The subsisting Church

In Lumen gentium #8, the Second Vatican Council says that the Church of Christ "subsists in" the Roman Catholic Church. All previous drafts of this statement had said flatly that Christs Church is the Roman Catholic Church. The significance of the change of verbs has been controversial ever since it was made. It has this last week been the subject of a statement of the Vaticans Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Here are some notes that I compiled some time ago for the use of my students.

When the Councils Doctrinal Commission brought the final version of the Constitution on the Church to the Council Fathers in 1964, it explained that among the purposes of paragraph 8 was "to show that the Church, whose intimate and mysterious nature which forever unites it with Christ and his work has been described [in ch. 1], here on earth is concretely found [concrete invenitur] in the Catholic Church. While this empirical Church reveals the mystery, it does not do so without shadows until it is brought to full light, just as Christ the Lord came to his glory by emptying himself. Thus is avoided the impression that the description of the Church which the Council presents is merely idealistic and unreal." The chapter would show, the Commission went on, that "the mystery of the Church is present [adest] and is manifested in a concrete society" and that "the Church is one, and here on earth is present [adest] in the Catholic Church, although ecclesial elements are found outside it."

When the Doctrinal Commission came to the text in which the word "is" [est] is replaced by the words "subsists in" [subsistit in], it explained the change in this way: "Some words are changed: in place of "is" the text says "subsists in" so that the expression may better accord with the affirmation about ecclesial elements which are present [adsunt] elsewhere." This alteration did not please all the bishops and experts (for example, Maximos IV and Yves Congar were opposed to it), some of whom proposed amendments. Some wanted to strengthen the statement, others to weaken it, and so the Doctrinal Commission decided to stay with the change of verb.

The first rule of conciliar hermeneutics should be to follow the indications of the official explanation provided by the Doctrinal Commission. To interpret the meaning of "subsists in," then, we should look to the Council's statements about the "ecclesial elements" that are found outside the Catholic Church. There are several texts in which the Council describes these.

The first is in LG 8 itself: "several elements of sanctification and of truth are found outside its visible structure." This general statement is clarified and explained in three other passages.

LG 14 speaks about what constitutes "full incorporation" into the society of the Church, a phrase which the Council prefers to the language of "membership."

Those persons are fully incorporated into the society of the Church who, possessing the Spirit of Christ, accept all the means of salvation given to the Church along with its entire organization and who, by the bonds constituted by the profession of faith, the sacraments, ecclesiastical government, and communion, are joined in the visible structure of the Church to Christ, who rules it through the Supreme Pontiff and the bishops.

Now, if full incorporation gives some clue as to what the constitutive elements of the Church are, we can list the following:

the Spirit of Christ - the means of salvation

organization - profession of faith

sacraments - ecclesiastical government

communion - the visible structure

Lesser degrees of communion are described in LG 15, where the Council is speaking about the links between the Catholic Church and non-Catholic Christian individuals. Here can be found another list of elements:

Sacred Scripture - religious zeal

loving faith in God & Christ - baptism

union with Christ - other sacraments

the episcopate - the Eucharist

devotion to Mary - prayer & spiritual blessings

true union in the H. Spirit - the Spirit's gifts & graces

the Spirit's sanctifying power

Perhaps the strongest statement is found, however, in UR 3, where the Council discusses the relationship between the Catholic Church and other Christian communities:

>>Some, even very many, of the most significant elements and endowments that together go to build up and to give life to the Church itself can exist outside the visible boundaries of the Catholic Church: the written Word of God, the life of grace, faith, hope, and charity, with other interior gifts of the Holy Spirit, as well as visible elements.

>>Not a few of the sacred actions of the Christian religion are also carried out among the brethren separated from us, actions which in various ways according to the different conditions of each Church or Community, without a doubt can really generate the life of Christ and must be said to be able to open the way to the communion of salvation.

For that reason these separated Churches and Communities, even if we believe that they suffer from defects, are by no means deprived of meaning and weight in the mystery of salvation. For Christ does not refuse to use them as means of salvation whose power derives from that fullness of grace and truth which has been entrusted to the Catholic Church.

Having described in such strong terms what is present in these other communities, the Council then makes its statement about what it believes to be unique about the Roman Catholic Church:

>> But the brethren separated from us, whether as individuals or as Communities and Churches, do not enjoy that unity which Jesus Christ wished to bestow on all those whom he has regenerated and vivified together into one body and into a new life, that unity which the Sacred Scriptures and the Church's ancient Tradition profess. For it is through the Catholic Christ of Christ alone, which is the universal help towards salvation, that the fullness of the means of salvation can be attained. It was to the apostolic College alone, with Peter as its head, that we believe that the Lord entrusted all the blessings of the New Covenant in order to establish on earth one Body of Christ into which all those should be fully incorporated who in any way belong to the People of God. This people, during its earthly pilgrimage, although in its members still liable to sin, grows in Christ and is being gently guided in accord with God's mysterious counsels until it comes joyfully to the entire fullness of eternal glory in the heavenly Jerusalem.

I think this passage provides the best explanation of what is the unique claim that the Roman Catholic Church makes about itself and, thereby, I believe, sets out what "subsists in" means in LG 8: the Catholic Church alone possesses "the fullness of the means of salvation." It is not a claim that it alone possesses the truth and grace of Christ; it is not a claim that it is holier than other Churches or communities. It is a claim about the "means of salvation, that is, institutions, ordinances, etc. with which God has blessed the Church for the sake of the salvation of its members. If these can be set out in terms of the ancient pillars of the Catholic form of the Church, they would include: the rule of apostolic faith (the Creed); the canon of apostolic Scriptures; the form of apostolic worship (sacraments); and the structure of apostolic ministry. To take some examples: Catholic believe that the canon of the Scriptures includes texts that Protestants do not receive, that there are seven sacraments willed by Christ, that the normative ministry includes that of the Bishop of Rome as minister of catholic unity. The Catholic Church regards these as divinely willed elements of the Church, and since no other Christian Church or community has them all, it says that the fullness of these means of salvation is found in the Catholic Church alone.

Perhaps one way of putting this is to say that the Council, in saying that the Church as an instrument of salvation is found in its fullness only in the Catholic Church, is not denying, in fact, it clearly says, that the spiritual reality that is the Church as the effect of Gods saving grace can be found not only in non-Catholic Christians but also in non-Catholic Christian Churches and communities. I think the CDF could have explained this much more effectively than it did.

Rev. Joseph A. Komonchak, professor emeritus of the School of Theology and Religious Studies at the Catholic University of America, is a retired priest of the Archdiocese of New York.

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