Nothing is so foreign to the spirit of ecumenism as a false irenicism, in which the purity of Catholic doctrine suffers loss and its genuine and certain meaning is clouded. (UR 11)
In order to appreciate the Second Vatican Council’s understanding of ecumenism and its impact on ecclesiology, we would do best to refer to the documents themselves. The Council’s ecumenism, as the above citation from Unitatis Redintegratio makes clear, aims to clarify Catholic doctrine, not dilute it, much less is it intended to abolish existing doctrine under the pretext of a deeper understanding. In particular, we will examine what the Church means by the controversial expression subsistit in, and why that phrase was chosen over est. First, we will examine how the Church sees herself in relation to that founded by Christ.
In previous Councils, the terms “Church of Christ” or the “Church” were used interchangeably with the Catholic Church, which is headed by the successor of Peter.The Second Vatican Council is no different in this regard, often using these expressions interchangeably:
Jesus Christ, then, willed that the apostles and their successors -the bishops with Peter's successor at their head-should preach the Gospel faithfully, administer the sacraments, and rule the Church in love. (UR 2)
Christ, the one Mediator, established and continually sustains here on earth His holy Church, the community of faith, hope and charity, as an entity with visible delineation through which He communicated truth and grace to all. (LG 8)
…when the obstacles to perfect ecclesiastical communion have been gradually overcome, all Christians will at last, in a common celebration of the Eucharist, be gathered into the one and only Church in that unity which Christ bestowed on His Church from the beginning. (UR 4)
The last citation is important in that it distinguishes “perfect ecclesiastical communion,” which has yet to be achieved, from the “unity which Christ bestowed on His Church from the beginning.” This distinction will clarify other citations where unity is alternately described as a goal to be achieved and as something that has existed in the Church from the beginning. The first sense refers to a future historical union of the Christian sects, while the latter refers to a unity which already exists in the Catholic Church. Notice that the desired ecclesiastical communion comes into being when other Christians are “gathered into the one and only Church” which has had unity from the beginning. From this context, we can understand the statement that immediately follows:
We believe that this unity subsists in the Catholic Church as something she can never lose, and we hope that it will continue to increase until the end of time. (UR 4)
We have two assertions: (1) Christ, from the beginning, bestowed unity on his one and only Church, into which all Christians might someday be gathered; (2) that unity is something the Catholic Church can never lose. From these premises it logically follows that the Catholic Church is the one and only Church into which all Christians are to be gathered. We will not yet examine the meaning of “subsists” too closely, but note that the context implies that the Catholic Church somehow possesses unity, otherwise it would be nonsensical to say that she can never lose it. More puzzling is the statement that unity will “continue to increase,” which implies that it has already been increasing. For now, we only concern ourselves with the identification between the Catholic Church and the one Church of Christ.
Even in the beginnings of this one and only Church of God there arose certain rifts, which the Apostle strongly condemned. But in subsequent centuries much more serious dissensions made their appearance and quite large communities came to be separated from full communion with the Catholic Church-for which, often enough, men of both sides were to blame. (UR 3)
Consistent with earlier citations, we find that the “one and only Church of God” is something that has existed in history “as an entity with visible delineation;” otherwise it would be nonsensical to speak of these historical rifts. Stating that “men of both sides were to blame” is not an admission of culpability by the Church as an institution, but a reference to historical events where individuals, such as papal legates, might have acted rashly or imprudently to aggravate schisms that otherwise might have been avoided. The result of these dissensions was that many communities of the “one and only Church of God” “came to be separated from full communion with the Catholic Church.” The Catholic Church is the one and only Church of God, and it is naturally in full communion with itself. If these dissensions were understood as the one Church splitting into several, surely this ecumenically-minded council would have stated simply that communities were separated from each other. Instead, it defines their new relation to the Catholic Church, the one Church. All of this is consistent with what is stated elsewhere, regarding the preservation of unity in the Church, and the necessary catholicity of the Church. More explicitly, in Lumen Gentium we find:
But, the society structured with hierarchical organs and the Mystical Body of Christ, are not to be considered as two realities, nor are the visible assembly and the spiritual community, nor the earthly Church and the Church enriched with heavenly things; rather they form one complex reality which coalesces from a divine and a human element. (LG 8)
Clearly, the reference to a visible hierarchical society excludes schismatics and heretics from the Mystical Body of Christ, which is the Church. There is no separating the visible apparatus from the mystical reality. Christ’s body is whole, not dismembered, so only those in Catholic unity can properly belong to the Mystical Body of Christ. This is qualified elsewhere, but qualification does not entail contradiction. To eliminate any possible misunderstanding, Lumen Gentium continues:
This is the one Church of Christ which in the Creed is professed as one, holy, catholic and apostolic, which our Saviour, after His Resurrection, commissioned Peter to shepherd, and him and the other apostles to extend and direct with authority, which He erected for all ages as "the pillar and mainstay of the truth". (LG 8)
The aforementioned hierarchical Church is the one Church of Christ mentioned in the Creed, contrary to Eastern Orthodox and Anglican interpretations, which would make it some mystical catholic church that currently has no historical realization. The Church is Petrine; it is the Catholic Church based in Rome, which alone has existed “for all ages.” We see that Lumen Gentium argues against a distinction between some mystical universal church and historical reality. The Fathers of the Council instead affirm that there is a historical realization of the Church; this is the motive for the usage of the term subsistit in what immediately follows:
This Church, 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. (LG 8)
Subsistere, in Latin, literally means “to stand beneath.” Given the particular care the Council took in choosing this word, we should take it seriously as something that intends to clarify, rather than obscure. The word is traditionally used to relate the underlying reality to its more superficial appearance. For example, in metaphysics, one says that a substance subsists in a creature, or that a human person subsists in a human being. The Council is not making a rigorous metaphysical statement, so it would be a mistake to try to draw a strict analogy from these examples. The Fathers are employing the general sense of subsistere, which is to relate a deeper reality to its superficial manifestation. The deeper reality is the one Church of Christ in the Creed, while its historical manifestation is the Catholic Church. We note that the deeper reality, that which subsists, is “constituted and organized in the world as a society.” Thus it would be a mistake to say that the visible Church is not the deeper reality; this position is refuted at length by our previous citation of Lumen Gentium. The one Church of Christ is visible and hierarchically ordered, and this visible, hierarchically ordered Church subsists in the Catholic Church. Naturally, the one Church cannot subsist in anything else, or it would not be one. No other Church meets the criteria of unity, catholicity, and apostolicity, nor is any other Petrine in succession, “erected for all ages”. Lumen Gentium explicitly describes the one Church of Christ as having a single “visible social structure.” (LG 8) It is this Church which is said to subsist in the Catholic Church. Obviously, this Church could not subsist in anything that did not have the same “visible social structure.”
It nonetheless seems a bit strange to use the word subsistit, for it appears to dilute the identity of the Church with itself, even though elsewhere, “Church,” “one Church,” and “Church of Christ” are used interchangeably with “Catholic Church.” The motivation for the usage of subsistit is to emphasize the historical reality of the Church, and to link the visible reality of the Catholic Church with the necessarily visible and hierarchical Church of Christ. To advocate a contrary interpretation is not only in contradiction with perennial Church teaching, but also with the thought of Lumen Gentium, which opposes a distinction between the “visible assembly and the spiritual community,” and all similar distinctions.
The Council elaborates that “many elements of sanctification and truth” are found outside the “visible structure” of the Catholic Church. If this were an assertion that the Church of Christ somehow exists outside the Catholic Church, it is strange that this ecumenically-minded council should have neglected to mention this. In fact, nowhere in any of the Council documents is the one Church said to subsist in any but the Catholic Church. This is only logical, for if it were to subsist in more than one Church, it would cease to be one, and a distinction would arise between the unified Mystical Body and the visible manifestations of splintered churches, when in fact the visible and spiritual Church are an integrated whole. The existence of “elements of sanctification and truth” outside the Church should not be surprising. It would be bizarre indeed if all other religions were completely false or completely unholy. Further, we should expect those who have retained much Christian tradition, including some valid sacraments, to have “many” such elements. Here we are not speaking of the “elements” of being Christ’s Church (one, holy, catholic, and apostolic), for there are only four of those, not many. We observe that these elements of sanctification “are forces impelling toward catholic unity,” which is to say that those outside the visible structure of the Catholic Church lack catholic unity. Yet catholic unity is a defining characteristic of the Church of the Creed, which is the Church of Christ, hence those outside the Catholic Church do not belong to the Church of Christ. Thus the “Church of Christ” mentioned is the Catholic Church, consistent with the constant teaching of the Magisterium, and of this Council. Therefore the elementi are gifts belonging to the Catholic Church. This makes perfect sense, since other churches have these elementi only to the extent that they have retained the tradition of the Catholic Church.
…the Catholic Church has been endowed with all divinely revealed truth and with all means of grace (UR 4)
We know from revealed dogma that the only means of sanctification is divine grace. Thus the Catholic Church is here said to have been endowed with all revealed truth and all means of sanctification. Hence the elementi of truth and sanctification found outside the Catholic Church necessarily belong to the Catholic Church, consistent with what was stated previously. The above citation implies that there is no divinely revealed truth which has not been revealed to the Catholic Church, nor is there any means of grace other than that which has been given to the Church.
First, the council professes its belief that God Himself has made known to mankind the way in which men are to serve Him, and thus be saved in Christ and come to blessedness. We believe that this one true religion subsists in the Catholic and Apostolic Church, to which the Lord Jesus committed the duty of spreading it abroad among all men. (DH 1)
The “one true religion” is specifically Christian, and contains explicit instructions from God Himself about how He is to be served. Once again, the word “subsists” is used, and it is especially clear here that this does not signify that there are true religions outside the Catholic Church, but rather, elements of the true religion might exist outside the Church. We observe further that it is the Church’s duty to spread the one true religion among all men.
Religious freedom, in turn, which men demand as necessary to fulfill their duty to worship God, has to do with immunity from coercion in civil society. Therefore it leaves untouched traditional Catholic doctrine on the moral duty of men and societies toward the true religion and toward the one Church of Christ. (DH 1)
Catholics have consistently opposed the validity of forced baptisms, acknowledging that a profession of faith cannot be made contrary to conscience. We note that the Council takes care to mention that previous Catholic doctrine on the duty of men toward the true religion remains “untouched.” Thus, the Council itself invites us to refer to previous assertions by the Magisterium on this issue, and demolishes the argument of those who would maintain that the Council intended to “evolve” the Church teaching on this issue, a position which is fatal to the infallibility of Magisterial teaching. Also “untouched” is the duty of men and societies toward the “one Church of Christ.” In previous Church documents, the “one Church of Christ” was unmistakably identified with the “Catholic Church.” The Council could not reasonably claim that the duty to the “one Church of Christ” was untouched if in fact the Fathers intended to tamper with the definition of the Church. Lastly, we may remark that it is manifestly improbable that an overwhelming majority of bishops, among whom there were many staunch traditionalists, would have approved a document which in any way changed the definition of the Church. The traditional view which the Council endorses is that all men are bound to join the one Church of Christ as soon as they realize that it is necessary for salvation.
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