Q. I know that you have answered this question somewhere in the past, but I’m still mystified. Why does Vatican Council II teach that Christ’s true Church “subsists” in the Roman Catholic Church? Why isn’t the verb used here not “subsists,” but rather, “is”? Example: The Catholic Church is the true Church of Christ?
A. In Vatican II’s precise vocabulary explaining the Church, the verb “subsists” was chosen as more exact then “is.” “Subsists” was deliberately selected by the Council Fathers to describe as accurately as possible (1) the unicity of the Roman Catholic Church; i.e., the truth that it can only be one, never a multiple of “one”; Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope Emeritus) stresses this theologism in a chapter about the Church, found in The Essential Pope Benedict XVI, His Central Writings and Speeches (ed. J.F. Thornton and S.B. Varenne, HarperOne, 2007).
What Vatican II intended to emphasize, Cardinal Ratzinger insists, is that the one Church of Jesus Christ unquestionably exists in the Catholic Church. Nor can any other ecclesial community claim the same.
The verb “subsists” was chosen to focus on the truth that, the Cardinal explains, the notion that Christ’s free-Church, viewed “as a concrete subject,… can be found in the Catholic Church.” That this doctrine is permanently valid and crucial since it totally rejects the possibility of multiple churches, is a lesson which Vatican II hoped to stress. At the same time it leaves no doubt that Christ’s Church “exists as a subject in historical reality.”
Furthermore, the unicity of the Catholic Church is presented as the result of “God’s work, which he makes endure, despite the continuous unworthiness of its human subjects. Hence the members of the Church cannot possibly claim the Church as their own accomplishment; but can only admit that what they experience is due to God’s grace; grace is everything, as St. Paul reveals. Here Cardinal Ratzinger zeroes in on the fact of unworthiness, by stressing that the faithful can only experience a sense of shame for their own sins, while thanking God for being called by him. Thus “the effect of their own sins can be seen: the whole world sees the spectacle of the divided and opposing Christian communities, reciprocally making their own claims to truth and thus clearly frustrating the Prayer of Christ on the eve of his Passion.” (ibid.)
Closely allied to the above principles is the search for Christian unity; namely, the pilgrimage of ecumenism, which by itself was one of the specific venues of faith as envisioned by Vatican II.
Use of the word “subsists” is far more precise than the word “is” (i.e., “the Church of Christ is the Catholic Church”). The paramount reason, again, is that “subsists” allows for no additions as the centuries unfold. From the very beginning, Christ’s Church “subsists” in the Catholic Church; moreover, despite the sins and weaknesses of its members, it continues to be Christ’s own true Church.
In this context, Cardinal Ratzinger (now Pope Emeritus) cites a text from the great Church Father, St. Ambrose:
“So stand on the firm ground of your heart!... What standing means, the Apostle taught us. Moses wrote it: ‘The place on which you stand is holy ground.’ No one stands except the one who stands firm in the faith… and yet another word is written: ‘But you, stand firm with me, if you stand in the Church. The Church is holy ground on which we must stand… So stand firm, stand in the Church…” (ibid.)
In a sense, this refers back to one of the earliest Patristic admonitions, often attributed to St. Cyprian: “Love Christ; love the Church.” St. Catherine of Siena, a Doctor of the Church and one of the most influential women in Western world history, yearned for martyrdom so that she could cement with her blood one more brick in the Church. And on her death bed, St. Elizabeth Seton, the first native-born citizen saint of the United States, admonished her religious community to remain always “daughters of the Church.”