Blog Template Theology of the Body: A brief analysis of the statement by the CDF

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

A brief analysis of the statement by the CDF

Thanks to the work of MM, you can read the full statement of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) in the post just below or at the Vatican website. For a document that seeks to answer questions, it appears that it has created more questions than it has actually answered. I'd like to offer up an interpretation of the document to help clarify what is going on from a theological perspective. Let me say from the outset that I am more than happy to be corrected on any of this, as Catholic doctrine never lacks subtlety and demands careful study.

First of all, the introduction tells us that this document is to be taken not by itself, but in concert with the other documents listed, particularly Lumen Gentium. This document is written to answer five questions that have recurred in response to the other publications listed, with the second through fifth questions providing definitions for technical terms, which will allow for more fruitful debate among theologians interested in issues of the church; only by beginning with a shared set of definitions can debate proceed. Let's take the questions one by one.

Question one is pretty straightforward. Did Vatican II change the teaching on the church? The answer is no, and basically the CDF says that if you think it did, you are wrong and misunderstood their clear intentions. All that Vatican II did, according to the CDF, is deepen the explanation of the church, but the teaching was in continuity with past teaching. This also means that everything that I am about to discuss, from the Vatican's view, is nothing new, but rather just an explanation of a longstanding understanding of the church.

Now it gets technical. The next two questions deal with the technical term 'subsists', a term that is used in paragraph 8 of Lumen Gentium. Question 2 wants to know what it means for something to subsist and Question 3 wants to know what the difference is between 'subsist' and 'is'. At this point you might be wondering why this matters. But what is at stake here is a clear understanding of what it means for the Church of Christ to exist. Both the terms "is" and "subsists" are terms which denote ways of existing. If the Catholic Church says that the Church of Christ is the Catholic Church, then it is saying that it is the one and only way of salvation. The CDF does not want to say this, as it believes that limited elements of salvation take place outside of the Catholic fold -- though it is careful to state that even those elements are derived from Catholic church. For example, if a Protestant sees Scripture as a means of grace, the Catholic Church is going to agree that it is, but will argue that Scripture was entrusted to, and compiled by, the Catholic Church and so any participation in grace through Scripture is derived from the Church.

Given this, the CDF explains that the Vatican II language of 'subsists' is a more accurate understanding of how the Church of Christ is found in the Catholic Church. What do they mean by this term? The term 'subsist' itself has had a variety of meanings throughout the history of philosophy, and it looks like this is part of the question that the CDF is attempting to answer. For them, for something to subsist requires two things: 1) continuity (one of the meanings of the Latin word 'subsistere' is to continue) and 2) the presence of all of the elements of the church instituted by Christ, not just some of them. Subsistence, then, is a way of expressing the idea that the only full and complete church exists in the Catholic Church, while acknowledging that the Spirit has worked, in a limited way, in other eccesial bodies. Only the Catholic Church, according to the CDF, has been continuous from the beginning through its apostolic succession, and only the Catholic Church has all of the elements of the church found in it.

The real key here are the ideas of one church, apostolic succession, Holy Orders, and the Eucharist. Someone from another denomination may argue that they have all of the same sacraments as Roman Catholics and thus all of the elements of the church are there. But the Catholic response would be that if one of the elements of the church is its unity in conjunction with its continuity, then, in the words of the Highlander, "there can be only one!" Likewise, the Catholic Church would argue that because Eucharist is invalid unless done by a properly ordained priest, and the only properly ordained priests are those who have direct apostolic succession, then other denominations do not participate in the full grace of the Eucharist.

Indeed, this understanding of the relationship between ordination and Eucharist is critical to the CDF's explanation of what the term "church" means compared to an "ecclesial community". A true church, in the CDF's definition (and as I explained above) requires two things: 1) continuity through apostolic succession and 2) true sacraments -- the elements of the church. But if you don't have the first, you cannot have the second because of the role of apostolic succession in ordination. Notice the last line of exposition here -- what they are talking about is 'church' in a proper or technical sense, not in the common way we use it, usually in regard to a building.

Really, all of this turns on the Roman Catholic idea of what it means for the Church to be the Church properly speaking. If you grant them the case that 'one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church' is one that has continuity and all of the sacraments, then the rest of their argument follows. But if you don't think that is a proper understanding of what a church is, then you have two responsibilities -- a critical one and a constructive one. First you have to make an argument as to why that is not the proper understanding of what a church is and second you then have to offer up your own explanation what what the proper understanding should be. Or, I suppose, you could just ignore the whole thing (but only after reading John 17). One of the main benefits of this as an ecumenical document is that it clearly states the Catholic position; it may be disagreeable to many people, but ecumenical dialogue requires an honest statement of one's position rather than mealy-mouthed obfuscation that intends to mollify rather than take the discussion forward.

Finally, a quick note about salvation. The CDF is clear that members of other 'ecclesial bodies', "are deprived neither of significance nor importance in the mystery of salvation". That is Christians of other denominations are saved. The reason for this, as mentioned above, is that even this salvation is derived from the existence of the one Church. The CDF does not say this, but my guess is that this is the result of the fact that baptism is the one sacrament that does not require ordination (and thus apostolic succession) in order to be effective. Thus anyone who has been validly baptized is a Christian, but does not fully participate in all of the sanctifying works of Christ without being a part of the Catholic Church. (Update: as one commenter points out, technically a couple confers the sacrament of marriage upon each other, but because it takes place in a Mass and the church desires that Eucharist be a part of it, you pretty much need a priest anyways)

As I said at the beginning, this is my take on what is going on in this document. I'll be happy to be corrected by anyone who thinks I got it wrong (and by that I mean "misunderstood what the CDF means". Don't mistake my explanation of their doctrine for my agreement with it)