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What Is the Church?

The Catholic View

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One of the most important documents to come out of the papacy of Pope Benedict XVI has also been one of the least noticed. On July 10, 2007, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith released a relatively short document entitled "Responses to Some Questions Regarding Certain Aspects of the Doctrine on the Church." Understated in tone, the document takes the form of five questions and answers, which, taken together, provide a comprehensive view of Catholic ecclesiology—a fancy word that simply means the doctrine on the Church.

The document addresses certain concerns that have arisen out of ecumenical discussions, especially with the traditionalist Society of Saint Pius X and the Orthodox Churches, but also with various Protestant communities. What is the nature of the Church? Is there a Church of Christ that is different from the Catholic Church? What is the relationship between the Catholic Church and other Christian churches and communities?

All of these concerns are addressed through the answers to five questions. Don't worry if the questions initially seem confusing; all will be made clear in this article.

  • First Question: "Did the Second Vatican Council change the Catholic doctrine on the Church?"

  • Second Question: "What is the meaning of the affirmation that the Church of Christ subsists in the Catholic Church?"

  • Third Question: "Why was the expression 'subsists in' adopted instead of the simple word 'is'?"

  • Fourth Question: "Why does the Second Vatican Council use the term 'Church' in reference to the oriental Churches separated from full communion with the Catholic Church?"

  • Fifth Question: "Why do the texts of the Council and those of the Magisterium since the Council not use the title of 'Church' with regard to those Christian Communities born out of the Reformation of the sixteenth century?"

At the time "Responses to Some Questions Regarding Certain Aspects of the Doctrine on the Church" was released, I wrote a series of articles discussing each question and the answer provided by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. This document provides a summary view; for a more in-depth view on a particular question, please click on the appropriate section heading below.

A Restatement of Catholic Tradition

Before examining each of the five questions, it is important to note that "Responses to Some Questions Regarding Certain Aspects of the Doctrine on the Church" is, on a certain level, an entirely predictable document, because it breaks no new ground. And yet, as I wrote above, it is also one of the most important documents of Pope Benedict's papacy. But how can both statements be true?

The answer lies in the fact that "Responses" is simply a restatement of Catholic tradition. It was necessary for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to release the document not because anything had changed in the teaching of the Catholic Church, but because too many people had become convinced, and had tried to convince others, that something had changed.

The Role of Vatican II

That change had supposedly taken place at the Second Vatican Council, commonly known as Vatican II. Traditionalist organizations such as the Society of Saint Pius X were critical of the supposed change; other voices within the Catholic Church, and in Protestant circles, applauded it.

And yet, as "Responses" points out in its answer to the first question ("Did the Second Vatican Council change the Catholic doctrine on the Church?"), "The Second Vatican Council neither changed nor intended to change [the Catholic doctrine on the Church], rather it developed, deepened and more fully explained it." What the Catholic Church had taught about the nature of the Church before Vatican II, she continues to teach today; any difference of kind, rather than of quality, is in the eye of the beholder, not in the Church's doctrine.

Or, as Pope Paul VI put it when he promulgated Lumen Gentium, the Council's Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, on November 21, 1964,

In simple terms that which was assumed, is now explicit; that which was uncertain, is now clarified; that which was meditated upon, discussed and sometimes argued over, is now put together in one clear formulation.

The Church of Christ "Subsists" in the Catholic Church

Yet the eyes of many beholders, both critics and promoters of the idea that the Catholic doctrine on the Church had changed at Vatican II, had fixed upon one word in Lumen Gentium: subsists. As section eight of Lumen Gentium put it:

This Church [the Church of Christ] constituted and organized in the world as a society, subsists in the Catholic Church, which is governed by the successor of Peter and by the Bishops in communion with him . . .

Both those who argued that Catholic doctrine had changed and should not have, and those who argued that it had changed and should have, pointed to this passage as proof that the Catholic Church no longer saw herself as the Church of Christ, but as a subset of it. But "Responses," in its answer to its second question ("What is the meaning of the affirmation that the Church of Christ subsists in the Catholic Church?"), makes it clear that both groups have put the cart before the horse. Only the Catholic Church has "all the elements that Christ himself instituted" in His Church; thus "'subsistence' means this perduring, historical continuity and the permanence of all the elements instituted by Christ in the Catholic Church, in which the Church of Christ is concretely found on this earth."

Orthodox, Protestants, and the Mystery of Salvation

That does not mean, however, that other Christian churches and communities are wholly devoid of any participation in the Church of Christ, as "Responses" explain in its answer to the third question: "Why was the expression 'subsists in' adopted instead of the simple word 'is'?" Yet any of the "numerous elements of sanctification and of truth" that are found outside of the Catholic Church are also found within her, and the belong properly to her.

In other words, the Catholic Church holds the deposit of truth, but that does not mean that everyone who is outside of the Catholic Church has no access to any truth. Rather, the Orthodox Churches and Protestant Christian communities may contain elements of the truth, which allows the "Spirit of Christ" to use them as "instruments of salvation," but their value to that end "value derives from that fullness of grace and of truth which has been entrusted to the Catholic Church." Indeed, such "elements of sanctification and truth" that are available to those outside of the Catholic Church point them in the direction of the fullness of sanctification and truth found only within the Catholic Church.

The Orthodox Churches and Union

Of the Christian groups outside of the Catholic Church, the Orthodox Churches share the most in those "elements of sanctification and truth." They "have true sacraments and above all—because of the apostolic succession—the priesthood and the Eucharist," and, because of that, "Responses" notes in the answer to the fourth question ("Why does the Second Vatican Council use the term 'Church' in reference to the oriental Churches separated from full communion with the Catholic Church?"), they can properly be called "Churches." But because they lack "communion with the Catholic Church, the visible head of which is the Bishop of Rome and the Successor of Peter," they are only "particular or local Churches"; they do not have the universal nature "proper to the Church governed by the Successor of Peter and the Bishops in communion with him."

Protestant "Communities," Not Churches

The situation of the Protestant communities, however, is different, as "Responses" makes clear in answer to its fifth and final question ("Why do the texts of the Council and those of the Magisterium since the Council not use the title of 'Church' with regard to those Christian Communities born out of the Reformation of the sixteenth century?"). Like the Orthodox Churches, Protestant communities lack communion with the Catholic Church, but they also lack "apostolic succession in the sacrament of Orders" and therefore "have not preserved the genuine and integral substance of the Eucharistic Mystery." Because the Sacrament of Holy Communion is essential to what it means to be part of the Church of Christ, Protestant communities "cannot, according to Catholic doctrine, be called 'Churches' in the proper sense." That does not mean, however, that they are devoid of any "elements of sanctification and truth," but that fewer are found within them than in the Orthodox Churches, and the fullness of sanctification and truth is found only within the Catholic Church.

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