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Christ's One Church
Msgr. David Q. Liptak
Q. Was there some compelling reason underlying the recent controversial declaration from the Vatican on the oneness of the Roman Catholic Church?
A. Why should clear position statements on perennial Catholic doctrine be assessed as surprising? That our ancient and historic Roman Catholic Church is the one true Church is a doctrine of faith. To put this plainly, the Catholic Church holds and teaches that the See of St. Peter is the center of all religious convergence, and that without the Church, salvation does not occur – there the Catholic Church is mysteriously present.
All of which is found in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. See, for example, Nos. 816, 846, 855 and 866. The first reference cites Lumen Gentium, the crowning document of Vatican Council II:
“The sole Church of Christ [is that] which our Savior, after his Resurrection, entrusted to Peter’s care, commissioning him and the other apostles to extend and rule it… This Church, constituted and organized as a society in the present world, subsists in (subsistit in) the Catholic Church, which is governed by the successors of Peter and by the bishops in communion with him.” (LG 8, 2)
This is hardly new doctrine; besides, Vatican II took place in the 1960s – almost a half century ago. But Vatican II’s doctrine is faithfully in continuity with all previous Church Councils, dating from I Nicaea in the fourth century. And I Nicaea rests on the Sacred Scriptures as read within the Church – on the Bible and Tradition as conveyed by the Church’s Magisterium.
Hence, the reason for the most recent (June) Vatican declaration on the unicity of the Catholic Church lies, curiously, with the reason as to why it appears surprising to some.
And this reason is due not to the doctrine, but to “soft” theology on the part of many commentators, including (and this is key to understanding the situation) poorly trained or weak theologians, largely “theologians” in academic settings such as colleges and universities.
The overall problem about the unicity of the Roman Church has erupted over the past few decades with respect to one Latin verb in the paragraph from Lumen Gentium cited above in the quotation from the Catechism. This word is, simply, subsistit; meaning “subsists.”
Instead of discovering the precise significance of this Latin verb from ancient and perennial doctrine, many poorly trained or fragile theological writers and academics have invested the verb subsistit with a significance alien to (indeed, at times at odds with) received Tradition.
The June Vatican document, therefore, is a doctrinal (not simply a theological) reaffirmation of the received Tradition going back to Apostolic times. This represents the Voice of the Church itself, through the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and confirmed by Pope Benedict XVI. One section of this document reads:
“… ‘subsistence’ meaning this enduring, historical continuity and the permanence of all the elements instituted by Christ in the Catholic Church, in which the Church of Christ is concretely found on this earth.”
Why did the Vatican Council use the verb “subsists” (subsistit) instead of the ordinary verb “is”? The reason given by the June document is that the verb “subsists,” while indicating the full identity of the Church of Christ as the Catholic Church, also indicates that there are “numerous elements of sanctification and of truth” which are “found outside the Catholic Church’s structure,” but which as “gifts properly belonging to the Church of Christ, impel toward Catholic unity.”
“Nevertheless,” the latest Vatican document concludes, “the word ‘subsists’ can only be attributed to the Catholic Church alone precisely because it refers to the mark of unity that we profess in the symbols of the faith (I believe in the ‘one’ Church); and this ‘one’ Church subsists in the Catholic Church.”
Thus, it is possible, in accordance with Catholic doctrine, “to affirm correctly that the Church of Christ is present and operative in the churches and ecclesial communities not yet fully in communion with the Catholic Church, on account of the elements of sanctification and truth that are present in them…”
The June document is formally entitled, “Response to some questions regarding certain aspects of the doctrine of the Church.” (28 June 2007)
When it is read properly it is really an assist to ecumenical endeavor. To interpret it as disruptive of ecumenical progress is to misread it.