Intramural debate behind Vatican document responses

By  Fr. Thomas Ryan, CSP, Catholic Register Special
  • July 26, 2007
{mosimage}On July 10, the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith released a document reaffirming Catholic ecclesiology entitled “Responses to some questions regarding certain aspects of the doctrine on the Church.” The succinct, three-page document, in essence, simply reaffirms the teaching of the Second Vatican Council regarding the theology of the church (ecclesiology), as well as modern encyclicals and magisterial documents.
Why, an ecumenical colleague asked, did the congregation feel it was necessary to restate these points, already expressed in Dominus Iesus in 2000? The short answer seems to be: to resolve an in-house disagreement.

The main drafter for Vatican II’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Belgian theologian Gérard Philips, prophetically said that rivers of ink would be spilled on the change from “is” to “subsists in” with regard to the relationship between the Church of Christ and the Catholic Church. He was dead right.

There has been an ongoing debate within the CDF itself around the meaning of “subsists in” which, in both classical and medieval Latin, signifies “to remain, to be perpetuated.”

{sidebar id=2}There is an up side and a down side to the document.

The up side is that Responses clearly affirms “that the Church of Christ is present and operative in the churches and ecclesial communities not yet fully in communion with the Catholic Church.”

It further states that the expression “subsists in” was “adopted to bring out more clearly the fact that there are ‛numerous elements of sanctification and of truth’ which are found outside” the Catholic Church.

The down side, however, is that since the point of the exercise was to clarify the language earlier used, the same words which landed with a thud in earlier renderings reopened old wounds when brought forth again.

Phrases like “we believe they suffer from defects” or “they cannot be called ‛churches’ in the proper sense” are not likely to win friends and influence people to draw closer. Lutheran Bishop Wolfgang Huber, a man who understands the importance of defining terms, reflected in a statement entitled “Lost Chance” that “it would also be completely sufficient if it were to be said that the reforming churches are ‛not churches in the sense required here’ or that they are ‛churches of another type’ — but none of these bridges is used” in the Vatican document. The language of the document is obviously theological and technical (most of the footnotes are in Latin), and one wonders whether there might be a more appropriate forum for its release than the general news media which, even in the best of cases, will look for the controversy and possibly leave the church looking silly.

Unfortunately, some people who have not read the document believe the hype, while others fear that the advances of the churches in relationship to one another have suffered a setback. In a statement the day after the release of Responses, Cardinal Walter Kasper, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, framed it as an invitation to dialogue: “The declaration of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith does nothing else than to show that we do not use the one and same word ‛church’ completely in the same sense. Such a statement helps to clarify and to promote the dialogue.”

In other writings Kasper has stated that we have now reached the core of our differences — our institutional, ecclesiological differences. In the encounter with the ancient Oriental and Orthodox churches this is represented by the Petrine ministry as a sign and service to the unity of the episcopate and the local churches. In the encounter with the churches of the Reformation, it centres on the question of the apostolic succession of the episcopate.

According to Catholic understanding, both are constitutive for full church communion and, therefore, eucharistic fellowship depends on the solution of these questions. Because the Reformers did not maintain the apostolic succession in the episcopacy, the Catholic Church considers the communities issuing from the Reformation to be ecclesial communities but not “churches in the proper sense.”

Or, to say it in a more respectful way, they are churches of another type. When one looks at the historic record, it is clear that they have manifested a different understanding of the Church of Christ and have not manifested a desire to be church in the Catholic sense.

The Catholic Church is obviously convinced that its institutional “elements,” such as episcopacy and the Petrine ministry, are gifts of the Spirit for all Christians, and it wants to offer them as a contribution, in a spiritually renewed form, to the fuller ecumenical unity of Christ’s church.

Spiritually renewed form? We recognize that we can learn from the Orthodox and Reformation traditions, too, how best to integrate the episcopate and Petrine ministry with synodical structures. This is likely the only way in which an ecumenical consensus could be reached about the Petrine and episcopal ministries.

This does not mean the insertion of other Christians into a given “system” but mutual enrichment and the fuller expression and realization of the one Church of Jesus Christ in all the churches and ecclesial communities.

To this latest statement from the CDF there was agreement across the board on at least this: it was straight talk about an important subject.

(Ryan directs the Paulist North American Office for Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations in Washington, D.C.)

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