unlikely, however, that this will happen during the present pontificate. [Again, I beg to differ. The very document that Lash is criticising is part of the “head-banging” he longs for. Unfortunately for him, his head is one of those requiring to be banged.]

All in all, not a helpful article in any sense. “Being Church” (to take Lash’s phrase) isn’t about recognising primacy or structures. Say it after me, boys and girls, it is all about COMMUNION.


PS. Is it worth observing that there are also groupings of Catholics which are not “Churches in the true and proper sense”? I am thinking for instance of the way we sometimes use the word “Church” to refer to our local parish. This is not “a Church” in the true sense, because a local particular Church in the true sense is the Diocese, not the parish. Neither can we say that the “Australian Catholic Church” is “a Church” in the true sense, because there is really no such animal. There are Catholics in Australia, and you could call them the Catholic Church in Australia, but the Catholic Churches in Australia are the individual Dioceses and Eparchies in communion with the Successor of Peter, not the national conglomerate of all these individual Churches. So you see, we are not being pejorative toward protestants when we say that the various “denominations” are not “Churches in the proper sense”. We certainly aren’t suggesting that they are not Christian or that their members do not, by virtue of the baptism and faith in Christ, belong to the one true Church of Christ.

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2 Responses to And yet another moaner and groaner about the CDF Clarifications on the Doctrine on the Church

  1. Past Elder says:

    How many Clarifications, and clarifications of clarifications, will there be until clarity is attained? Good Lord.

  2. Christine says:

    Past Elder,

    Until we no longer “see through a glass darkly” . . .

    Forgive me. I couldn’t resist.


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