The Development of a Doctrine
In the four centuries following the Reformation, Catholic theology tended to identify the church of Christ completely with the Catholic Church. This helps explain initial Catholic suspicion of the ecumenical movement as it emerged in the early 20th century. In 1928 Pope Pius XI, in his encyclical Mortalium Animos (No. 10), wrote:
The union of Christians cannot be fostered otherwise than by promoting the return of the dissidents to the one true Church of Christ, which in the past they so unfortunately abandoned; return, we say, to the one true Church of Christ which is plainly visible to all and which by the will of her Founder forever remains what he himself destined her to be for the common salvation of human beings.
Fifteen years later, Pius XII issued an encyclical on the church, Mystici Corporis, in which he identified the mystical body of Christ with the Catholic Church. Since a number of Catholic theologians questioned this statement, he returned to it in his encyclical Humani Generis, where he insisted that the mystical body and the Catholic Church are one and the same reality.
The preparatory draft document on the church that the bishops were given at the opening session of Vatican II followed Pius XII in identifying the mystical body of Christ with the Catholic Church. So many negative comments were expressed about this draft that it was withdrawn, and a new draft was presented to the council in 1963. The new draft still insisted that the Church of Christ is the Roman Catholic Church, but a clause was added, noting that many elements of sanctification can be found outside its total structure, elements that properly belong to the church of Christ.
A revised draft presented to the council in 1964 introduced the word subsistit into the Latin text. Instead of saying that the church of Christ is the Catholic Church, it now said that the church of Christ subsists in the Catholic Church. The reason given for this change was so that the expression would better agree with the affirmation about the ecclesial elements found elsewhere. Unfortunately, the council bishops did not provide a precise definition of the term subsists, leaving it to later interpreters to derive its meaning from the terms immediate context and from other conciliar texts. Not surprisingly, after the close of the council many commentators thought the change from is to subsists in signaled a shift in Catholic ecclesiology that recognized the presence of the body of Christ beyond the boundaries of the Catholic Church. Events would show, however, that not all agreed with this interpretation of subsistit.
Another significant change concerned the various spiritual gifts shared by Catholics and other Christians: Lumen Gentium acknowledged that non-Catholic Christians receive baptism and other sacraments in their own churches and ecclesiastical communities. When critics objected to this change on the grounds that only elements of church could be found elsewhere, the official response of the theological commission was: The elements which are mentioned concern not only individuals but their communities as well; in this fact precisely is located the foundation of the ecumenical movement.
Debates Since the Council
The first significant debate on these questions was provoked by Leonardo Boff in his book Church: Charism and Power. The Brazilian theologian suggested that the church of Christ subsists not only in the Catholic Church but also in other churches. In 1985 the C.D.F. issued a notification that rejected Boffs interpretation, asserting that there could be but one subsistence of Christs church, namely the Catholic Church, outside of which there are only elements of the church. (Notice that the council never used the qualifier only, but spoke instead of many elements of the church that are present outside the boundaries of Catholicism.)
The C.D.F.s 1985 response effectively denied that the council had initiated a shift in church teaching. Many bishops and theologians closely involved in the formulation of the councils teaching, including Cardinal Johannes Willebrands of the Netherlands, who had served as the head of what was then the Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity, took issue with the C.D.F., insisting that its position ran counter to the intentions of the council.
In 1989 the American Jesuit Francis Sullivan argued that subsistere should be understood not in some metaphysical sense but in its more ordinary sense, meaning to continue to exist. Sullivan concluded that in the mind of the council, it is in the Catholic Church alone that the church of Christ continues to exist with the unity and the fullness of the means of grace that Christ gave to his church. This did not preclude, however, the presence of the church of Christ in other Christian communities.
In its declaration Dominus Iesus, published in 2000, the C.D.F. seemed to have been persuaded by Sullivans interpretation, for it explained: With the expression subsistit in, the Second Vatican Council sought to harmonize two doctrinal statements: on the one hand, that the church of Christ, despite the divisions which exist among Christians, continues to exist fully only in the Catholic Church, and on the other hand, that outside her structure, many elements can be found of sanctification and truth, that is, in those churches and ecclesial communities which are not yet in full communion with the Catholic Church. This explanation of subsistit in would seem to support the interpretation of conciliar teaching that held that the church of Christ continues to exist, though less than fully, in other churches and ecclesial communities. Indeed, in the same document the C.D.F. described the separated Eastern churches as true particular churches. At a minimum, this implied that the church of Christ continues to exist beyond the Catholic Church.
In December 2005, Karl Josef Becker, a Jesuit theologian teaching at the Gregorian University in Rome, published a major essay in LOsservatore Romano, arguing that the council did not intend any modification in church teaching when it said that the church of Christ subsists in the Catholic Church. The essay was based on his research of council documentation, including the recently discovered papers of Sebastian Tromp, S. J., who served as secretary of the doctrinal commission at Vatican II, but who, as a contributor to Pius XIIs Mystici Corporis, was invested in the identification of the Catholic Church with the church of Christ. Beckers careful argumentation received an equally nuanced rebuttal from Francis Sullivan in a 2006 essay published in Theological Studies. This brings us to the recent Vatican statement.
The Recent C.D.F. Statement
The Vatican statement was published in order to correct an erroneous interpretation of the councils teaching. The C.D.F. insists, with Becker, that the councils employment of the subsistit passage did not represent any change in church teaching; rather, the council only developed, deepened and more fully explained it. Later it states that the council used the term subsistit to indicate the full identity of the Church of Christ with the Catholic Church. These claims challenge a solid theological consensus to the contrary that has emerged over the last four decades, one variously affirmed by such distinguished theologians and ecumenists as the late Yves Congar, George Tavard, Guiseppe Alberigo, John Borelli, Joseph Komonchak and Francis Sullivan, among others.
The C.D.F.s Responses must be taken seriously as an authoritative document issued by a Roman dicastery; its authority, however, does not place it beyond respectful yet critical analysis. The document and accompanying commentary contain inconsistencies. In response to Question Two, the C.D.F. appears to affirm a more historical meaning of the subsistit passage, one which expresses the idea that while the church of Christ has continued to exist fully in the Catholic Church, it has also been present in a less full manner in other Christian communities. Yet in the commentary it attributes a more metaphysical meaning to the subsistit passage, suggesting that there is only one subsistence of the church of Christthe Catholic Church.
What Has Been Left Unsaid
Many have reacted negatively to certain terms that have appeared throughout this debate, like fullness and defect, which suggest an enduring form of Catholic triumphalism. However, these terms apply only to one legitimate, but limited, perspective on the church: when the council used terms like fullness, the bishops had in mind certain objective elements present in the church. Thus the council wrote of the means of sanctification and truththe sacraments, the Scriptures, the Petrine ministry, etc.that are fully present only in the Catholic Church. The council admitted that many of these ecclesial elements (the Scriptures, baptism) are present in other Christian traditions, but that non-Catholic communities lack certain other elements (e.g., Petrine ministry). It is often overlooked that the council was content to confine its reflections to the objective institutional integrity of the church.
No conciliar document, nor any postconciliar document that I am aware of, has attended to a somewhat different perspective on ecclesial life, namely the more subjective ecclesial vitality of a particular Christian community. It is possible, for example, that a particular Catholic community might fail to appropriate or activate the objective means of sanctification and truth in its possession. In his book The Church We Believe In (pg. 26), Sullivan puts the matter well:
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.
Cardinal Walter Kasper, current president of the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity, made a similar qualification in a report to the council in November 2001 regarding the claim that the fullness of the church of Christ resides in the Catholic Church. He contended that the use of the term fullness in this context:
does not refer to subjective holiness but to the sacramental and institutional means of salvation, the sacraments and the ministries. Only in this sacramental and institutional respect can the Council find a lack (defectus) in the churches and ecclesial communities of the Reformation. Both Catholic fullness and the defectus of the others are therefore sacramental and institutional, and not existential or even moral in nature; they are on the level of the signs and instruments of grace, not on the level of the res, the grace of salvation itself.
This insight has pastoral implications for the church today that have not been sufficiently considered. If we may claim that in some sense other Christian communities are institutionally defective, can we also say that these communities may in some cases be more effective as vehicles of grace?
A Thought Experiment
Consider the following thought experiment. Imagine a neighborhood with two churches: Grace Lutheran and St. Bernadette Catholic parish. According to the councils teaching, the Lutheran congregation would be lacking some specific means of sanctification and truth available, in principle, to St. Bernadettes. 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 ones 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. Bernadettes 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. Bernadettes.
The Danger of Checklists
There are real dangers in reducing an analysis of Christian community to a kind of checklist. At certain points in the history of Christianity, communities flourished in spite of having little if any access to certain means of sanctification and truth that the Catholic Church now considers vital. Many churches of the first three centuries, for example, flourished with only minimal if any contact with the church of Rome. For almost 1,000 years there was no access to anything like the sacrament of reconciliation (penance) as we know it today. In Korea, Japan, the Hispanic American Southwest and among some North American native tribes, the faith was kept alive for decades and even centuries despite the absence of ordained clergy.
We must also question whether these means of sanctification and truth can be adequately grasped in the juridical language of validity/invalidity. For example, the most essential elements at stake in ecumenical debate include apostolic succession, the Petrine ministry, ordained ministry and the Eucharist. But is it not possible that some of these elements might be present in other Christian traditions, even though, from a Catholic perspective, they may lack certain dimensions? Must the Eucharist be seen as either present or absent, valid or invalid, without a more complex recognition that acknowledges disputed issues?
An adequate account of the true catholicity of the church must go beyond an objective list of the means of salvation that ought to be present in every church. We must also be willing to explore in more depth the lived experience of Christian discipleship encountered in concrete communities of believers. As many who have been involved in the ecumenical movement will testify, the experience of shared Christian discipleship often provides a fresh lens for considering the issues that divide us. To pray with other Christians, to celebrate a shared commitment to the Gospel and a common determination to give witness to Christ in our daily lives is to see Christian divisions in a new light. While there is much to overcome in the work of Christian ecumenism, it is hard to imagine making any progress without the conviction that we already, in some real sense, share ecclesial communion in Christ with all who go by the name Christian.