|Forty Years After the Close of the Vatican
Unity, Subsistence of the Church
Christ founded only one Church his Church — on Peter, with the
guarantee of indefectibility in the face of the persecutions, divisions
and obstacles of every kind which she would encounter in the course of
history (cf. Mt 16:18). Therefore, only one Church exists, which we
confess, in the Creed as "one, holy, Catholic and apostolic".1
The Second Vatican Council, in n. 8 of the Dogmatic Constitution
Lumen Gentium, stated that "this Church, constituted and organized as
a society in this present, world, subsists in (subsistit in) the
Catholic Church, governed by the Successor of Peter and by the Bishops in
communion with him, although (licet) many elements of
sanctification and truth can be found outside her structure; such
elements, as gifts properly belonging to the Church of Christ, impel
towards Catholic unity".
As is well known this famous expression "subsistit in" was
subsequently the object of many and contradictory interpretations. The
notion became quite widespread that the Council had not wanted to adopt as
its own the traditional statement according in which the Church of Christ
is (est) the Catholic Church — as was stated in the preparatory
schema2 — so as to be able to say that the
Church of Christ subsists also in Christian communities separated from
In reality, however, an analysis of the Council proceedings leads to
the conclusion that
"[t]he phrase subsistit in is intended not only
to reconfirm the meaning of the term est, that is, the identity of
the Church of Christ with the Catholic Church. Above all, it reaffirms
that the Church of Christ, imbued with the fullness of all the means
instituted by Christ, perdures (continues, remains) forever in the
This meaning of the term subsistit coincides with the common
language of Western culture and is consistent with classical philosophical
language from Aristotle to St. Thomas; that which exists in itself and not
in something else is said to subsist.4
"Subsisting is a special case of being. It is being in
the form of a subject standing on its own. This is the issue here. The
Council wants to tell us that the Church of Jesus Christ as a concrete
subject in the present world can be encountered in the Catholic Church.
This can occur only once and the notion that subsistit could be
multiplied misses precisely what was intended. With the word subsistit,
the Council wanted to express the singularity and non-multiplicability of
the Catholic Church".5
In this Document of the Council, the assertion of the subsistence of
the Church of Christ in the Catholic Church is followed by the famous
phrase about the presence of many elements of sanctification and truth,
belonging to the Church, outside her visible structure.
The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, already in 1985, in the
face of erroneous interpretations, made the following statement in this
regard: " . . . the Council chose the word subsistit precisely in
order to make it clear that there exists a single 'subsistence' of the
true Church, while outside her visible structure only elementa
ecclesiae exist, which — as elements of the Church — tend and lead
toward the Catholic Church".6
More recently, the same Congregation declared: "The interpretation
of those who would derive from the formula subsistit in the thesis
that the one Church of Christ could subsist also in non-Catholic churches
and ecclesial communities is therefore contrary to the authentic meaning of
Subsistence: universal, particular
From the context and the meaning subsistit in in Lumen
Gentium, n. 8, it evident that this subsistence is predicated of the
Universal Church. However, at times, the notion of "the Church's
subsistence" has been applied in a different sense
analogical — to particular Churches as well.
Thus, for example, John Paul II wrote of "particular Churches in which
there subsists the fullness of the universal Church"8
or that the "Catholic Church herself subsists in each particular Church".9
The fullness of the universal Church can indeed be predicated of
every particular Church, in the sense that, in each particular Church,
"the Church universal with all her essential elements is made present".10
Therefore, each particular Church is constituted "in the
image of the universal Church"11 and, in
each one, "the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church is truly present
and operative (inest et operatur)".12
This fullness of the particular Church, however, does not come from its
particularity, but rather from the presence in it of all the essential
elements of ecclesiality, including the Primacy of the Successor of Peter
and the College of Bishops. Indeed, these elements, though not originating
in the particularity of the Churches, are interior to them.13
In order that such a fullness might exist, the particular
Church must be inserted into the universal Communio Ecclesiarum,
which in turn is not possible without communion with the Roman See and
However, this ecclesial fullness is not sufficient to predicate the
subsistence of the local Church in the sense of Lumen Gentium, n.
8, since subsistence implies not only the presence of all the essential
elements of the Church of Christ but also their indefectible permanence.
And no particular Church has such guaranteed permanence.
Particular Churches may even disappear, as has happened many times in
the course of history. In this sense, it is more accurate to say, with
Christus Dominus, that, in a particular Church, the Church of Christ
is present and operative (inest et operatur) or that, in the
particular Churches, the universal Church exists (exsistit).15
Unicity of the Church, existence of non-Catholic Churches
It is important to note that Lumen Gentium, n. 8, in affirming
the subsistence of the Church of Christ in the Catholic Church governed by
the Successor of Peter and the Bishops in communion with him (and, as
already noted, solely in her), refers explicitly to the Church as
constituted and organized in this present world, and then immediately adds
that outside her visible structure there are many elements of
sanctification and truth. This leads us to consider the Church not only in
her social dimension, but also in her mystical sacramental dimension, as
the Mystical Body of Christ.16
The Second Vatican Council, following the usage that was already
traditional, employs the term Church also for those non-Catholic
Christian communities that have preserved the episcopate and a valid
Eucharist. Regarding the term Church, attributed to these
communities, one of the relators in the Commission for the elaborations of
the Decree Unitatis Redintegratio explained that it was not
their intention to treat the disputed question of what conditions are
required for a Christian community to be, in the theological sense, a
It would seem, therefore, that the intention was only to attribute a
sociological, or rather honorific, sense to the term when applied to
non-Catholic Christian communities. In reality this does not seem to have
been the case, because the same Decree on ecumenism
— without making explicit all the conditions
required to be a Church — states that "through the celebration of the
Eucharist of the Lord in these individual churches, the Church of God is
built and grows".18 This expression is to
be interpreted in the light of Lumen Gentium, that is to say, in
the sense that, in these Churches many elements of sanctification and
truth exist which belong to the one Church of Christ (the Catholic
Later doctrinal and magisterial
developments on this topic have led to attributing the title of
particular Churches, which is certainly of a theological nature, to
non-Catholic communities that have preserved the episcopate and the
Eucharist.20 With regard to magisterial
texts, the most notable pronouncements on this question have been two
Documents of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith: the Letter
Communionis Notio of 1992 which stated that these communities "merit
the title of particular Churches"21, and
the Declaration Dominus Iesus of 2000 which stated that they
are "true particular Churches".22
It is easy to see that where Christ is made present in the Eucharistic
sacrifice of his Body and his Blood, there the Church is present as the
Body of Christ, through which Christ effects salvation in history.
However, not any and every form of the Church's operative presence
constitutes a particular Church, but only this presence with all its
Therefore, for a Christian community to be truly a particular Church,
"there must be present in it, as a proper element, the supreme authority
of the Church: the Episcopal College 'together with its head, the Supreme
Pontiff, and never apart from him' (Lumen Gentium, n. 22)".23
This might seem an insurmountable obstacle to the possibility of affirming
that non-Catholic particular Churches are "true particular Churches", and
certainly there is much in this area that calls for deeper study.
One possible path for refection, however, would be the real presence of
the Petrine Primacy (and of the Episcopal College) in non-Catholic
Churches, based on the unity of the "one and undivided" episcopate:24
a unity that cannot exist without the Bishop of Rome. Where, on account of
apostolic succession, a valid episcopate exists, the Episcopal College
with its Head is objectively present as supreme authority (even if, in
fact, that authority is not recognized).
Furthermore, in every valid celebration of the Eucharist, there is an
objective reference to the universal communion with the Successor of Peter
and with the entire Church,25 independent
of subjective convictions.
Perhaps it will be possible along these lines to arrive at a deeper
understanding of the fact that these communities, while being separated
from Rome, are "true particular Churches". However, it must be remembered
that the fact of being not in full communion with the Pope implies a
wound in their ecclesiality,26 which
is not only of a disciplinary or canonical nature, but is also related to
the not full profession of the Catholic faith. Therefore, what is lacking
for a non-Catholic particular Church, to be fully a Church is not only a
belonging to the visible manifestation (in an exterior sense) of
the full Christian communion.27
It is necessary to return always to what the Catholic faith teaches
about the unicity of the one Church of Christ so as not to overlook
another aspect of capital importance: non-Catholic particular Churches are
true Churches on account of what is Catholic in them.
Their ecclesiality is based on the fact that "the one Church of Christ
has an operative presence in them."28 and
they are not fully Churches — their ecclesiality is wounded —
because they lack elements proper to the Catholic Church. In other words,
recognizing that those communities, which are not in full communion with
the Catholic Church, have the character of Churches also means necessarily
that these Churches are — in an apparent paradox — portions of the one
Church, that is to say, of the one Catholic Church, portions in an
anomalous theological and canonical situation. One could say similarly
that theirs is a "participated ecclesiality according to an imperfect and
limited presence of the Church of Christ".29
The ecumenical relevance of these ecclesiological topics is obvious;
they still need to be more clearly delineated and studied. The commitment
to ecumenism, which the Church neither can nor wishes to relinquish, is
not limited to doctrinal aspects.30
"But what is most urgently needed is that 'purification of memory', so
often recalled by John Paul II, which alone can dispose souls to accept
the full truth of Christ".31
Certainly, obstacles remain, but there is always room for prayer,
thanksgiving, dialogue and hope in the action of the Holy Spirit.
1 Cf. Second Vatican Council, Dogmatic
Constitution Lumen Gentium, n. 8; Decree Unitatis Redintegratio,
n. 4; John Paul II, Encyclical Ut Unum Sint, n. 11; Congregation
for the Doctrine of the Faith, Declaration Mysterium Ecclesiae, 24
June 1973, I.
2 Cf. F. Gil Hellín,
Concilii Vaticani II Synopsis: Constitutio Dogmatica
De Ecclesia "Lumen Gentium", Vatican City, 1995, 64 and 697.
3 K.J. Becker, "'Subsistit in'
— (Lumen Gentium, n. 8)" (cf. L'Osservatore Romano
English edition [ORE], 14 December, pp. 11-14). So also the
conclusion of Fr U. Betti: "The word 'subsists' has no other meaning than
'continue to exist'. If, therefore, the Church of Christ 'continues to
exist' (subsistit in) in the Catholic Church, the continuity in
existence means a substantial identity of essence" ("Chiesa di Cristo e
Chiesa Cattolica" in Antonianum 61 , 743).
4 Cf. P. Rodriguez e J.R. Villar, "Las
'Iglesias y Comunidades eclesiales' separadas de la Sede Apostólica
Romana" in Diálogo Ecuménico
39 (2004), 606.
5 Joseph Ratzinger, "L'ecclesiologia
della Costituzione Lumen Gentium" in R. Fisichella (ed.), II
Concilio Vaticano II: Recezione e attualità
alla luce del Giubileo (Cinisello B. 2000), 79.
6 Congregation for the Doctrine of the
Faith, Notification on the book "Church: Charism
and Power" by Fr. Leonardo Boff, AAS 77 (1985), 758-759.
7 Ibid., Declaration Dominus
Iesus, n. 6, August 2000, footnote 56.
8 John Paul II, Letter to the
Bishops of the U.S.A.: "Pastors of particular Churches
in which there subsists the fullness of the universal Church" (Insegnamenti
IX, 2 , 1332).
9 Ibid., Address to the Bishops
of the U.S.A.: "The Catholic Church herself subsists in each particular
Church" (Insegnamenti X, 3 , 555).
10 Congregation for the Doctrine of
the Faith, Letter Communionis Notio, 28 May 1992, n. 7.
11 Lumen Gentium, n. 23.
12 Decree Christus Dominus, n.
11. For a full and documented analysis of the magisterial and theological
development on the topic of particular Churches, see, for example: A.
Cattaneo, La Chiesa locale (Città
del Vaticano, 2003).
13 Cf. Congregation for the Doctrine
of the Faith, Letter Communionis Notio, n. 13. "In this perspective
too, we must see the ministry of the Successor of Peter not only as a
'global' service, reaching each particular Church from 'outside' as it
were, but as belonging already to the essence of each particular Church
from 'within'" (John Paul II, Address to the Bishops of the
U.S.A., 16 September 1987: lnsegnamenti X, 3 , 556).
14 Cf. Ut Unum Sint, n. 97.
15 Cf. Lumen Gentium, n. 23.
16 Cf. Joseph Ratzinger, Il nuovo
Popolo di Dio (Brescia, 1971), 253-259.
17 Cf. Acta Synodalia, III/IV,
18 Unitatis Redintegratio, n.
19 Cf. Lumen Gentium, n. 8.
20 Already in the discussions of the
Second Vatican Council on the Decree Unitatis Redintegratio,
some of the Council Fathers had used this term: see, for example, Acta
Synodalia, II/V, 567, 3.
21 Communionis Notio, n. 17.
Iesus, n. 17.
23 Communionis Notio, n. 13.
24 Cf. First Vatican Council,
Constitution Pastor Aeternus, proemio; also Lumen Gentium,
25 Cf. Communionis Notio, n.
26 Cf. ibid., n. 17.
27 Cf. Joseph Ratzinger, Church,
Ecumenism and Politics (St. Paul Publications, 1988), 74-75.
28 Ut Unum Sint, n. 11
29 P. Rodriguez e J.R. Villar, op.
30 Unitatis Redintegratio, nn.
31 Benedict XVI, Initial Message,
20 April 2005, n. 5; ORE, 27 April, p. 3.