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Scott P. Richert

What Is the Church? A Restatement of Catholic Tradition

By July 11, 2007

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While the motu proprio Summorum Pontificum, restoring the Traditional Latin Mass as one of two approved forms of Mass in the Roman Rite, has received much attention, the Vatican has released another document that is almost equally significant, but to much less fanfare.

On Tuesday, July 10, 2007, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith released the text of a short document entitled "Responses to Some Questions Regarding Certain Aspects of the Doctrine on the Church." The document, dated June 29, 2007, addresses common misconceptions from recent years about the Catholic understanding of the nature of the Church--and, by extension, the nature of those other Christian communities that are not in full communion with the Roman Catholic Church.

Five questions are asked and answered in the document, and, in subsequent posts, I'll take up each one. The most important points that the document makes, however, can be summed up as follows:

  • Christ established one Church, both visible and spiritual.

  • That Church is most fully present in the Catholic Church, "governed by the successor of Peter and the Bishops in communion with him."

  • That Church may be present in other churches and ecclesial communities to a lesser extent, "on account of the elements of sanctification and truth that are present in them."

  • The Eastern Orthodox Churches are true, "particular or local Churches," because they maintain apostolic succession and the sacraments, but they lack the fullness of union with the universal Church.

  • Those "Christian Communities" that stem from the Reformation "cannot, according to Catholic doctrine, be called 'Churches' in the proper sense" because they have not maintained apostolic succession and, thus, have lost the sacraments.

It is important to note that there is nothing new here; this is simply a restatement of traditional Catholic ecclesiology--that branch of theology concerned with understanding the nature of the Church. But neither, for that matter, is there anything "old"--this document does not represent a return to some "pre-Vatican II understanding" of the nature of the Church, as some news reports have inaccurately put it. Instead, the document goes to great pains to explain that, despite much confusion on these issues in recent years, the Church has maintained a consistent understanding--before, during, and after Vatican II.

Over the next few days, I'll examine each of the questions, as well as Orthodox, Protestant, and even Catholic responses.

The Five Questions:

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January 17, 2012 at 4:14 pm
(1) Hector Molina says:

Unfortunately, your second and third bullets may lead to confusion, as it seems to remotely imply that other faiths are, at least partially, of the true faith. Traditional Catholic doctrine states that the Catholic Church is the one and true Church instituted by Jesus Christ.

January 17, 2012 at 4:32 pm
(2) Scott P. Richert says:

Hector, it might be better to read my discussions of each of the five questions, or even the original document itself, before jumping to a conclusion about what the document does or does not imply.

July 11, 2012 at 2:58 am
(3) FREDRICK says:

Can I adopt your work in our catholic community magazine that we produce in college. From Nairobi, Kenya.

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