The Vatican on the subsistence of the church of Christ

 — Sept. 15, 200715 sept. 2007

This past summer, the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) issued a statement entitled “Responses to Some Questions Regarding Certain Aspects of the Doctrine on the Church.” This document immediately attracted attention, comment, spin, appreciation, and criticism from around the world. The document contains five questions and the responses of the CDF, with very little additional comment. The focus of the questions is the meaning of the word “subsists” as it appears in Vatican II’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium), article 8. The council declared that the one Church of Christ “constituted and organized in the world as a society, subsists in the Catholic Church, which is governed by the successor of Peter and by the Bishops in communion with him, although many elements of sanctification and of truth are found outside of its visible structure. These elements, as gifts belonging to the Church of Christ, are forces impelling toward catholic unity.”

After considerable thought about whether there was anything further productive to say about the document and the controversy stirred up this summer, I have decided to share some of my initial reflections in the days following the publication of the “responsa.” There are numerous additional perspectives that could be offered, many of which are available online.

Much of the criticism of the CDF’s document has come from within the Catholic community, although notable critiques have also been issued by ecumenical partners. The criticism has addressed the exclusivity with which the new CDF document interprets the word “subsists,” and the insistence of the CDF that other churches are thereby deficient. The responses to the document were more careful and nuanced than those made in 2000 to Dominus Iesus, but many observers connected the two documents, seeing the new text as little more than a re-articulation of the earlier problematic statements.

I have to admit that there is nothing in the document that Benedict XVI had not said before as cardinal prefect of the CDF or as an academic theologian. It is problematic, and it is a shame that Cardinal Levada felt that he needed to say it again at this time, but it is nothing new. The point that I think we can emphasize is that because it isn’t new, it does not end the long debate over the meaning of “subsistit.” What was an open question last spring will remain an open question. An important clarification should be made here: the responsa is issued by the CDF under Levada’s signature. It expresses the authority vested in the CDF, this is not a papal statement.

It is well known that Benedict XVI has long expressed the view that “subsistit” has an exclusive sense. Some scholars have suggested that this might be due to the translation into German where it does have such a connotation. In Latin and English, however it doesn’t. A point that I made in my MA thesis and again in a paper in my first year of doctoral work, is that the term “subsistit” is also used in reference to the eucharist and the incarnation. We speak about the substance of the body and blood of Christ subsisting in the accidens of bread and wine. This is exclusive in the sense that it is only Jesus who subsists in this manner. However, Jesus subsists in the eucharist on this altar and that altar, at the same time. It is not part of Jesus that is found here, while another part is found there. There is only one Jesus, and there is only one eucharist, and each eucharist is a full and complete subsistence of Jesus’ body and blood. Now consider the incarnation. The divine nature of the Son is incarnate in the person of Jesus. This is exclusive in the sense that there is only one Jesus, a Palestinian Jew from the 1st century. Both Jesus’ divine and human human natures subsist in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. However, this subsistence transcends the exclusive particularity of Jesus in that he represents all human nature. Thus there is a complex interplay of exclusive and inclusive particularity in every subsistence.

In this new document, Levada argues that the full subsistence of the Church of Christ (that which we confess as one, holy, catholic, and apostolic) subsists in the Catholic Church. We still acknowledge the elements of sanctification and truth that are found in other Christian communities. Where Levada diverts from the basic position of many ecumenically-minded Catholics is that he says that these elements cannot properly be called a subsistence of the church. Yes, they are elements of the true Church of Christ. However, he insists that the term “subsists” is reserved for the fullness of the Church of Christ. They can have some — or even very many (as Vatican II said) — of the elements of sanctification and truth that make up the church of Christ (i.e the essence of the church). However, since unity is an essential element of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church, unity (or communion) with the Catholic Church is essential. This is where all other churches are deficient.

The crux of this argument is the Catholic conviction that the full subsistence of the church of Christ is found in itself. That means that the Catholic Church enjoys all of the elements of the church of Christ, including unity. Thus, those who are not united (i.e. in communion) with the Catholic Church lack this one essential element. As the commentary points out, to suggest that other churches also possess this element of the church of Christ without being in communion with all others who possess this element would introduce division into the unity of the church. What Levada does not acknowledge is that this is based on a certain Thomistic notion about absolute predicates. In this philosophical context, unity would not be perfect if it did not encompass all. In order to be perfect, to be an absolute, it must be exclusive. Thus there is only one subsistence of the true church of Christ. All other elements of sanctification and truth impel these churches towards full communion with the Catholic Church.

The document also insists that Protestant churches lack the apostolic succession and therefore the sacrament of orders. Once again this is nothing new. Nor, in fact, is the Catholic Church the only one to take this position. The Anglican Communion is committed to the Lambeth Quadrilateral, which asserts that the historic episcopate (and thus the apostolic succession) is an essential element of the church. The Anglican-Lutheran full communion agreements were predicated on the ability of Anglicans to recognize in the Lutheran forms of governance a vestigial form of the historic episcopate. This was not a foregone conclusion however, and many Anglicans still consider it a bit of a stretch.

As difficult as this new document is, I would like to be a glass half-full kind of guy. I want to point out that the statement says (or implies) that the only deficiency in Orthodox churches is communion with Rome. The only two deficiencies in Protestant and Anglican churches is communion with Rome and the historic episcopate. This is a far cry from the positions of the past. Of course, the genre of the document does not actually allow these kind of interpretations. It only answers the issues raised in the questions. Its omissions are not as significant as omissions in other documents.

I also want to invoke the Thumper principle. At one point in the movie “Bambi,” Thumper the rabbit says “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.” That would have been good advice for Ratzinger seven years ago when Dominus Iesus came out, and it remains good advice to Levada today. Too bad they didn’t ask my advice.

Posted: Sept. 15, 2007 • Permanent link:
Categories: DocumentsIn this article: Catholic, Christian unity, church, Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, Levada, Vatican
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Catégorie : DocumentsDans cet article : Catholic, Christian unity, church, Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, Levada, Vatican

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