See also Commentary on
Responses to Some Questions ...
The Second Vatican Council, with its Dogmatic Constitution Lumen gentium,
and its Decrees on Ecumenism (Unitatis redintegratio) and the
Oriental Churches (Orientalium Ecclesiarum), has contributed in a
decisive way to the renewal of Catholic ecclesiolgy. The Supreme
Pontiffs have also contributed to this renewal by offering their own
insights and orientations for praxis: Paul VI in his Encyclical Letter
Ecclesiam suam (1964) and John Paul II in his Encyclical Letter
Ut unum sint (1995).
The consequent duty of theologians to expound with greater clarity the
diverse aspects of ecclesiology has resulted in a flowering of writing
in this field. In fact it has become evident that this theme is a most
fruitful one which, however, has also at times required clarification by
way of precise definition and correction, for instance in the
declaration Mysterium Ecclesiae (1973), the Letter addressed to
the Bishops of the Catholic Church Communionis notio (1992), and
the declaration Dominus Iesus (2000), all published by the
Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
The vastness of the subject matter and the novelty of many of the themes
involved continue to provoke theological reflection. Among the many new
contributions to the field, some are not immune from erroneous
interpretation which in turn give rise to confusion and doubt. A number
of these interpretations have been referred to the attention of the
Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Given the universality of
Catholic doctrine on the Church, the Congregation wishes to respond to
these questions by clarifying the authentic meaning of some
ecclesiological expressions used by the magisterium which are open to
misunderstanding in the theological debate.
RESPONSES TO THE QUESTIONS
First Question: Did the Second Vatican Council change the Catholic
doctrine on the Church?
Response: The Second Vatican Council neither changed nor intended to
change this doctrine, rather it developed, deepened and more fully
This was exactly what John XXIII said at the beginning of the Council1.
Paul VI affirmed it2 and commented in the act of promulgating
the Constitution Lumen gentium: "There is no better comment to
make than to say that this promulgation really changes nothing of the
traditional doctrine. What Christ willed, we also will. What was, still
is. What the Church has taught down through the centuries, we also
teach. 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"3. The Bishops repeatedly expressed and fulfilled
Second Question: What is the meaning of the affirmation that the Church
of Christ subsists in the Catholic Church?
Response: Christ "established here on earth" only one Church and
instituted it as a "visible and spiritual community"5, that
from its beginning and throughout the centuries has always existed and
will always exist, and in which alone are found all the elements that
Christ himself instituted.6 "This one Church of Christ, which
we confess in the Creed as one, holy, catholic and apostolic […]. This
Church, constituted and organised in this world as a society, subsists
in the Catholic Church, governed by the successor of Peter and the
Bishops in communion with him"7.
In number 8 of the Dogmatic Constitution Lumen Gentium
‘subsistence’ means this perduring, historical continuity and the
permanence of all the elements instituted by Christ in the Catholic
Church8, in which the Church of Christ is concretely found on
It is possible, according to Catholic doctrine, to affirm correctly that
the Church of Christ is present and operative in the churches and
ecclesial Communities not yet fully in communion with the Catholic
Church, on account of the elements of sanctification and truth that are
present in them.9 Nevertheless, the word "subsists" can only
be attributed to the Catholic Church alone precisely because it refers
to the mark of unity that we profess in the symbols of the faith (I
believe... in the "one" Church); and this "one" Church subsists in the
Third 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
"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"12.
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?
Response: The Council wanted to adopt the traditional use of the term.
"Because these Churches, although separated, have true sacraments and
— because of the apostolic succession
the priesthood and the Eucharist, by means of which they remain linked
to us by very close bonds"13, they merit the title of
"particular or local Churches"14, and are called sister
Churches of the particular Catholic Churches15.
"It is through the celebration of the Eucharist of the Lord in each of
these Churches that the Church of God is built up and grows in stature"16.
However, since communion with the Catholic Church, the visible head of
which is the Bishop of Rome and the Successor of Peter, is not some
external complement to a particular Church but rather one of its
internal constitutive principles, these venerable Christian communities
lack something in their condition as particular churches17.
On the other hand, because of the division between Christians, the
fullness of universality, which is proper to the Church governed by the
Successor of Peter and the Bishops in communion with him, is not fully
realised in history18.
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
Response: According to Catholic doctrine, these Communities do not enjoy
apostolic succession in the sacrament of Orders, and are, therefore,
deprived of a constitutive element of the Church. These ecclesial
Communities which, specifically because of the absence of the
sacramental priesthood, have not preserved the genuine and integral
substance of the Eucharistic Mystery19 cannot, according to
Catholic doctrine, be called "Churches" in the proper sense20.
The Supreme Pontiff Benedict XVI, at the Audience granted to the
undersigned 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.
Rome, from the Offices of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the
Faith, June 29, 2007, the Solemnity of the Holy Apostles Peter and Paul.
William Cardinal Levada
Angelo Amato, S.D.B.
Titular Archbishop of Sila
1 JOHN XXIII, Address of 11 October 1962: "…The
Council…wishes to transmit Catholic doctrine, whole and entire, without
alteration or deviation…But in the circumstances of our times it is
necessary that Christian doctrine in its entirety, and with nothing
taken away from it, is accepted with renewed enthusiasm, and serene and
tranquil adherence… it is necessary that the very same doctrine be
understood more widely and more profoundly as all those who sincerely
adhere to the Christian, Catholic and Apostolic faith strongly desire
…it is necessary that this certain and immutable doctrine, to which is
owed the obedience of faith, be explored and expounded in the manner
required by our times. The deposit of faith itself and the truths
contained in our venerable doctrine are one thing, but the manner in
which they are annunciated is another, provided that the same
fundamental sense and meaning is maintained" : AAS 54  791-792.
2 Cf. PAUL VI, Address of 29 September 1963: AAS 55
3 PAUL VI, Address of 21 November 1964: AAS 56 
4 The Council wished to express the identity of the Church of
Christ with the Catholic Church. This is clear from the discussions on
the decree Unitatis redintegratio. The Schema of the Decree was
proposed on the floor of the Council on 23.9.1964 with a Relatio
(Act Syn III/II 296-344). The Secretariat for the Unity of Christians
responded on 10.11.1964 to the suggestions sent by Bishops in the months
that followed (Act Syn III/VII 11-49). Herewith are quoted four texts
from this Expensio modorum concerning this first response.
A) [In Nr. 1 (Prooemium) Schema Decreti: Act Syn III/II 296, 3-6]
"Pag. 5, lin. 3-6: Videtur etiam Ecclesiam catholicam inter illas
Communiones comprehendi, quod falsum esset.
R(espondetur): Hic tantum factum, prout ab omnibus conspicitur,
describendum est. Postea clare affirmatur solam Ecclesiam catholicam
esse veram Ecclesiam Christi" (Act Syn III/VII 12).
B) [In Caput I in genere: Act Syn III/II 297-301]
"4 - Expressius dicatur unam solam esse veram Ecclesiam Christi; hanc
esse Catholicam Apostolicam Romanam; omnes debere inquirere, ut eam
cognoscant et ingrediantur ad salutem obtinendam...
R(espondetur): In toto textu sufficienter effertur, quod postulatur.
Ex altera parte non est tacendum etiam in aliis communitatibus
christianis inveniri veritates revelatas et elementa ecclesialia"
(Act Syn III/VII 15). Cf. also ibid pt. 5.
C) [In Caput I in genere: Act Syn III/II 296s]
"5 - Clarius dicendum esset veram Ecclesiam esse solam Ecclesiam
R(espondetur): Textus supponit doctrinam in constitutione ‘De
Ecclesia’ expositam, ut pag. 5, lin. 24-25 affirmatur" (Act Syn
III/VII 15). Thus the commission whose task it was to evaluate the
responses to the Decree Unitatis redintegratio clearly expressed the
identity of the Church of Christ with the Catholic Church and its
unicity, and understood this doctrine to be founded in the Dogmatic
Constitution Lumen gentium.
D) [In Nr. 2 Schema Decreti: Act Syn III/II 297s]
"Pag. 6, lin. 1- 24: Clarius exprimatur unicitas Ecclesiae. Non
sufficit inculcare, ut in textu fit, unitatem Ecclesiae.
R(espondetur): a) Ex toto textu clare apparet identificatio Ecclesiae
Christi cum Ecclesia catholica, quamvis, ut oportet, efferantur elementa
ecclesialia aliarum communitatum".
"Pag. 7, lin. 5: Ecclesia a successoribus Apostolorum cum Petri
successore capite gubernata (cf. novum textum ad pag. 6, lin.33-34)
explicite dicitur ‘unicus Dei grex’ et lin. 13 ‘una et unica Dei
Ecclesia’ " (Act Syn III/VII).
The two expressions quoted are those of Unitatis redintegratio
2.5 e 3.1.
5 Cf. SECOND VATICAN COUNCIL, Dogmatic Constitution Lumen
6 Cf. SECOND VATICAN COUNCIL, Decree Unitatis
redintegratio, 3.2; 3.4; 3.5; 4.6.
7 SECOND VATICAN COUNCIL, Dogmatic Constitution, Lumen
8 Cf. CONGREGATION FOR THE DOCTRINE OF THE FAITH, Declaration
Mysterium Ecclesiae, 1.1: AAS 65  397; Declaration
Dominus Iesus, 16.3: AAS 92 [2000-II] 757-758; Notification on
the Book of Leonardo Boff, OFM, "Church: Charism and Power": AAS 77
9 Cf. JOHN PAUL II, Encyclical Letter Ut unum sint,
11.3: AAS 87 [1995-II] 928.
10 Cf. SECOND VATICAN COUNCIL, Dogmatic Constitution Lumen
11 SECOND VATICAN COUNCIL, Dogmatic Constitution Lumen
12 SECOND VATICAN COUNCIL, Decree Unitatis redintegratio,
13 SECOND VATICAN COUNCIL, Decree Unitatis redintegratio,
15.3; cf. CONGREGATION FOR THE DOCTRINE OF THE FAITH, Letter
Communionis notio, 17.2: AAS, 85 [1993-II] 848.
14 SECOND VATICAN COUNCIL, Decree Unitatis redintegratio,
15 Cf. SECOND VATICAN COUNCIL, Decree Unitatis
redintegratio, 14.1; JOHN PAUL II, Encyclical Letter Ut unum sint,
56 f: AAS 87 [1995-II] 954 ff.
16 SECOND VATICAN COUNCIL, Decree Unitatis redintegratio,
17 Cf. CONGREGATION FOR THE DOCTRINE OF THE FAITH, Letter
Communionis notio, 17.3: AAS 85 [1993-II] 849.
19 Cf. SECOND VATICAN COUNCIL, Decree Unitatis
20 Cf. CONGREGATION FOR THE DOCTRINE OF THE FAITH,
Declaration Dominus Iesus, 17.2: AAS 92 [2000-II] 758.