Vatican clarifies nature of ‘one, true church’

By  Catholic News Service
  • July 11, 2007
{mosimage}VATICAN CITY - In a brief document, the Vatican’s doctrinal congregation reaffirmed that the Catholic Church is the one, true church, even if elements of truth can be found in separated churches and communities.
Touching an ecumenical sore point, the document said some of the separated Christian communities, such as Protestant communities, should not properly be called “churches” according to Catholic doctrine because of major differences over the ordained priesthood and the Eucharist.

{sidebar id=2}The Vatican released the text July 10. Titled Responses to Some Questions Regarding Certain Aspects of the Doctrine on the Church, it was signed by U.S. Cardinal William J. Levada, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and approved by Pope Benedict XVI before publication.

In a cover letter, Levada asked the world’s bishops to do all they can to promote and present the document to the wider public.

The text was the latest chapter in a long-simmering discussion on what the Second Vatican Council intended when it stated that the church founded by Christ “subsists in the Catholic Church,” but that elements of “sanctification and truth” are found outside the Catholic Church’s visible confines.

The related discussion over the term “churches” surfaced publicly in 2000, when the doctrinal congregation — then headed by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict — said the term “sister churches” was being misused in ecumenical dialogue.

In a format of five questions and answers, the new document stated that Vatican II did not change Catholic doctrine on the church. It said use of the phrase “subsists in” was intended to show that all the elements instituted by Christ endure in the Catholic Church.

The sanctifying elements that exist outside the structure of the Catholic Church can be used as instruments of salvation, but their value derives from the “fullness of grace and truth which has been entrusted to the Catholic Church,” it said, quoting from Vatican II’s Decree on Ecumenism.

The text said the Second Vatican Council used the term “church” in reference to Orthodox churches because, although separated from the Catholic Church, they have preserved apostolic succession, the ordained priesthood and the Eucharist. Nevertheless, they “lack something in their condition as particular churches” because they are not in union with the Pope, it said.

The Christian communities born out of the Reformation, on the other hand, do not enjoy apostolic succession — the unbroken succession of bishops going back to St. Peter — and therefore “cannot, according to Catholic doctrine, be called ‛churches’ in the proper sense,” it said.

In his cover letter, Cardinal Levada said the document came in response to critical reactions to the teaching of Dominus Iesus, another doctrinal congregation document of 2000, which said the Catholic Church was necessary for salvation, and to ongoing confusion over interpretations of the phrase “subsists in.”

U.S. Dominican Father J. Augustine Di Noia, undersecretary of the doctrinal congregation, said the document does not call into question Pope Benedict’s pledge to work for ecumenical progress. “The church is not backtracking on its ecumenical commitment. But . . . it is fundamental to any kind of dialogue that the participants are clear about their own identity,” he told Vatican Radio.

Di Noia said the document touches on a very important experiential point: that when people go into a Catholic Church and participate in Mass, the sacraments and everything else that goes on there, they will find “everything that Christ intended the church to be.”

Please support The Catholic Register

Unlike many media companies, The Catholic Register has never charged readers for access to the news and information on our website. We want to keep our award-winning journalism as widely available as possible. But we need your help.

For more than 125 years, The Register has been a trusted source of faith-based journalism. By making even a small donation you help ensure our future as an important voice in the Catholic Church. If you support the mission of Catholic journalism, please donate today. Thank you.