In light of some continued comments on the previous post, and some conversation on the House of Bishops/Deputies “list” I’d like to offer some additional observations on the recent pronouncement of the Roman Catholic Church’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. I will put this in the form of a brief catechism, as that may be the easiest way to deal with the issues that have been raised by some of my friends and colleagues.
Why was this document composed and to whom is it primarily addressed?
This document was produced as an attempt to clarify the position of the Roman Catholic Church with regard to other Christian bodies. In the wake of Vatican II a number of theologians have expressed opinions with which the Congregation takes issue. As the introduction to the document states, “Among the many new contributions to the field, some are not immune from erroneous interpretation which in turn give rise to confusion and doubt.” So, in place of the rose-tinted spectacles that many ecumenists are wont to wear, the Congregation is presenting them with this short current document as a set of corrective lenses, designed to sharpen the focus and correct any misapprehensions they might have. Thus, to a substantial degree, it is an “in house” reminder; it sets out nothing new, but is intended to rein in the exuberant.
Do the Conciliar documents present a different view from the present document?
The present document was issued to clarify the Church’s position as expressed in the Council, which was itself seen as a “development and deepening” of the standing doctrine, not a novelty. The intent is that the former documents will be read through this clarifying lens, not the other way around. This is a long-standing principle in Roman Catholic legal thinking: The most recent statement is the governing statement in the light of which all that goes before must be interpreted; all the more so when the document in question describes itself in precisely those terms.
What then is the Roman Catholic understanding of the Church?
There is only one Church established by Christ, and it subsists in the visible Roman Catholic Church, “governed by the successor of Peter and the Bishops in communion with him.” Because of the divisions among those who profess Christianity, this “one Church” is not at present realized in its fullness, and so “subsists” in the Roman Catholic Church, towards which all reunion ought of right to be directed. It is possible to say that the Church is in some partial sense present in other ecclesial communities that are not at present so governed, because there are “elements of sanctification and truth” in them. But those very elements are designed to “impel” those other bodies towards visible unity with the one Church.
How has this been misunderstood?
Non-Roman Catholics, and some Roman Catholic ecumenists, have forgotten the underlying definition of the “one Church subsisting” and that whenever the Conciliar documents use the phrase “the Church” — as the present document reminds us — they are not talking, as we, for example, do, simply of the body of all the baptized, but of those among the baptized who are corporately united with the Roman Catholic Church. Thus all Conciliar language about “division among Christians” is not about division “in” the Church, but division “from” the Church. When “the Church finds it difficult” to express her full catholicity, it is the Roman Catholic Church which is impeded in this expression precisely because of the departure of her children, and the divisions between her and them — not because of any intrinsic lack in herself. She is where the one Church subsists, not anywhere else. Subsistence is not full realization, but it is all there is, at present.
Speaking of “lack,” what does the document mean about the “absence” of ministerial priesthood in the protestant traditions?
It is tempting to translate “defectum” as “defect” rather than absence; for the English word can have a rather different connotation (“something not quite working correctly”) than the Latin, which refers to a “lack” or “something missing.” For example, Roman Catholic ecumenist Susan Wood wrote, “Ecumenical discussions today raise the question whether in the light of a more developed understanding of the ministry, sacramental life, and ecclesiology, ‘defectus’ should continue to be translated as ‘lack’ rather than as ‘deficiency’ or ‘defect.’” (“Ecclesia De Eucharistia: A Roman Catholic Response,” in Pro Ecclesia, 12/4 , 398)
The present document gives her an answer, “No.” By “defectum” the Roman Catholic Church means, as it always has, and as the present translation states, a lack or absence or “something missing.” If there were any doubt, the context of the present document is clear: There is no sacramental priesthood in the churches of the Reformation, and hence, they (including us) “have not preserved the genuine and integral substance of the Eucharistic Mystery...” This is contrasted with the Eastern Orthodox churches, who “have” a valid ministry, and hence sacraments, and are thus recognized as “churches” though they still “lack something” by not being united with the “one Church.”
What impact will this document have?
This document will no doubt have some chilling effect on the more exuberant among Roman Catholic ecumenists, as it was expressly designed to do. It will also dampen the hopes of those who had looked towards a more collegial model of church unity — one not based on papal primacy, but rather on a communion of communions. The present document is a reminder that even for the Eastern Orthodox, complete participation in that “one Church” will involve a recognition of Petrine centrality, and, more importantly, authority. The phrase “governed by the successor of Peter” is not used lightly. It represents a “constitutive principle” of a particular church, by means of which it is in relationship with the “one Church.”
How does this view differ from that of other Christian bodies?
The World Council of Churches deputy general secretary has released a statement in response to the Roman Catholic document, reaffirming a 2006 position adopted by the WCC at Porto Alegre: “Each church is the Church catholic and not simply a part of it. Each church is the Church catholic, but not the whole of it. Each church fulfils its catholicity when it is in communion with the other churches.” The WCC represents most Christian bodies in the world apart from the Roman Catholic Church.
The Anglican position can be well summed up by a few words from Richard Hooker, not unlike the Porto Alegre definition: “As the main body of the sea being one, yet within divers precincts hath divers names; so the Catholic Church is in like sort divided into a number of distinct Societies, every of which is termed a Church within itself.” (Laws III.1.14)
These positions are obviously not congruent with the Roman Catholic position, and none of these positions is likely to change in the foreseeable future.
Tobias Haller BSG
Be sure to check out a follow up article on What This Has To Do With Us (Anglicans.) There is more to this than meets the eye. — Tobias