by Richard John Neuhaus
First Things (April 2009).
The Public Square
Richard John Neuhaus died on January 8, 2009, at the age of seventy-two—a great loss to the magazine, to American public discourse, and to his many friends.
We present here a previously unpublished essay, “The One True Church,” which he wrote in New York during his last months.
My church is better than your church. It sounds like the stuff of schoolboy quarrels on the playground: My dad can beat your dad! Yet, sad to say, that is how many Christians have understood recent statements on Catholic ecclesiology. In 2000 the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued a document called Dominus Iesus and then, in 2007, reiterated its main points in “Responses to Some Questions Regarding Certain Aspects of the Doctrine on the Church.”
Christ Handing the Keys to St Peter 1481-82
Pietro Vannucci Perugino
fresco, Sistine Chapel, Vatican
The gist of these is that, with important qualifications related to Eastern Orthodoxy, non-Catholic churches are not to be called “Church” in the proper sense of the term but are better described as “ecclesial communities.” This was widely decried by many non-Catholic (and some Catholic) theologians as a departure from, if not reversal of, the teaching of the Second Vatican Council. It was, we were told, a body blow to ecumenism, the quest for visible unity among Christians.
I have on occasion offered this proposition: “The Catholic Church is the Church of Jesus Christ most fully and rightly ordered through time.” Some of my critics have questioned whether that is adequate. To say that it is the most fully and rightly ordered, they contend, implies or at least invites the inference that other communities are also the Church of Jesus Christ, albeit not so fully and rightly ordered.
To think more fully about this, we need to clarify what the Catholic Church claims for herself and what she does, and does not, acknowledge with respect to other Christian communities. My own thoughts are occasioned by two essays I read recently: one by Avery Cardinal Dulles in a volume called Vatican II: Renewal Within Tradition and the other by Christopher J. Molloy, an essay titled “Subsistit In: Nonexclusive Identity or Full Identity?” that appeared in The Thomist.
Before we can get anywhere with this discussion, two stipulations must be firmly in place. The first is that we are not engaged in a rivalry between our side and some other side. Some years ago, when William F. Buckley heard that a prominent Protestant had entered into full communion with the Catholic Church, he exclaimed: “This is great news. It’s like the Yankees stealing the star pitcher from the Red Sox.” That is an understandable tribal response, but it takes us back to the squabbling of boys on the playground. Questions of great theological moment are at stake. In these matters, Catholic and non-Catholic alike should have as their one concern the question of what Christ intended, and still intends, for his one Church—it being understood by all that, in the deepest meaning of the term, there can finally be only one Church, since the Church is the Body of Christ, of which Christ is the head, and there is only one Christ.
Tribalism has no place in this discussion. As John Paul II reminded Catholics in his 1990 encyclical Redemptoris Missio, being a Catholic is not reason for proprietorial pride but for profound gratitude for a grace received, all undeserved on our part. Moreover, a Catholic who does not earnestly want to recognize and rejoice in the gifts of grace to be found in other Christian communities will almost certainly be more hindrance than help in this discussion.
The second and related stipulation is that we are not comparing an ideal depiction of the state of Catholicism with less flattering depictions of other communities—or vice versa. It is not a matter of what we like or dislike in this community or that. I have decided views on certain Orthodox and Protestant virtues that Catholics might well emulate. As Malloy writes, in reflecting on the uniqueness of the Catholic Church “one can affirm both the essential fullness of the ecclesial reality of the Catholic Church and the concrete poverty and woundedness of her lived life, together with her practical need of the expressive ecclesial riches found outside her visible boundaries.” Not only can one affirm both, one must affirm both.
With those two stipulations firmly in place, one notes that the chief reason the documents of 2000 and 2007 were viewed as setbacks to ecumenism is that, for a long time and in many quarters, the teaching of the Second Vatican Council was gravely misrepresented. Cardinal Dulles writes that there still exists a general impression that Vatican II mandated a revolution in Catholic ecclesiology. He cites writings by John O’Malley as well as those by Gregory Baum, who claims the council reflects a “Blondelian shift” from “extrinsicism” toward experience and immanence. The Church is what you experience it to be. Richard McBrien speaks of “Copernican” and “Einsteinian” revolutions that overcame the unhealthy “ecclesiocentrism” of the past. Others claimed the council teaches that the Catholic Church is but one church among many. Some went further, saying that the Church is not only not the ordinary means of salvation; it is an extraordinary means for people who happen, for one reason or another, to be Catholic.
So what is to be made of all this? A good place to start is with what the Second Vatican Council actually said. Lumen Gentium, the Constitution on the Church, reads: “This is the one Church of Christ which in the Creed is professed as one, holy, catholic, and apostolic, which our Savior, after his Resurrection, commissioned Peter to shepherd, and him and the other apostles to extend and direct with authority, which he erected for all ages as ‘the pillar and mainstay of the truth.’ This Church, constituted and organized in the world as a society, subsists in the Catholic Church, which is governed by the successor of Peter and by the Bishops in communion with him, although many elements of sanctification and of truth are found outside of its visible structure. These elements, as gifts belonging to the Church of Christ, are forces impelling toward catholic unity.”
Much ink has been spilled in unpacking those three sentences, with most particular attention being devoted to the words “subsists in” (subsistit in). Much is made of the fact that the first draft of the constitution said that the Church of Jesus Christ is (est) the Catholic Church, which suggests that the final wording is a weakening of a straightforward identity of the Church with the Catholic Church. Both Dulles and Molloy point out, however, that subsistit in did not replace est but replaced adest in—“is present in”—a phrase that appeared in an intermediate draft. As a matter of fact, subsistit in was proposed by Sebastian Tromp, who had been a staunch proponent of the earlier est and the position that the Church of Christ is identical with the Catholic Church. In addition, the great majority of conservative bishops at the council voted in favor of the final draft, which clearly suggests that they did not think subsistit in was a watering down of the Church’s self-understanding.
A few years before he became pope, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger explained it this way:
"The word subsistit derives from ancient philosophy, as it was later developed among the Scholastics. It corresponds to the Greek word hypostasis, which of course plays a key role in Christology in describing the union of divine and human natures in the one person of Christ. Subsistere is a special case of esse. It refers to existence in the form of an individual subject. . . . With the word subsistit, the Council wanted to express the singularity and non-multipliability of the Church of Christ, the Catholic Church: the Church exists as a single subject in the reality of history. But the difference between subsistit and est also embraces the drama of ecclesial division: for while the Church is only one and really exists, there is being which is from the Church’s being—there is ecclesial reality—outside the Church."
The elements of sanctification and truth to be found outside the boundaries of the Catholic Church are ecclesial elements. Can there be ecclesial elements without ecclesia? Obviously, some fine but important distinctions are in order. The late Johannes Cardinal Willebrands, longtime head of the Secretariat for Christian Unity, was fond of saying, “Christ and the Church are coterminous.” I take that to mean that, if one is in a living relationship with Christ, one is also in relationship with his Church, for body and head cannot be separated. Therefore communities of faith outside the Catholic Church are ecclesial communities.
And therefore Lumen Gentium says that non-Catholics who are baptized and believe in Christ are in a “certain but imperfect communion with the Catholic Church.” The goal of ecumenism is not to create a unity that does not exist but to bring to fulfillment the very real unity that is already there between Catholics and non-Catholics who are brothers and sisters in Christ. (For purposes of this discussion I leave largely aside the situation of the Orthodox, who have valid ordination and other sacraments and adhere to apostolic teaching. Among the Orthodox, according to Catholic doctrine, there are not just ecclesial communities but “particular churches,” although they are, in the language of CDF, “wounded” by the lack of full communion with the ministry of Peter exercised by the bishop of Rome.)
Realizations of the Sacrament
Molloy and others speak of the “full,” “complete,” “total,” and “exclusive” identity between the Catholic Church and the Church of Christ. Such language can easily mislead and is understandably offensive to non-Catholic Christians. The intention, however, is to underscore that the Catholic Church is nothing less than the Church of Christ and to counter any suggestion that the Catholic Church is—albeit the most fully and rightly ordered—only one church among other churches. Again, this is not a matter of boasting or of ecclesial rivalry, which should have no place among followers of Christ. It is a matter of being as faithful as possible to what Christ intended his Church to be.
Since Christ is manifestly present in other communities, and since Christ, the head, can never be separated from his Body, the Church, how are we to understand the presence of the Church in these communities that possess “ecclesial elements”? One formulation is offered by John Paul II in his 1995 encyclical Ut Unum Sint: “Insofar as these kinds of elements exist in other Christian communities, the one (unica) Church of Christ has an efficacious presence therein. On this account, the Second Vatican Council speaks of a certain, albeit imperfect, communion. The constitution Lumen Gentium highlights that the Catholic Church knows that ‘for many reasons she is joined’ to these communities in a certain real communion of unity in the Holy Spirit.”
Molloy puts it this way: “Dominus Iesus states not that the Church of Christ exists only in the Catholic Church . . . but that the Church of Christ exists fully only in the Catholic Church. The same document affirms that non-Catholic communions with valid orders and a valid celebration of the Eucharist [i.e., Orthodox] are ‘true particular churches.’ Therefore, the Church of Christ can exist elsewhere, though not fully.” Then one must ask, what Church is it that exists in the Orthodox particular churches and in the non-Catholic ecclesial communities? The answer would seem to be that the Church that exists elsewhere than in full communion with the Catholic Church is the Catholic Church.
An implication of that answer is that everyone who is baptized and believes in Christ is Catholic, although in imperfect communion with the Church. Some Christians who are quite sure that they are not Catholics may view that claim as an instance of outrageous ecclesiastical cheekiness, of recruiting by definition people who do not want to be Catholics.
Others, more charitably, may view it as the best that Catholics can do, given their peculiar ecclesiology. Yet others may recognize it as a consistent working out of what it means to be in continuity with the apostolically constituted Church as a distinct society through time. They might further recognize that the presence of the Catholic Church in their ecclesial communities gravitates toward full communion with the Catholic Church. Again the words of Lumen Gentium: “These elements, as gifts belonging to the Church of Christ, are forces impelling toward catholic unity.”
Does this mean that all Christians are members, or partial members, or something like honorary members of the Catholic Church? The Church does not say so. In the 1943 encyclical Mystici Corporis Christi (On the Mystical Body of Christ), Pius XII addressed the meaning of membership in the Church, but, as Cardinal Dulles writes, Vatican II took a somewhat different approach. The emphasis of Vatican II is on the Church as sacrament, which, he says, is of “foundational importance” to the ecclesiology of the council, appearing four times in Lumen Gentium and six times in other documents of the council.
Dulles explains: “Avoiding the term ‘member,’ which had become bogged down in controversy, [the Council] spoke of perfect and imperfect realizations of the sacrament. The sacrament of the Church is fully realized only in the Catholic Church, the visible and grace-filled society in which the bonds of professed faith, ecclesiastical government, and sacramental communion remain fully intact. These bonds belong together insofar as the true Church indefectibly possesses them all. But the bonds are separable in the sense that some may survive in the absence of others. Non–Roman Catholic communities may possess some authentic ecclesial elements and be able to make fruitful use of them as channels of grace.”
I would only offer what I am sure Cardinal Dulles would recognize as a friendly amendment, namely, that such communities do possess such elements and do make fruitful use of them. The Council teaching readily recognizes the evidence of Christian faith and holiness outside the boundaries of the Catholic Church; evidence, one might add, that is sometimes more conspicuous than the evidence found among some who are in full communion with the Church.
And yet there is no denying that Dominus Iesus of 2000 and “Responses to Some Questions” of 2007, both interpreting Vatican II according to the hermeneutic of continuity, were viewed by many as a cause of ecumenical scandal.
These documents said nothing new but simply aimed at correcting misunderstandings and misinterpretations of the Church’s teaching that had occasioned serious ecumenical confusions. Some Protestants thought that repeating the points in 2007 was rubbing it in a bit, but I suppose CDF had its reasons. In any event, we do Christian unity no favors by fudging what we actually believe.
Moreover, most non-Catholic Christians in the West do not bridle at the claim that what is authentically Christian in their communities is derived, in one way or another, from the apostolically continuing tradition that is the Catholic Church, beginning with the canon of Holy Scripture and the Christological and Trinitarian definitions of the early councils. Of course, what they have selectively received from the Catholic Church they have revised and reformed according to their understanding of the Bible or of the needs of the time, and such changes are the subject of continuing ecumenical conversation. People of goodwill do not take umbrage at the claim that such elements are “gifts belonging to the Church of Christ [and] are forces impelling toward catholic unity,” although they have their own ideas about what form that unity should take.
All Christians can agree on the formula that there is finally only one Church because there is only one Christ and the Church is his Body. Of course, Catholics are insistent that the one Church is both visible and invisible. But all affirm the maxim extra ecclesia nulla salus—at least to the extent that one must have heard the preaching of the gospel or read the Bible, both of which are impossible without the Church. As for saying that these other associations are ecclesial communities rather than churches in the full sense—as, for instance, the “particular churches” of Orthodoxy are churches—this should cause no hard feelings. Such communities do not claim to be what the Catholic Church claims to be.
They readily acknowledge that they are human associations united by common belief and purpose. The Presbyterian Church USA was formed in 1983, the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod in 1847, and the Southern Baptist Convention in 1845, while the Episcopal Church claims a more venerable, or at least longer, legacy reaching back to Henry VIII’s styling himself Supreme Head of the Church in England in 1534. True, there are Landmark Baptists and sundry Campbellites who claim they have uniquely preserved or restored the true Church of the New Testament, but most of them do not take that improbable claim very seriously today, and those that do are not part of the ecumenical project.
Most Fully and Rightly Ordered Through Time
In sum, Catholics should not fear offending our ecumenical partners by affirming what we believe the Catholic Church to be. To be sure, that affirmation has weighty implications. For instance, Lumen Gentium also says, “Whosoever, therefore, knowing that the Catholic Church was made necessary by Christ, would refuse to enter or to remain in it, could not be saved.” But that, too, should not offend non-Catholic Christians, since we can all agree that such a person would be acting against his conscience and his sure discernment of the will of God. If he continues on that course without repentance, he could not be saved. It is quite a different matter with those who do not know—i.e., do not recognize the truth—that the Catholic Church is what she claims to be. They are wrong about that, of course, but that, presumably, is one reason why they are not Catholics.
And so I think I’ll stay with my admittedly provocative title, “The One True Church.” In accord with the Church’s teaching and appreciative of the scholarship of such as Cardinal Dulles and Christopher Molloy, I will also continue to make the case for the proposition that “the Catholic Church is the Church of Jesus Christ most fully and rightly ordered through time.”