Debate continues over correct interpretation of article in Vatican II document - Catholic Courier

Debate continues over correct interpretation of article in Vatican II document

In the years and decades preceding the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), the common assumption of Catholics and the official teaching of the Catholic Church was that the Catholic Church is “the one, true Church of Christ.”

All other churches and ecclesial communities (although they were never referred to as such during this preconciliar period) were simply regarded as “false churches,” completely outside the Body of Christ and, therefore, beyond the pale of salvation.

Only gradually did the Catholic Church of modern times come to recognize officially the possibility of salvation for non-Catholic Christians and then for non-Christians and even agnostics and atheists.

Vatican II decisively changed that earlier mentality and doctrine in its Decree on Ecumenism, which viewed the goal of the ecumenical movement as the restoration of “full communion with the Catholic Church” (n. 3, my italics). This is so because those who have been “properly baptized are put in some, though imperfect, communion with the Catholic Church.”

The differences between separated Christians “exist in varying degrees.” It is not all or nothing, as the preconciliar theology construed it.

The question of how the Catholic Church is related to other Christian communities in the Body of Christ came to a head in the controversy over what has proved to be one of the most debated texts in the entire corpus of Vatican II documents, namely, article 8 of the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church.

The key passage reads: The church, “constituted and organized as a society in the present world, subsists in the Catholic Church, which is governed by the successor of Peter and by the bishops in communion with him” (my italics).

An earlier draft used the copulative verb “is,” thereby perpetuating the common notion that the Body of Christ and the Catholic Church are one and the same reality, as Pope Pius XII had insisted in his 1950 encyclical, Humani generis (n. 44).

A majority of the council fathers objected, and the verb was changed to “subsists in.” Various attempts to water down the change failed.

The change of verbs means, on the other hand, that the Catholic Church is wholly within the Body of Christ and that its life is sustained and enriched by that union, but, on the other hand, that there also is room in the Body of Christ for other Christian churches and ecclesial communities, even if their union with the Body of Christ is not of the same order as the Catholic Church’s.

Here again, the principle of “degrees of communion” is so important. As in an extended family, there are varying degrees of relationships. A family does not consist only of a mother and a father, and their children. It includes in-laws by marriage, grandchildren, aunts and uncles, nieces and nephews, first and second cousins, and close friends who are considered members of the family.

The controversy over the correct interpretation of article 8 of the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church achieved renewed intensity last summer with the publication of the document “Responses to Some Questions Regarding Certain Aspects of the Doctrine of the Church” by the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

The CDF document took issue with the common interpretations of council fathers and contemporary theologians alike regarding the change of verbs from “is” to “subsists in.” The CDF declared, somewhat abstractly, that “subsistence” refers to a “perduring historical continuity and the permanence of all the elements instituted by Christ in the Catholic Church.” The document also insisted on “the full identity of the Church of Christ with the Catholic Church.”

Although Catholic readers would certainly want to take into serious and respectful consideration the interpretation of article 8 given in the CDF document, they have a right to know that the weight of interpretation continues to favor the great majority of Catholic theologians who have directly commented on the issue, none more respected than Francis Sullivan, SJ, currently of Boston College and for many years professor of ecclesiology at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome.

Father Sullivan has pointed out in various articles that the verb “subsists in” means literally “continues to exist in.” Thus, the church of Christ “continues to exist fully only in the Catholic Church.”

The key word here is “fully.” “This implies the recognition that the Church of Christ continues to exist, but not fully so, in other Churches.”

“I do not know,” Father Sullivan continued, “how (the Vatican) could recognize the Orthodox as ‘true particular churches’ if we did not also recognize that the universal Church of Christ is wider and more inclusive than the Roman Catholic Church.”

Father McBrien is a professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame.

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