July 16, 2007
Last week, the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) released a remarkable little document that could prove nearly as important as the motu proprio liberalizing the use of the Traditional Latin Mass. Despite some deliberately provocative reporting by the AP and others, “Responses to Some Questions Regarding Certain Aspects of the Doctrine on the Church” hasn’t made much of a splash yet, and that’s likely because we Christians, with all of our willingness to fight with one another over our differences, really have little desire to discuss any essential issues—in this case, ecclesiology, or the nature of the Church.
Granted, many people thought that such questions were settled at Vatican II, which, in the popular mythology, created a kinder and gentler Catholic Church that made no divisive claims to being the “one, holy, Catholic, and apostolic Church” but invited all Christians to join in what Stephen Colbert might call “churchiness”—one vast “interfaith,” hand-holding, Kumbaya-singing ecclesial “community” in which silly little matters like doctrine would no longer divide us.
Not so, says the CDF, which makes it clear that the Congregation’s “Responses” were vetted by Pope Benedict XVI himself. In an exercise in the hermeneutic of continuity, the CDF has affirmed that Vatican II not only didn’t change the Catholic Church’s understanding of Herself, but “developed, deepened and more fully explained it.” The one, true Church established by Christ here on earth “subsists in” the Catholic Church. And while some traditionalist Catholics who ought to know enough Latin to know better have tried to claim that this phrase reduces the status of the Catholic Church, the CDF reminds us that it actually means the opposite—it “indicates the full identity of the Church of Christ with the Catholic Church.”
Other organizations may partake of “numerous elements of sanctification and of truth,” but they will always be incomplete until reunited with the Catholic Church. Some, such as the Orthodox Churches, are true “particular or local Churches,” because they maintain apostolic succession (and, thus, the sacraments); while others—“those Christian Communities born out of the Reformation” cannot even “be called ‘Churches’ in the proper sense,” because they long ago renounced or lost apostolic succession and, thus, the “sacramental priesthood.”
Far from upsetting the Orthodox or Protestants, this statement should define the terms of theological debate. At the heart of Catholic belief lies a particular ecclesiology, from which flows the Church’s understanding of doctrinal issues. Other Christians who are serious about dialogue with the Catholic Church need to offer a critique, based on their traditions, of this ecclesiology. And that means coming to grips with their own ecclesiology—or lack of one.