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Thursday, July 12, 2007

Catholic Ecumenism - an oxymoron?

Along with the Latin Mass, another item in the news lately has been the Pope's signing off on a CDF document that says the Catholic Church is the only true Church ... You are not real churches, Pope tells Protestants. As is the case with the Latin Mass, this seems (to me) a retreat from the reforms of Vatican II.

Here's a little from Wikipedia's page on the Second Vatican Council about the document that then defined Catholic Ecumenism ....

Perhaps the most famous and most influential product of the council is the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium.

In its first chapter, titled "The Mystery of the Church," is the famous statement that "the sole Church of Christ which in the Creed we profess to be one, holy, catholic and apostolic, which our Saviour, after His Resurrection, commissioned Peter to shepherd, and him and the other apostles to extend and direct with authority, which He erected for all ages as 'the pillar and mainstay of the truth.' This 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" (Lumen Gentium, 8). The document immediately adds: "Nevertheless, many elements of sanctification and of truth are found outside its visible confines."

In the second chapter, titled "On the People of God", the Council teaches that God wills to save people not just as individuals but as a people. For this reason God chose the Israelite people to be his own people and established a covenant with it, as a preparation and figure of the covenant ratified in Christ that constitutes the new People of God, which would be one, not according to the flesh, but in the Spirit and which is called the Church of Christ (Lumen Gentium, 9). All human beings are called to belong to the Church. Not all are fully incorporated into the Church, but "the Church knows that she is joined in many ways to the baptized who are honored by the name of Christ, but who do not however profess the Catholic faith in its entirety or have not preserved unity or communion under the successor of Peter" (Lumen Gentium, 15) and even with "those who have not yet received the Gospel," among whom Jews and Muslims are explicitly mentioned (Lumen Gentium, 16). The idea of any opening toward Protestantism caused a major controversy among traditionalist Catholic groups.

This phrase I made Bold in the first paragraph quoted above ... subsists in ... is important. The question of how the Latin "subsistit in" was translated and what it means was seen differently by different groups. and Traditional Catholic groups saw Lumen Gentium, with its use of "subsists in" rather than "is", as heretical ... as the Second Vatican Council changing doctrine, saying that the Catholic Church is not the only true Church. Others disagreed, including Leonardo Boff, who proposed in Church, Charism and Power: that the one "Church of Christ" could subsist not only in the Catholic Church but also in Protestant and Orthodox Churches. Which brings us to the news story mentioned at the beginning of this post ... as Wikipedia goes on to say elsewhere ...

On June 29 2007 the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, under the presidency of William Cardinal Levada signed an official document called Responses to some questions regarding certain aspects of the doctrine of the church. It was published July 10 2007.

Benedict XVI, at an audience granted to the Cardinal Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, ratified and confirmed these responses, adopted in the Plenary Session of the Congregation, and ordered their publication. This document closes the argument about the heterodoxical interpretations of subsistit in by making an authorative an definite interpretation of the phrase .....

* question: Why was the expression "subsists in" adopted instead of the simple word "is"?
* response: The use of this expression, which indicates the full identity of the Church of Christ with the Catholic Church, does not change the doctrine on the Church. Rather, it comes from and brings out more clearly the fact that there are "numerous elements of sanctification and of truth" which are found outside her structure, but which "as gifts properly belonging to the Church of Christ, impel towards Catholic Unity". "It follows that these separated churches and Communities, though we believe they suffer from defects, are deprived neither of significance nor importance in the mystery of salvation. In fact the Spirit of Christ has not refrained from using them as instruments of salvation, whose value derives from that fullness of grace and of truth which has been entrusted to the Catholic Church" ......

Perhaps I just don't understand, but I have to say I find it hard to believe that a Council which was created to open the windows of the Church and let in fresh air would appreciate the reinterpretation of "subsists in" as "is".


Blogger cowboyangel said...

I think it was one of the early Existentialist philosophers who said: "It depends on what the meaning of the word 'is' is. If 'is' means is and never has been, that is one thing. If it means there is none, that was a completely true statement." Can't remember if he discussed "subsists in." ;-)

Liam and I were sending emails back and forth on this earlier in the week. Your difficulty writing about the subject is not your fault. I read both the "RESPONSES TO SOME QUESTIONS REGARDING CERTAIN ASPECTS OF THE DOCTRINE ON THE CHURCH" and the "Dominus Iesus", and they're pretty murky documents when it comes to discussing other Christians. Purposefully so, perhaps.

In a time of so much religious extremism and religious tension around the globe, when the world desperately needs spiritual leaders to remind us of the goal of all religions - love of God and our fellow human beings - I'm increasingly concerned about Benedict's actions. Turning back the hard-won efforts at tolerance in Vatican II at such a critical time on our planet truly disturbs me.

I guess my question is - what's he really trying to do? For someone who's supposed to be incredibly intelligent, he seems either A) extraordinarily polticially tone-deaf, or, worse, B) he's got the Bush disease - he has a plan and he doesn't care what anyone else thinks about it. (Or, as Liam suggested, both A and B.) In a short time, he's managed to upset large segments of Muslims, the indigenous of the Americas, the rest of Christianity, and concerned people within his own church.

Is this just because he's "conservative"? I don't think so. He's starting to remind me of the CEO of a major corporation that's in serious trouble. "Let's go back to the what made us successful. Circle the wagons. No more mamby-pamby tolerance stuff. No more folk songs at Mass. We're going to offer hardcore Catholicism for the true believers."

But that's a strategy based on fear. It's not the Agape love of our Most High Lord, Jesus Christ.

7:50 AM  
Blogger Liam said...

I think you explained the situation (which is complex) very well. I also think William's evaluation of what's going on is pretty acute.

8:00 AM  
Blogger Jeff said...


I hate to have to say this, I never thought I'd have to say this, but this pontificate is becoming a cause of a real spiritual struggle for me, perhaps even worse than the scandal. Coming so close on the heels of the scandal, it makes it especially hard...

I'm a bit touched by how many liberals have been charitable in giving him the benefit of a doubt for this long. They tend to say I'm over-reacting. You guys have known me long enough to know that a "liberal" tag doesn't really fit me too closely. Nevertheless, even I can see a council in the process of being abandoned when I see it.

He doesn't believe in the Council. He does not. He has serious buyer's remorse over it. I'd like to know who those students were who ridiculed him so badly in his classroom in Tubingen in 1968. Those guys gave a lot to answer for. He hasn't been the same since.

As far as ecumenism goes, oddly enough, the only place it seems to really occur is among the biblical scholars. The best scholars all seem to be approaching the same page on a lot of things. Otherwise, the outlook is pretty depressing. I take the point being made in this post, but I have to say quite frankly, the response of Protestants to us over the last 40 years has been mighty depressing too. The Vaticvan II getures by us have largely gone for naught, and it's not all our fault. Look out on the web and there seem to be thousands and thousands of those "beware of the whore-of-Babylon, here's how to witness to those unsaved idolatrous Catholics" types of websites. Truly depressing... Anyway, that's another topic.

Ironically, one of the reasons we went to a vernacular Mass was as an ecumenical gesture. What do some of the more conservative Protestants who convert to Catholicism seem to want? The Latin Mass! Go figure... Ah, the laws of unintended consequences...

9:54 AM  
Blogger crystal said...


Good analysis of the situation! I do think he's aware of what he's doing. I saw one news story that attributed the timing of this to a troubled relationship between Benedict and Leo Boff - that this was the Pope's way of slapping his wrist again without naming names. BTW, was that existentialist named Clinton? :-)

Hi Liam

Jeff, I agree with you about Benedict. About the Protestants ... I know a number of Protestant bloggers - my Quaker friends at the Scripture blog, Matthew, Sandalstraps, PamBG, Stephen Carlson, Mark Goodacre, Ben Witherington, to name a few ... all wonderful, none anti-Catholic. Maybe things aren't as depressing ecumenical-wise as we think :-)

11:27 AM  
Blogger Jeff said...

Hi Crystal,

Oh, yes. From what I've seen, I'm sure that's true... although you'd consider Ben Witherington to be ecumenical with Catholics in his outlook? Really?

The whole 'subsists' thing is confusing. Interesting that you bring the Boff matter up. I was reading Harvey Cox's book The Silencing of Leonardo Boff not long ago, and Boff was telling of his colloquy with Cardinal Ratzinger back in 1984. The Cardinal grilled him on how he took the meaning of "subsists" as it was written in the Council documents. Boff was confused this was even being discussed and brought up, because he hadn't written much about this or made it a major theme in his work. He answered that he understood it in the same way as it had been written about in most of the commentataries during and after the Council, and how the participants had understood it (as you pointed out in the links). The Cardinal told him he was wrong, with a remark something along the lines of "I know what it meant, because I was there."

I don't think there's anything necessarily wrong with anyone believing that there own tradition is the fullest expression of truth. Still, I think the replacement of 'is" with "subsists" was supposed to be an olive branch of a gesture at Vat II, not a delineation of defects on the part of the other Chuches. I think they were trying to say it was complete and operative in the Catholic Church, but not absent elsewhere, which was a big step to take at the time.

The term has scholastic and Aristotelian baggage around it. In speaking of the soul, Tommy A writes:

"For that which subsists is said to be this particular thing... Further, everything subsistent operates...

This particular thing can be taken in two senses. Firstly, for anything subsistent; secondly for that which subsists and is complete in a specific nature. The former sense excludes the inherence of an accident or of a material form; the latter excludes also the imperfection of the part, so that (for example) a hand can be called this particular thing in the first sense, but not in the second."

There. Got it? Clear as mud. :-)

5:37 PM  
Anonymous Diane said...

Props for wading into this murky mess, Crystal. You've done a fine job. And Cowboyangel, I've been waiting for someone to bring up "depends on what the meaning of the word 'is' is." It's the first thing I thought of when I read the document! I keep hoping that it's not as bad as the initial "scare" headlines in the media. I haven't had a chance to read the document itself through yet.

I'm a lifelong post-vatican II Catholic. The council opened on my first birthday. I have sort of a live and let live attitude toward other religions and trust God to sort things out in the big picture. And that's very much what I hear in the official prayers of the church. I think of the third Eucharistic Prayer's "and those whose faith is known to you alone." And those much discussed Good Friday intercessions.

I was somewhat away from the church, oddly enough, through my college years at Marquette, and a now rather notorious "heretic" who I'll decline to name kept me Catholic by giving me a sense of making up my own mind about things.

I'm wondering if we're paying a little too much attention to what's coming out of Rome these days. And discussing it endlessly online. I wonder if the average Catholic even has a clue that any of this is going on. I find myself wanting to like Benedict but the CEO comment reminds me depressingly of work situations I've been in. Also, there's such a danger when scholars use very technical terms and then those terms get picked up by the MSM and turned into words that sort of sound the same.

I find the comment about ecumenism in scripture intriguing, and I wonder if it's partly because IMHO most tradtional Catholics, the ones most pushing for the changes and the tightening of the rules, just don't seem to be interested in Scripture. The Catechism is their Bible! And so the field is less muddied than the liturgical field.

Just a few rambling and somewhat muddled thoughts on a Friday evening after a long day of editing homilies at the office. I think I'm going to spend the weekend away from the computer, outside with the dogs and some yarn and some pretty quilt fabrics. Clear my head a bit. I believe we'll all come through this somehow. In the end, it's still God's church, and that's where my faith ultimately lies.

6:02 PM  
Blogger crystal said...

Hi Jeff,

I've only been going to Ben Witherington's blog for a few months, but haven't seen any mention of Catholicism at all.

I didn't realize subsists had such a depth of meaning ... thanks, now I'm totally lost :-). Is the Pope the only theologian around from Vat II? It would be nice to have someone who actually had something to do with it say what they had meant then. Wikipedia says this about Benedict at the council ...

On November 8, 1963, Cardinal Joseph Frings criticized the Holy Office (known before 1908 as the Holy Roman and Universal Inquisition), and drew an articulate and impassioned defense by its Secretary, Alfredo Cardinal Ottaviani. This exchange is often considered the most dramatic of the council. (Cardinal Frings's theological advisor was the young Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, who would later, as Cardinal, head the same department of the Holy See.)

7:31 PM  
Blogger crystal said...


I've never known anything but post-vat II also as I've only been a Catholic for bout 10 years.

Who is the notorious heretic???! :-) I think an open mind is the best possession a person can have, next to a kind heart.

What kind of job do you have where you write homiies? I had thought that priests/ministers wrote them themselves? You's that I've read on your blog are very good, btw.

7:39 PM  
Blogger Jeff said...

You know Crys, I'm going to look into that. Joseph Ratzinger has been known for a long time to have held a dim view of the VII document Gaudium et Spes - The Church in the Modern World.

I saw this on a traditionalist site:

What does this formula actually mean? It was chosen deliberately in order to deny that the Church of Christ is only the Catholic Church. "Subsistit in" means, in fact, that the Church of Christ is found in the Catholic Church, but is not exclusively identified with the Catholic Church.

"The change of est (Pius XII) to subsistit (Gaudium et Spes) took place for ecumenical reasons," explains Fr. Mucci, S.J. in Civilta Cattolica (December 5, 1988). And Fr. Louis Bouyer writes that thanks to the "subsistit" introduced by the Council, one has sought to "propose again the idea of the one Church, even if it is presently divided among the diverse Christian Churches, as if among many branches." This idea was taken up again by John Paul II in Canterbury. Furthermore Cardinal Willebrands, on May 5th and 8th of 1987, held some conferences in which he affirmed that the "subsistit" supersedes and corrects the est of Plus XII (cf. Documentation Catholique, January 3, 1988). While the Council was in progress, Bishop Carli (then Bishop of Segni) and Fr. Aniceto Fernandez, Master General of the Dominicans, vigorously intervened to request the correction of Lumen Gentium by using the word est instead of subsisit, in order to unequivocally reaffirm the Catholic Faith. But the ecumenical choice—or better, the heretical choice prevailed. Fr.Congar writes:

The problem remains if Lumen Gentium strictly and exclusively identifies the Mystical Body of Christ with the Catholic Church, as did Pius XII in Mystici Corporis. Can we not call it into doubt when we observe that not only is the attribute "Roman" missing, but also that one avoids saying that only Catholics are members of the Mystical Body. Thus they are telling us (in Gaudium et Spes) that the Church of Christ and of the Apostles subsistit in, is found in the Catholic Church. There is consequently no strict identification, that is exclusive, between the Church of Christ and the "Roman" Church. Vatican II admits, fundamentally, that non-catholic christians are members of the Mystical Body and not merely ordered to it.

What you may find more interesting are the quotes from a VII participant and another Jesuit in this America article criticizing an Avery Dulles interpretation of the Council.

One point I found particularly painful. The ecumenical problem is reduced to a word-battle about the meaning of “subsists in the Catholic Church.” No attention is given to be the excellent developments that have taken place over 35 years as Catholics and other Christians reflect together on the many treasures found in a wide array of the conciliar documents. In this we have the reality, not the myth.

With regard to “subsists,” the narrow interpretation of Cardinal Ratzinger, which Cardinal Dulles adopts, was certainly not the view held by the theological commission or in the secretariat as we were drafting texts and responding to the bishops and as the bishops accepted its introduction into the text. We were influenced, for example, by the recognition of the fact that in many churches not in communion with the Holy See, by the celebration of the Holy Eucharist “the Church of God is built up and grows in stature” (“Decree on Ecumenism,” No. 15). Obviously we were not speaking of any second church of God.

This and other aspects of the mystery of communion, real even if imperfect between the Catholic Church and other Christians and their communities, indicate a deeper meaning than Cardinal Ratzinger will admit when discussing “subsists.” His view has been strongly contested by others, such as Cardinals Willebrands, Koenig and Kasper. Nor will these or others accept his restricted opinions on “communion,” even when these have been expressed in documents coming from his office.

As one who participated in many of the activities and debates of the council, I believe that there are clear signs of retrenchment from what the council said or left open for legitimate future developments, as Paul VI put it.

-- John F. Long, S.J.

I shall comment specifically on just one point: the meaning of the conciliar statement that the church of Christ “subsists” in the Catholic Church. Cardinal Dulles refers to Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger’s argument that because the church of Christ has its subsistence in Roman Catholicism, it cannot subsist anywhere else. In fact, this is the interpretation given by Cardinal Ratzinger’s congregation in its 1985 critique of a book by Leonardo Boff. However, in its recent document Dominus Iesus, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith no longer invokes the philosophical notion of subsistence, but translates subsistit according to the basic meaning of the Latin word, which is “to continue to exist.” Thus, it now explains Vatican II to mean that the church of Christ “continues to exist fully only in the Catholic Church.” This implies the recognition that the church of Christ continues to exist, but not fully so, in other churches. This interpretation is consistent with the same document’s description of the separated Eastern churches as “true particular churches.” Vatican II teaches that the universal church of Christ exists “in and out of” the particular churches. I do not know how we 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.

-- Francis A. Sullivan, S.J.

8:31 PM  
Blogger Jeff said...

Sorry, last one, I promise:

The late Aloys Grillmeier, a member of the council's Theological Commission and subsequently named a cardinal by Pope John Paul II, wrote in his commentary on the text: "This means that the Roman Church, as a local church, is only part of the whole Church, though its bishop is head of all the bishops of the Catholic Church". According to Grillmeier, "'ecclesiality' does not simply coincide with the Catholic Church, because ecclesial elements of sanctification and truth can be found outside it".

In changing the verb from "est" to "subsistit in" the council fathers clearly intended to include non-Catholic churches and ecclesial communities in the one, albeit divided, Body of Christ. Otherwise, they would have left the teaching of Pius XII in place and held to the verb "est". The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, however, seems to tilt in favor of the defeated minority's position, namely, that the change of verbs in article of Lumen gentium in no way altered the earlier teaching. The CDF took this position in its condemnation, or Notificatio, concerning Leonardo Boff's book, Church: Charism and Power, insisting that the reason for the change of verbs in article 8 was to emphasize that there is "only one 'subsistence' of the true Church, while outside of her visible structure there only exist elementa Ecclesiae, which-being elements of that same Church-tend and lead toward the Catholic Church".

This view was being promoted so strongly and so widely in the 1980s that Cardinal Jan Willebrunds, at the time president of the Vatican Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity, felt it necessary to issue a public corrective. He did so in an address given in 1987 in both Washington, D.C. and Atlanta, Georgia. Although he was careful not to describe the change of verbs as a repudiation of Mystici corporis but as only a matter of "opening up somewhat" the position of the encyclical on the question of membership in the Church, Cardinal Willebrands insisted that the meaning of the "subsistit" language is that "whoever belongs to Christ belongs to the Church, and hence the limits of the Church are coextensive with those of belonging to Christ".

For Willebrands, the change from "est" to "subsistit in" was not only ecclesiological, but also Christological-the one inseparable from the other. The two come together in an ecclesiology ofcommunion. "Indeed", Willebrands declared, "if the Church is fundamentally this communion with the Father and the Son in the Holy Spirit, we can see that on the one hand the depth ofthis communion determines the depth of incorporation in the Church, and on the other that it cannot be a question of all or nothing.... Subsistit in thus appears, in an ecclesiology of communion, as an attempt to express the transcendence of grace and to give an inkling of the breadth of divine benevolence"

The problem is, most of these guys like Willebrands and Koenig are gone now.

8:46 PM  
Blogger crystal said...


Thanks for the quotes and links. Weirdly, I had just posted the article mentioned, by Cardinal Dulles. Now I'm going to add the quote you gave me to it :-)

12:18 AM  
Blogger Garpu the Fork said...

I agree with you...and for what it's worth one of the priests at my parish did a great job of unpacking it and trying to explain the "subsist in" thing in his homily yesterday. The archives are usually up over here but there's been a bit of a backlog.

11:04 AM  
Blogger crystal said...

Hi Garpu,

thanks for the link - what a great website! Do you know Denny - he's a deacon at church in Seattle.

11:20 AM  
Blogger Garpu the Fork said...

He's at St. Bridget? I go to Blessed Sacrament...since I'm one of the few altar servers for a particular Mass, they don't let me out much. ;)

6:30 PM  

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