While I was on retreat last week, apparently some recent communications from Rome hit the mainstream media here in the States. The communications came from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, our present Pope’s former office. From what I can tell, the folks there are trying to clarify the teaching of what it means that “the Church of Christ subsists in the Catholic Church.” Here are a couple of excerpts:
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 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.”
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 sixteenth century?
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 Mystery cannot, according to Catholic doctrine, be called “Churches” in the proper sense.
Now, of course, the media will try to jump on whatever seems to be the most controversial points, to be sure, but to me, this just seems to be restating what has been taught for some time. In fact the footnotes 11 and 12 refer to a document from the Second Vatican Council. And though I was a toddler at the beginning of the Council, I had heard that before then it was taught that there was no salvation outside the Catholic Church. The present statement doesn’t seem to me to be trying to go back to that extreme isolationist stance.
Having said that, I think that the language used in these communications is not always very helpful. Saying that other denominations and faiths “suffer from defects,” or that our Protestant brothers and sisters do not really belong to “Churches” doesn’t seem to be a place from which to talk about ecumenism or inter-faith dialogue. Ditto for the language of the Catechism used to describe same-sex attraction (objectively disordered).
Do you think it’s just a matter of something lost in the translation from Latin? Unfortunately, I think not.
Still, I try not to get too upset at what comes out of Rome. Remember, this is the same Church that at one time condemned Galileo and condoned slavery, that conducted the Crusades, and that covered up the sexual abuse of children by some of its priests. In other words, the doctrine of the Catholic Church is not a static set of words, but something that is always being reshaped and nuanced as the times change. (My disclaimer here for not being as precise about this as I could be with an advanced degree in theology. I’m sure there’s a theological term for this.) And the Church is a big, old institution…so it takes time – sometimes centuries – for changes to happen. …sigh…
P.S. Lest you misunderstand my last paragraph to be “trashing” the Church, let me say for the record that there’s a lot I think we get right, like the Sacraments, they way we celebrate funerals, the Social Justice teachings, the consistency of the Church’s pro-life stance (i.e., not just with regard to abortion, but to war, death penalty, etc.), the concept of the communion of saints, etc. I wouldn’t be here otherwise!