Commentary on Responses to Some Questions Regarding Certain Aspects of the Doctrine on the Church

Author: CDF

Commentary on Responses to Some Questions Regarding Certain Aspects of the Doctrine on the Church

Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith

See Responses to Some Questions ...

In this 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.”[1] 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 Vatican II.

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.”[2]

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’[3] 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.”[4] 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.”[5]

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 subsistitin 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 historical reality.

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”[6] are to be found, implies the ecclesial character — albeit diversified — 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 salvation.”[7]

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.”[8] The Declaration Dominus Iesus explicitly calls them “true particular Churches.”[9]

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.[10] 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.[11] 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.[12]

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”.[13] For this reason they are “not Churches in the proper sense of the word”[14] but rather, as is attested in conciliar and postconciliar teaching, they are “ecclesial Communities”.[15]

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.”[16] 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.”[17] 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.”[18]


[1] PAUL VI, Discourse (September 21, 1964): AAS 56 (1964) 1012.

[2] Ibid., 1010.

[3] G. PHILIPS, La Chiesa e il suo mistero nel Concilio Vaticano II, (Milano 1975), I, 111.

[4] CONGREGATION FOR THE DOCTRINE OF THE FAITH, Mysterium Ecclesiae, 1: AAS 65 (1973) 398.

[5] 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.

[6] SECOND VATICAN COUNCIL, Lumen gentium, 8.2.

[7] SECOND VATICAN COUNCIL, Unitatis Redintegratio, 3.4.

[8] Cf. SECOND VATICAN COUNCIL, Unitatis Redintegratio, 15.1..

[9] CONGREGATION FOR THE DOCTRINE OF THE FAITH, Dominus Iesus, 17: AAS 92 (2000) 758.

[10] Cf. COMITATO MISTO CATTOLICO-ORTODOSSO IN FRANCIA, Il primato romano nella comunione delle Chiese, Conclusioni: in “Enchiridion oecumenicum” (1991), vol. IV, n. 956.

[11] Cf. CONGREGATION FOR THE DOCTRINE OF THE FAITH, Communionis notio, n.17: AAS 85 (1993) 849.

[12] 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 1998, 5-6.

[13] CONGREGATION FOR THE DOCTRINE OF THE FAITH, Communionis notio, 17: AAS 85 (1993) 849.

[14] CONGREGATION FOR THE DOCTRINE OF THE FAITH, Dominus Iesus, 17: AAS 92 (2000) 758.

[15] Cf. SECOND VATICAN COUNCIL, Unitatis Redintegratio, 4; John Paul II, Novo millenio ineuente, 48: AAS 93 (2001) 301-302.

[16] SECOND VATICAN COUNCIL, Unitatis Redintegratio, 4.

[17] Ibid, 3.

[18 BENEDICT XVI, Deus caritas est, 14: AAS 98 (2006) 228-22.

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