Responses to Some Questions ...
document the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith is responding to
a number of questions concerning the overall vision of the Church which
emerged from the dogmatic and ecumenical teachings of the Second Vatican
Council. This Council ‘of the Church on the Church’ signalled, according
to Paul VI, “a new era for the Church” in which “the true face of the
Bride of Christ has been more fully examined and unveiled.” Frequent
reference is made to the principle documents of Popes Paul VI and John
Paul II and to the interventions of the Congregation for the Doctrine of
the Faith, all of which were inspired by an ever deepening understanding
of the Church herself, and many of which were aimed at clarifying the
notable outpouring of post-conciliar theology
not all of which was immune from imprecision and error.
This present document is similarly inspired. Precisely because some
contemporary theological research has been erroneous, or ambiguous, the
Congregation’s intention is to clarify the authentic meaning of certain
ecclesiological statements of the Magisterium. For this reason the
Congregation has chosen to use the literary genre of Responsa ad
quaestiones, which of its nature does not attempt to advance
arguments to prove a particular doctrine but rather, by limiting itself
to the previous teachings of the Magisterium, sets out only to give a
sure and certain response to specific questions.
The first question asks if the Second Vatican Council changed the
previously held doctrine on the Church.
The question concerns the significance of what Paul VI described in the
above mentioned quotation as ‘the new face’ of the Church offered by
The response, based on the teaching of John XXIII and Paul VI, is very
clear: the Second Vatican Council did not intend to change
and therefore has not changed
the previously held doctrine on the Church. It merely deepened this
doctrine and articulated it in a more organic way. This is, in fact,
what Paul VI said in his discourse promulgating the Dogmatic
Constitution Lumen gentium when he affirmed that the document had
not changed traditional doctrine on the Church, but rather “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.”
There is also a continuity between the doctrine taught by the Council
and that of subsequent interventions of the Magisterium which have taken
up and deepened this same doctrine, which itself constitutes a
development. In this sense, for instance, the Declaration of the
Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith Dominus Iesus merely
reaffirmed the conciliar and post-conciliar teachings without adding or
taking away anything.
In the post-conciliar period, however, and notwithstanding these clear
affirmations, the doctrine of Vatican II has been, and continues to be,
the object of erroneous interpretations at variance with traditional
Catholic doctrine on the nature of the Church: either seeing in it a
‘Copernican revolution’ or else emphasising some aspects almost to the
exclusion of others. In reality the profound intention of the Second
Vatican Council was clearly to insert the discourse on the Church within
and subordinate to the discourse on God, therefore proposing an
ecclesiology which is truly theo-logical. The reception of the teaching
of the Council has, however, often obscured this point, relativising it
in favour of individual ecclesiological affirmations, and often
emphasising specific words or phrases which encourage a partial and
unbalanced understanding of this same conciliar doctrine.
Regarding the ecclesiology of Lumen gentium, certain key ideas do
seem to have entered into ecclesial consciousness: the idea of the
People of God, the collegiality of the bishops as a re-evaluation of the
ministry of bishops together with the primacy of the Pope, a renewed
understanding of the individual Churches within the universal Church,
the ecumenical application of the concept of the Church and its openness
to other religions; and finally the question of the specific nature of
the Catholic Church which is expressed in the formula according to which
the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church
of which the creed speaks
subsistit in Ecclesia catholica.
In the following questions this document examines some of these ideas,
especially the specific nature of the Catholic Church together with what
is implied ecumenically from this understanding.
The second question asks what is meant by the affirmation that the
Church of Christ subsists in the Catholic Church.
When G. Philips wrote that the phrase “subsistit in” had caused
‘rivers of ink’ to be spilt, he would probably never have imagined
that the discussion would continue for so long or with such intensity as
to have provoked the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to
publish this present document.
This publication, based on the conciliar and postconciliar texts which
it cites, reflects the concern of the Congregation to safeguard the
unity and unicity of the Church, which would be compromised by the
proposal that the Church founded by Christ could have more than one
subsistence. If this were the case we would be forced, as the
Declaration Mysterium Ecclesiae puts it, to imagine “the Church
of Christ as the sum total of the Churches or the ecclesial Communities
which are simultaneously differentiated and yet united”, or “to think
that the Church of Christ no longer exists today concretely and
therefore can only be the object of research for the Churches and the
communities.” If this were the case, the Church of Christ would not
any longer exist in history, or would exist only in some ideal form
emerging either through some future convergence or through the
reunification of the diverse sister Churches, to be hoped for and
achieved through dialogue.
The Notification of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the
Faith concerning a book of Leonardo Boff is even more explicit. In
response to Boff’s assertion that the one Church of Christ “is able to
subsist in other Christian Churches”, the Notification states
that “the Council chose the word “subsistit” specifically to
clarify that the true Church has only one “subsistence”, while outside
her visible boundaries there are only “elementa Ecclesiae” which
being elements of the same Church
tend and lead to the Catholic Church.”
The third question asks why the expression “subsistit in” was used
rather than the verb “est”.
It is precisely this change of terminology in the description of the
relationship between the Church of Christ and the Catholic Church which
has given rise to the most varied interpretations, above all in the
field of ecumenism. In reality, the Council Fathers simply intended to
do was to recognise the presence of ecclesial elements proper to the
Church of Christ in the non-Catholic Christian communities. It does not
follow that the identification of the Church of Christ with the Catholic
Church no longer holds, nor that outside the Catholic Church there is a
complete absence of ecclesial elements, a “churchless void”. What
it does mean is that if the expression “subsistit in” is
considered in its true context, namely in reference to the Church of
Christ “constituted and organised in this world as a society… governed
by the successor of Peter and by the Bishops in communion with him”,
then the change from est to subsistit in takes on
no particular theological significance of discontinuity with previously
held Catholic doctrine.
In fact, precisely because the Church willed by Christ actually
continues to exist (subsistit in) in the Catholic Church, this
continuity of subsistence implies an essential identity between the
Church of Christ and the Catholic Church. The Council wished to teach
that we encounter the Church of Jesus Christ as a concrete historical
subject in the Catholic Church. The idea, therefore, that subsistence
can somehow be multiplied does not express what was intended by the
choice of the term “subsistit”. In choosing the word “subsistit”
the Council intended to express the singularity and non
“multipliability” of the Church of Christ: the Church exists as a unique
Contrary to many unfounded interpretations, therefore, the change from “est”
to “subsistit” does not signify that the Catholic Church has
ceased to regard herself as the one true Church of Christ. Rather it
simply signifies a greater openness to the ecumenical desire to
recognise truly ecclesial characteristics and dimensions in the
Christian communities not in full communion with the Catholic Church, on
account of the “plura elementa sanctificationis et veritatis”
present in them. Consequently, although there is only one Church which
“subsists” in one unique historical subject there are true ecclesial
realities which exist beyond its visible boundaries.
The fourth question asks why the Second Vatican Council used the word
“Churches” to describe the oriental Churches not in full communion with
the Catholic Church.
Notwithstanding the explicit affirmation that the Church of Christ
“subsists” in the Catholic Church, the recognition that even outside her
visible boundaries “many elements of sanctification and of truth” are
to be found, implies the ecclesial character
of the non-Catholic Churches or ecclesial Communities. Neither are these
by any means “deprived of significance and importance” in the sense that
“the Spirit of Christ has not refrained from using them as means of
The document considers above all the reality of the oriental Churches
not in full communion with the Catholic Church and, making reference to
various conciliar texts, gives them the title “particular or local
Churches” and calls them sister Churches of the particular Catholic
Churches because they remain united to the Catholic Church through the
apostolic succession and the valid celebration of the Eucharist “through
which the Church of God is built up and grows in stature.” The
Declaration Dominus Iesus explicitly calls them “true particular
Despite this unequivocal recognition of their “being particular
Churches” and of their salvific value, the document could not ignore the
wound (defectus) which they suffer specifically in their being
particular Churches. For it is because of their Eucharistic vision of
the Church, which stresses the reality of the particular Church united
in the name of Christ through the celebration of the Eucharist and under
the guidance of a Bishop, that they consider themselves complete
in their particularity. Consequently, given the fundamental equality
among all the particular Churches and among the Bishops which preside
over them, they each claim a certain internal autonomy. This is
obviously not compatible with the doctrine of Primacy which, according
to the Catholic faith, is an “internal constitutive principle” of the
very existence of a particular Church. It will, therefore, remain
necessary to emphasise that the Primacy of the Successor of Peter, the
Bishop of Rome, is not seen as something extraneous or merely concurrent
with that of Bishops of particular Churches. Rather it must be exercised
in service to the unity of the faith and of communion within the limits
that proceed from divine law and from the divine and inviolable
constitution of the Church contained in revelation.
The fifth question asks why the ecclesial Communities originating from
the Reformation are not recognised as ‘Churches’.
In response to this question the document recognises that “the wound is
still more profound in those ecclesial communities which have not
preserved the apostolic succession or the valid celebration of the
eucharist”. For this reason they are “not Churches in the proper
sense of the word” but rather, as is attested in conciliar and
postconciliar teaching, they are “ecclesial Communities”.
Despite the fact that this teaching has created no little distress in
the communities concerned and even amongst some Catholics, it is
nevertheless difficult to see how the title of “Church” could possibly
be attributed to them, given that they do not accept the theological
notion of the Church in the Catholic sense and that they lack elements
considered essential to the Catholic Church.
In saying this, however, it must be remembered that these said ecclesial
Communities, by virtue of the diverse elements of sanctification and
truth really present in them, undoubtedly possess as such an ecclesial
character and consequently a salvific significance.
This new document of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith,
which essentially summarises the teaching of the Council and the post-conciliar
magisterium, constitutes a clear reaffirmation of Catholic doctrine on
the Church. Apart from dealing with certain unacceptable ideas which
have unfortunately spread around the Catholic world, it offers valuable
indications for the future of ecumenical dialogue. This dialogue remains
one of the priorities of the Catholic Church, as Benedict XVI confirmed
in his first message to the Church on April 20, 2005 and on many other
occasions, especially during his apostolic visit to Turkey
(28.11.06-1.12.06). However, if such dialogue is to be truly
constructive it must involve not just the mutual openness of the
participants but also fidelity to the identity of the Catholic faith.
Only in this way will it be able to lead towards the unity of all
Christians in “one flock with one shepherd” (Jn 10, 16) and thus heal
that wound which prevents the Catholic Church from fully realising her
universality within history.
Catholic ecumenism might seem, at first sight, somewhat paradoxical. The
Second Vatican Council used the phrase “subsistit in” in order to
try to harmonise two doctrinal affirmations: on the one hand, that
despite all the divisions between Christians the Church of Christ
continues to exist fully only in the Catholic Church, and on the other
hand that numerous elements of sanctification and truth do exist outwith
the visible boundaries of the Catholic Church whether in the particular
Churches or in the ecclesial Communities that are not fully in communion
with the Catholic Church. For this reason, the same Decree of Vatican II
on ecumenism Unitatis redintegratio introduced the term
fullness (unitatis/catholicitatis) specifically to help
better understand this somewhat paradoxical situation. Although the
Catholic Church has the fullness of the means of salvation,
“nevertheless, the divisions among Christians prevent the Church from
effecting the fullness of catholicity proper to her in those of her
children who, though joined to her by baptism, are yet separated from
full communion with her.” The fullness of the Catholic Church,
therefore, already exists, but still has to grow in the brethren who are
not yet in full communion with it and also in its own members who are
sinners “until it happily arrives at the fullness of eternal glory in
the heavenly Jerusalem.” This progress in fullness is rooted in the
ongoing process of dynamic union with Christ: “Union with Christ is also
union with all those to whom he gives himself. I cannot possess Christ
just for myself; I can belong to him only in union with all those who
have become, or will become, his own. Communion draws me out of myself
towards him, and thus also towards unity with all Christians.”
 PAUL VI, Discourse (September 21, 1964): AAS 56 (1964) 1012.
 Ibid., 1010.
 G. PHILIPS, La Chiesa e il suo mistero nel Concilio Vaticano II,
(Milano 1975), I, 111.
 CONGREGATION FOR THE DOCTRINE OF THE FAITH, Mysterium Ecclesiae,
1: AAS 65 (1973) 398.
 CONGREGATION FOR THE DOCTRINE OF THE FAITH, Notification on the
book of Father Leonardo Boff: “The Church: charism and power”: AAS
77 (1985) 758-759. This passage of the Notification, although not
formally quoted in the “Responsum”, is found fully cited in the
Declaration Dominus Iesus, in note 56 of n. 16.
 SECOND VATICAN COUNCIL, Lumen gentium, 8.2.
 SECOND VATICAN COUNCIL, Unitatis Redintegratio, 3.4.
 Cf. SECOND VATICAN COUNCIL, Unitatis Redintegratio, 15.1..
 CONGREGATION FOR THE DOCTRINE OF THE FAITH, Dominus Iesus,
17: AAS 92 (2000) 758.
 Cf. COMITATO MISTO CATTOLICO-ORTODOSSO IN FRANCIA, Il
primato romano nella comunione delle Chiese, Conclusioni: in
“Enchiridion oecumenicum” (1991), vol. IV, n. 956.
 Cf. CONGREGATION FOR THE DOCTRINE OF THE FAITH, Communionis
notio, n.17: AAS 85 (1993) 849.
 Cf. CONGREGATION FOR THE DOCTRINE OF THE FAITH, Considerations on
the Primacy of the Successor of Peter in the Mystery of the Church, n. 7
and n. 10, in: L’Osservatore Romano, English Edition, 18 November
 CONGREGATION FOR THE DOCTRINE OF THE FAITH, Communionis notio,
17: AAS 85 (1993) 849.
 CONGREGATION FOR THE DOCTRINE OF THE FAITH, Dominus Iesus,
17: AAS 92 (2000) 758.
 Cf. SECOND VATICAN COUNCIL, Unitatis Redintegratio, 4; John
Paul II, Novo millenio ineuente, 48: AAS 93 (2001) 301-302.
 SECOND VATICAN COUNCIL, Unitatis Redintegratio, 4.
 Ibid, 3.
[18 BENEDICT XVI, Deus caritas est, 14: AAS 98 (2006) 228-22.